What Do Riders Really Think of SEPTA? Answers Are a Huge Challenge for Transit Agency

SEPTA is essential for many workers and residents. But low ridership in the pandemic -- and riders' concerns over cleanliness and safety -- have the transit agency challenged like never before, an NBC10 survey shows

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What to Know

  • SEPTA's ridership fell 88 percent in the early days of the pandemic, and is now at only 35 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
  • Riders in a new NBC10 survey say they are worried about cleanliness and safety.
  • But most respondents say they would return to SEPTA once vaccinated.

NBC10 is one of dozens of news organizations producing BROKE in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

SEPTA riders are candid about what they see on buses, subways and the Market-Frankford elevated line.

And some of them say what they have seen has made them reluctant to ride right now – which is a huge problem for a transit agency that gets hundreds of thousands of people to work daily.

“Dirty trash. I’ve seen empty needles,” said Charles Williams of West Philadelphia.

“It was filth everywhere, said Mona Scruggs of Northeast Philadelphia. “I had to buy a newspaper every day, just so I could sit on the newspaper, because I didn't want to sit on the seat.”

Cleanliness on the system grabbed headlines this year, when SEPTA had to close the Somerset Station on the Market-Frankford line due to a litany of problems. The station had piles of trash as well as urine and feces in it. So many needles had been thrown into the elevator – and the elevator had been urinated on so often – that it was unusable.

SEPTA says it knows that people won't come back to ride after the pandemic if they don't feel safe. That's why the transit agency is putting guards along the Market-Frankford elevated line. NBC10's Matt DeLucia reports.

“The mechanics have been damaged by urination, by discarded needles being jammed into floorboards,” said Leslie Richards, SEPTA’s general manager.

The problem is, SEPTA’s finances rely on ridership. And a new NBC10 survey shows that some riders have been turned off for good.

SEPTA has seen a huge drop in riders throughout the last year due to the pandemic. NBC10's Matt DeLucia spoke to SEPTA's general manager to discuss how the agency plans to bring riders back.

Some have stopped riding because of the pandemic, including working from home and worries about getting sick. But plenty of people also said they are turned off by trash, smell and feeling unsafe.

More than one in four of our survey’s respondents say they have stopped using SEPTA altogether.

“I just think it’s at its worst now,” said Quan Harvin, a SEPTA rider.

More than a thousand people took our NBC10 SEPTA survey last month, which focused on riding during the pandemic. Even with ridership dramatically lower than a year ago, the majority of respondents said they still need and use buses or the Market-Frankford line to get around.

It’s the second time NBC10 has done this survey. When asked about the experience on SEPTA before the pandemic, the majority in our survey said it was neutral or positive.

Now, the majority is negative.

SEPTA's Richards said she knows that it will be a challenge to get people to ride again. “We definitely have a challenge in front of us, right?” she said.

This is a critically challenging time on many fronts for the transit agency, which is losing one million dollars a day during the pandemic due to low ridership. At the beginning of the pandemic, in April, the agency saw an 88 percent drop in ridership compared to the year before. That number has risen slightly – now, ridership is at 35 percent – but still is far below normal levels.

And Richards, for one, is not convinced that ridership will return to pre-pandemic levels. That means SEPTA, which is relying on a federal grant to stay open and avoid layoffs now, will have to change for good.

SEPTA has already stepped up its cleaning and security, including hiring 60 unarmed guards to patrol the Market Frankford line. The agency is working to clean another Market-Frankford station, the much larger Allegheny, without closing it.

SEPTA is talking to city officials, including the managing director’s office, about ways to re-house people who have been sheltering in stations.

"We have not figured out this larger societal problem, which is those who are using our system as shelter, those who are urinating, defecating on our system," Richards said.

And SEPTA is rethinking that system, including redesigning bus routes. It's even planning a marketing campaign to bring riders back.

“We are reevaluating everything we do,” Richards said. “And I can tell you, SEPTA is not going to look the same as we did pre-pandemic.”

There may be hope for the transit agency in the near future.

When asked about returning to SEPTA, most of NBC10’s survey recipients said they are at least somewhat likely to ride again – once more people are vaccinated.

"I think if SEPTA implements a plan and do the things they need to do, like cleaning the trains, addressing mental illness, homelessness, I think people will come back," said SEPTA Train Operator Kim Ricketts. "I think they will."

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