Metropass, Two-Hour Transfer and Presto

With the shift of TTC monthly passes from a dedicated swipe card to the Presto fare card in January 2019, I decided to track usage in detail as a sample size of one rider.

Presto provides tracking data on its site, but I was intrigued to discover:

  • How accurate is the tracking data?
  • What would my riding have cost under three scenarios: monthly passes, two-hour transfer rules and single fares?
  • How often was I unable to tap because readers were not working?

My travel pattern places me firmly in the category of a heavy user of transit. Living at Broadview and Danforth, I have the choice of the Bloor-Danforth subway and several surface routes, most with frequent albeit sometimes unreliable service. Almost all travel is within the “old” City of Toronto where there are many closely-spaced routes. This is very different from the environment riders in the suburbs face for choice, frequency and trip length.

For the first three months of 2019, my travels are summarized here.

Although I travel on an Annual Pass, I have tracked how many fares I would have paid under two transfer rule schemes:

  • In the “New” rules, any tap made within two hours counts as one trip/fare on a Presto card.
  • In the “Old” rules, TTC prohibits stopovers and changes of direction. These would trigger a separate trip/fare.
Month         Taps    Transfer Rules
                       New      Old

January        93       58       75
February       99       68       83
March         120       76      100

Total         312      202      258

The tap count is based on actual taps on fare machines and gates, and does not include transfers within fare paid areas.

Overall, the two-hour fare reduced my “trip” count by about 20%, although some of those “saved” fares are a result of my knowing that I do not face an extra fare, something I have been accustomed to since the Metropass was introduced in May 1980. In other words, I would not have “paid” all 258 fares were I paying by tokens/tickets, and so the reduction to 202 would not represent a “loss” of 56 fares. Moreover, careful choice of transfer locations would shave the single fare cost by adjusting travel to minimize the need to pay a new fare.

Similarly, as a long-time pass user, I have been paying a monthly equivalent of fewer fares than I would have paid with tokens or tickets. Using the fares in effect for this period, the break-even rates for passes versus tickets/tokens are shown below. The “multiple” is the number of tokens/tickets represented by the pass price, and is the trip count at which a rider “breaks even” with a pass.

Pass Type     Adult                     Senior/Student
              Cost     Token  Multiple  Cost    Ticket  Multiple
Annual        $134.00  $3.00  44.7      $107.00  $2.05  52.2
Monthly       $146.25  $3.00  48.8      $116.75  $2.05  57.0

The effect of the severe winter weather is clear above, and my riding increased in March. Three days in January and February were “snow days” where I made no TTC trips. Even so, during the worst month and with the new two-hour transfer rules, I took more trips (measured as fares) than the multiple for any of the available passes. I have a senior’s annual pass and easily crest the break-even point of 52.2.

In TTC budget discussions, some board members (not to mention management) railed against pass holders as freeloaders whose riding was subsidized by other less-frequent travellers and the city. What they completely missed is the fact that were someone like me on a pay-as-you-go basis, many of the trips shown here would not have been taken, or would have “artfully” been made without paying another fare. Optimizing one’s travel is easier where there is a dense network of routes and more choices to credibly use a transfer (e.g. for a stopover), and this technique predates all-door boarding where inspection at entry can be avoided.

If the point of a transit system is to encourage travel and make it more attractive for those who were penalized by the traditional transfer rules to use transit, then the fact that I or anyone else would pay a lower average fare (calculated against those rules) shows that the policy is working. For example, a common weekend shopping outing I make would be, at a minimum, a three-fare trip under the old transfer rules using ticket or tokens. It is now a one-fare trip because it is accomplished within two hours. Moreover, I have the option of additional stopovers and greater flexibility in route choices.

As tokens and tickets are replaced by Presto “Limited Use Media” (LUMs), tickets with one or a few TTC fares rather than a full-function Presto card, the two-hour fare will be available to almost everyone. All that will remain is the ability to issue a receipt for cash fares that confers a two-hour ride to bring this convenience to everyone.

