Updated January 5, 2017 at 7:00 pm: Information has been added about Presto sales within TTC subway stations. See the end of the article.
With a modest fanfare, both the TTC and Metrolinx celebrated the completion, if that’s the right word, of their planned 2016 roll out of the Presto fare card system. The work is not yet finished, and the full conversion away from existing “legacy” media is a year off. According to the TTC:
“Tickets, Tokens and passes will be available for sale and use throughout 2017. We will stop accepting these in 2018.” [Presentation, p 8]
Still to be worked out is the actual final date beyond which any tokens or tickets bought in 2017 can be used or redeemed. With the TTC Board committed to a fare freeze in 2018 (election year) the old media won’t expire on their own, and of course tokens are always good for “one fare”, whatever it may be.
At some point in 2017, the TTC will begin to offer Metropasses on Presto. This will include regular and monthly discount plan versions, but the fate of the bulk purchase “VIP” program is still uncertain. According to the TTC, the roll out of passes by Presto had been delayed awaiting capacity upgrades in the central system to handle the volume of transactions passes will bring. This was confirmed by Metrolinx who said:
“As with any major system expansion, related upgrades are scheduled to roll out gradually as we test and optimize our system for anticipated increases in future use. These upgrades are deliberate and measured, and they include improvements such as the migrating to our new data centre. The system has been built with enhanced scalability features that will accommodate Metropasses.” [email of Dec. 21, 2016]
For now, Metropass users should remain on the “legacy” cards until the same functions and pricing are available through Presto.
Riders wishing to purchase Presto cards have faced a challenge thanks to the limited number of TTC outlets selling them. This is about to change. Already Presto cards can be bought at many Gateway News outlets, and Metrolinx expects this to expand in 2017:
“We are pursuing plans to expand the PRESTO card distribution footprint through a partnership with a third-party retail network. This network would also enable us to increase our ability to set special concessions, such as student and senior discounts. We expect to have more information to share in the new year.”
An important part of the sales process is that riders who are entitled to concession fares will be able to buy cards with that option pre-loaded. However, there is a potential conflict with the TTC’s intended implementation of discount fares that could complicate this type of purchase and account setup.
For a few classes of rider, the TTC proposes that a “Photo ID” be available. This would not be a separate card as in the early days of the Metropass, but a photo integrated into the user’s Presto card and account. The exact mechanism for loading this photo have yet to be determined. Also, it is not yet certain that photos will be required for seniors because, unlike children and students, their eligibility never expires, and linking the card to the rider for fraud prevention is less of an issue. One side effect the TTC did not mention is that a return to photo ID makes the card non-transferable, and this would produce limitations on its use that do not exist with current media.
There have been many questions about how Presto will work for the several fare types now in use. The charts below are taken from the presentation at the TTC Board meeting of December 20, 2016.
The daily and weekly passes will be replaced with a “loyalty” fare cap so that a rider who does not have a monthly pass loaded on their card would be charged no more than the “equivalent to pass” fare per day or per week. For example, the Day Pass is worth the same as four tokens, and so riders would not be charged more than four fares in one day. Similarly, the weekly charge would be no more than the value of a weekly pass. This will give the benefit of passes without the need to actually buy one in advance. There is no word yet on how the “Family Pass” for weekends and holidays will work.
Premium fare services are simply a different class of Monthly Pass that would be loaded onto a Presto card as an add-on to the regular monthly pass.
One class of fares has come up often in the lead-up to conversion. Many agencies give away tokens and tickets to their clients, and with the disappearance of legacy media they will need an alternative. This will be handled with single use Presto cards. There is no date announced yet for when these will be available.
The Presto card readers on vehicles have given problems. During the fall when there was so much “good news” about the ongoing installations, it was not unusual to encounter one or more out of service readers on a TTC vehicle. Metrolinx conducted a review, and
- The review included improving cellular network connectivity, refining the monitoring system, checking validator performance and reviewing first line maintenance processes performed by the TTC.
- A recent field check of all surface vehicles showed that overall validator availability is now consistently over 98%.
- Once into steady state next year, the goal is to be over 99%.
- [Metrolinx December 2016 Presto Update, p 6]
With a daily tap volume in the millions, even 99.9% would leave a few thousand transactions every day that could not be properly handled.
To the basic reliability issues must be added logic issues related to calculating which taps actually constitute a “linked trip” and therefore should only incur one fare. This brings us to the knotty issue of transfer rules versus time-based fares where a rider would get a fixed time (two hours, for example) before a second fare was charged. This functionality is already on Presto for other GTHA systems, but is not enabled on the TTC.
There are many problems with the GPS-based calculations for TTC trips including misreporting of a rider’s location, and double-charging for transfers when these occur at non-standard locations. Probably the most ridiculous example is in the pending split of the 501 Queen route for 2017 where the TTC advises:
When transferring between 501 Queen streetcars and buses using PRESTO, do not tap onto the next vehicle when boarding.
In other words, a year-long route change will use a non-standard protocol for handling transfers rather than having appropriate logic built into the Presto system.
The TTC Board has dragged its heels on a move to time-based transfers citing the estimated $20 million “cost” of lost revenue based on the premise that about 4% of riders would make a second trip “free” within the two-hour window. They have not considered the convenience factor, the simplicity of verifying whether another fare is due, or the cost and annoyance of resolving disputes where Presto overcharges riders. This can occur not only through GPS errors, but also by transfers at non-standard locations such as short turns and diversions.
The silver lining to this setup is that the proposed daily fare cap will make “trip chaining” more practical even without the two-hour fare, although the lost revenue from this will still be about $10m based on the estimate that 2% of riders will benefit from the cap. (Again, remember that only a minority of riders pay for trips by single fares as opposed to passes or some other discount system.)
