Say “Presto!” and All Your Cares Will Vanish

Lately, with one announcement after another out of Queen’s Park (or is it Liberal Headquarters), I’m having a hard time deciding just what Rob MacIsaac’s job at the GTTA really is.

The push is on to make announcements now, to have photo ops now, to show caring Liberals fixing transit, environmental and traffic problems now!

Alas, the real world is not that simple.

The latest event was the unveiling of the Presto Smart Card out in Mississauga.  I am not going to duplicate a lot of good comments made by several writers on the thread at spacing wire, but the core of this debate lies the following issues:

  • The cost to implement Presto on the TTC is very large and has grown from $150- to $250-million in the past few years.  A detailed report was prepared by consultants for the TTC covering many of the issues.  The projected cost for the TTC implementation was actually cheaper, relatively speaking, than similar projects on other large transit systems.
  • The alleged reason for Presto is to allow seamless movement between many transit systems.  However, there are much more basic impediments to such movement notably the service quality (or lack of it) at boundaries, and the existence of multiple separate fares in each system.  Any fare integration that reduces costs to riders will require higher fares overall or improved operating subsidies.

The implementation to date between Missisauga, GO and TTC at selected locations is miniscule and has a tiny fraction of the technical requirements of a GTA-wide scheme.  A great photo op, but not nirvana.

Absolutely essential to any farecard implementation will be a unified fare structure.  Should we charge by distance?  Should we charge by time of day?  Should we treat one fare as a limited time pass eliminating the concept of a transfer per se?  Presto can make any of these possible, but we need to know what we want to accomplish and the potential effect on future and present riders.

The TTC has no pressing need to replace its fare collection system and is moving increasingly, for frequent users, to flat-price passes rather than charging for each trip.  Should we invest a fortune in a system to track details of passenger movements and calculate fares if a pass system (electronic or otherwise) will handle the majority of the transactions?

Some cities have used Smart Cards to replicate and expand byzantine fare structures already in place.  If anything, the GTTA is all about simplification and flattening of our fare structure.  Presto can help with this, but the important policy choices must come first.

This project has been around for quite some time as a technology looking for a problem and using the sham argument that fare collection technology is the answer to interregional transit.  This is total nonsense.  Better service, better fare structures and better subsidies (all of which are inextricably linked) come first.  How you collect the fare is a distant second.

After all, we already have the GTA pass, and that didn’t require any technology at all.  What it’s missing is the network and the service levels to make it widely attractive.

Queen’s Park may have scored a hit with MoveOntario, but Presto will do little to improve transit in the GTTA for years to come.