What SEPTA Riders Think About Their Commute: Foul Smells, Key Cards and Safety

More than 800 transit commuters weighed in on cleanliness, safety, on-time performance, and the rollout of the Key card

SEPTA is dirty. But it's not for a lack of trying to keep the transit system clean for riders. Each day, the transit authority picks up tons of trash, cleans many train cars and power washes stations. Here's a look at what it takes to keep the system clean.

Victoria Paul only has two hands. So when she's about to jump onto SEPTA, one hand is used to get out her transit card, and sometimes the other is used to cover her nose.

"Just like puddles of, I don't know if it's pee or whatever, but like coming into it, I have to hold my breath," Paul says of liquid she often encounters at stations or in tunnels.

One out of two SEPTA riders who took a survey conducted by NBC10 Investigators answered that the transit agency is "not so attentive" or "not at all attentive" to cleanliness on its expansive multi-county system of trains, buses and trolleys.

Only 13% who answered the survey believe SEPTA is "very attentive."

It's not that SEPTA isn't trying. The transit agency gave NBC10 a ride-along look at its cleaning and maintenance operations.

The job isn't easy, said Chrystalle Cooper, the agency's chief officer for the Broad Street Subway and Market-Frankford Elevated lines.

"This is one of our challenging areas," she said while touring stations and underground pedestrian tunnels recently.

Cooper added that it's not your typical trash collection. "It can be dangerous. And that's why our employees have biohazard training."

Helena Boyle is SEPTA's frontline in trying to get the city's homeless population out of transit stations and pedestrian tunnels under Center City and into shelters. Here's a day in her life.

Hundreds of riders took NBC10's 18-question poll conducted through Survey Monkey and promoted through social media.

The questions probed riders' feelings on major issues including cleanliness, safety and the ongoing implementation of the Key card across SEPTA's transit system. (The full survey and responses appear at the bottom of this story.)

In addition to its cleaning program, SEPTA officials took NBC10 on tours of its daily homeless outreach efforts and public safety procedures.

The Key rollout, which has taken years and ramped up in the last year to include 1.5 million cards to riders, was not given high ratings by survey takers. However, commuters did positively respond to a question about using the new transit card.

"I think change is always difficult," Deputy General Manager, Rich Burnfield, a decadeslong employee of SEPTA, said in an interview. "This is the only SEPTA project that impacts all of our customers."

More than 1.5 million Key cards have been issued since the new fare technology was introduced by SEPTA in 2018. But the card's integration remains in flux, and problems remain with its use at turnstiles, NBC10 Investigators reporter Matt DeLucia found. Here is the Key card explained.

Key card use continues to grow by the month, with all riders of Regional Rail expected to use the Key by late summer or early fall 2020, officials have said.

Still, there are subway, trolley and bus riders who still buy rides with cash. Even tokens, which are no longer sold, still are used by some riders.

Here is part 1 in the series:

Cleaning up SEPTA's trains, buses, platforms and tunnels is a tough job, transit officials told NBC10 Investigators reporter Matt DeLucia. But riders are tired of the smells and garbage, they said in a survey.

Here is part 2 in the series:

Philadelphia’s most vulnerable population often uses SEPTA’s extensive underground areas as a shelter. NBC10 Investigators reporter Matt DeLucia talked with transit officials about efforts to help the homeless and make commuters feel safe.

Here is part 3 in the series:

SEPTA's decadelong move to new fare technology remains a work in progress. More than 1 million Key cards have been issued, but NBC10 Investigators reporter Matt DeLucia found there is a long track ahead before full implementation.

Explore the Full Survey Results

Source: NBC10 Survey
Credit: Nelson Hsu/NBC

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