In May 1980, the TTC introduced the Metropass giving riders the option of paying a flat fare for one month of unlimited travel. Management had resisted the idea of a pass with the classic “it won’t work here” argument. Toronto was finally embarrassed into implementing a pass when Hamilton (a working-class burg at the west end of Lake Ontario always seen as inferior to Toronto) brought in a pass. The idea that passes were some sort of unintelligible, unenforceable foreign scheme collapsed under its own stupidity.
The TTC was really fighting the idea that riders should get a discount for using transit more. For decades afterward Metropasses became the workhorse of TTC fares, the idea persisted that passholders were freeloaders on the system. This attitude continues to infect debates over flat fares versus distance or zone-based ones when the real issue is to get more people out of cars and onto transit. “Paying your fair share” rarely includes the avoided cost of building and operating a road network, let alone the economic benefits of a mobile population.
It is ironic that GO Transit, founded in 1967, was established on the premise that carrying people on trains avoided massive expressway construction as well as the personal cost and time of driving into the city. This was a rare time when the cost of providing transit was seen as a way of avoiding the much higher cost (in dollars, physical upheaval and the inevitable future congestion) of continued road-building. Debates over transit funding, fares and service have rarely been this enlightened.
The Metropass now becomes part of TTC fare history with its replacement by Presto.
Metrolinx should have begun the migration years ago to “open payment” (accepting any media), but the government and management of the day preferred to hobble along with their existing structure and attempt to fit new functionalities into a “next generation” of Presto. They are now experimenting with a smart phone app providing equivalent functions to their card, and talk openly of a move away from a proprietary card to the use of any identification system such as a credit card or app. This will require a complete rethink of Presto’s “back office” functions, but will bring much more flexibility in fare plans and billing if the political will ever exists to implement this.
The problem of pricing and of fares generally is much more than a technology issue although both the limitations and potential of electronic fare collection have been used to argue for and against various schemes. Incentives and barriers to transit use exist in the tariff region-wide, but changes have much more to do with the eternal question “who pays” rather than the fare technology. Years ago, Toronto abolished its two-zone fare structure valuing the ability to travel anywhere for one price over the premise that riders between the suburbs and the core should pay more because they “used” more of the transit system. More recently, the move to the “two hour transfer” on Presto recognizes that a transit “trip” legitimately may be broken up in small segments and riders should not be penalized for hop-on, hop-off travel as they have been for over a century.
This post includes a selection of Metropasses over the years. Recently, the Star ran a piece on Nathan Ng who is working on a site to present all of the passes from May 1980 to December 2018 drawing on my own and others’ collections. (He is missing three years in the mid-90s when I was buying annual passes.) Ng’s other sites include Station Fixation which details every station on the TTC system, Historical Maps of Toronto and the invaluable Goad’s Atlas of Toronto — Online! in which one can quickly become lost for hours exploring the city as it once was.
At its debut, the monthly pass was priced at the equivalent of 52 token fares which gave us a $26 pass. This price quickly escalated as the TTC’s fares and finances faced the stresses of the early 1980s. This was a period which saw the first Gulf Oil crisis, and the economic downturn brought an end to a long period of effortless growth of ridership on the TTC. Management had never dealt with a system where riders stopped showing up, and this brought the onset of “adjusting service to meet demand”, a polite way of saying “cutting service to the level we can afford”.
Despite repeated fare freezes as well as shifts in the “multiple” for pass pricing (the number of token fares represented by a pass), the actual price has risen over four decades at a quite uniform rate as the chart below shows. Fast growth in pass prices in the first decade follow the same overall trend through pricing right up to 2018. Each freeze has been followed by a jump in pricing that returns the line to the same slope it has been on since 1980. The price today, at $146.25, is 5.63 times the 1980 price of $26.
Fares rose quickly as the samples of 1980 to 1984 show (the usual price change was in February following the adoption of a new budget and fare scheme in December of the previous year) with an increase of 40% in just four years.
The escalation continued and by 1989, the price was up to $49, almost double in the course of a decade.
