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Where is North America's best transit system?

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Can North America's best transit system still use tokens?

The American Public Transportation Association recently bestowed the title of “best transit agency in North America” on metropolitan Philadelphia's SEPTA.

"SEPTA is indeed the best of the best," said APTA president Michael Melaniphy, according to Philly.com. "SEPTA's many accomplishments and achievements are models for the rest of the public-transit industry."

But regular SEPTA riders weren't convinced. Diana Lind of Next American City, and SEPTA rider, says there are some areas where it's appropriate to tip your hat to the agency:

The agency has done a fine job of managing $191 million of stimulus funds to make 32 major improvements to the system, including renovations of the Spring Garden and Girard Avenue stops, which hadn’t been touched since the 1920s.SEPTA also was the first agency in the country to have a consolidated, fully multi-modal control center that helps manage everything from agency police to regional rail in one, central place. And SEPTA has focused on sustainability, from hybrid buses to building the country’s firstLEED Silver train station at Fox Chase. Lastly, the long-promised new payment technology that will allow commuters to pay for fares with their cell phones will be rolled out starting a year from now.

However, Lind points out five ways for the agency to improve:

1. Eliminate transfer charges
2. Cut half the city's bus stops so buses can move faster
3. Create citywide transit maps and apps
4. Be transparent
5. Share vision for the system and get rid of the slogan

It's obviously a list specific to the city (read complete explanations here), but they're lessons that could be taken to heart at many transit agencies.

I would also add a few things. A few weeks ago I rode SEPTA's subway for the first time. I used the station closest to the Amtrak station, which I assumed would be the most friendly for visitors. But I found the subway painfully difficult to navigate. I needed exact change, couldn't use a credit card, and was confused by the outdated token system (am I at an arcade?) used for payment. Then, once I made it onto the platform there were no maps or directional guides to show me which side of the platform to use to get to my stop. I made a lucky guess.

These are small things that can improve efficiency and make the riding experience easier for regular riders and visitors alike. But they're features I would take for granted on a transit system that's considered the “best.”

Photo: Flickr/pheαnix

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure