Presto! Pay Now, or Pay Later (Updated)

Updated July 8, 2011 at 10:00 am:

[Readers new to this item should read the original post, and then come back to the top of the item for the update.]

At the Commission meeting, I presented this deputation.

In the discussion that followed, it became clear that there are aspects of the deal between the TTC and Presto that the parties would prefer to hide from public view.  Some of the details are up to Metrolinx to release, not the TTC.

On the matter of the recapture of the provincial loan for the cost overrun on the project, TTC’s Chief General Manager Gary Webster explained that Metrolinx had agreed to “hold the TTC harmless”, to use the legal phrase, against extra costs beyond what fare collection now costs the system.  Apparently the payback of capital is very similar to the proposed arrangement with the proponent of the Open Payment system.

There would be no payment to Presto before savings in fare collection costs begin to accrue, although the detail on these payments remains to be worked out.  The intent is that the sum of the cost of Presto service and the loan repayment will not exceed current costs.

Questions remaining unanswered include:

  • If the load is to be repaid over 10 years, but if there has not been enough cumulative saving in fare collection costs by then, what happens with the outstanding debt?
  • Is Queen’s Park contributing anything additional to the Presto project, or is the entire cost overrun entirely on Toronto’s back?
  • How aggressively will the TTC have to migrate riders from the current system to Presto in order to generate the hoped-for savings?
  • What is the status of Presto on the bus system given that the report proposing the financing scheme does not mention buses at all?

During the debate, Chair Karen Stintz stated that any regional integration would not occur until after 2015, presumably when Presto was fully rolled out.  Indeed, it is not practical to restructure fares before the fare collection system can handle whatever new tariff is in place.  Again, this begs the question of the status of the bus fleet which handles a great deal of cross-border travel.

Commissioner Minnan-Wong, unsatisfied with the level of detail in the discussion, moved deferral of the item, but this was voted down with only him in favour.

A update report on the status of negotiations with Presto will come back to the Commission in October or November 2011.

Original post from July 2 at 13:45:

Recent news from Metrolinx and from the TTC gives the impression that all is sweetness and light between the two agencies, that Toronto will adopt the Presto fare card, and the manifest destiny of Queen’s Park’s fare project will be revealed in all its glory.

A report on the TTC board’s agenda for July 6, 2011, gives is the fine print behind the deal, and shows just how much of a ride Toronto’s transit system and passengers are being taken for here.

The process starts with the Memorandum of Understanding between Mayor Rob Ford and Queen’s Park which commits Toronto to adopting the Presto system.  This MOU has still not come before Council for ratification.

For many years, we have known that the actual implementation cost will be much higher than the original estimate of about $140-million partly through inflation (that estimate is about a decade old), and through refinement of the estimate.  Depending on who you believe, the cost will be anywhere from $250 to $350-million, not including a few small add-ons like the Transit City network (or whatever will replace it), nor a retrofit of the existing streetcar system during the co-existence period of the old and new fleets.  Although Metrolinx has always argued that the TTC estimates were high, even Metrolinx comes in with a projected cost well about $142-million.

At its June meeting, the Commission adopted this motion:

That the TTC’s upfront capital costs to implement PRESTO be capped at the previously budgeted amount of $47 million.

We now know that Toronto will still pay well over that $47-million “cap” by way of a financing arrangement with the Province.

The Province and Metrolinx have proposed and approved a financial approach for implementing PRESTO on TTC whereby the majority of the TTC-PRESTO capital costs are financed by the Province and recovered as part of a monthly fixed-fee paid by TTC to PRESTO. The proposed PRESTO-TTC financing arrangement provides predictability for TTC on PRESTO fare system costs (both capital and operating) over a 10-year period, and caps the TTC and City of Toronto’s capital contribution for PRESTO at the previously budgeted amount of $47 million.

In other words, Toronto has not “capped” anything, but simply borrowed whatever will be needed to top up the project budget from Queen’s Park.  It is unclear whether this will be treated as a capital lease and paid for out of the capital budget, or if this will be considered as an operating expense and added to that budget.

If it’s “operating”, then the cost may well end up as a surcharge on fares, or alternately as one more excuse to cut service because the money is needed to pay down the Presto debt.  If it’s “capital”, then there is no difference, from an accounting point of view, between this scheme and one where the City simply borrows the money on the open market.  This is little more than a shell game to preserve the myth that Toronto can implement Presto cheaply, while Queen’s Park finally reels the biggest fish into its Presto net.

Completely missing from the report is any discussion of the full cost of a Presto rollout in Toronto or the share of this cost that will become part of the financing agreement with the Province.  If the TTC agrees to this, it will commit Toronto to an open-ended contract for fare collection and an increase in operating costs that has not been approved by Council.  That Council loves to rein in the TTC for making commitments without approval, but whether a scheme brought forward by Rob Ford’s TTC will meet the same resistance remains to be seen.

