SEPTA Rebrand Public Forum
September 2021. A crowd is seated in folding chairs outside Philadelphia City Hall, where MARIBEL, in blazer, and LEX, in a button-down with rolled sleeves, sit behind a table on an elevated stage. Beyond the stage is a curtained-off area created with poles and black drapes. An INTERN stands next to the table, struggling with a stack of cardboard signs.
MARIBEL (whispering): I’m actually excited.
LEX: Me too. I think we really cracked it this time.
MAN IN CROWD: Get a move on! I gotta pick up my mother in an hour!
MARIBEL grins, clears throat, and speaks into her table microphone.
MARIBEL: Thank you everyone for joining us here at the City Hall/15th Street station stop for our first public forum to gather feedback on SEPTA’s new Wayfinding Master Plan.
INTERN attempts applause; a smattering of attendees join in.
MARIBEL: I’m SEPTA spokesperson Maribel Jordan, and with me today is Strategic Planning Manager Lex Powers. We are thrilled to hear your feedback today on our Wayfinding Master Plan proposal. Community input has been foundational to this project from the start, as we began the process by reviewing years of tweets, letters, thoughtful fan proposals, and suggestions.
An ARMY OF STAFFERS marches through the crowd with blue Ikea bags. They reach the front and empty the bags in front of the table in an endless rain of stapled reports, illustrations, and loose paper. A page reading “YOU SUCK” in calligraphy floats into the breeze.
MARIBEL: We’ve printed out every piece of feedback ever received just to show you how seriously we consider your commentary. The collection includes 1,412 academic theses suggesting project redesigns, a macaroni sculpture of a proposed transit map, and further tokens of note.
STAFFER shakes out final bag; a dead pigeon falls onto pile. INTERN holds up sign: SEPTA… We’re Getting There.
MARIBEL: Now, after years of feedback, we are redesigning the wayfinding system for our rail transit network. Meet SEPTA Metro.
INTERN holds up sign: SEPTA Metro.
MARIBEL: We’re thrilled to share our proposal with you and to hear some of your feedback today. And remember...
INTERN holds up sign: Please Don’t Tease: Kindness will Take you Far!
MARIBEL: I’d now like to introduce SEPTA Strategic Planning Manager Lex Powers to take us through some of the elements of the proposal.
LEX: Thank you, Maribel. So happy to be here today. I’ll begin by going through the research conducted to inform the project, starting with our public survey.
JOURNALIST in crowd stands.
JOURNALIST: If I may? I have a few questions for you, Lex.
JOURNALIST: Is Lex Powers your real name?
LEX: Yes, it is.
JOURNALIST: Would you say that you have a Rider Strong vibe? Would you also say that your boyish good looks and charming persona is a distracting cover to a more sinister plot?
LEX: I --
JOURNALIST: Do you play polo?
LEX: Not currently--
JOURNALIST: So you admit that you once played polo.
LEX: Did you have any questions about the Wayfinding project?
JOURNALIST (sitting down): No further questions.
LEX: Ahem. As I was saying, our public survey gathered valuable information from SEPTA riders. For example, 1.19% of respondents currently call the Norristown High Speed Line “The Red Arrow”.
LAWYER in crowd stands.
LAWYER: Hello, I’m here representing my client.
LAWYER gestures to GRITTY, who is roller skating up and down a row of chairs, knocking people over.
LAWYER: In your survey question “What do you feel the overall character of the SEPTA network is?” six percent of respondents chose the option “gritty”. Clearly, providing this term as an option was a psychologically leading move intended to capitalize on the popularity of my client.
GRITTY holds up sign reading "I BELONG TO NO MAN".
LAWYER: We will be bringing legal action.
LEX: Um, let’s move on to the Experimental Wayfinding Study. We were thrilled to partner with the University of Pennsylvania to study how people navigate our transit system with eye tracking glasses.
INTERN pulls down screen and clicks at laptop. Video plays.
PENN STUDENT (on video): They said, you can wear a neon vest and carry a clipboard. I said, sold.