In all of this discussion, the core argument is that paying for transit is changing, and has been changing for years. The system moves away from the nickel and dime approach of charging as often as possible to making transit attractive as a service that is simply “there” to be used, much as auto owners regard their vehicles. Some riders will pay more, some less, and frequent users will probably be better off than those who ride occasionally.

The complementary part, still to come in our low-tax obsessed era, is that transit service across the city will be truly attractive to those who wish to use it as a first choice.

Presto Reliability

The reliability of Presto equipment has improved quite substantially in recent months, and I encountered few cases where I could not “pay” a fare, or as a pass user, get an updated timestamp on my Presto card.

  • On two occasions, subway fare gates were locked open because the entire station’s system appeared to be “down”: Bay Station on January 21, and Union Station on February 2.
  • On one occasion, there was no working Presto device on a vehicle (a CLRV on Queen), but my trip was picked up when I transferred at Humber Loop.
  • On a few occasions, the reported location did not match where I tapped, although these were usually only off by one stop or city block. The most extreme example was a tap near Broadview and Danforth that was reported as being on Roncesvalles Avenue. In another case, a tap reported a location as if the vehicle were still in Leslie Barns. These would have been a problem for “old” transfer rules or for any distance-based fare scheme.
  • On two occasions, there was a forced transfer due to service problems, and one of these required a “walking transfer” from Queen to Dundas. These could have triggered extra fare charges under the old transfer rules, or challenges to the validity of the fare paid if I were not using a pass.

My Presto card was inspected on a few occasions, but at predictable locations: Broadview, Spadina and Union Stations. Only one of these registered as a transaction in my Presto activity summary.

The database of locations for stops, mainly on 504 King, only knows of stops by number, not by name, presumably as these are “temporary” locations for the King Street Pilot. The fact that these have not been updated with real location info over a year after the stops were moved says something about the dedication to clear customer information.

Finally, in all of my travels, I have not seen one rider “tap on” to a vehicle in a paid area. The TTC was pushing the idea of “always tap on” as part of the Metropass/Presto roll out, but riders behave just as they always have in subway stations. The claim is that this would give better planning data, and make fare inspection (if it ever actually occurred on surface vehicles) simpler, but the TTC will just have to make do with the “taps” they do get.

Postscript: A Long Journey on One Fare

Many years ago, before the abolition of “Zone 2” in Toronto’s fare structure, a friend and I set out to test the limits of transfer rules that allowed for a continuous trip in one direction. This rule had an exception that allowed one to avoid payment of an extra fare by staying within a single zone even if this meant travelling out of the way on one’s journey.

We began on the Port Credit Bus, then a TTC operation, a few stops west of Long Branch in Zone 3. There was a zone 3-2 combo fare, and this gave us Zone 2 Port Credit transfers, about as far remote from downtown as possible. Our goal was eastern Scarborough.

The journey took us to Humber Loop, then up to Jane and Bloor, up Jane, across Wilson and York Mills (staying clear of the zone boundary at Yonge and Glen Echo), then down Birchmount to Kingston Road. At that point, many hours after we began, our transfers were finally rejected, and we paid a new fare to ride out to West Hill.

12 thoughts on “Metropass, Two-Hour Transfer and Presto

  1. As a metropass user on Presto for just over two years now. I usually try and tap on every vehicle I board even when it’s in a fare paid area, mostly to see what it shows up as on my Presto card on either the app or website.

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  2. Looking back at my Jan 2018-April 2019 Presto report, for the three cards on my account I’d say that around 5% of all records have a location that is either the bus garage (“Transit Rd At Wilson Ave North Side” or just “Transit Rd At Wilson Ave”), or just plain “0”. None of the cards has ever to my knowledge actually been used anywhere the garage.

    I’m not sure if it’s related, but I’ve also noticed a serious decrease in the prediction reliability of the Transit app I use, over perhaps the last year or so – maybe somewhat less. I haven’t yet started to try to investigate this – there are several possible culprits: TTC GPS infrastructure (presumably shared to some unknown extent with Presto), Nextbus (San Francisco based transit GPS provider – do *they* deal with Presto in any way?), Transit apps themselves, and maybe other players. It’s now routine to be told that the next bus is in 8 m (claimed to be a real time rather than schedule-based prediction), and it (or *some* bus for that route) arrives in 2. Or vice versa. And the numbers jump up and down as you watch. Anyway, off topic-ish.

