In order to serve a number of SEPTA riders who couldn’t reach workplaces on the edges of transit lines for late work shifts in Bucks County, the transit authority has partnered with transit tech company Via to create the SEPTA Owl Link app.
The app will allow transit riders to request a ride from the end of a bus line to one of several drop-off stations near large employers on-demand and in real time. The service exists between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m., at the end of bus routes 14, 56 and 66.
The tech’s origin lies at the intersection of jobs and transportation access. Harley Cooper, a senior operations planner with SEPTA’s fixed routes department, said that a large (unnamed) employer in Bucks reached out expressing that they were losing qualified candidates because there wasn’t adequate public transit for later shifts.
Cooper’s colleague Cassandra West, who works in the paratransit unit handling federal regulations and ADA compliance, said there’d long been interest in a tech solution to book direct trips. The transit authority was considering a few options to increase and maintain ridership that fell during the pandemic, and increase job growth in the Philadelphia region. Via approached the transit authority with a grant, and after about eight months, Owl Link was rolled out in May.
“It looked like a win for us to experiment, and we were ready to learn about how our customers would feel about it and how we would evolve into a new era of transit and technology,” West told Technical.ly. “We were in throes of the pandemic, trying to think about what would serve customers’ needs in an uncertain future. And one thing we knew would be vital was job access.”
"Technology is the way the entire industry is moving."
In the two months since Owl Link has been operating, SEPTA has been taking feedback and adapting the app.
“It’s a pilot, it’s iterative, and we’re responding to customers using the service,” Cooper said.
At first, riders must have started at a bus line and book the trip ahead of time. But with customer usage, they’ve since changed the service to pick up from places outside of a route and to offer real-time ride requests, closer to a rideshare.
The intention is to center reliable ridership and access to jobs, and to close the gap for many folks who might otherwise be walking, biking or taking rideshare miles each way to work, often on the side of a highway.
The service doesn’t cost anything to SEPTA customers, the pair said. You must tap your Key Card for validation, but it won’t be charged. Folks who don’t have a smartphone can call the SEPTA CCT reservation line at 215- 580-7114 to schedule a ride.
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At first it was the large, logistics-based employer in the region that had reached out. But they’ve since heard that more and more restaurants, hotels and other industries with early morning or late-night shifts were having a hard time hiring because of transit.
“And that’s really a big deal,” West said. “The region is getting back on its feet and wages need to stabilize. We’re offering something free of charge to SEPTA customers and we’re helping ourselves build our ridership.”
So far, one of the most challenging parts of the pilot is letting people know the free service exists, Cooper said. Because it doesn’t show up in SETPA’s real-time app, and folks have to download a separate app to use it, the team is slowly growing its ridership. Even still, West said she feels tech solutions and integrations with public transit — like its use of Swiftly for real-time API info for scheduling — is the future.
“Technology is the way the entire industry is moving,” she said. “Where we have opportunities to integrate it, we will. The success of this project moving forward will help.”