LEX: Along with our research workshops and interviews with community stakeholders, many of you engaged with #TransitMapTuesday, where our tagline was…
Subset of crowd wearing matching “Maps are my Porn” t-shirts yells out.
GROUP OF MAP ENTHUSIASTS: EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD MAP!
LEX: Haha, hey guys! Our fanbase of map enthusiasts, representing! We had a lot of fun debating the maps of different countries and considering how to construct our ultimate fantasy map.
MAP ENTHUSIAST: Es lebe Deutschland!
LEX: The next part of the master plan is Recommendations. This is where we get to the meat of the proposal with what we hope to change about our current system.
A loud “CA-CAW” rings out from the back. Heads turn.
A CONFIDENCE MAN in straw boater hat, three-piece striped suit and red bow tie stands on a Wawa milk crate, hands on hips.
CONFIDENCE MAN: People of Philadelphia! Before you waste your valuable resources on this lukewarm tonic of a proposition…I have a better idea.
MARIBEL (whispering): Is that a pocket square?
CONFIDENCE MAN: I propose you tear down this outmoded system and invest in my company to create the future of transportation for this fair city! Say it with me: RICKSHAW!
JOURNALIST: Isn’t that the Philly Fighting Covid guy?
MAN IN CROWD: GET ’IM!
GRITTY skates toward the CONFIDENCE MAN. A crowd follows, chasing the CONFIDENCE MAN down JFK Boulevard.
LEX: Now. The first recommendation we had is to call the rail system the Metro. There are many reasons behind this. Other cities call it the Metro--
MAN #2: FUCK THE GIANTS!
NEW YORK TRANSPLANT (sighing with irritation): For the last time, the New York MTA is NOT called a Metro.
WOMAN IN CROWD: SEPTA is SEPTA!
MAP ENTHUSIAST: (raising hand): If I may? I’ll take this one. The term Metro is not a renaming of SEPTA itself. It is a branding unification of the various rail lines within the system. Think, perhaps, of Philadelphia’s iconic Tastykake brand. Under the umbrella term Tastykake are many different kinds of treats, including pies, cup “kakes”, and Krimpets. Within the Krimpet range, there are butterscotch, jelly, and “kreme” filled. Think of Tastykake as SEPTA, and the Krimpet category as the Metro, within which there are various rail lines, or flavors.
MAN #2: YOUR METAPHOR SUCKS!
LEX: We are proposing a Standardized Transit Vocabulary, or STV, to create a simpler system of names, colors, and letters.
INTERN brings up image onscreen illustrating proposed changes.
WOMAN #2: Can we talk about the colors? I’d like to suggest a fresh look, I have some swatches here… I think we do Millennial Pink with Bashful Beige on the Broad Street Line, and the Market-Frankford Line could have Mindful Mint, with a Smoky Mushroom accent. We can encourage riders to dress according to color scheme. Imagine our city as Diner en Blanc, but all the time.
A neighboring crowd member throws Turkey Hill iced tea in WOMAN #2’s face.
LEX: As for the choice of letters, we will be calling the Broad Street Line the B, the Market-Frankford Line the L---
WOMAN IN CROWD: Yeah, I have a problem with that. I been calling it the El my whole life, and I’m not gonna stop now.
LEX: That’s great! That’s what it’s going to be, the L.
WOMAN IN CROWD: No, it’s the El!
LEX: It is the L.
WOMAN IN CROWD: You’re saying it without the E! I know you are! It’s not the same!
Yelling is suddenly heard as fifty KIDS ON BIKES surround the crowd, circling the plaza and doing handlebar tricks. The INTERN shrieks and drops his signs. BIKE LANE GUY pedals to the front. He is the only biker wearing a helmet.
BIKE LANE GUY: BURN DOWN THIS PLAN! INVEST IN BIKE LANES! BURN DOWN THIS PLAN! INVEST IN BIKE LANES!
MARIBEL: I thought someone at the office set up a decoy meeting to keep him busy.
