People inside the agency say SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards is leading a major push toward customer service, which is necessary to get things like real-time tracking and countdown clocks working. (Cory Sharber/WHYY; Screenshot)

South Philly resident Cory Popp has tried using an app that tells him when the next bus is going to arrive at his stop, but it’s never quite worked.

“My problem is I never trust it, because sometimes it’s not right,” said Popp, a software developer who takes his two daughters to school by bus. “If they were always accurate, then I would use that more.”

A more reliable app would be “really helpful” to those who use the system, he said, and might help increase ridership, “which I know they obviously want to do.” SEPTA ridership is still far below pre-pandemic levels. As of June it was at 76% on buses, 58% on Regional Rail, and 51% on the subway and trolleys.

SEPTA officials say they’re trying. They’re in the process of revamping their tracking app and website, and countdown clocks are being tested on Market-Frankford Line platforms.

But it’s unclear when the new countdown clocks are coming, and they’re not planned for bus stops at all. It’s also not clear when the app will roll out real-time arrivals, something other big-city transit organizations have offered for years

People familiar with the agency’s inner workings say part of the reason progress has been slow is because the culture at SEPTA focuses heavily on operations — keeping the trains and buses running — and gives short shrift to customer service.

Since Leslie Richards took over as SEPTA’s general manager in 2020, she’s ushered in a “massive shift” in priorities, agency executives told Billy Penn, suggesting that over the next year riders will start seeing the fruits of a big behind-the-scenes push to improve customer service and make the system more user-friendly.

That shift can’t come soon enough, said Chris Alfano, a software developer who cofounded Code for Philly and has participated in hackathons where SEPTA provided data to coders building transit apps.

“To avoid the collapse of public transit … everyone’s job description’s got to be rewritten to be focused on giving riders good experiences,” Alfano said. “Or there’s not going to be any more riders.”

For some travelers, vehicle reliability and predictability are particularly crucial because it can make the difference between getting to work on time or arriving late and being fired. It’s an equity issue, advocates note, given the disproportionate number of people of color and lower-income residents among SEPTA commuters.

Digital signage that could be used for countdown clocks was installed in SEPTA subway stations starting in 2021. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Predictability also figures into discussions at SEPTA of highly publicized issues of safety and cleanliness on the subway. While real-time vehicle location data doesn’t directly address crime and the challenge of vulnerable people sheltering in stations, it can help riders avoid long wait times on empty platforms or at night and make them feel safer.

Surveys by SEPTA show that’s particularly true for women, who make up the majority of riders, chief innovation officer Emily Yates said. 

Yates joined the agency last year after previously serving as Philadelphia’s Smart City director, where she worked on launching technology and data projects.

“A lot of women have said that with inaccurate data they feel unsafe waiting in a location, a bus stop, that they feel might not be the safest,” Yates said. “If they have to have to wait for an extra 30 minutes because the real-time data was incorrect, then that’s a problem and we risk losing riders that way.”

Ghost buses and inscrutable detours

With more people working from home, fewer commute at the same time every day, noted Lex Powers, who in November became SEPTA’s first-ever director of information design.

“We’re seeing people repeating the same trips less, using transit at different times of the day, going to new places,” Powers said. “When you’re trying to figure out which route to take, when a bus or when the next train is coming is going to factor into that decision. It’s become more important for where we know we need to go as a transit agency.”

On SEPTA’s website and app, and on other apps like Google Maps, the projected arrival times for buses, trolleys, and Regional Rail trains are actually pretty accurate much of the time. 

For rail, the predictions are “acceptable” about 92% of the time, while for buses it’s 85%, according to Stephen Miller, a spokesperson for Transit App, a Montreal company whose namesake trip-planning app is popular in Philadelphia. Those are better numbers than transit systems in cities like Seattle and Chicago, he said.

A screenshot from SEPTA’s app, where real-time tracking has several snags. (Screenshot)

App users still report various flaws. Spruce Hill resident Alex Schmaus said he uses SEPTA’s website every day to track the 21, 44, 65 and other routes. On the online map the little bus icons often appear anchored near City Hall, even when the actual buses are moving along the road somewhere else.

“I’ll notice that and assume the bus is still coming, but one will never arrive,” Schmaus said. “The cause of it befuddles me.”

Real-time vehicle data can also unexpectedly disappear, perhaps because a vehicle’s cell signal is blocked or a driver has a problem “logging on” to a bus, said Bill Zebrowski, SEPTA’s longtime chief information officer. In those cases the app should revert to a preset schedule, although that may not be clear to the user, who is left wondering why a vehicle arrival time seems to be wrong.

In some cases an arrival projection can also be incorrect or can vary on different apps because of a quirk in how canceled trips are handled. 

Cancellations have become more frequent due to a post-COVID driver shortage. But SEPTA doesn’t have the ability to strike a single vehicle trip from its data stream; it can only remove a block of trips that correspond to a work shift. 