In 1990, there was a change in the format of the pass. Previously passes had been slips of paper that a rider would insert into a plastic sleeve accompanied by photo id. The spaces where “ME7944” appears on most of the passes above holds the ID number from the photo portion of the pass.
In 1990, the format changed and the pass was made with the plastic sleeve integrated and this made for an oversized pass that only lasted a few years. The February 1990 pass (the first of its kind) was manufactured before the price was set, and this was added later. By April 1990, the preprinted media caught up with the tariff. The same sort of thing happened in 1991.
1992 brought a visual change while retaining the photo insert pocket, but the huge change was in the price when, in May 1992 the cost went from the 1991 price of $56.50 to $67. This was a triumph, albeit not a permanent one, of the idea that passholders were ripping off the system, and the fare multiple was pushed up to 56 (against a token fare of $1.20). From June 1992 onward, the price rarely appeared on the passes, and space for this vanished with the new format introduced in 1993.
1993 brought a shift to the credit card form factor used for Metropasses ever since. The pass was not transferable between riders and still required a photo id.
In 1994, the forerunner of the Monthly Discount Plan, or MDP, arrived with the availability of an annual pass. These were not popular as riders had to shell out for a full year’s travel up front, and there was no way to reclaim the value if the card was lost. A somewhat younger version of your intrepid correspondent appears on these passes.
The format stayed quite similar for several years except for a change in numbering in August 1999 to identify passes sold under the MDP.
July 2001 saw the motto “Service Courtesy Safety” replaced with “Ride the Rocket / The Better Way”, but otherwise nothing changed in the format.
The pass format changed again as an anti-counterfeiting measure in April 2004. In September 2005, the need for photo ID disappeared, and the Metropass became transferable between riders with the proviso that only one person should use it at the same time. The text explaining the rules changes from time to time over following years.
November 2011 brought the corner cut intended to give a tactile reading of the orientation for holding a pass to swipe in through a reader.
When the 2016 passes were designed, the TTC expected that this would be their final year. The layout was such that they formed a continuous image with a slight overlap from each pass to the following month. The Presto project didn’t quite hit its target, and the Metropass lived on to the end of 2018.
2017 passes included photos of sites around town, and 2018 brought a series of murals from different neighbourhoods, arguable the most visually interesting of all the passes back to their origin.
It should be noted that in the 2012 Metrolinux-TTC Presto Master Agreement there are various payment standards listed as requirements (REQ-SYS-9.1): EMV Levels 1/2, EMV Contactless (ISO/IEC 14443-4), Interac, NFC (ISO/IEC 18092).
I think there are various videos floating around with people putting their debit and credit cards near the readers and there being some interaction at some point of the protocol stack, but nothing happens beyond that (yet?). So these capabilities are technically possible to implement in the future, it’s just the business processes have to be implemented.
I have also seen criticism of Metrolinx for creating a new system from scratch. Montreal’s OPUS Card uses the Calypso standard. There’s also CIPURSE by the Open Standard for Public Transportation Alliance.
Steve: The big hole in Presto functionality lies in the design where all of the fare calculation takes place between the reader and the card during the “tap”. A tap-in registers where one boards and for variable fare possibilities (notably on GO) sets up for a deduction of the maximum fare possible unless someone has a default trip defined. The tap-out calculates the fare and deducts it from the card balance. All of this requires the ability of the card reader to interact with the card beyond querying its number (such as credit card). In order to implement loyalty programs and various other fare structures, the calculation has to be done offline, in the sense that potential discounts are totted up after a period of time based on usage patterns, and then a consolidated bill is presented for payment (such as via a preauthorized credit card transaction).
This requires a back-end system capable of handling this sort of scheme, and it does not exist in Presto. They are finally contemplating a move to this sort of functionality, and recognizing that this is really a banking function, not a transit one. How long we will have to wait and what the migration will entail remain to be seen, but Presto is hemmed in by this basic architectural problem.
The document makes intriguing reading as to the capabilities that Presto is supposed to provide whether the TTC has actually asked for them or not, notably the potential longevity of the Limited Use Media for multiple trips, Convention Passes, etc., as well as the ability to have cards valid for a period of time starting from first use.