LEX: It must have ended early.
KID ON BIKE: Yo, can we get our money now? We got places to be.
BIKE LANE GUY waves KIDS ON BIKES over to the side and starts to hand out twenty-dollar bills.
LEX: Let’s move on. Looking at improved terminology, we will eliminate the “Spur” wording --
MAN #3: Yo, I got a bone to pick with you about this spur business. What is the spur?
LEX: We will not be using it anymore, so it’s no longer relevant.
MAN #3: But what is it? I wanna know WHAT IT IS.
LEX: It’s difficult to explain…
MAN #3: You don’t know, do you.
LEX and MARIBEL exchange nervous looks.
LEX: ...and now what you guys are really here for. The wayfinding tools!
GROUP OF MAP ENTHUSIASTS goes wild. INTERN holds up sign: SEPTA: ...Are We There Yet?
LEX: We propose new, clear signage that replaces outdated terms and inconsistent labeling.
WOMAN IN CROWD: Yeah, I got an idea - you oughta make the signs for places we would recognize, like, “Where the Clover Used To Be” and “North Catholic High School”. Then people would be less confused.
MAN #3: Yeah, and change AT and T back to Pattison.
WOMAN #3: It ain’t AT and T anymore. It’s NRG.
MAN #3: Huh? What are you talking about?
LEX: The idea is to update the signs to make it easier for newcomers to the system.
WOMAN IN CROWD: How come we’re so worried about making things easier for these new people? I never got a directory. I got rolled to school in a shopping cart.
LEX: Let’s take a further look at the proposed sign improvements. We’re going to transition to a clear information hierarchy, with arrows and pictograms on black fields, and red reserved for egress messaging.
MAN #3: What are you saying?
MAP ENTHUSIAST: He’s saying that they’ll use red for the exits.
MAN #3: Why doesn’t he just say that?
GROUP OF MAP ENTHUSIASTS: Show us the map! Show us the map!
LEX (chuckling): I guess that brings us to the main act!
INTERN brings map up on screen.
LEX: We think our new map design is simpler and easier to understand, and makes sense with the new colors and numbers. It shows the full trolley network as well as frequent bus networks and the regional rail central trunk, and the rail service patterns are clarified and standardized.
GARY: Hi, Lex? It’s me, Gary. Also known as The Transit Professor on TikTok? You’ve probably read a number of my submissions over the years?
LEX: Yes. Hello, Gary. I haven’t seen you since you stopped by my wedding with your graphic novel-style report on the European Rail Traffic Management System.
GARY: I wanted to point out that your use of differentiating on the map whether a trolley is under or above ground is an idea I expressed at a private brunch with friends in 2017. I’ll let go of any hard feelings if you agree to rename the rail system after me.
LEX: You want to rename the system the Gary?
NEW YORK TRANSPLANT: It does roll off the tongue.
MAN #4 (holding up scroll of parchment with burned edges): Excuse me, I made a map that I think is better.
LEX: Is that a map of Middle Earth?
MAN #4: It’s sort of a mashup.
LEX: Okay, so… after sharing our proposal with the public, we’re now validating recommendations through outreach and continued conversations. Next we’ll finalize transit vocabulary decisions and determine our station naming conventions so we can begin to incorporate changes and execute a full design on our signage and accompanying web, apps and media.
WOMAN #3: Hold up. Why are you spending all this money on SIGNS? My kid can paint you some fuckin’ signs. Aren’t there more important things you ought to be spending your money on?
INTERN (claps hands): Ooh! I’m glad you asked! I’d love to explain through song how all these different pots of money work and where they go! Ahem: (singing) “A budget, my friend, is a funny thing---”
LEX: LEWIS! (hissing) This is not the time. I told you, bring it to the Fringe Festival!
WOMAN #2: Excuse me, can you give us an update on when a King of Prussia extension will be added to the Montgomery county line?
MAN #2: King of Prussia can get bent!
Nods all around.
LEX: Seems we’re all in agreement there.