Problems with the Presto fare load machines are supposed to be fixed with the introduction of replacement units early in 2017. Although Presto is a Metrolinx product, riders see this as a TTC issue because they are at the front lines. TTC staff are responsible for first level support of both the Presto equipment and the new fare gates under contract arrangements with the respective vendors. This simplifies and consolidates basic support, but with the teething problems of both systems, this drops a lot of work in the TTC’s lap. There are no published stats yet on the speed with which failing machines are repaired or the responsiveness of the various groups responsible.
Metrolinx plans to roll out upgraded Presto fare vending machines early in 2017. Early complaints about these were fobbed off with the claim that the TTC was an unusual operating environment, but similar problems have been reported with these machines in GO Transit locations as well. More recently, there are tales of mismatches between customer behaviour and the expectations of software on the machines. That is a classic design problem, and one has to wonder how such machines made it out of the shop.
In the December 2016 Presto Update, Metrolinx reported:
- The 70 machines are heavily used and perform 35-40,000 loads per week.
- A custom designed machine, it is not meeting reliability targets and causing challenges for customers.
- Metrolinx has escalated concerns to the suppliers who are working to resolve the issues.
- The second generation machines are now in testing and are expected to be significantly improved.
- The current machines will be replaced with the new generation machines early next year.
Also coming to Presto in 2017 are:
- Concession fare cards for children, youth (now called “students”) and post-secondary students,
- Presto support for Wheel-Trans sedan taxis,
- Passes for the blind and for support persons travelling with disabled riders,
- Support for York Region fares on TTC buses travelling outside of the 416, and
- “Open Payment” with the ability to use non-Presto cards as identification for charging transit fares.
When the TYSSE (Line 1 Spadina extension to Vaughan) opens at the end of 2017, the stations will already be configured for a “Presto” world, and legacy fares will only be accepted by a transitional arrangement until they are phased out. Cash fares will be handled as an option by the fare vending machines which will issue single-use Presto cards.
The point about Open Payment goes beyond simply accepting a credit card (something Presto can do already for single adult fares) to a fundamental change in how Presto works. Today, all of the fare transaction takes place between the Presto card and reader on a vehicle or in a station. The activity is reconciled to a central system on a daily basis.
The architecture of Presto will change to shift the fare calculation tracking process to the central system. This allows any card or smartphone app to interact with a reader simply as an identification mechanism. Usage would be accumulated centrally and billed based on the rates to which a rider was entitled including any fare caps or cross-boundary co-fare arrangements. According to Metrolinx:
“2017 will be a busy year as we prepare to offer enhancements in support of TTC. Currently the plan is offer open payment in limited form by the end of 2017. The timing and details are still being finalized.”
This will bring Presto into line with the concept the TTC proposed many years ago before Queen’s Park forced them to adopt Presto as a condition for continued receipt of gas tax revenue.
Presto usage on the TTC remains relatively low, although the volume of “taps” looks impressive beside activity on other systems within the GTHA. Only 5.1% of TTC rides are taken with Presto. This is unsurprising considering that over 60% of fares are paid with Metropasses, and some concession fares are still not available via Presto.
[Metrolinx December 2016 Presto Update, p 5]
To put this into context, the TTC carries about 1.8 million rides every day and the “unlinked” trip count roughly doubles this number. (This counts each leg of a journey as a separate transaction, a Presto “tap”, and, on average, each rider transfers once). The monthly volume shown above is in the same range as the daily volume a full roll out on the TTC will bring.
Updated January 5, 2017 at 7:00 pm
In the comment thread, an issue arose regarding service charges by Gateway News outlets selling Presto cards in the TTC subway, and more generally about why the cards were no longer available from TTC vending machines. I asked both the TTC and Metrolinx about this, and here are their replies.
From the TTC:
Why are PRESTO cards are no longer available in TTC Pass Vending Machines?
There are more Gateway Newstands locations to sell PRESTO cards than there are TTC Pass Vending Machines. As a result the decision was made to expand PRESTO card sales at Gateways instead of using PVMs as a sales channel. Acquiring more PVMs would have been cost prohibitive, especially since each station entrance will have a Fare Media Vending Device available when the PRESTO rollout is complete.
Would it be correct then to say that during the interim until FVMs are available the only way to buy a Presto card in the subway will be at Gateway?
Yes that is correct. More Gateway locations will be added over the coming weeks until all stations that have a Gateway will be selling the cards.
From Metrolinx on the subject of supplementary charges for Presto purchases using credit cards:
Every business in Canada pays a transactional fee to the bank when a customer makes any purchase with a debit or credit card. There are many ways businesses recover these costs. In some cases for smaller businesses, such as the individually operated Gateway franchises, they charge a fee to the customer to recover these costs which the customer approves after they insert their card in the payment terminal.
Every Gateway Newstands location is individually owned and operated and each owner determines and sets the fees they may or may not charge for any credit and debit transactions to recover the bank fees. That is solely the retailers decision and unfortunately outside of our control. Gateway may have further information.
Customers can also order cards online, at GO stations (such as in York Concourse) or at UP Express at Union, and we will be announcing an expansion soon with a major retailer.
And so the combined answer, dear readers, is that the TTC has stopped supporting Presto sales even through its existing fare machines, but meanwhile Metrolinx has no control over any surcharges Gateway might impose. Why the TTC could not simply handle these sales through its own Station Collectors for the year’s transition period is a complete mystery.
This is a spectacular example of failed “Customer Service” when the only goal is to say “people can buy Presto cards everywhere”. Both the TTC and Metrolinx should be ashamed of themselves, but I’m sure there are still a few photo ops to be had for the Mayor and Minister on this one, and that’s all that matters.