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SEPTA 'YACs' With Youth Riders

SEPTA has added another achievement to Philadelphia's moniker as "The City of Firsts" with its creation and support of the SEPTA Youth Advisory Council. Founded in September 2009 as the first permanently-meeting youth body of its kind in the country, the YAC has given young riders unprecedented input into public transportation issues, and its success as a model program has quickly attracted the attention of other transit agencies.

The YAC was ultimately born of a proactive SEPTA customer service strategy that seeks to identify stakeholder groups among its ridership, and invite them to assume an advisory role within the agency. Along these lines, SEPTA Customer Service and the existing Citizens Advisory Committee created the YAC in order to serve as SEPTA's primary means of outreach to high school and college-aged riders. Since that time, the Council's 17 youth members have mounted an impressive advocacy campaign focused on outreach, communications, and service evaluation.

YAC members have been a visible presence at area schools by hosting numerous outreach events, where they hand out flyers, raffle off new SEPTA Independence Passes, and talk to youth about transit. Whether they're telling a student on the run how to take the trolley into Center City or explaining upcoming capital improvements, they serve as a convenient way for young people to discuss SEPTA issues with their peers. Their negotiations with local university administrations have also secured SEPTA an active role in next year's new student orientations, thereby ensuring that youth will be trained in how to use public transportation when they first arrive in the Philadelphia region. Another resource that has been especially effective in connecting with young riders is the YAC's Facebook page. Not only does the site host photos, announcements, and last-minute reminders of YAC events, but it also provides a venue to share SEPTA news that most youths might not seek out on their own.  In the future, the YAC plans on utilizing the page's online discussion boards to solicit recommendations from youth on current issues that affect them.

Perhaps most importantly, they have also initiated an ongoing dialogue about how SEPTA can better serve its youth riders.  Through a public forum and a Youth Rider Survey that will have reached nearly 800 college and high school students by its completion this summer, the YAC is providing SEPTA with unprecedented insight into the needs of this growing customer demographic. Survey questions inquired into young people's usage of public transportation and the barriers to it, their knowledge of SEPTA, and their recommendations for improving service.  One 19-year old college student wrote, "If I could just get a pass for a discount, I would always use SEPTA." Another commented on a proposal to increase transit education at new student orientations: "I LOVE the idea about SEPTA 101. I think so many more students would use SEPTA if they weren't apprehensive as freshmen."

Outreach and service evaluation efforts have brought the YAC in touch with young people with varying levels of public transit usage and familiarity. Their common characteristic, however, has been their questions about the system, their interest in learning more about it, and their willingness to offer suggestions for improvement. This feedback - calling for more discounted passes, later subway service, improved access to information, and other youth-related concerns - will allow the YAC to recommend specific actions to SEPTA for serving this rider demographic. The YAC is on schedule to present the SEPTA Board with a detailed report on these findings before September.

Serving on the YAC has also proven to be a rewarding experience for its youth members. A recent internal survey found that 92% of members feel that the YAC is really making a difference among local youth, and members especially enjoy "learning more about SEPTA" while "meeting and networking with other transit-interested youth." Outside of the region, SEPTA has provided information to transit authorities from Toronto to Denver on how this ambitious advocacy effort might be imitated elsewhere.

Ultimately, the most exciting aspect of the Youth Advisory Council's achievements is that they have been pioneered exclusively by young riders. By merely assembling 17 students in a room with a general mandate and a promise of support, they developed a comprehensive advocacy strategy that has attracted the attention of not only other youth, but also of transit authorities across the nation. It's a powerful testament to the idea that the best way to engage young riders and understand their needs is by having youth do it themselves. It's encouraging evidence of a new generation of riders that is passionate about having great public transit in our cities. And it's another first from Philadelphia that deserves to be replicated.

The Youth Advisory Council at SEPTA Headquarters. The author of this article, YAC Chair Phil Dawson, is on the left.

YAC Outreach and Communications Director Ellen Hwang collects Independence Pass raffle tickets on Penn campus.

Students break down into small group discussions about improving SEPTA service to youth.