A Broad Street Line turnstile outfitted with a contactless payment reader. A pilot program is currently underway. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

SEPTA has started testing out direct contactless payments — sans a Key card or account — on buses, trolleys, and subways.

Riders participating in a new pilot can leave their Key cards at home and instead pay their fares at validators using Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, or a contactless physical Visa, Mastercard, American Express, or Discover card. (Want to sign up? Be ready to tap in — more details below.)

Being able to use mobile wallets or credit/debit card taps has been long-planned, requested, and expected on SEPTA, which has had a fraught history with its current electronic fare payment system, SEPTA Key.

Directly tapping a physical bank card or a card stored in a mobile wallet comes with fewer steps for riders than the current payment system for transit, which requires riders to think ahead by purchasing a ticket or loading funds onto a SEPTA Key card, or to pay a higher fare in cash.

Launched late last month, the new contactless payment pilot will continue until SEPTA is “satisfied with the volume of daily transactions and confident that the system is ready to be rolled out for general public use,” spokesperson Kelly Greene told Billy Penn.

“Once the Transit pilot program comes to a close, the system will allow anyone to tap their contactless bank card at the terminal to pay their fare,” Greene said. “Regional Rail will follow early next year.”

Impatient for that so-far unspecified time to come? SEPTA is still taking applications for pilot participants.

So far, 56 people are registered, according to Greene. The aim is to start with a small group of people and gradually grow the program, eventually expanding to 200 participants in total who are using a mix of different card types and brands.

The current pilot is limited to buses, trolleys, and subways. Because of its more complex fare system, Regional Rail will have its own pilot in some form, Greene said, targeted for the first quarter of 2024.

Paying for eligible modes with a contactless method costs the same as using a SEPTA Key Travel Wallet. It’s $2 per ride with two free transfers within two hours, Greene said, and the fares are “aggregated into one charge at the end of the day.”

SEPTA will be far from the first transit authority to start accepting direct contactless payments. Transit systems in New York City, Chicago, Portland, and Vancouver all allow riders to tap their credit or debit card — whether physically or through a mobile wallet — at fare validators.

Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Transit Authority in NYC credited its contactless fare payment system, OMNY, for helping set a single-day ridership record. On that day, there were 1.8 million taps used to pay subway fares, accounting for 44.2% of paid rides.

A number of Asian and European transit systems have also adopted contactless payment, and several other North American transit authorities allow riders to link their transit payment cards to Apple Pay or other mobile wallets, eliminating the need to carry a physical card.

What about Key Tix?

SEPTA does already have its own way to pay using a phone. The transit authority rolled out a mobile ticketing program late last year, but it’s not as simple as just tapping.

Called SEPTA Key Tix, the payment option requires downloading the SEPTA app, having a SEPTA Key account, and buying a ticket on your phone before scanning it. It’s usable on all modes of transit except Regional Rail, and it also lets you buy and use tickets for multiple people at one time. (Billy Penn has a how-to guide on Key Tix here.)

The transit agency plans to bring Key Tix to Regional Rail by the end of this year, said Greene, the SEPTA spokesperson.

“For the near term,” SEPTA plans on accepting both contactless payments and Key Tix, per Greene. 

But the long-term plan, she said, is to “re-evaluate the use and need for both” when SEPTA implements Key 2.0, its “next-generation” fare payment system. Rollout of Key 2.0 is expected to start in 2025 and be totally operational in 2029.

How to sign up for the contactless payment pilot

To indicate your interest in participating, first go to a MFL or BSL station and tap your card or phone with Google/Apple/Samsung Pay on a validator. Make sure you write down the date, time, and location of your tap, and remember which card and payment method you used.

Your card won’t let you through the turnstile at that stage, but it will collect enough info that SEPTA can eventually tie to you if you’re picked as a pilot participant.

Fill out this form, which will ask you for some contact information and information about the payment method you used to tap at the MFL or BSL validator.

If you’re selected for the pilot, SEPTA will contact you by email.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...