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SEPTA’s rider-centric approach to network redesign

How Philadelphia riders helped SEPTA deliver the city's best bus network in decades

July 26, 2023

  • Transit helped SEPTA solicit feedback from riders for its “Bus Revolution,” Philadelphia’s first major bus network redesign since the 1960s
  • More than 130,000 SEPTA riders use Transit every month
  • Over 50,000 of them learned about SEPTA’s redesign process through the awareness campaign in the app
  • Prior to Transit’s involvement, SEPTA had 66 virtual attendees at its Bus Revolution meetings
  • Transit’s campaign drove more than 450+ new registrations to virtual and in-person meetings
  • More than 5,000 Transit users submitted detailed feedback to SEPTA about its draft network proposals
  • We helped SEPTA survey riders in their native language, at the very moment they were riding: this meant the voices of hard-to-reach constituents like teenagers, seniors, Spanish speakers and low-income riders — the majority of our Philly users — were heard, not just those of more vocal or well-connected constituents
  • SEPTA went beyond just informing riders about its network changes: it met riders where they were at, soliciting their feedback in their preferred language, and at whatever odd hours they happened to be commuting.

In 2024, Philadelphia gets a new transit network. It’s been a long time coming.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) was created in 1965. Decades later, there still hasn’t been a drastic overhaul of the original bus system.

The network has evolved, tweak after small tweak, but it still looks much like it did a decade before the Always Sunny cast was born. In the intervening years, trolley lines have come and gone. So have schools, streets, buildings, entire industries and communities. Philadelphia was overdue for a redesign.

When SEPTA began plotting its “Bus Revolution” the first overhaul of its bus system ever — it pulled out all the stops. There were careful studies, in-person meetings, even an interactive bus map for readers of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

One of SEPTA’s secret weapons? Our app, Transit.

Humble beginnings

In 2022, SEPTA and its network redesign consultant, Nelson\Nygaard, partnered with Transit to help redesign Philly’s bus network.

Transit is already the navigation tool that SEPTA riders trust. More than 130,000 people in Philly use Transit every month. Nobody knows the ins and outs of Philly bus service like Transit riders do. They were the perfect focus group to guide a network redesign.

Moreover, the people who use Transit also reflect the demographics of SEPTA riders. Every quarter, we survey people who open our app. In Philly, 73% of Transit users don’t own a car. More than half are Black. 48% live in households that earn less than $30,000 a year.

To gather their feedback for SEPTA, riders were surveyed, guided to public meetings about the forthcoming redesign, and given the chance to preview possible route changes — all within Transit. Importantly: riders were prompted for feedback right as they were waiting for their transit vehicle, or riding it. They didn’t have to miss their bus to answer a canvasser at the bus stop, scan a QR code, or remember a URL. 

It started with an under-attended public meeting

Previous virtual public meetings for SEPTA’s Bus Revolution averaged 66 attendees each.

Once Transit got involved? More than 450 riders registered for SEPTA’s Bus Revolution meetings — thanks to in-app banners and push notifications seen by more than 50,000 riders. These riders continued to receive updates from SEPTA’s Bus Revolution team throughout the consultation process.

Connecting to Spanish speakers with a survey

In May 2022, riding on the success of the initial campaign, SEPTA surveyed Transit riders about its first bus network proposal. Riders were sent surveys in English and Spanish — whichever happened to be the default language on their phone.

Once again, Transit reached the right audience: more than 73,000 Transit users saw the banner in their preferred language. 5,000 of those users responded to the survey in the first two days.

Notably, the response rate among Spanish-speaking riders (who comprise 7% of our riders in Philly) was higher, and in some neighbourhoods, Spanish speakers responded at nearly twice the rate of English speakers! These historically “hard-to-reach” riders were easily reached, and surveyed, thanks to Transit’s language-targeting abilities.

No longer beholden to the “usual suspects” at public meetings, Transit helped SEPTA level the playing field during its consultation process, ensuring that competing needs, travel patterns, and preferences could be equitably considered.

Helping riders visualize their new commute

In October 2022, SEPTA took the next step: it let Transit riders in Philly “test drive” their future commute using our network preview feature. While Google Maps or Apple Maps will only show you a new transit network once it’s in effect, our team at Transit has the ability to show a preview network to riders, allowing them to…

… in the very same app they use for everyday commuting.

By giving riders a chance to forecast their future trips to work, home, school, and elsewhere — then surveying those riders immediately afterwards — transit agencies can more effectively gauge rider reaction than a poster at an open house meeting, or a new system map at a bus stop.

“How will my commute be affected?” “Will I have to walk less? Wait less?” “Will I get home faster?” An in-app network preview lets the rider come to their own conclusions.

The Bus Revolution preview was advertised to 56,000 riders in Philadelphia on the Transit homescreen, and push notifications were sent to 24,000 users. These riders were able to opt-in to see the preview network — 1,400 of whom explored the network about 40 times each, for a total of 53,000 views.

Fine-tuning the plan based on rider feedback

SEPTA and Nelson\Nygaard took the feedback they received from Transit users, and made some important changes. Then in April 2023, SEPTA launched a revised draft of the preview network, and surveyed riders to gauge their reaction.

This time, 65,000 users saw the banner announcing this new development, and over 4,000 users planned more than 56,000 future trips using the preview network feature!

A piece of the outreach puzzle

Obviously, updating any transit network can be a tricky proposition — especially when it’s one as old and familiar as SEPTA’s. But what makes SEPTA’s Bus Revolution a guiding light for other agencies considering a network redesign is that they went beyond merely informing riders about changes: SEPTA met riders where they were at, in their preferred language, at whatever odd hours they happened to be commuting. They sought out their feedback repeatedly, draft after draft, gathering data from a large cross-section of riders whose race, income, and language hewed closely to those of everyday bus riders.

It’s exactly the sort of rider-centric approach we hope to see more agencies pursuing: harnessing real-time user feedback in order to build more rider-friendly services.

Now, after a year of working out the kinks, SEPTA is preparing to launch a new bus network that better serves the commuting patterns of all of its riders.

And when it comes time to make another change?

Our riders will be here to help 😉

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