Presto’s Problems Multiply

From the Toronto Star:

Presto’s rollout on the TTC is over budget and fraught with problems. This is not new to anyone who has been following the project, or at least following it to the degree that the agencies involved provide reliable information.

As of March 31, however, the agency had spent $276.7 million deploying Presto on the TTC, according to numbers provided by Metrolinx. That’s almost $22 million higher than the agency’s 2012 estimate of $255 million.

The $276.6-million figure doesn’t reflect work that has yet to be completed or was finished after March 31; those jobs include completing Presto deployment at all subway stations, installing additional self-serve reload machines and fare vending devices across the network, and rolling out fare card readers on all 1,900 TTC buses and 500 Wheel-Trans vehicles.

Also unaccounted for are the future cost of upgrading the Presto system — which currently enables riders to pay their fare with a tap of a prepaid card — to allow for direct payment using credit or debit cards, and the cost of migrating TTC passes onto Presto. [From Ben Spurr’s article]

Metrolinx attempts to offload their problems on the TTC. Reliability problems were first blamed on unusual power supply issues on the older streetcars, but then the issue turned out to be far worse on the bus fleet. Presto’s primary implementation to date is on buses, and this is hardly a new environment for the fare card machines.

Now the cost increases are blamed on scope creep in the TTC contract including the fit-out of the old streetcar fleet and the installation of new fare gates in subway stations.

Meanwhile, complications for riders are legion as Ed Keenan describes: difficulty in obtaining and loading money on fare cards, inconsistent rules for their use, overcharges (and undercharges) for transit rides, and a complete lack of benefits compared to the existing system.

Metrolinx loves to deflect criticism to others, but is slow to accept the blame for shorcomings of its own system’s design.

At the outset, Presto as it existed was a more primitive system designed for a simpler environment: GO trains and buses, with riders who mostly took predictable commuting trips to and from Union Station. As its role expanded to other systems, the shortcomings became obvious to the point that the “Next Generation” Presto was developed for Ottawa. Even then, it had major implementation problems.

The GTA fare structure has long been biased against trips to and in Toronto. Unlike the 905 systems, there is no “co-fare” between the TTC and connecting systems notably GO Transit, and GO’s fares within the 416 compound this problem by charging substantially more to travel shorter distances.

Presto has been touted as the basis for “regional fare integration”, but this has different meanings to different people. At its simplest, Presto would be one card that could “talk” to any fare machine and charge the appropriate “local” fare, little more than standardizing the “currency” of fare transactions without any other changes. On a more aggressive level, fares would be “integrated” so that the cross-border penalty would be reduced or eliminated. It is self-evident that getting rid of fare penalties will cost somebody money in the form of higher fares overall, or increased subsidy. However, Queen’s Park wants a “revenue neutral” scheme so that added subsidies are not required.

Metrolinx has wrestled with new fare structure concepts for a few years, and push-back on their original proposals has delayed the production of a final recommendation. Behind the scenes, the always-preferred option was “fare by distance”, a concept familiar to GO, although not actually implemented “fairly” across its network. This brings very substantial operational problems because the fare system must “know” both the origin and destination of each trip requiring “tap on” and “tap off” for each leg of the journey. This evolved into a scheme to make “rapid transit” a distance-based premium fare zone, a scheme that preserves GO’s rail premium, but destroys the “integrated” nature of the subway within Toronto’s system.

The effect might be to lower fares for cross-border trips (a small minority of all GTA travel) and improve the attractiveness of GO+TTC rides, but at a higher cost to TTC users for whom the subway is an integral part of most travel.

Metrolinx also neglected to determine whether LRT and BRT lines would be “rapid transit” because none of them existed in the data used for their study. Such is the quality of forward thinking at our provincial agency.

In this context, a decision by the TTC on the fare structure to be implemented has been almost impossible, although the TTC must be faulted for keeping a real discussion of the options and limitations under wraps for so long. The TTC missed a chance to market the new fare system with more convenient fares and refuses to address a simplified fare structure, notably time-based transfer validity. That decision immensely complicates the fare calculation requirements for Presto in determining where a “new” trip starts and a second fare should be charged.

For its part, the TTC opted to enlarge its fare gate upgrades from a limited scale needed to bring Presto and accessibility to all entrances, to a full-scale replacement across the system. And, oh yes, with the capability to require “tap out” for all passengers (ignoring that a huge volume of passengers transfer to and from surface routes without using a turnstile). In effect, TTC management enabled by stealth a fare structure that has not been debated or approved by the TTC Board (at least publicly) or by City Council.

The TTC also decided to accelerate the Presto implementation by a year so that it would be fully operational at the end of 2016. This would serve two purposes. On one hand, Metrolinx could brag that the Toronto rollout was “complete” and trumpet huge additional usage (along with the service fees) by Presto. On the other, the TTC could move ahead with its redeployment of station staff who would no longer be selling fare media. Things have not quite worked out as planned, and it is likely that we will not see substantial conversion to Presto until the end of 2017.