Meanwhile over at Metrolinx, their June 23 Board meeting brought us an update on the Presto system.  The Presto organization will formally become a division of Metrolinx at the start of July 2011.

Presto now has roughly 50,000 cards in circulation, but has collected only about $23-million in revenue (4.5m fares) through them.  Compared with GO Transit’s annual revenue stream of over $300-million, this is really small change.  The expansion of Presto throughout GO’s network will boost this, but the real prize is integration with the TTC where a $1-billion annual revenue stream is up for grabs.  As the Metrolinx report says:

The TTC is a crucial component of PRESTO’s ultimate success.

Presto and Metrolinx have not yet discussed publicly the cost of building up their back-end infrastructure to support a vastly higher number of transactions, the complexity of new fare schemes, or a move to a “next generation” of Presto supporting open payment technology.  The original $250-million contract with Accenture for system development and operation covers the period ending in 2015, and does not include any costs related to the TTC.

Of that $250m, about 40% covers system operating costs and the rest was for development and implementation.  According to Ernie Wallace, the retiring head of the Presto project, Metrolinx will be taking over the operational functions of Presto.  Nothing was said about whether Accenture will forego the revenue associated with this part of its function, or if this is a convenient way to free up monies for further development by Accenture while leaving day-to-day support in Metrolinx’ hands.

With Presto moving under the wing of Metrolinx, it’s hard to predict whether this will bring better exposure to Presto’s work and costs, or if Metrolinx’ continuing love of “in camera” discussions of difficult issues will continue to shelter Presto from view.  The challenge for Presto and for Metrolinx is to move beyond a development project into a fully-functioning product that improves the transit user experience without draining resources from transit systems and the cities that run them.

Presto hopes to better the TTC’s cost of fare collection which is 7% of the revenue stream.  Depending on which type of fares Presto attracts, this could be a challenge, or could strip the TTC of its cheapest-to-collect fares.  Roughly half of all adult fares on the TTC are paid by Metropass, and these are purchased either by direct bank withdrawal, by a single cash, credit or debit card transaction, or in bulk purchase by a reseller.  The administrative cost per trip of these purchases is very low.

If Presto simply replaces the Metropass, this will skim the cheapest of the fares out of the TTC’s system while leaving the more expensive token, ticket and single fare users behind.  Indeed, since the 7% figure is a system average, the actual cost of serving Metropass holders is well under 7%.  If Presto charges the TTC 7% for its pass holders, this will effectively increase, not decrease the cost of fare collection (leaving aside any recovery of the system’s financing costs).

All in all, Metrolinx and Presto have done a great job of getting everything they could possibly want from the TTC while Toronto’s riders face future costs that the TTC either does not see or chooses to ignore.

32 thoughts on “Presto! Pay Now, or Pay Later (Updated)

  1. Will PRESTO also replace metropasses?

    Steve: Nobody knows what the fare structure will look like, and nobody really wants to talk about it because this is a huge can of worms politically. It would make sense for Presto to replace the pass, but a lot depends on what sort of fare structure is offered.

    Every 24th. of each month I change my route slightly at Lawrence East, I go to the station collector to get my metropass then I go to the southbound platform to head to Kennedy station where I switch over to the subway and head downtown.

    I do this about 11 more times each year.


    From what I understand about Presto is that I will be charged $x.xx for my first ride, eventually about 30-40 rides then it is free. If that is how it is going to be, it would mean I would have to load it every time.

    Steve: You can set up your Presto card to auto-reload from your bank account as necessary.

    During the summer months I use my metropass way more due to the different festivals. So I would have to go load things more frequently. This would be annoying. Also for people with disabilities. What happens to people who get the VIP metropass? (via mail, 12 month contract thing).

    I live in the Morningside/Lawrence, nearest subway station is 8km (via kingston road and eglinton avenue east) away at Kennedy. Lawrence East RT station is 8km away too via lawrence avenue east.

    This is just sounding so annoying and irritating.

    Steve: No, if the fare structure is that after “n” rides you ride free, it does not matter how many more you take, and there would be no reload until the start of the next month. You are making this situation much more complex than it really is by making assumptions about how Presto works. I’m not shilling for Presto, but if I want to criticize it, this will be on the basis of how it is known to work today.


  2. In Chicago transfers are no longer given out, a fare card is required for transfers between lines. For a while there were also deeper discounts for those that used the Chicago Card (RFID) instead of the Transit Card (magnetic). Cash is accepted on buses, but not on rail (where machines dispense Transit Cards anyways). From what I’ve heard cash only represents 6% of fares, everyone else uses passes.

    If the TTC wants people to use Presto then it seems like they would eliminate paper transfers and tickets. Of course, there would be issues with the way transfers work in Toronto, but it could lead to time-based transfers instead of restrictions on what buses can be taken in what direction.


