TTC to Presto: Deliver What You Promised

At its meeting of June 12, 2019, the TTC Board considered a report and presentation setting out the many shortcomings of the Presto fare card system.

Presto implementation has been underway since a 2012 master agreement between the TTC and Metrolinx, and they are now at the half-way mark in a 15-year contract. In spite of this, some functionality included in that contract has not yet been provided, and there are no service level agreements (SLAs) in place setting out basic issues for system performance and financial penalties to Metrolinx for failure. Indeed, although the TTC has claimed revenue losses thanks to problems with Presto, Metrolinx has not accepted that it owes the TTC anything.

Until quite recently, Presto, like so much that comes from Metrolinx and Queen’s Park, was a “good news story” where TTC riders switching to the fare card drove fast growth for that system. The convenience of Presto versus tokens and the disappearance of the Metropass shifted over two-thirds of TTC riding onto Presto. The chart below shows the breakdown for April 2019. The Presto share is expected to reach 95% when legacy media are withdrawn.

However, the good news hides problems with the system as it exists both for Presto users and those who might shift to that system in the future.

The heart of Toronto’s problem with Presto lies in the way the system was imposed. TTC was prepared to go with an alternative vendor for a new fare card system, but were told by Queen’s Park that failure to adopt Presto would put all of the provincial subsidy programs at risk. This was a very big, heavy stick for the government to use, and it shows just how desperate they were that Ontario’s largest transit system be a client (with associated revenue and prestige) of the Presto system.

During the ongoing discussions that began in the fall 2010, the Province and Metrolinx maintained that the common PRESTO Farecard system was their recommended approach to achieving the Plan’s inter-regional policy objective of increasing cross boundary travel. The Province and Metrolinx committed to upgrade the PRESTO system to meet the TTC’s distinct and forward-looking customer, business and financial needs, including advances in fare payment technologies using open payments. The Province and Metrolinx indicated that billions of dollars of funding for some existing TTC programs which had been promised publicly (Provincial gas tax, new streetcars, Eglinton and Scarborough transit initiatives) could be in jeopardy without PRESTO. The adoption of PRESTO was thus approved in June 2011, subject to developing acceptable operating and financial agreements and confirming the funding necessary to proceed. [p 7]

Despite a competing proposal from Xerox subsidiary ACS that would cost over $300 million less than Presto, the TTC was forced to accept the provincial system.

Presto did not perform as it needed to, and contracted functionality is still not available.

The TTC entered into the Agreement with Metrolinx on November 12, 2012. The base term is 15 years (2027), with an option to extend for one additional year at Metrolinx’s discretion and an additional four years by mutual agreement. Key elements of the Agreement include:

  • Metrolinx to make modifications and enhancements to the PRESTO system to allow for an e-fare account based payment system with an open architecture using industry standards to accommodate open loop financial cards, mobile applications and future technological innovations (“PRESTO NG”)
  • Metrolinx to finance, implement and operate the PRESTO NG system and provide a wide range of “managed services” (e.g. back office operations; customer services; revenue collection and maintenance of all system field equipment)
  • In return, TTC to pay a fee of 5.25% of TTC fare revenues processed through the PRESTO system [pp 7-8]

The TTC contemplated a variety of payment mechanisms years ago.

The TTC’s Business Requirements specified both open payment and an account-based architecture, which was to have been built alongside the existing PRESTO card-based architecture. In such a system, customer convenience and flexibility would be maximized. A customer could choose to have a PRESTO card with all its fare policy benefits (e.g. fare concession, 2-hour transfer), or to get some of those benefits using a non-registered open-payment card (e.g. Visa, Mastercard), or to get all fare policy benefits with a registered open-payment card. These concepts were an essential component of the Agreement and were fundamental to the TTC’s agreement in 2012 to accept the PRESTO system versus a competitive market-based solution. [p 11]

Two key capabilities – fares for travel between transit agencies such as York Region Transit and TTC, and the move to “open payments” and an account based system – have yet to be implemented. Regional integration is hoped for later in 2019, but there is no firm date for a change to the payment mechanism.

What Are Account Based Fares?

Account based fares and open payments are closely related, and they are fundamentally different from how Presto works today.

With Presto, fare calculations and validation occur between card readers and the cards themselves. Information about the account balance and any bulk purchase such as a pass is stored on the card. This allows a transaction to occur without any link back to a central system, an arrangement dating back to Presto’s early days when wireless links from their roving bus fleet were not reliably available. However, this forces all of the payment logic into the architecture of the readers and cards constraining the functions they can support.