Though I realise that the TTC and Metrolinx tend to over-complicate everything they touch, I may be naive to ask this, but … If tapping on to the TTC with PRESTO automatically buys one what a amounts to a 2-hour pass, why is it so hard to deal with daily, weekly, convention, monthly or annual passes? In fact, why should one ever have to buy more than a 2-hour pass if it can be automatically extended to a daily (24-hour) one if one buys more than x 2-hour passes in a 24-hour period etc etc.
Knowing when and where a customer taps on (and off) is really nothing to do with the ‘fare’ in systems like TTC with a standard fare. The information is, or should be, used for service planing but, of course, the TTC seems to do very little of that (that’s YOUR job!).
Steve: The idea of fare capping as an alternative to passes has been discussed, and of course the functionality exists already for GO Transit. However, the TTC has always dragged its feet on that as this would effectively increase the number of fares paid at the “pass” rate whether someone paid for it up front or not. And we all know that passholders are low-life, freeloaders and don’t pay their fair way, and adding to their numbers would go against TTC orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, they have decided to drop the Day Pass next fall because equivalent functionality (they claim) is afforded by the two hour fare. This is BS of course, but that’s their story. With the demise of the Day Pass also comes the end of the weekend/holiday group pass which Presto has no way of handling even though their contract with the TTC explicitly mentions the ability to handle groups.
There is a related problem that any sort of loyalty program is now available only to people who pay full fare on Presto, not those using cash or (while they last) tickets and tokens.
I suspect that Presto does not want to add functionality until they (a) have a “regional” policy and (b) have re-engineered their back end so that the billing is based on trip history rather than trying to figure out the applicable discount/fare every time someone taps on. These will be cited as “reasons” nothing can be changed while City Hall and Queen’s Park dodge the fundamental issue of subsidy levels and the cost of “integration”.
In the new year, will the TTC be replacing the Metropass card readers with more Presto readers at subway station turnstiles? (Sometimes, it seems there are as many Metropass readers as Presto readers.) Or would the Metropass readers still be needed for weekly and GTA passes? (I am not sure whether the two weekly cards have a magnetic strip.)
Steve: Yes, weekly passes have a mag stripe. I hope that someone at the TTC remembers this and does not start stripping all of the pass readers out of stations, especially those with no staffed entrance which could be used as a barrier-free route into the subway.
I suspect that we will see weekly passes migrated to Presto later this year. It is supposed to be capable of handling them. As for the GTA pass, I don’t know.
With regards to Presto monthly pass, why is it that we still don’t have a 30 day pass, purchase at any time during the month, and begins from the date of purchase for 30 days? This would be more convenient, and less restrictive than having to purchase a pass at the beginning of each month.
Is it a political move to not have this, or just bad management who have no idea about transit or is it a fault in the program design?
Steve: According to the agreement between TTC and Presto, the ability to have passes activated on first use is part of the spec, although this may just be for Limited Use Media (LUMs) which might be configured as short-term passes. Nothing has been announced yet re the TTC’s plans to consolidate their fare media, although one might hope for a position paper to the new Board when it meets on January 10.
I was not one of the ‘freeloader’ Metropass users, since it probably didn’t make financial sense on a strict accounting basis, even though I got the passes at the best VIP level, $128.75 for the past couple of years. I did not ride the TTC daily, but the days when I used the TTC, I might take four or five trips, not necessarily within the two-hour transfer window, so the convenience was what sold me.
Coming from using a Metropass, the lack of daily capping is why I plan to use a combination of tokens*, Presto, and day passes this month. Tokens when it’s just a simple one-way ride. Presto if I would likely be able to use the two-hour transfer rule. And a day pass for those days with four or more trips that might not fall under the two-hour window (I have one coming up next week).
By optimizing my fare payments this way, I’m pretty sure the TTC will be getting significantly less from me monthly than they got from my Metropass purchase. Well, too bad, I suppose. GO might be getting some more money, though. When it’s the choice of using the TTC at a ‘free’ Metropass rate, or GO at $5 or more, I would just get on the TTC and read a book. When the cost difference is $2 between paying a TTC or GO fare, GO starts to win out. (If the parties that promised $3 GO fares within the City of Toronto, it would be a no-brainer.)