  3. I went to London and bought an Oyster Card. I paid 5 Pounds deposit and the man asked me how much money I wanted on the card and he loaded it. I paid the accumulated fare and the deposit by Credit Card and started using the card within one minute.

    I ordered a Presto Card online from the very confusing website. The first time I tried the website shut down in mid transaction with no confirmation. I wasn’t sure if there was a failure of if the final confirmation phase was as confusing as the rest of the transaction (It was past the putting in my credit card part.) I waited for a while as I didn’t want to, but eventually decided to try again. I eventually got what I thought was a Registered Card in the mail. However, it appeared in the confusing instructions that I needed to go to a balance checker and swipe my card within 7 days. I phoned the 800 number to inquire and the lady said she thought my card was active, though the information on her screen was not really clear to her. She recommended that I use a fare checker to make sure my card was active.

    I made a special trip to Union Station and found a fare checker. (No one warned me that if I “activated” my card on a fare reader that this would be the first half of a GO trip and that if I didn’t actually ride and swipe out, I would be billed for the highest single fare in the system. This happened to a friend who warned me personally.) In any case when I checked my card, the machine said it was not active. I went to the GO Booth for help and the man said that he didn’t know what to do, but to phone the number on the card.

    I did phone and chatted with a computer for a while and was sternly warned that I still needed to activate my card at a GO Station within 7 days, but not before 24 hours because my call was not registered in the system. I have not made a second special purpose trip to Union Station and I think my seven days might be up. I’ll drop by tomorrow when I am downtown and see what happens.

    I understand that this is the same technology, if not the same supplier as Oyster. Why is the Ontario version so unfriendly. Is this glimpse of the Ontario rollout indicative of the bureaucratic service quality of the whole rollout.

    I do understand that this might have been slightly easier if I had been a regular GO rider rather than making a special purpose trip to Union. However, I did want to “Be Prepared” for the next time I do ride on a Presto activated system. To date, Presto has my $16 ($6 deposit and $10 in fares), but if I need to ride on a Presto System I will still have to line up for a ticket or make sure I have the exact fare.


  4. I think the whole way PRESTO is being handled and rolled out is just confusing and not well thought out.

    If a transit system rolls out the card, than it should be for all fares. DRT only allowing co-fares on PRESTO is just stupid.

    And the roll out by line is also stupid.

    In Montreal they rolled out the system all at once, allowed the same fares as before, such as monthly passes, etc.

    It just seems weird how long it is taking PRESTO to get the system up and running.


  5. @Michael: I agree with you about the interminable length of time it’s taking to get Presto activated on some systems – it’s been “coming soon” to YRT/Viva for a few months now, at least. The readers are installed, so I suspect it’s just a matter of flicking the switch.


  6. Michael Greason’s comments sound very familiar to the nightmare I had activating my first Presto card. That it doesn’t arrive in the mail functional is beyond bizarre.

    Getting the autoreload functioning is equally frustrating. One of the undocumented challenges there, is that if you set the AutoLoad threshold to an amount higher than your existing balance, it never actually activates. For example, if you have $30 left on your card, and you set your Autload to add an amount of $50 everytime it hits the threshold of $40 then it doesn’t actually add any money because you are already below the threshold of $40. While technically correct, that the algorithm would be implemented in such a manner that will only create havoc clearly demonstrates just how incompetent the people are who designed this system.


  7. Gabe said, ‘it’s been “coming soon” to YRT/Viva for a few months now’

    It was supposed to be enabled on YRT/Viva several months ago, but only for single fares, I believe charging the ticket price of $2.60 or an adult one-zone fare.

    I personally had no plan to start using it until monthly passes were implemented, and I’m wondering if they want to roll it out with passes implemented. Too bad they don’t give any explanation of the always moving roll-out date.

    Assuming it is implemented properly, I like the idea of not having to fork out the entire cost of the pass before the month starts. Aside from being easier on personal cash flow, I won’t have to pay for a pass if I end up not needing one, as in my line of work I can end up travelling for half the month without knowing in advance at the time of deciding to purchase a pass or not.


  8. For those who are not aware, Accenture, formally Andersen Consulting, is a leader in providing vastly overpriced and poorly designed IT consulting. Thanks to its backwardness the TTC hasn’t had too many disastrous IT projects like these (not that they didn’t pay a lot of money for a trip planning site when both Google and did it for free).

    Sounds like the TTC could still be paying for this even after it has been junked and replaced with something isn’t quite as bad.


  9. I recall seeing a report by the TTC (probably form a link you posted Steve) detailing exactly what equipment would be required at each subway station. It was very through – but it didn’t give the cost for each item, just an overall total. Consequently, there’s no way of knowing whether the cost estimate was low, high or about right.