This arrangement is responsible for the lag between an online account update and the appearance of new “money” on your Presto card. Until you tap onto a reader that “knows” you loaded more money online, you have money in the central system, but cannot use it because the fare machines don’t “see” it.

Imagine if software had to be loaded into every phone so that it could calculate the cost of a call and maintain your account balance. That, in effect, is the complexity Presto imposes, something that should have been designed out of the system years ago.

In the case of a credit or debit card, Presto cannot “write” information onto the card, and so distance-based functions such as GO fare calculations cannot be handled. Only a flat, standard charge is possible such as an adult TTC fare, and without a two-hour transfer privilege.

In an account based system, a rider has a transit account just as they would have one for their mobile phone or credit card, and activity (trips, transfers, border crossings) is accumulated as it occurs. At the end of a billing period, the cost of these trips is calculated with any appropriate discounts such as loyalty programs, time-of-day fares or special event promotions. A Presto card, any other smart card, or a smartphone app can be registered as the rider’s transit identification, but in all cases processing happens in the “back end” with monthly billing to a bank account or credit card. Riders who have not set up accounts simply use their credit cards for pay-as-you-go billing.

The important distinction is that the system needs only track a rider’s travel, not compute the fare in real time based on “today’s rules”. Those rules can be updated in the central billing system rather than having to be integrated in the reader software and pushed out network wide. There is no need for an electronic purse or “e-purse” on the card which must hold enough money (or some form of pass) to pay for any trip a rider might take.

Presto tickets (sometimes referred to as limited use media or “LUMs”) would still exist, but Presto readers would only have to verify when the ticket expires or how many trips are left on it.

Metrolinx plans to make account based fares available sometime in 2020 with open payments in 2021, but there are no firm dates, nor is there a specification of just what functionality Metrolinx will support.

Gaps in the Presto TTC System

Other gaps between the TTC’s Presto contract and current capabilities include:

  • Flexible and dynamic fare policies/products
  • Support for other than standard fares and environments such as
  • Presto tickets dispensed as receipts for cash fares on surface vehicles
  • Device availability/reliability
  • Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
  • Third-party sales network

Flexible Fare Products

Many fare options the TTC might consider offering are not possible with current Presto technology. These include:

  • Fares based on location or time-of-day. This prevents the creation of event-based fares, or fares to encourage system usage at off-peak times.
  • Changes within 24 hours. The TTC is unable to offer special promotions or change fares on short notice.
  • Multiple loyalties. Presto includes the capability of “capping” fares, but only one such loyalty mechanism can exist on a card. This affects both the co-existence of daily, weekly and monthly caps, as well as caps for multiple transit systems.
  • First use validation. The two hour fare now in effect counts from when a fare is paid, but there is no mechanism to activate limited-term passes (e.g. a pass for one or more days) based on the time it is first used. This means that a “day pass” whose use starts at 3 pm is only valid for half a day’s travel.

Many of these functions would be much simpler to implement in an account-based environment where fares are calculated and billed centrally and after the fact without the onerous task of updating and testing revised software for the thousands of Presto devices across the network.

One issue for future fare policy discussions is the question of capping fares charged within a period rather than requiring riders to purchase a pass up front. The report notes:

The weekly loyalty feature was delivered by PRESTO but was put on hold due to the additional financial impact to the TTC. The financial impact would result from all customers being eligible for this discount instead of those who previously had to purchase this type of pass in advance. [p 13]

A daily maximum feature was created specifically for the TTC and planned for launch in 2019. Following the introduction of the 2-hour transfer and based on further analysis, TTC staff determined that customers would have to travel beyond eight hours to realize any daily maximum benefits. Recent data showed <1% of revenue taps would qualify. As such, staff recommended this feature not be implemented at this time. [p 14]

More generally, if daily, weekly and monthly capping were in place, all riders would receive the discount they might otherwise get with a pass based on their actual usage patterns. If their trip count for a month went above the cap, they would pay nothing additional, akin to having a pass, but without the worry of paying up front for something they did not use.

Loyalty programs should also span transit system boundaries, but that will require better transit subsidies and a recognition that cross-border “integration” is not simply a matter of using one fare card to pay on any system.