    Steve: There are various sources of error with prediction apps. They all get their data from the Nextbus feed which, in turn, gets vehicle location data from the TTC. Various sources of error can creep in including bad GPS data from vehicles, lags in data transmission from the TTC to Nextbus and schedule info from the TTC that is out of sync with what is actually being used. In the past year, the TTC has been converting from their old CIS system to the new VISION system, and this has contributed some problems with merging data, although I have not noticed this recently. There are also problems with extras on routes which might not be tracked by Nextbus, and with vehicles that are on a diversion or otherwise not running as expected by the schedule. This can confuse Nextbus that predicts a vehicle that will never arrive, or materializes it out of thin air when it reappears on the route after a diversion or short turn. Vehicles can also show up out of thin air if the operator had flagged the bus as out of service for a terminal layover, and turned it back on some time after leaving. Nextbus does not include OOS buses in predictions.


  3. In my experiences I got a “0” location at King and Spadina, and also entering the subway at Yorkdale once. The Yorkdale entrance is under construction, but… I’ve also seen streetcars reporting they’re on Leslie when they’re out on King, and different stops on Leslie at that.

    I also looked at the Presto data from the angle of reconstructing trips with mode and distance from tap data, wrote some findings at my blog. Perhaps commenters here might be interested.


  4. The TTC is using “Presto ticket” to describe “Presto Limited Use Media (LUMs)”. Unlike the Presto card, concession fares will not be available with Presto tickets (i.e. $3.25 per ticket for everyone). See pages 17-19 of the following PDF for more info on Presto tickets.

    Assuming that subway stations will have no fare collectors after the phase-out of legacy fares, then it appears that one can only get through the turnstiles with a Presto card or Presto ticket. At each station, riders will be able to buy Presto tickets from vending machines. But I do not know how a person with bus/streetcar transfer would get in.

    At a recent TTC/Presto public meeting, a rider surprised a meeting official saying that drivers tell riders (sometimes forcefully) not to tap their Presto cards when boarding a bus in a fare-paid zone. The official replied that more driver training may be needed.

    Steve: TTC and Presto are looking at a mechanism for issuing a machine readable fare receipt on buses, probably a variant on a LUM.

    As for tapping on in paid areas, I really tire of TTC management who seem utterly unaware of the real world in which riders exist. The training is not needed for drivers, it is for management who ignore basic facts about how subway-bus transfers work.


  5. Have been waiting to see a breakdown like this! Thanks so much. I’ve always been a part time user of the ttc and wondered about how the new presto would compare to the regular ttc fares!


  6. You are, of course, completely correct that ‘requiring’ customers to tap onto another vehicle within a fare paid area is never going to work in the real world. If it is supposed to provide ‘user data’ one would probably also want a second tap if the customer changed subway lines! There is also the (obvious) problem that requiring ‘second-taps’ would create huge bottle-necks!

    Of course, the TTC has never made much use of the data it has always had, or ( as you point out so often) sets the parameters so strangely that the results are virtually meaningless (e.g. their definition of ‘on time.’).


  7. When I was in London, albeit in 2013, They had several tube interchanges where they required you to tap as you went through. If you didn’t they would charge you maximum fare the sign said. There were a lot of machines well spread out to tap on as you went through and I never saw a lineup. I have no idea if they still do this.


  8. With proper vehicle tracking and computer software TTC should be able to deduce the route taken and never require fare-paid area taps.

    For example, suppose I tap on at Queen Subway Station and 45 minutes later tap on to a Bathurst bus northbound at Finch. There are only 3 routes that would be anywhere close to that in terms of time and not require any outside vehicle taps:

    1. Subway to Finch + 36/939 west
    2. Subway to Wilson + 160 north
    3. Subway to Finch West + 36/939 east

    Given that TTC should know when the next subway train in either direction arrived and when that run got to the destination station as well as when the next bus from that station left towards Finch/Bathurst they should easily tell the route taken. Using that info they can add a rider to the correct bus route. On top of that if I then didn’t tap onto a 125 or 60 they should be able to deduce that destination was between Finch and Steeles along Bathurst (if that is relevant for them).