*I don’t particularly want to register my Presto cards, I’m not keen on auto relaods, and I don’t have a smartphone so no Presto apps. And the TTC’s Presto readers don’t display card balance and time remaining. When I deposit a token, I know what I’ve paid, I get a paper transfer, and a simple count shows me how many tokens I have left.
Similar story with me. I switched from the monthly Metropass to Presto in November and have only spent $90 per month since, thanks mainly to the 2-hour transfer rule, plus several instances of broken fare gates at automated subway entrances. At this rate, I will be saving over $400 in 2019.
So let me see if I understand this:
Presto is going to, sooner or (probably) later, allow open payments using any media (prepaid card, debit card, credit card)?
Isn’t this what the TTC was developing before the provincial government bullied the TTC into using the product of its pork-barrel sinecure?
Point the second:
The number of Presto cards is ridiculous now that the Metropass is dead. We have one to replace the Metropass. This is purchased primarily for convenience on the annual discount plan; as I now work at home, it is unlikely we will take enough rides in a month to make the break-even point
Second is my wife’s ODSP discount fare card. She uses this if I take the pass. As I am not eligible for the fare concession, I cannot use this card, leading to the need for card three.
Card three is a card loaded with dough (and labelled “tokens” by me) which I use if my wife takes the pass and I need to go out.
In the days of Metropass, we had one pass and we each had four or five tokens in our wallet should one be needed. Much simpler.
Here I was thinking that the TTC would resist fare capping because of cash-flow issues (metropasses meant a lot of people paying a significant amount of money upfront each month, with, in a particular month, many of those people not getting their money’s worth, i.e. paying for more rides than they actually take if we count in single-ride prices for tokens/tickets), but I guess I just think of things opposite from the way the TTC does.
The recent story that TTC had been overestimating Metropass ridership didn’t surprise me at all. They’re generally overpriced and need to be adjusted accordingly – most people don’t do $146 worth of travelling (49 individual trips), especially now since a PRESTO tap is worth 2 hours of riding. Hopefully future fare increases reflect this discovery for a while.
The Presto card is a good example of asking for something without being clear exactly what you want and then being surprised when what you got was not exactly what you wanted…. Or, as Yogi Berra apparently said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
The former Liberal Provincial Government and Metrolinx overlords should be collectively flogged, then have vinegar put on their wounds and then flogged again for good measure for essentially forcing the Toronto Transit Commission to accept the Presto system – a pretty much “from scratch” and untried system. This, especially given all the weird idiosyncrasies of the TTC “Rider’s Rule Book” regarding transfers and the like. OR the system should NOT have been activated until ALL wrinkles were ironed out after being Beta-tested on either a small portion of the system or outside the system altogether. It’s like a revisiting of the bad dream of the Scarborough RT system (built from scratch with no precedent) being forced by the Provincial Government as a “showcase piece” versus LRT (used at that time by several transit systems around the world) – but, seemingly not sexy enough for Bill Davis’ legacy….
Politics aside, the TTC Board and Staff should have figured out what exactly they wanted in terms of what the transfer provisions are in terms of trip trajectories; costs for children (moot now), students, adults and seniors; the “packaging” of Day Passes, Week Passes, capping Monthly Pass values, implementing the 2-hour transfer and whatever else (like the Group Pass, for 2 adults and up to 4 kids). THEN, they should have written this into the contract for the system with timelines for creating, testing and completion. I mean, one can look at countless other systems around the world and incorporate best features and best practices without trying to invent something from scratch – or, worse, trusting that the contracted company will just “figure it out.”
The Metropass was a nice, SIMPLE device to get around – pay one price once a month and don’t think about it again. AND share with someone else if you’re not using it at a particular time. I want to SLAP, SLAP, SLAP, SLAP those Councillors and TTC Board members and staff who thought it was a “rip-off” to the system. No, Stupids: it encourages the use of transit vehicles – WHICH ARE ON THE ROADS ANYWAY – and decreases the use of cars on the roads, freeing up space for those who can’t easily access the transit system, say, from out of town or who just want to drive their cars. Raise everyone’s taxes a bit to pay for the TTC – INSTEAD OF ALWAYS STARVING THE DAMN SYSTEM – and everyone benefits. You know, like a gym membership where people are encouraged to go because they’ve already paid and the gym is encouraged to improve the facilities to keep members and encourage new visitors to try it out.