Multiple Fare Schemes and Environments

Presto is not capable of handling fares where two tariffs overlap, notably for the Premium Express bus network. This is a situation where a rider pays a standard TTC fare for their trip, but if part of this includes a ride on a premium fare route, then they must pay a supplementary fare. This is supposed to be resolved in 3Q2019.

Cross-border fares for vehicles travelling across the 905/416 border were supposed to be implemented in 2018, but this was put on hold because of reliability problems. In theory, riders would tap on and off of vehicles so that the fact they have crossed a border is recorded, but the fare structure does not actually work that way. For example, unless someone transfers to a TTC vehicle they would not pay a Toronto fare. (Buses coming to York University are a good example of this.)

An earlier solution was planned for launch in Q4 2018, but was delayed as the required fare would not be charged reliably, resulting in scenarios that over charged or under charged customers, or rejected valid fare payments (i.e. passes). A joint decision was made by the TTC, York Region Transit, MiWay and PRESTO to not accept the technical solution provided by Metrolinx, delaying our ability to discontinue the GTA Weekly Pass, which will continue to be sold until the solution is fully implemented. [p 14]

A more general policy issue is the question of making the fare boundary vanish so that, for example, a two-hour fare would be valid anywhere no matter where a trip begins. This would have implications for system-specific passes because using two-hour cross-border fares could well be cheaper than having a pass for each system.

Wheel-Trans contracted taxi services have not been able to accept Presto for fare payments, but this will be addressed in 4Q2019 with an app that will run on tablets used by the taxi operators. Presto availability in all Wheel-Trans vehicles is essential for the “Family of Services” concept where WT users make part of their journey in a dedicated vehicle and part on the regular TTC system. They must be able to transfer with no fare penalty and this means that Presto must be available throughout the trip.

Presto Fare Receipts

When a rider pays with a senior/student ticket or a cash fare, they get a fare receipt. On new Flexity streetcars, this is handled by fare vending machines (when they work). In all other cases, the rider gets a conventional TTC transfer.

However, these receipts are not machine readable, and so they cannot be used to enter a paid area through a turnstile where routes make an on-street connection with the subway. Examples of this are at Dufferin Station (29 and 929 buses) as well as the interchanges between downtown streetcar routes and the stations on Yonge Street and University Avenue. This can also be a problem when a bus or streetcar that normally offloads in a paid area is forced to do so on street because of problems in the station.

Riders who use these payment forms also do not have the benefit of two-hour transfer privileges.

As part of the TTC’s contract with Presto, the ability to issue Presto tickets (LUMs) on surface vehicles was supposed to be included, but this is not yet available.

Today, collectors visually verify paper transfers as customers pass through an open gate. However, the verification will not be possible at non-integrated stations when all fare gates close and can only be opened by using a PRESTO card or PRESTO Ticket. TTC and Metrolinx teams spent a considerable amount of time analyzing and assessing various solutions, yet no schedules have been provided to deliver this item. [p 16]

Device Availability and Reliability

It is no secret to regular users of the TTC that Presto devices can often be found that are not working. This includes both the card readers on vehicles and in stations, and the fare vending machines on the new streetcars.

The TTC’s Presto contract calls for 99.99% availability for all card readers, but actual performance lies between 94 to 98%. This may seem like a very high number, but the statistic can be misleading.

  • When a reader on a vehicle does not work, a rider may or may not attempt or be able to reach another device depending on both crowding and their personal motivation.
  • Metrolinx monitors “availability” by visibility of readers online. However, there are cases where “the lights are on but nobody’s home” with readers that simply will not respond to taps, or which are “hung” in an error status.

Front-line maintenance of these devices is supposed to be handled by TTC with backup from Metrolinx, but TTC staff report that Metrolinx do not provide timely support for repairs. From my own observations, the frequency with which I encounter non-working machines has been increasing in recent weeks to the point that I see at least one a day. That is nowhere near a 90% availability rate, let alone 99%, and represents a considerable potential for lost revenue.

Metrolinx defines “available” as having at least one working reader per vehicle. TTC riders who have to locate and physically reach a working reader might differ on this point.

As for the fare vending machines, their performance was improved by 7% simply by removing the credit/debit card readers, and even with this change out of service machines are fairly common.

Metrolinx has yet to accept responsibility for any revenue loss due to unreliable equipment (see below).

Service Level Agreements

Any contract between a service provider and a client includes Service Level Agreements which specify the quantity and quality of service to be provided in return for fees charged. However, despite being halfway through the contract lifespan, the TTC still does not have SLAs in place with Metrolinx.