    More widely, everyone seems to be talking about the cost… but no-one knows what is it. TTC has (reluctantly) committed to Presto, so get Accenture (or whoever) to sign a contract saying that it will cost $x million to implement. Once we know how much, then we can haggle about who pays.

    (Separate point: I know of several 905 systems who have formally committed to switch to a fare system with just cash and Presto – nothing else. The TTC should do likewise)

    Steve: The report to which you refer is on the TTC’s website.


  10. Presto can’t even handle GO’s fares properly with a one time monthly charge and unlimited rides afterwards. If GO Transit can’t phase out its pre-existing fare media why would the TTC commit to it? The whole system is still alpha quality. I agree that Metrolinx should provide the IT platforms, such as fare payment systems, that the entire province’s transit agencies utilize. I just don’t think that what was built shows the appropriate level of thought was put into it. Perhaps there was a rush to show a product working rather than a rush to show a design that handles all the existing use cases for GTA fares. Hopefully they can eventually get Presto working properly and tie it into stop and route data so a unified file set can be provided to Google Transit complete with fares for the cash adult equivalent.

    Steve: Presto has earmarks of a poorly thought out technology project, like so much that Ontario does — build your own rather than buy an existing, working off the shelf model. The consolidation with Metrolinx will have one of two effects: either there will be even more secrecy about how little Ontario has to show for all the hype, or a fresh set of eyes wil ask some embarrassing questions. But not, of course, until after the election.


  11. Hmm … Ontario government gives body of bureaucrats a pile of money to implement a universal, high-tech electronic system to standardize service delivery between a number of disparate government-sponsored providers around the province. Ostensibly this will improve service, ease of use and efficiency, while lowering costs. Instead, mayhem ensues. Am I talking about Presto or eHealth Ontario or both? Only time will tell.

    All cynicism aside, an integrated fare system a la London, England is a good thing to shoot for. Hopefully Metrolinx can iron out the bugs and pull this one out of the fire before transit gets another political black eye in this province.


  12. I don’t see these cards as being any big savings for the TTC. London uses these cards as they have a multizone fare system more distance you go the more you pay, unlike Toronto which has a single fare system. A massive computer system to track the cards which can get hacked into. Fake cards, cost to put the reader on every bus and streetcar and maintain them. If it breaks or the cellphone interconnection system goes down, more problems.

    I’d prefer a free system. Paid by a tax on parking spaces, ie many jobs I drive I get free parking, I bus I have to pay for it. Shopping malls free parking. I bus I have to pay. Downtown apt buildings renting most of their spaces to commuters. How about a $50-100 tax on it. Jack up the costs for onstreet parking permits. I know people who have a private spot yet they park on the street as more convenient.

    The current system needs a fix as well. I’m partly disabled, no where near me has tickets or tokens. The subway station does but I can’t walk to it and rarely go to it.

    Personally I’d like to see a province wide system. A card you have in Ottawa is good in Toronto. Plus any machines that load the cards accept debit cards unlike Toronto Parking machines that only take cash or credit cards.

    Steve: Actually the Presto cards are going to be valid in all cities where the system is implemented. The real problem with implementation is that we need to start talking about fare models, and how to integrate fares for trips using multiple carriers. We need to be sure we understand what the system can support today, and what’s on the wish list of fare schemes for tomorrow.


  13. I’ve been using Presto on Mississauga Transit for the past two months (I live in Port Credit). I’ve also used it on the subway in Toronto and the GO train.

    I bought it in person at a GO station (much simpler and easier than ordering online, no need to mess with “activating” the card. You can use it right away and all you have to do afterwards is go online and register your personal information… so now your card is “registered” – in case you lose it or something and I guess so that Metrolinx has its data…).

    It works quite well on all the systems – charging token/ticket price instead of cash. It’s also way easier to use – there is no need to buy tickets or tokens anymore, and the card automatically deduces when it is more affordable to “buy” a weekly/monthly/yearly pass based on your history and does so. Thus, after this happens you don’t pay for any rides taken afterwards, if that makes sense. Overall, I’ve found it terrific, and I don’t understand why Toronto is so opposed to implementing it!

    Obviously there will be a few snags and problems along the way, but in a year or two the system will be running smoothly and efficiently. Of all the people who have tried it that I have talked to, not one is unhappy with the card. The only issue is Mississauga Transit’s tardiness in rolling out a “student”, “adult”, and “senior” designation on the card so that students and seniors can take advantage of the 25 cent savings on each trip.

    Steve: Toronto’s objections boil down to two issues. First, the implementation cost is a very high price to pay to replace something that works already. Second, it was unclear whether Presto will end up as a technological dead end as the payment industry matures to support a variety of cards and other devices. The idea of having a proprietary system will seem rather quaint, probably within a decade.


  14. Steve:

    “Presto has earmarks of a poorly thought out technology project, like so much that Ontario does — build your own rather than buy an existing, working off the shelf model.”