As they say, “You Gotta Spend Money to Make Money.” A lesson the TTC Board and Toronto City Council will be learning for a long time to come, it seems.
Steve: What has always been amusing about the always tap on “rule” was that it had so many exceptions. The most grievous involved ad hoc route changes like short turns and diversions, but the TTC seemed to be unable to deal with the fact that for an extended period the “Long Branch” car/bus was a separate route and riders were not supposed to tap when changing to/from the main “Queen” route because this would count not as a “transfer” but as a “stopover” thanks to the same route number being in use for each segment. A similar problem would have afflicted the King 504A/B services but for the fact that the two hour transfer came into play first.
TTC was actually well along on making the two hour transfer a standard part of its fare offering early in the Presto days, a change that would have avoided all of the complexity of transfer rules. Implementation was blocked either by TTC management or interference from City Hall because it would cost money. Only when the Mayor needed yet another announcement and photo op did the two hour transfer see the light of day.
Steve, I can confirm the savings that come with Presto and I am loving it. TTC fares are way too expensive which is why it is nice to see malfunctioning Presto readers. I am one of those social justice warriors who believes that transit should be paid for entirely through taxation.
How many rides Metropass users took per month was not really relevant as long as they continued to purchase a Metropass every month. The TTC got this much money, and used it to run service.
With the discontinuation of Metropasses, I expect fare revenue to drop sharply for the TTC. What would be useful to compare is:
1. Number of Metropasses sold each month in the last half of 2018
2. Number of Presto ‘Metropasses’ sold in 2019
3. Number of new Presto cards in use
4. Number of tokens sold per month in 2018
5. Number of tokens sold per month in 2019
I expect that:
A. The number of Presto ‘Metropass’ users will be down, significantly, from the number of Metropass Metropass users
B. Ex-Metropass users will arrange their transit usage at a net savings to them
It may well be that actual ridership will be about the same post-Metropass, but fare revenue will be down. To keep running the same level of service, fares or subsidies will have to go up. Is there any indication that the TTC has contingency plans in place for this?
Steve: I think that the TTC has had its head in the sand about how people “buy” transit and adjust their purchases depending on price, convenience and habit. The translation of a “pass” into “rides” was known to be a problem for some time, but they are still studying just what this means. The TTC has been far too focused on “rides” rather than actual revenue and vehicle usage as measures of system demand. With the two hour fare, the definition of a “ride” has changed a lot, and this will have a big effect on the Metropass users who were previously near or already below the break-even point on pass value. Now that the single fare and pass media are the same (a Presto card), there will be less incentive to buy a pass up front for convenience.
The real question will be where the pass users migrate to and whether “single fares” rise. Token sales are only part of this because we also need to know how many single fares were collected via Presto.
When I read about all the PRESTO card hate, all I can think is “first world problems.” The system basically works. I can use it for all bus systems in the GTA and Ontario. Most of the problems with PRESTO doing the rollout are solely caused by the TTC (lack of machines, complicated transfer rules due to the lack of 2 hour transfers, hating poor people by making it really hard to know how much money you have left on the card etc).
Honestly, the idea that the TTC could run its own multi-million IT project to build its own fare card is laughable. It would have to buy an existing system and give that company a cut of the revenues. Or it would have to get Apple/Google/banks to develop a system for them, and give them a significant cut of the revenues in exchange. If anything, PRESTO has been too accommodating of the TTC by adapting PRESTO to TTC’s eccentric view of how a fare system should work instead of simply telling the TTC to adjust its fare system to something more flexible that takes advantage of PRESTO features like automatic fare capping etc.