The Agreement sets out a framework to develop SLA’s for the PRESTO equipment and managed services delivery to TTC. The SLA’s were intended to confirm the expected behaviour and performance of PRESTO equipment and service performance provided to customers, as well as associated financial impacts to Metrolinx for degraded service if targets are not met. Despite several attempts at establishing SLA’s, at this point formal SLA’s have not been agreed to, or completed. Most importantly there is no agreed path or plan to complete the required SLA’s. In the meantime, numerous provisional performance indicators are specified in the Agreement, including the requirement for 99.99% farecard reader availability.

Related to the foregoing, the Funding and Financial Report Agreement sets out an Interim Compensation for Lost Fare Revenue process. The TTC can make claims for lost fare revenue due to PRESTO performance issues if gross receipts are at least $30,000 less than they reasonably should have been during a specified month or over three consecutive months. The TTC has sent Metrolinx invoices totalling $7.5 million for lost revenue with supporting backup. Metrolinx officials recently advised that they have received legal advice that Metrolinx had no liability to the TTC for lost revenue. We have received very different legal advice. Metrolinx’s position is problematic in so far as, taken to the extreme, it would mean Metrolinx had no liability to the TTC for lost revenue regardless of PRESTO performance. Discussions on this and a range of commercial issues are continuing. [Appendix 6]

This continues the arrogant behaviour so typical of Metrolinx where failures are never their fault. Whether the contract provisions are even enforceable given recent provincial moves to insulate The Crown and its agencies from legal action is an additional problem here.

The Star’s Ben Spurr reported:

Annalise Czerny, Metrolinx vice-president for Presto, pushed back against the report, saying that in addition to meeting its contractual commitments, her agency has “delivered on a number of changes and additions to the project that weren’t part of the original contract, which has impacted the overall timing and cost of delivering Presto on the TTC.” The unforeseen changes the TTC requested included the introduction of two-hour timed transfers last year.

“With high adoption and customer satisfaction rates across the (Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area), we know that Presto is working for customers,” Czerny said.

It is laughable that Metrolinx would complain about the two hour transfer project considering that this functionality was available on all other Presto client systems and, indeed, appeared to be the way that Presto was operating on the TTC until the matrix of valid transfer locations was active. Moreover, the TTC paid dearly ($5 million) for the conversion of their Presto system to handle the two-hour fare.

The Presto agreements with the TTC are very long documents, but it is not hard to find functional requirements that simply do not exist in the system as implemented in Toronto. Metrolinx owes Toronto a full explanation for how they disagree with the TTC’s report, not simply a casual dismissal without details.

Third Party Sales Network

The TTC’s contract with Presto requires that the ability to purchase/load fares be as convenient to riders as the existing fare distribution system. Today, a network of TTC fare outlets mainly in convenience stores gives riders the ability to buy fare media a short distance from home during most hours all week long. Close-by access to outlets is important so that riders do not have to go out of their way, or worse, spend transit fares just to reach a point where they can buy more.

  • Although Presto provides automatic top-up of accounts, this is of little use to the “unbanked” riders or those whose account might not routinely have funds available for transit fare purchase.
  • Some riders prefer to purchase tickets for cash on an as-needed basis.
  • Riders whose travel patterns do not involve regular use of a subway station do not have access to a fare vending machine, and such machines are usually remote from platforms where riders would make a bus-bus or bus-subway connection.
  • Riders with mobility problems cannot walk long distances to reach an outlet, especially in poor weather.

Metrolinx has an exclusive contract with Loblaws/Shoppers as third-party Presto providers. This substantially reduces the number of places where Presto users can buy fares compared with legacy TTC media. The TTC was not a party to this contract, and cannot even get an unredacted version of it because Metrolinx claims confidentiality on commercial arrangements. At issue is whether or how the TTC will be able to maintain good coverage for fare payments considering that they would require Metrolinx co-operation to provide and install any point-of-sale devices.

The map below shows the coverage for fare media purchase within a 1.2km radius (10 minute walk for a fit person). The city is densely covered except for areas which are mainly open space. [Appendix 5 of TTC report]

By contrast, there are many gaps in coverage due to the lower number of Shoppers locations. These gaps are more of an issue in the northwest and northeast of Toronto compared to downtown, and this probably says something about the target demographic for Shoppers outlets.