    We’re beginning to sound too much alike!

    And re: Montreal’s fare system, was there last weekend and found it quite easy to use. Is it an off-the-shelf system?

    Steve: I believe that OPUS tried to use as much off the shelf as possible, but there is a very important difference between the OPUS implementation and the Presto one. When you have an OPUS card, you decide in advance what type of service you are buying, and this is registered on the card. I believe up to six different services (specific operators within the greater Montreal area, and zone combinations for AMT) can be registered on the card, but it’s not a stored value card in the same manner as Presto. You don’t put “X” dollars on the card and then decrement as you go. Instead you have prepaid for a set number of fares, or for some type of pass. This vastly simplifies the “back end” of the system because it doesn’t have to keep track of your usage. All of the transaction takes place between your OPUS card and the local device at a station or in a vehicle. Either you have a card valid for where you are, or you don’t.

    Moving to “open payments” makes things tricker for both OPUS and Presto. Now you must first establish a link between whatever device or card you will use to identify yourself and your transit fare account. It might be a card issued by the system, or an RFID capable credit card, or your cell phone. Whichever way, the system must keep track of your usage and figure out what it will bill you, say, each month based on what you actually did.

    Also, there is no way for Presto to “write” data on a credit card or other RFID device that is not part of the Presto system. Therefore, to validate your fare, a checker must “call home” to see when you last swiped into the system, rather than just querying a proprietary card to retrieve this info.

    There have been conflicting statements from Metrolinx on Open Payments, and the use of a non-Presto card/phone to identify riders brings complexities. At one point, Metrolinx talked about only supporting full adult fares on credit cards, but they seem to have recognized that this is hardly “open” for a regular system user.


  15. Steve: Toronto’s objections boil down to two issues. First, the implementation cost is a very high price to pay to replace something that works already. Second, it was unclear whether Presto will end up as a technological dead end as the payment industry matures to support a variety of cards and other devices. The idea of having a proprietary system will seem rather quaint, probably within a decade.

    Uh… I can very much appreciate your–or rather Toronto’s–first point. But the second? Many, many major transit systems have (London, Hong Kong, BART) or are developing (Vancouver) proprietary systems. As long as it is implemented intelligently (which granted is not exactly a given in this land of ridiculous transit decisions and choices), what would be the problem with a proprietary system? It hardly seems outside the norm. Why wouldn’t a transit authority want to keep control of the payment system themselves? What exactly is the huge hassle for transit users to go to a station and pay for an Oyster/Octopus/Compass/Presto card with credit/debit/cash from, one assumes, an automated machine? (Now if the TTC restricts these machines to only accept debit like the current pass vending boxes, that is an issue about which I will scream bloody blue murder.)

    Steve: My point is that the payment industry is moving to generic device support, and the banks are a lot bigger than the transit systems. Eventually all of those proprietary systems will have to be upgraded, if only to keep up with developments on the debit/credit front. Proprietary was the way to go when there was no alternative, but I will not be surprised to see these systems implement a way to co-exist with open systems of various kinds.


  16. The strength of such deals lies in how well they are written, and we have an obligation to scrutinize the details. The question is are there any details that must remain confidential lest the outcome be compromised.

    If the public must trust those who are responsible for the agreement to decide what is to be open information, then we need a sense of whether the signatories are worthy of that trust. I know the generally dim view of bureaucrats and politicians as well as of certain businesses, but we’ll have to be a bit more discerning…

    So, ask away Steve, and let us know what answers come — and please continue to offer your assessment of the parties involved.


  17. I’ve been using Presto for a few months on GO Transit to ride the Lakeshore East line and the occasional subway trip (where possible). I’ve noticed a few issues:

    1. Presto customer service (provided by Accenture or more likely Accenture subcontractors) is pretty subpar compared to GO. GO itself isn’t a bastion of amazing customer service but the staff members themselves are usually helpful and accommodating. On the other hand, GO staff are very poorly informed on Presto (I’ve yet to meet a GO Special Constable who can actually figure out how to use the hand-held Presto reader they carry for fare enforcement). It took 3 customer service reps and 45 minutes to fail to program ‘student’ status onto my Presto card at Union (let alone at peripheral GO stations, which do not even offer this service).

    2. The Presto methodology on GO (tap-on then tap-off unless you’re on your default ride) works well if you only travel from point A to point B, but if you occasionally mix it up you may very well find yourself paying a fare to Niagara Falls (as I did) if you forget to hit the ‘override’ button. I found that unnecessary punitive since trains don’t even run to Niagara Falls on weekdays (which is when this occurred). The issue is that the fare reader doesn’t actually tell you when you tap whether you are beginning a trip, ending a trip or doing both (if you are at either end of your ‘default ride’), so it can be difficult to tell what’s happening.