MAN #4: Can we get snack vendors? Like the Hogwarts Express?
GUY WITH BAT (waving wiffle bat): I have a complaint about this plan!
GUY WITH BAT: It’s trash!
LEX: Can you be more specific?
GUY WITH BAT: I dunno! Who cares?
The crowd starts rumbling.
CROWD (chanting): This plan sucks! This plan sucks!
MARIBEL (to Lex): I think we have to bring out the kid.
LEX (panicking) No! It isn’t necessary.
MARIBEL: They deserve to know the truth, Lex.
MARIBEL pokes her head into curtained area. A moment later, ten-year-old WILSON reluctantly emerges wearing a Flyers tee and gaming headset.
WILSON: I’m in the middle of Fortnite.
MARIBEL: Folks, we are pleased to bring you the brains behind the operation, someone I’ve been honored to work with! Yes, our entire plan and new map design were constructed by none other than fifth grader transportation wunderkind, Wilson Baker!
WILSON: It wasn’t that complicated. I had some free time over the pandemic.
MARIBEL: A true prodigy in the field of transit.
WILSON (to Maribel): You said I would get pizza.
LEX (muttering): Prodigy is a strong word. You made some signs, kid.
MARIBEL: Lex. Please.
LEX: I’ve been working on this my entire career, and he just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and now he gets all the credit, and--
MARIBEL: We need to put egos aside here.
GUY WITH BAT: Hey, I like the kid!
WOMAN #3: Yeah! He’s got a Flyers shirt!
CROWD (chanting): We like the kid! We like the kid!
MARIBEL looks hopefully at LEX. The INTERN, excited, holds up a new sign: SEPTA: We’re...There?
MARIBEL (triumphantly): Thank you, everyone! This concludes our session. Please continue to tweet your thoughts on --
A voice interrupts from the back.
PAWS: WAIT JUST A MINUTE.
LEX (going pale): Oh no.
PAWS, SEPTA’s sometime(?) mascot in a dog costume, slowly walks up the center aisle, turns and addresses the crowd.
PAWS: Quite a song and dance about public input, isn’t it? But is this going to go the way of SEPTA’s past lip service?
INTERN: What’s going on?
PAWS (to crowd): You may remember me, guys? PAWS, the SEPTA mascot? Oh wait… probably not! Because this organization cast me aside!
Murmurs run up and down the rows.
PAWS: Let me paint the picture. October 2018. SEPTA trying to ride the coattails of Gritty’s popularity.
GRITTY, who is back wearing the CONFIDENCE MAN’s skimmer hat with a bite taken out of it, skates in a circle and fist pumps.
PAWS: They post a tweet calling for ideas for a new SEPTA mascot. After all I had done, there they were, publicly dumping me. When someone asked about me, they said I was just a safety mascot, not the official SEPTA mascot, and they wanted someone with a more exciting backstory! Did you even ask me my backstory, SEPTA? Did you?
MARIBEL (to Lex): Do something!
PAWS: Then in June 2021, SEPTA tweets out Happy National Mascot day -- “to our very own PAWS - the best mascot in transit”.
LEX (shaking head): Too late.
PAWS: So forgive me if I’m a little CONFUSED, SEPTA! Forgive me for asking you to DEFINE THE RELATIONSHIP! No commitment! No respect! Expected to play second fiddle and stay quiet about it!
MAN #3: That ain’t right.
PAWS: How can we trust them? After how they’ve treated me? How can we believe anything they say?!
GUY WITH BAT: He’s right!
WOMAN #3: My ex was a liar, too!
MAN #2: Down with SEPTA!
CROWD (chanting): We love the dog! We love the dog!
PAWS (pointing to stage): GET ’EM!
MAP ENTHUSIAST: No! Please!
The crowd rushes the stage, tearing down the screen. MARIBEL, LEX, and WILSON escape behind the curtains. PAWS leaps onstage, knocks over the table and raises both paws.
PAWS: STEP DOWN, SEPTA! STEP DOWN!
The crowd cheers.