The effect on a fine-grained level was shown in a deputation at the meeting by Mike Sullivan, a former MP for York South Weston, speaking on behalf of TTC Riders. The map below is his. It shows the two Shoppers outlets in Weston and Mount Dennis (blue) and the many more numerous TTC fare media outlets (orange). Large areas of this map are beyond a ten minute walk from either of the Shoppers locations or of Weston GO Station. There are no Loblaws stores in this area.

Additional outlets might be allowed by Metrolinx in locations like community centres or libraries, but these are neither as numerous as existing TTC outlets, nor are they open at all hours.

Actions By The Board

The Board discussed this issue at length and went into far more detail than is normally seen at public TTC meetings. One might wryly suggest that this was possible because there is another agency, Metrolinx, on the hook for problems with this system. All the same, the TTC has taken a “see no evil” approach publicly to Presto for years while complaining privately of bad design and  heavy-handed “partnership” by Metrolinx.

Several motions were placed and approved. Whether they will have a significant effect on Metrolinx’ behaviour is quite another matter. The TTC can huff and puff all it likes, but Metrolinx is backstopped by Queen’s Park regardless of the party in power.


Commissioner Carroll:

That the Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the TTC write a formal letter to Metrolinx asking that they provide a written report outlining the progress to date on delivering an open payment system to all PRESTO served transit systems by the end of 2021.

Commissioner Minnan-Wong:

That staff be directed to report to the TTC Board on filing an Application with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal should Metrolinx fail to make PRESTO cards and media widely and conveniently available to the public.

Commissioner McKelvie:

Request TTC staff to prepare a short annual brief for the TTC Board that summarizes innovative payment options being adopted by comparable cities internationally, as well as the pitfalls and lessons learned during implementation.

Vice-Chair Heisey:

  1. TTC Chair request in writing Metrolinx to provide a detailed plan to meet contractual requirements for reliability by August 1, 2019. The plan should include a detailed work plan for each device to achieve the availability requirements. Specifically, the plan should include the most notable contractual requirement of 99.99% availability for PRESTO card readers. Staff to report results of request and resulting plan to the Board in September 2019.
  2. TTC Chair request in writing Metrolinx to meet its contractual obligations to finalize and implement contractually required service level agreements by August 1, 2019. Staff to report results of request and resulting completed service level agreements to the Board in September 2019.  TTC Chair also request in writing Metrolinx to provide an alternative fare distribution network to that provided by Shopper’s Drug Mart by October 1, 2019 that will provide the same convenience and accessibility as TTC’s current network.
  3. TTC Chair request in writing Metrolinx to provide a detailed timeline by October 1, 2019 to implement PRESTO functionality which would allow for more flexible fare products as are currently available in other large public transit systems worldwide, such as time based fare products (e.g. 24 hour/day/3 day pass, 30-day pass, peak pricing, promotional fares for special events).

Commissioner Karygiannis:

Direct TTC staff to report back to the July 10, 2019 TTC Board meeting on the impacts on maintaining what exists for accessible taxi contractors until the end of the contract and until the new Wheel-Trans Accessible Taxi Service Contracts RFP is negotiated.

Chair Robinson:

TTC staff are directed to continue discussions with Metrolinx to resolve all outstanding financial and contractual performance claims. TTC Staff to report to the Board in September 2019 on the status of the resolution of the financial claims. If TTC and Metrolinx are unable to resolve the financial claims, the Board will give full consideration to initiate the dispute resolution process available to the parties under the Master Agreement.

32 thoughts on “TTC to Presto: Deliver What You Promised

  1. One of the big problems to having accounts like that, and/or requiring credit cards to pay fares is that many poor folk do not have a credit card, or even a bank account. So, they end up paying more, especially if they’re not on ODSP or OW and can’t get the fare discount Presto card.

    The whole implementation of Presto is messed up, and there are a lot of issues with it for disabled folk. When these are brought up TTC and Presto/Metrolinx just pass the blame to the other agency.

    Steve: A further problem will hit the City’s anti-poverty strategy and the increased rollout of the discounted Presto card in that the province is tightening eligibility for some programs which the City uses as an indicator of who is eligible for discount cards.


  2. Have a problem with the 30 day expiry after a online or phone transaction. For visitors or family members who only use public transit rarely, that causes problems with the expiration.

    Don’t go out of town for more than 30 days (cottage, vacation, business trips) if you do a transaction.