    Steve: The distinction here is between a case of estimating trip patterns for planning purposes as opposed to for fare calculation. Some leeway is expected in planning data, but riders expect their fare to be calculated correctly all of the time. As for vehicle tracking, I have seen enough of TTC data to know that this has problems both from misbehaving GPS units, not to mention the vague nature of diversion routes and “run as directed” extra vehicles. The real world is a very imprecise place.


  9. Robert Wightman wrote:

    When I was in London, albeit in 2013, They had several tube interchanges where they required you to tap as you went through. If you didn’t they would charge you maximum fare the sign said. There were a lot of machines well spread out to tap on as you went through and I never saw a lineup. I have no idea if they still do this.

    It depends, though generally it is not needed. For example, at Wimbledon station, there are machines to tap on the platforms for the Underground, but if you are going to exit the station it is not necessary to use them – and could be problematic if you do. They are there for the purpose of changing to either Trams or National Rail services.

    Another feature of the system in London is the presence of Pink tap machines. For someone coming in from a suburb on one side of the city and heading to a suburb on the other, during peak times it may be possible to pay a lower fare by avoiding zone 1 by transferring to an Overground train to get around zone 1. The pink tap when transferring to and again from the Overground will have the system calculate the fare without the premium charge for zone 1.

    On the topic of Presto history not showing where one tapped onto a bus, I am surprised that the TTC is still having this done. Up until about a year or so before YRT got rid of its zones, they used to do this and the information recorded was typically wrong. I would regularly see records showing I tapped on at a location that was several kilometres PAST my exit. Granted, the Presto readers used (then and still) by YRT do not use GPS in any way, and calculate the location based on time since the driver last entered a known terminal or way-point. Even so, boarding a bus one stop from the terminal should not result in the sort of error I described.

    At some point, YRT simply had the information simply record the tap on as being in a particular zone – a significant lowering of the resolution. I haven’t used Presto on YRT recently to know what it shows now that there no longer are three zones.


  10. DavidC wrote:

    You are, of course, completely correct that ‘requiring’ customers to tap onto another vehicle within a fare paid area is never going to work in the real world.

    It would if the TTC would get over its obsession with “protecting privacy” by not displaying balance information on the device when someone taps. When I have used YRT’s VIVA system, it is not necessary to tap at a VIVA Station if one has valid time on their card, which was often the case as I just took a 5-10 minute bus ride to reach the VIVA Station. Still, just before boarding, I would usually tap so I can see how much time remains on my 2-hour fare.

    The whole privacy issue is a farce, because in order for the system to be ready in quick time for the next person to tap, but display is barely on long enough for the card-tapper to be able to read it.


  11. Los Angeles has a rule that you must always tap when transferring between rail lines, even though behind the turnstiles. But they place tap devices on posts strategically in the pathway from line to line, so at least it’s easy.

    Transfers between the Red and Purple subway lines don’t require a tap, possibly because the routes share so many stations and platforms that it would be impossible to make convenient.

    You’re required to tap when transferring between rail and bus as well, but the transit renaissance in Toronto has yet to spread to having Toronto-style behind-the-turnstile bus stops.


  12. There seems to me that tapping-on in a fare-paid area is a matter not necessarily having service-planning relevance simply, but relevance as well toward capturing as much revenue as possible. Sooner or later, some riders who do tap conscientiously according to the instructions, will do so near the end of a journey but outside the two-hour period of allowance, hence pay an additional fare. In that sense, there is, technically, no longer a “fare-paid” area, in the traditional sense, about a subway station’s property and inclusive vehicle-transfer site. In terms of the calculation of fare evasion’s magnitude, a failing to so pay might be a small matter compared to the matter of those who do not tap in the first instance of a journey’s opportunity for them to do so, but it still would represent a variable having some measure of uncertainty associated with it. Presentations, in the media, of figures concerning fare evasion, seem tending to be presented with confidence yet insufficient admission there are qualifications as to estimation-technique and its possible shortcomings.


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