    Fundamentally, the tap-on/tap-off scheme is a step back in usability for the vast majority of GO commuters who are used to buying a monthly pass, sticking it in their wallet and forgetting about it for a month. I’m sure Presto thinks that the pro-rated discount system they use to replace the monthly pass is incredibly clever, but frankly I think most people would rather just pay the cost up front and then forget about it.

    This, combined with the extremely limited opportunities to get a Presto card for free, is why Presto is seeing very slow uptake on the GO system. GO has taken matters into their own hands by removing the POP validation boxes from platforms (at many stations, there is now only one where there were a dozen or more before) and replacing them with Presto readers.

    3. The administration of the entire system is incredibly obtuse. Everything ends up requiring some combination of calling in and visiting Union Station. Why can’t I buy Presto cards with a pre-loaded value at grocery stores, etc.? Why don’t they have self-serve reloading stations where I can swipe my credit or debit card to reload my Presto card?

    Just like transit as a whole, people will start using farecards when it’s more convenient that what they are using now. Using Presto is an uphill battle and until that changes, I think you’ll see many GO passengers clinging to their paper fares until they are phased out entirely.

    Of course, this is just what you get for hiring Accenture to provide you with a ‘turn-key’ solution.


  18. I have just spent 3 days in Hamilton and 2 in Mississauga, both of which have Presto service and I did not notice anyone in Hamilton who used a presto Card and only 1 in Mississauga who used it. I rode 2 round trips in each city. This is not a exhaustive survey but the usage was less than 1% or the passengers that I saw. I know that Presto is new but only 1%?

    Steve: The total revenue collected via Presto so far is somewhere around $25-million. The annual fare revenue of GO Transit is over $300-million. That tells me all I need to know about the market uptake of Presto. Metrolinx has inherited this boondoggle, but now they have to present it as Queen’s Park’s gift to mankind. I will be interested to see if the project gets some better focus and less wide-eyed, Pollyanna-style marketing as a Metrolinx division, and possibly once “nothing but good news” ceases to be the order of the day after the provincial election.


  19. I only have one comment in regards to Presto — why have so little fare-related info on your website?

    Steve: By “your”, I presume you mean Presto’s site.

    I want to visit one place that convinces me in no uncertain terms that paying an extra $6 will save me hassle when I’m contemplating trips using YRT, TTC, Brampton and GO, here at York University. Instead, I’m not even sure if my YRT fare will carry over to my TTC fare given that YRT has a special relationship with TTC with respect to rides from Downsview to York University… If I could swipe a Presto card the way I can show a metropass, fine, but … so far it sounds like instead of a free ride, it’ll charge me double. In fact, the only savings are potentially the 10-ride tickets would now be 1-ride tickets at $2.60 each… assuming my time window is still 2-hours. Hmm. Might be enough of an advantage to pay $19 for $25 on Monday… I hate validating machines when they break down anyway. Still wish it worked with PayPass or PayWave.

    Steve: Presto, for all the hooplah, isn’t about making cross-boundary riding cheaper, only for consolidating fare media in the name of “seamless” travel. Nobody wants to talk about true fare integration because that inevitably gets into the question of increased subsidy and the source of funds to lower the cost of trips that now cost multiple full fares.


  20. Rishi Maharaj said on 2011-07-13:

    “Fundamentally, the tap-on/tap-off scheme is a step back in usability for the vast majority of GO commuters who are used to buying a monthly pass, sticking it in their wallet and forgetting about it for a month. I’m sure Presto thinks that the pro-rated discount system they use to replace the monthly pass is incredibly clever, but frankly I think most people would rather just pay the cost up front and then forget about it.”

    I’ve been using the Presto for a number of months on GO as an experiment: I was interested in how long I could go without making a mistake.

    Well, the inevitable happened last night: I forget to tap on due to haste. The GO security guy gave me a written warning; next time, it’s a $150 fine.

    From this experience, my estimate for a “caught error” like this is about 1 in 100 days, or twice a year on average. So in addition to being a usability failure, $150 for each mistake adds significantly to the simple cost of using the system. For me, $300/year almost perfectly wipes out the value of the “pro-rated” schedule! (Assuming GO would permit repeat offenders access to their property; at some point I suspect the Trespass Act would be read to me.)

    So I’m going to let the card “bleed out” now and then return to monthly passes, which I had used for many years without incident. Presto will have to add a “fill and forget” mode to the system before I consider using it any further. A very easy change of course — an ‘expiry’ date can be placed on the card instead of (or in addition to) money — but one speculates the revenue win-fall due to fines will be impossible to resist…


  21. Presto probably doesn’t want “fill and forget” passes. Tapping on/off produces data to mine. In some ways this is good (accurate reads on how much ridership there is) and sometimes maybe not (if such data was aggregated and shared with commercial concerns for non-transit use).