Presto itself has design limitations, not least the fact that so much of the fare calculation occurs between the card readers at stations and on vehicles and the card itself, rather than in a back-end system. This is responsible for the oddity that updates to Presto accounts do not actually arrive at the card when they are made online, but only later when all devices in the system learn of the changes through periodic updates. “Open payment” support for credit cards is coming, but until the tracking and calculation of fare discounts is done by a central system, credit cards will only support the equivalent of a cash fare, not the discount schemes available to Presto cardholders. That is not a truly “open” system.

We’re not supposed to talk about any of this because everything Metrolinx and its masters at Queen’s Park do is perfect, Ontario is a transit Nirvana for transit policy going back decades. If we were honest, we would be discussing the alternatives, including technical limitations and funding requirements, but instead the only important work is the manufacture of ever more photo ops.

Try harder.

46 thoughts on “Presto’s Problems Multiply

  1. Erick wrote:

    What never cease to amaze me is that the stated purpose of Presto was fare integration and flexibility that only using a computer based system could bring.

    Yet that’s the thing that’s missing.

    Ah, but the spin doctors at Presto would say (come to think of it, they have said) that by eliminating the need to have to have two or more sets of tickets or passes, they have delivered on the integration and flexibility.

    Does anyone recall the Monty Python sketch of a game show where the host spent so long explaining what all the rules and sound effects were that there was no time for the game? I can’t help but think Presto is a real life version of this.


  2. Further to my earlier comment and still in the vein of Erick’s concerns regarding “proper stewardship of public finance and providing proper services to the community” I have to fault Metrolinx, TTC and City Council altogether because they have made this exercise in (eventual) Presto implementation 10 times harder than it ever had to be.

    Metrolinx, thinking about Presto by using its Go Transit format, has considered fare-by-distance or Zones or some similar set-up, which could wind up being patently “unfair” to folks in the City of Toronto – a large number of daily rides – trying to get around, especially by Metropass, which currently has no limit to the number of rides.

    TTC has claimed they will see “$20 Million” in lost revenue if 2-hour transfers are allowed on the system and they couldn’t deal with that, never mind the existing budget constraints plus Mayor Tory’s recent 2.6% reduction requirement. Steve, however, has concisely debunked this argument and shown that the extent of “damage” that is argued by TTC brass would be, at most, half of this amount. In his previous posting from March 11, 2016 – 7 months ago he stated the following:

    The estimate of lost revenue is overstated by at least 100% based on the following calculation:

    • 4% of customers take two trips within two hours.
    • With 545 million annual trips, 4% is 21.8 million.
    • Half of these would now be “free” or 10.9 million.
    • At an average fare of about $2, the “lost” revenue would be about $20m.
    • However, over half of all adult trips are paid for with passes which allow unlimited riding. Therefore at least half of the “lost” revenue is based on trips taken using passes today.
    • The correct “cost” of a two-hour transfer should be cited as no more than $10 million.

    This puts the two-hour transfer in the same ballpark as free rides for children.

    Which now brings me to City Council.

    Steve stated that free rides for children are about the same cost as a 2-hour transfer provision. But helping families with kids who may be struggling financially plays much better for the press and the 6 o’clock news than “Hey, you can shop for 2 hours and only pay one fare to get around!” Now, I’m not saying children shouldn’t ride free or that parents don’t have a tough time using transit when they have kids to take around with them. What I’m saying is that City Council should not be telling TTC (and the citizens) that there is “no money” to institute 2-hour transfers out of one side of its mouth while somehow saying out the other side that it can find enough money to offset the costs associated with 12-and-under kids using the system for free. Oh, and also adding a 10-cent fare hike for tokens and a 25-cent increase for cash fares to the cost for adults to get around….

    So, to Erick, who is wondering about “proper stewardship of public finance and providing proper services to the community” I would suggest that City Council has to grow up and determine that transit is an important and necessary service in this city (and region) and that it costs money – and lots of it. And that might include 1. Letting kids ride free; 2. Allowing passengers a 2-hour window to complete their trip; 3. Arguing with the Provincial and Federal Governments for more money more consistently; 4. Instituting road tolls with the incoming funds earmarked directly to assist transit operations; or 5. Something else altogether that helps people get around more easily on transit.

    Presto can easily help with the two-hour transfer without re-inventing the wheel and it can start right now. The City Councillors seem to want to try to complicate things so much that nothing gets done and in trying to over-manage the “stewardship of public finance” they completely ignore the “providing proper services to the community” part.


