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October 05, 2023

Free SEPTA passes coming to 25,000 low-income Philly residents by the end of the year, city officials say

1,000 Key cards have been mailed to Philadelphians so far as part of the two-year Zero Fare pilot program

Government Transit
SEPTA Zero Fare Program Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

Philadelphia will send free SEPTA Key cards to 25,000 low-income residents as part of the Zero Fare pilot program.

By the end of the year, 25,000 Philadelphians will receive free SEPTA Key cards in the mail as the city moves forward with a program that gives transit passes to low-income residents.

The Zero Fare program is a two-year pilot program that began in August. So far, 1,000 fully loaded SEPTA Key cards have been mailed to income-eligible residents. The program uses automatic enrollment rather than a sign-up or application process, and cards are ready to be used as soon as they're received.

About 90% of participants were randomly selected by the city through a lottery-based system using databases of residents already enrolled in income-based programs. The city chose people between the ages of 18 and 64 with an income that does not exceed 150% of the federal poverty line, or $29,580 for a two-person household and $45,000 for a family of four. 

The other 10% of participants were chosen and enrolled through organizations that primarily serve immigrant and refugee communities. Those organizations will mail cards directly to participants.

Cards will be sent out in batches, with about 3,000 expected to be mailed over the next few days. 

The city committed $62 million to implementing Zero Fare over the next two years. The program is only funded for 25,000 people, though about 426,000 city residents would be eligible based on the criteria. At the end of the pilot, the city will evaluate the program to see whether or not it could be expanded to include more residents. 

"The benefits of this program are wide-ranging with the potential to significantly improve the quality of life for many Philadelphia residents," said Mayor Jim Kenney on Wednesday. "We anticipate that the Zero Fare pilot program participants will have better access to healthcare, social services, and employment opportunities." 

Participants have used their free Key cards about 7,000 times since the first batch of cards was sent

SEPTA's separate Key Advantage program allows employers to purchase discounted Key cards to be given to their employees. The program began last year with Drexel University, Penn Medicine and Wawa as its first participants. 

In August, the city announced that it would join the Key Advantage program, providing about 22,000 of its employees with free Key cards. City officials purchased the cards wholesale and are giving them away for free over the next two years.

Earlier this summer, Swarthmore College in Delaware County became the first institution to join an off-shoot of Key Advantage known as the UPass program, which provides free transit passes to full-time students at participating colleges. 

As of last week, SEPTA riders can tap their phones or credit cards rather than a Key card to pay for non-Regional Rail rides.