    Steve: It may give data to mine, but it’s a royal pain in the butt. Indeed, if we have the real equivalent of a monthly pass — all you can eat — there is no reason for such passholders to tap on and off at all. Any fare inspection will reveal that they hold a “pass”.

    What is actually fascinating about Presto is that its implementation merely copied the existing GO fare structure, and I have yet to hear any discussion of revisions that would take advantage of the technology.


  22. Steve said: “What is actually fascinating about Presto is that its implementation merely copied the existing GO fare structure, and I have yet to hear any discussion of revisions that would take advantage of the technology.”

    I took advantage of the recent Presto promotion, purchasing my card online without the customary $6 issuance fee. I’m a very occasional GO rider and used my Presto card for the first time this weekend. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that GO adult Presto fares are discounted 7.5% from one-way published fares as Presto users receive the 10-trip discount – even on trips 1 – 9. It was very nice to bypass the ticket counter or GO’s horrible ticket vending machines.

    While the tap on/off protocol is pain, transit agencies in other cities in which I’ve lived find the origin/destination data and solid passenger counts invaluable in service planning. Of course, those agencies use the data to plan and implement services to suit demand. Oh – it would indeed be a wasted process on GO/TTC!


  23. Tap on/tap off might be an annoyance. But I don’t find it anywhere near as annoying as having to arrive early to buy a ticket. Or standing their with my 10-ride ticket, trying to get it to validate, with my train sitting about to close it’s doors …

    Pass holders might find it a bit more work … on the other hand, they’ll never have the problem of paying for a full months pass, and then finding out half way through the month, that they are going to be off sick for a few days … or something.

    Steve: The issue is not “more work” but the degree to which the need for the extra tap (or any tap at all) disrupts and slows passenger flows at vehicle doors and station exits. Even GO recognized the problem by allowing commuters to define a default trip so that they don’t have to tap out. As for data about passenger movements, this is a red herring. The TTC doesn’t make adequate use of the data they already have, and the simple observation of “the bus is full” does not routinely translate into more service.


  24. Sure, the tap-and-board system might be slower than the board-without-paying system on subways, but it’s not like we’re trying to replicate the subway experience on streetcars exactly.

    Even though passengers would have to swipe/tap as they board, it’s still a giant improvement over the pay-at-the-front system.

    Steve: Actually we’re trying to make loading as fast as possible no matter how many doors or what vehicle as this is the single biggest source of delay. My larger argument is with tap-out on the dubious grounds that this gives reams of planning data, but tap-in shouldn’t even be required for people with “all you can eat” passes in their accounts.

    Montreal already figured out that for the majority of trips, it is possible to figure out the “off” points by looking at where a pass gets on. Takes more computer work on the back end, but eliminates the nuisance for customers.


  25. Tap off is only necessary on the zoned GO system. Hardly seems an inconvenience. Anyone who is constantly using the same station pairs simply has to set a default trip.

    Steve: This scheme may work for a commuter-only system like GO where most riders take the same trip between the same points, and the casual rides tend to be paid for with tickets rather than passes. However, the TTC is quite another matter with a vast array of trips and a lot of ad hoc riding. Anyone who wants to argue that tapping off has benefits for statistical purposes really needs to think about their priorities. By analogy, I would point out that the TTC has a vast amount of data regarding the movement of their vehicles, but they do almost nothing with it. Do you really expect them to handle an even greater wealth of data from passenger movements any better?

    Forcing people to tap off “for the stats”would be an excellent example of creating inconvenience for users simply because of poor system design, or a fare structure that depended on knowing the length of your trip in distance or zones.

    Tapping off isn’t necessary on AMT in Montreal, but the card is much more inflexible than Presto. You have to pre-load tickets on your card before you use it. If you take different trips on different days, you are out of luck, and would require different cards … or load your tickets one-by-one. And if your travels take you from Lavel to the South Shore (which isn’t that hard to imagine, given both are served by a relatively quick Metro journey), and you’ve already loaded bus tickets for Laval, Montreal, and the South Shore – you are out of luck, because you can’t even add AMT (commuter train) tickets at all, as it can only handle 3 different tickets.

    Steve: Dare I mention system design issues again? This is also a problem with a lack of real fare integration, and of “automating” all of the inefficiency of the previous ticket/cash based structure.

    For someone who always travels between the same zones in Montreal, OPUS might be a bit simpler … (though why you need to pre-negotiate to load tickets for different agencies seems totally unnecessary to me). But PRESTO’s implementation – while somewhat more complex and requiring more computer work on the back end to operate (rather than analyze), seems infinitely more flexible. That isn’t to say that they haven’t got some bugs they still need to iron out.

    I’m not seeing the delay issue … I’ve gotten off busy GO trains before, you just walk out, holding your card, and wave it at a reader as you pass it, hardly needing to slow down. The pain I suffered trying to get the old 10-rides to be accepted by the old readers was far, far, worse. On one occasion, I had to give up and get on the train anyway – on another, I knew I’d have no time do it, and jumped out at the next stop (which fortunately was Union), and stamped it there instead, and got back on.