Rather than delete a bunch of trips, including some that are still happening, the block is often left untouched, giving the impression that a canceled bus or trolley is still coming. That gives rise to the “ghost bus” phenomenon — a bus trip that appears in an app but not in real life. Experts say it’s an issue across the transit industry

SEPTA is “looking into ways to improve the control we have, so that we can cancel trips more easily without any negative downstream impacts that we might have through that system,” Powers said. 

Another problem is detours. Sometimes the information provided on the app is outright wrong or very out of date, but more often the issues is that it’s buried in a long list of alerts and written in a kind of code that provides drivers with turn-by-turn directions, rather than in a way that helps customers figure out if a bus is coming to their particular stop or not.

For example, a recent detour alert for the 57 bus, in tiny print in the app, read: 

Details: Weekday, 11th & Nedor Trips, 7am to 5pm until 7-3-23, SB via Olney, Right on B, Left on Clarkson, Right on Rising Sun Ave, Reg Rt.

The updated SEPTA app and website will give easier access to detour notices, said Powers, the information design director. The agency has also been trying out ways to improve printed detour signs at bus stops, posting them sooner and including maps.

Powers recently hired a former Transit App staffer to develop better ways of communicating detours. They’re initially working on making the app reflect pre-planned detours, like the recent Trolley Blitz that diverted vehicles to 40th Street. Eventually they want to offer visual representations of all detours, although that could be years away.

Riders have other complaints about the SEPTA app, such as the way it makes users scroll through lengthy menus to select their bus or train line, rather than simply showing them nearby lines, the way the Transit, Google Maps, and other apps do. Powers said the new SEPTA app and website, which is available in preview form, will operate more intuitively.

An industry-wide problem

Alfano, the software developer and Code for Philly cofounder, has worked on real-time transit tracking projects in California and other states. He believes SEPTA has a good customer service team focused on helping riders, but when it’s time to buy new equipment, top brass doesn’t always pay attention to customer needs. 

“There needs to be a mandate of, ‘We have to put customers first,’” he said. Without that, “folks on the customer service side are tearing their hair out, and the operations people just don’t care,” he said. (“I still have lots of mine,” quipped SEPTA info design director Powers, who has collar-length hair.) 

Part of the problem lies in a lack of interdepartmental collaboration throughout SEPTA, according to a person with knowledge of the agency’s operations. “Even if you try to get a project started … it’s hard to do it without getting pushback, let alone finding someone to help you,” the person said.

SEPTA officials acknowledged some truth to the criticism. Powers, who has been with the agency for five years overall, said several different departments have to agree an innovation is worthwhile before work begins. 

Chief information officer Zebrowski, who joined SEPTA in 2009, said he “got a lot of heat” for making SEPTA’s vehicle data available to app developers and the public about a decade ago. 

More than any cultural issues, he and other leaders at the 60-year-old transit agency say the slow pace of customer service improvements reflects decades of underfunding. “We’ve been focused on keeping the lights on and addressing our state of good repair,” Powers said. 

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

General Manager Richardson has made her customer-service goals clear and has changed things up through steps like creating Powers’ and Yates’ positions, several officials said. But it will take time for riders to feel the impact of that reorientation.

“The challenge has been, how do you shift from an operations-focused mindset to balancing that with, what are our riders experiencing?” Yates said. “How do you get the people who are actually in the process to shift from what they’ve been doing for 20, 30 years?”

SEPTA isn’t alone in this battle, industry experts note. The transit technology industry comprises a very small number of specialized firms that can serve large organizations like SEPTA.

Many riders in Philly are familiar with Conduent, a New Jersey company spun off from Xerox six years ago that’s responsible for SEPTA Key, the buggy, much-delayed, over-budget, proprietary fare payment system. Guess what: Conduent also makes OrbCAD, the vehicle-location system that generates most of SEPTA’s real-time bus and trolley data.

SEPTA’s underlying scheduling system is made by Trapeze, part of Canadian software giant Constellation. If for any reason SEPTA wanted to drop Trapeze, industry experts say its only realistic alternative would be Hastus, which is made by another large Canadian software company, Giro.

In addition to the lack of competition and perennial underfunding, transit agencies often lack in-house software engineers or UX professionals with the expertise to design systems or oversee contracts, because they can earn much more working in private-sector industries.

That said, there are some workarounds SEPTA could potentially adopt.

For example, Transit App users can opt in to location tracking while they’re on a trip, and the app then uses the crowd-sourced information to improve the accuracy of its tracking, and even tell riders how full vehicles are. 

In some cities, stop-based alerts are available, which are more useful than the line-based alerts offered in Philly, said Miller, the Transit App spokesperson.

Transit has been working with Montreal’s public transportation agency to develop first-of-its-kind, AI-powered automatic detour-detection software. It uses real-time location data to track buses that go off-route, see where they slow down to pick up riders, and create new route maps on the fly that then appear on the app.

The company has been talking to other transit agencies about designing versions of the software for them, per Miller.

“If the goal is to make public transit not a choice of last resort but the easiest choice,” Miller said, “you have to provide accurate, up-to-date information automatically for people to navigate the system.”

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...