It’s not Uber or Lyft. It’s SEPTA.
Philadelphia’s public transit authority is, for the first time, giving riders the option to order an on-demand trip through a cellphone app starting Monday. Oh, and it’s free.
The pilot program, called Owl Link, is designed to help workers from the city access the growing distribution industry in Lower Bucks County, particularly near the recently-built interchange connecting I-95 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
SEPTA officials said two paratransit vehicles, similar to CCT buses, will pick up passengers in the area seven days a week between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m., the period when bus routes in that section of Bucks County stop running.
Drivers will take the workers to the northernmost bus stops of routes 14, 56 and 66, which operate 24 hours a day, allowing riders to connect to the rest of the public transit system.
“Owl Link is designed as a last-mile connection,” said Harley Cooper, a senior operations planner at SEPTA. “It’s a feeder service into our Owl network,” the term the authority uses for services that operate overnight.
The trips can also occur in the reverse order for employees starting their late shifts. In all cases, riders have to show their SEPTA Key card but they will not be charged a fare, officials said.
Passengers need to book their ride at least 30 minutes in advance. After requesting a trip on the app, they will be directed to walk to a shared pick-up stop.
Though the mini-buses can seat up to 14 riders, SEPTA representatives said the Owl Link will operate for a single person, if need be.
“We like to say it’s designed to serve customers on the fringes of our network,” Cooper told Metro. “It is really designed to pick up one person here or two people there.”
Users will be able to see how far their driver is from the pick-up spot, and their phones will alert them when the vehicle is two minutes away.
“It is a way for us to kind of adapt to the changing technology environment, but this is a very different concept than using Uber or Lyft,” said Cassandra West, SEPTA’s manager of program eligibility and regulatory compliance.
“The drive here is really to keep people on public transportation,” she added.
Anyone hopping off the three bus routes heading to a large swath of Bucks County — an area that includes the Woodhaven Mall, Keystone Industrial Park and Lower Bucks Hospital — can use Owl Link.
Cooper said SEPTA was approached by Estee Lauder, which was having difficulty hiring workers for the overnight shift at the cosmetic company’s warehouse in Bristol. Other employers were also interested in expanding after-hours public transit opportunities.
“Bristol has been experiencing quite a bit of growth in those warehousing, logistics and trucking sectors,” Cooper said.
The area’s proximity to highways, allowing for easy access to Philadelphia, New Jersey and other parts of Pennsylvania, has made it more attractive for companies investing in distribution centers.
Truck drivers probably aren’t taking the bus, but warehouse workers are more likely to rely on public transportation, Cooper said.
SEPTA is asking large employers with overnight shifts in Lower Bucks to promote Owl Link, and it is also reaching out to workforce development organizations and community groups in Philadelphia, West said.
“Someone that might have seen a job and thought, ‘I can’t take that job because I can’t get there,’ now is able to take that job,” she said.
West said the pilot is one way in which SEPTA is rethinking its system, which was designed for 9-5 workers commuting to Center City, in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s partly an experiment to figure out if there’s an appetite for such a program among the authority’s ridership. SEPTA, if Owl Link is successful, may expand it to support the upcoming redesign of the region’s bus network, Cooper said.
SEPTA’s board last month approved a one-year contract worth nearly $590,000 with Easton Coach Company, which has partnered with the authority on other projects, for the program, though SEPTA has the option to discontinue it after six months.
For the app, SEPTA is using software developed by Via, a global transportation company.
To use Owl Link, download the SEPTA Owl Link Mobile App or call the authority’s reservation line at 215-580-7114.