  26. The PRESTO tap-on process is not always instant. I recently had to make several trips through the 905 and brought my card with me. For about one third of my tap-ons, the readers would detect the card instantly. For another third, there was a delay long enough that I couldn’t tap on as I walked past. Fianlly, about one third of my tap-ons just wouldn’t work. I had to stop, fiddle around with the card, move it away and then back to the reader or slide it over the surface and then it woul pick it up. They need to work that part out if they want to speed up bus loading.

    I also noticed on every trip (Hamilton, Burlington and Mississauga), that I was the only person using the card.


  27. Tap off on TTC? Yikes! I agree that makes no sense. The statistics are useful, but not worth creating such a nightmare, in a one-zone system!


  28. I have a similar experience to Jonathan’s, my card wasn’t working perfectly well all the time. After I missed my train after one of those incidents where it wouldn’t go through for quite a while and I was late for a meeting, I had it checked out. They couldn’t figure out what the problem was, so I had to get a brand new one. So where did all the money go when they are not able to issue fully functional cards?

    Even with all the controversy about the deals, the truth is that the cards are a more convenient way how to pay for your daily commuting so more and more people will abandon the paper ticket systems in the favour of Presto.

    Steve: I agree with the caveat that Presto must have a strong customer focus and make provision in their software design for the way people and transit service actually behave rather than creating “the computer can’t do it” situations that drive customers (and staff) around the bend.


  29. The Accenture debacle continues. We now have a government that bought into a poorly programmed system that does not simply mimic the current fare structure, little less discount a future one. It is readily apparent that Metrolinx is a government agency that is trying to scam the taxpayers of Ontario and eat into a system that already has slim savings of less than 7% costs for producing a fare structure and system. The figures of $145 million and TTC trying to reign them in for under $47 for their system is astounding. I believe the entire proposal needs to subject to a Parliamentary committee that is accessible and open to the public and the fare implementation needs to cease until we know the full costs of this system and will it work FOR Ontario tax payers, not against them and their wallets. Transit is an essential service in the GTA and Ontario broadly. So are airports and we know what happened when they de-regulated them.

    My experience with Presto has been nothing but a nightmare with Go Bus drivers denying passage when the fare system was charging to the card trips to the end of the line, etc and now my son’s card does not work as Heather and Jonathan found out. It is important to know that when you register the card, you sign away your legal right to sue them above $500 and you cannot join a class action. Read the TOS on the Presto card. I think the whole Accenture deal needs to be stopped and as stated subject to a public inquiry.


  30. @Paul: I think that people in general need to stop being so envious of other cities’ fare payment systems and let the city and the TTC figure out its own needs first (building the subway extension to Vaughan, getting the much pared down version of the originally bigger Transit City built, and getting the DRL built) before insisting that Toronto slavishly copy Tokyo, New York, Paris, London, and Hong Kong in getting one of these farecard systems simply because some other city has it and because of the ‘you won’t be cool if you don’t have one of these’ mentality.


  31. OMFG! Why are we making things so complicated?

    Why do we even need a preloading card system? Most bank cards issued by banks in Toronto support Near-Field Contact, whereby you just bring the card close to a reader and it automatically deducts a certain amount of money. No PIN required, no selecting accounts, nothing! You can pay for groceries like that. VISA and MasterCard have had that same service for years now! It’s just recently being introduced to Interac/debit cards.

    Why not simply charge people $3 per swipe? Plain and simple.

    You could even do it invoice style. TTC riders could register with a TTC website, and provide their card number. The card reader would simply collect card numbers, and then at the end of the month send a bill to the registered address on file, for all the traffic on the TTC network. That wouldn’t take much work. That way the card readers on the vehicles wouldn’t even need a secure bank connection. All they’d have to do is capture the card numbers and they could batch upload them once a day or on some schedule at the end of the route, etc. That would be an additional option, one we currently do not have. It would make TTC super flexible.

    There’s so many options, I don’t know why we’re still stuck in the stone age require people to carry YET ANOTHER CARD. For crying out loud, if the readers had NFC (near field) then it would be relatively easy for passengers to simply use smartphones and pay that way down the road. It wouldn’t even require a hardware upgrade!

    Get with the 21st century technology TTC! Sheesh..

    Steve: The TTC (under the previous administration) wanted to go with NFC and the “open” use of existing cards and the future abilities of smart phones, but were blocked from doing so by Queen’s Park who made adoption of Presto a precondition of provincial funding. The model the TTC was looking at would use the card/device only as an identifying mechanism with a back-end system reconciling the charges for travel based on a rider’s profile just as you describe. Presto now says that they will support cards other than their own, but statements so far from Metrolinx imply that this will only be to charge a flat fare.


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