  3. I see my post generated several very interesting responses.

    On the 10 min in Ottawa I must apologise. OC Transpo told the council that once our LRT line is open the savings from not operating so many buses plus what we spent on Presto would pay for that network. Which we will kind of get as in a 15 min network weekdays 6:00 to 19:00. But all that presto money means service we are not getting.

    I agree with various commenters that beyond the opportunities to give contracts it also comes down to having politicians that accept that transit is a public good. I would add that in most respects it’s something that only the public sector can provide.

    I have often criticised Presto here and in other forums because I don’t like complex systems that costs more and provide less. However I think that with proper management it could be useful.

    Then again think of the efficiency of simply funding transit out of general revenues like we do most public services. That’s why I believe that beyond all the mistakes done by Metrolinx, Accenture and the various Ontario Transit systems, because we are trying to superimpose a commercial logic over a public good, it inevitably opens the door to complications. While Presto is really bad compared to other systems, no system is devoid of significant issues.

    Steve: I might also say that Presto, like UPX, suffers from development in an environment where someone at Queen’s Park bought into the idea that it would have no net cost, and more generally that the concept of “fare integration” would not affect subsidies. Neither of these is a valid assumption, but from them flow artificial constraints on capabilities and infrastructure.


  4. > I don’t understand the extremely high rate of problems that are happening with the Presto card readers on buses. Given that Presto card readers have been used for years on the 905 transit systems’ buses, the issues should be well known and at least somewhat mitigated by now.

    There are *some* differences they wouldn’t have experienced outside of Toronto. I have a GPS watch that I use for running, and I avoid running through the financial district, because the tall buildings mess with the GPS, making the readings as far off as a whole block. Mind you, that should be easily resolved by simply increasing acceptable transfer range.

    > I was living in London when the Presto equivalent (Oyster) was introduced. IIRC the readers were installed everywhere and only then was the system switched on. The phased approach taken by the TTC is nonsensical — why bother getting a Presto card if you can never be sure from day to day whether you will be able to use it?

    > I don’t understand why they had to revamp the turnstiles to gates, the way it was was fine, the way it is at many of the stations Presto is already at (Queen’s Park to College). It just seems to add to cost for something not necessary.

    I can think of many reasons why they decided to roll out the way they did. Many of these reasons are flawed, but I can understand where they came from:

    * The TTC has a reputation for being ancient, so the new gates gives the optics of being a modern system. Of course, they seemed to ignore the fact that this also has the optics of being spendthrifts.

    * They turned them on as they were installed because it showed riders that progress was being made.

    * Besides, why prevent riders from using the equipment if it’s already installed and working?

    * The slow roll out also means they can use early-adopters to weed out any issues.

    * They want to phase out fare collectors, which means the Presto system has to work in a collector-free station. This means it needs to be wheelchair accessible, so the turnstiles have to be replaced with the new gates. This means upgrading the existing turnstiles like they did downtown is a waste of money.

    * The turnstiles are also old, and, according to the TTC, are exceeding their usable lifetime. I suspect what they really mean is that they’re spending money on repairing them, so why not use that money to buy new fancy gates instead? This, of course, fails to recognize that the new gates will almost certainly be more expensive to repair than the old ones.

    In the end, it was probably penny-wise, pound-foolish. They could have upgraded all the turnstiles, and then once the whole system was integrated, replaced *just* the wheelchair gates with the new gates, and then started firing collectors.


  5. In response to TTC Passenger’s comment:

    I don’t understand the extremely high rate of problems that are happening with the Presto card readers on buses. Given that Presto card readers have been used for years on the 905 transit systems’ buses, the issues should be well known and at least somewhat mitigated by now.

    Rick Yorgason responded:

    There are *some* differences they wouldn’t have experienced outside of Toronto. I have a GPS watch that I use for running, and I avoid running through the financial district, because the tall buildings mess with the GPS, making the readings as far off as a whole block.

    This didn’t occur to me before, but the Presto readers that have been so well used in the GTHA outside of Toronto DO NOT HAVE GPS.

    I found this out a couple of years ago when I tapped on a southbound YRT 99 bus at Bloomington Road (the northern-most stop in zone 1) with time left on a valid zone 1 fare and got charged a whole new fare. In discovering this by checking my card’s history the next day, it showed that I boarded at Henderson, the last stop north of there. Why it didn’t just charge the zone upgrade is a whole other kettle of fish beyond the scope of this topic.

    When I filed my claim for the overcharge, YRT explained that the Presto readers do not use the GPS system on the bus that makes the stop announcements. The units have to be told where they are, which is usually done at the start of the run, and they simply use the time and knowledge of the scheduled run time on the route to keep track of its location. The operator is supposed to reset the location when reaching a zone boundary before anyone boards and taps, but didn’t in this case.

    So the use of GPS on Presto readers is TOTALLY new in the TTC deployment (unless the feature was implemented in Ottawa and should have most of the issues worked out by now).


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