The important word here is “BASICALLY.” Given that Steve’s blog post includes comments regarding City Council and TTC Board discussions about TTC reports dating back to – are you ready for this? – 2011, no, this is not a “first world problem.” The TTC and Accenture and the Province have had SEVEN YEARS to figure out what they want from this system. PLUS, the TTC is on the hook to pay a crap-load of cash for this often-crappy system that still has a crap-load of problems.
When I was living in West Africa (Côte d’Ivoire/Ivory Coast) – let’s call that “Second World” in terms of economic conditions – for a brief period in 1994/95, I got on a transit bus at the main depot in the capital city where I paid my money to a transit employee *sitting in a security cage at the back of the bus* and got a paper transfer to prove I’d paid my fare. Transit Inspectors actually came onto that very bus shortly after to confirm that all on board had paid and then got off a few stops later. That “system” worked just fine for the THOUSANDS of daily commuters using the bus system to trundle along between the suburbs and the Downtown Business District with no fancy passes or electronic anything at that time.
The problem with the Presto system is that, through coercion, the Province essentially forced the City to accept and implement Presto when the City wasn’t prepared to – politically, financially. time-wise – and then the City dithered its way along, hoping that everything would just work itself out, instead seeing things done in fits and starts.
When I hire a company to develop a computerized/electronic system to run or manage WHATEVER, I expect them to develop the system SO THAT IT WORKS and works the way I need it to. (That is, of course, assuming I’ve told them clearly what the way I need it to work IS). And, if it’s NOT possible to make it work, then they need to tell me that as soon as practical so I can either find someone else who can do it (cancel the contract for non-completion) or deal with the issue by changing my expectations and move forward. As Steve has pointed out, City Council COULD have implemented 2-hour transfers ages ago – but those nasty transit riders have already been ripping off the system with their Metropasses, so we’ll just give free rides to kids under 12 (or who look like they’re under 12) – a higher cost than the 2-hour transfer but sexier as a photo-op for the Mayor and all others concerned….
What the City needs to do is understand that the millions of trips taken by transit users every year are IMPORTANT to those transit users and that making the trips easier and more frequent and wider-reaching makes those users, if not “happy” then at least less angry. And with more trips possible, even more trips become likely as others realize that transit might be an option to driving, which means more revenue for the TTC.
Part of the problem with setting up this kind of system is that Councillors and TTC Board members tend not to be transit users so they don’t understand the issues faced daily by users and also they get all caught up in the magic of the technology – “It’ll solve all our problems” – without thinking that, without proper oversight, it may cause many more problems than there were before, first world or not.
If you have a car that “basically works”, it’s no problem to drive it to the store or school, but you’d think twice about driving it across the country. If your furnace “basically works”, that’s fine if you are living in California, but not so great in Toronto.
Same thing with Presto. Just because it “basically works” on smaller transit systems, doesn’t mean that its transaction abilities or rate of failures will remain acceptable when used for the TTC. I understand that Ottawa had massive problems when it went to Presto. Hopefully they took most of the hit so Toronto’s rollout will be smoother.
That being said, I have purchased ten tokens, and will be getting a couple of blank Day Passes, since the TTC has not seen fit to implement daily fare capping. That’s in addition to the two Presto cards that I have, brand new and functional. (The old one I got when GO did away with 2 and 10 ride tickets inexplicably died one day, sitting on the shelf as far as I know.)
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To add a data point to the comments… we are currently a one-commute Toronto household and Presto is working fine for us. Two cards, both on autoload and pay-as-you-go because Metropass is not worth it for daily commute. Haven’t had problems with readers not working (mostly riding on 504 Flexities). Just tapping and having the system figure out everything else is super convenient, as is being able to use the same cards for trips to 905 and regional transit. Got a spare card to lend out to family when they visit – “just tap it” is a great improvement vs explaining tokens and paper transfers and difference between GO and TTC.
Of course, the unified fare card and TTC fixed-time transfers should have been done a long time ago, but they’re done now, so yay. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll even get a sensible fare multiple for the monthly pass, closer to 30x? One can dream.
Disclaimers: we’re well off so paying an extra $3 in some edge cases isn’t worth planning against; and we were able to set up autoload online (although the two separate verification taps required were annoying). Let’s see how it fares later in January when more people are tapping in Toronto.