    Not good for the rare public transit user, such as tourists, or those who come into town on a rare occasion (like a NBA final game).

    Steve: Er .. the 30 day expiration only applies if you do an online transaction but don’t actually use the card for 30 days after.


  3. The Presto readers installed on suburban system and vehicles appear to be more robust/reliable than those in service on TTC vehicles. Presumably it would be simpler for Presto to support a common device. Is there a reason the TTC has ‘inferior’ technology?

    The lack of Presto single fare media also impacts GO Transit riders purchasing tickets from drivers or vending machines as they cannot access applicable co-fare discounts when transferring to a local transit system.


  4. Great detailed summary Steve. I have a few ideas and thoughts

    1. Just to clarify, when you say that the fare loyalty caps cannot function on multiple transit systems, does that mean that at this time, no other system other than GO Transit can have loyalty fares, since GO Transit already has a loyalty system based on number of fares per month. If a user were to use use both GO Transit and connect to another system enough times a month to qualify for a loyalty fare, only 1 would apply?

    Steve: The TTC report does not speak to the GO functions on the card, and I suspect that this is a separate issue. Presto was originally built for GO. All of the local system functionality sits on top of that base.

    2. When looking at the Presto fare vendors map, it seems like outside of the City of Toronto, libraries and community centres have already begun offering Presto services. It seems as if this can be done, but for whatever reason Toronto hasn’t done so yet. I’m also not familiar with the details of the exclusive Shoppers/Loblaw agreement, but is there any idea if other retailers under the Loblaw umbrella (ex. nofrills or Valu-Mart) would be allowed to offer Presto services ? This would also help to expand the availability of Presto retailers.

    Steve: This was discussed at the Board meeting. There are only a few libraries and community centres in the Mount Dennis area (the location of Mike Sullivan’s map), and moreover their hours are not as extensive as at most convenience stores. If you pull up maps of Loblaws, No Frills and Valu Mart stores in Toronto, you will see that they are thin on the ground, especially near Mount Dennis and Weston.

    3. With the TTC’s goal of having subway station gates unstaffed, we saw the premature and poorly thought out decision to offer Child Presto cards, which just became another way around paying a fare for adults. I guess there will be an eventual solution to this if the TTC still wants to have unstaffed entrances. Another problem is with single ride tickets for children. That seems like it could also be a challenge since the TTC can’t realisticaly offer child’s single ride tickets at a fare vending machine at an unstaffed entrance. They might as well just have a “Click here and ride for free” button on the screen with the fare evasion that would cause. Anyways, the point is that the TTC can’t expect every child in the city to have a PRESTO card nor can they sell child fares, which are free, and not expect dishonest people from abusing them


  5. Steve, you are a bit harsh on Presto. For all the short comings of Presto, it is still relatively convenient to use. With a $30 load, one can take the TTC to Guildwood GO station. Transfer to the LSE train to Oshawa. Board an Ottawa bound VIA trail, get off at Ottawa and use it on the Confederation Line to Parliament Hill. Aside from not being able to use on VIA, not having to carry different tickets for each operator is refreshing.

    Using the OPUS card, it is a nightmare. Getting on a bus in Laval requires STL tickets to be loaded. Using EXO at Gare de la Concorde will require EXO tickets. STM sells their own tickets. A weekend trip to Quebec City would require one to purchase RTC tickets as STM and STL tickets are not valid. There is no way to load a pool of money on OPUS. Each operator has their own machine for loading fares. At Station Montmorency, you better know which machine to use. There were so few places in Quebec City to load the OPUS card. I had to drive to the bus depot just to purchase RTC tickets so that they can be loaded to the OPUS card. At least Presto has the ability to load by web.

    Presto reliability is not a Toronto problem. OC Transpo frequently have failing readers too. Presto should stand behind their product. If a reader cannot authenticate, transit operators should be able to bill all the free rides to Presto. This is not a case if Interac is down, a store can ask the customer to pay with another method. When Presto is the only way to pay, it has to be realiable.

    On a side note, having Presto reloads at Loblaws / Shoppers location is a positive for some. Using the PC Financial Infinite Mastercard, one gets 30 pts per every dollar spent at Loblaws at Shopppers. This is a 3% cash back rate as 10 pts equals $1. Using a Scotia Momentum Infinite VISA, one can get a 4% cash back rate at Loblaws as their merchant code is classified as groceries. For someone spending $400 a month going from Aldershot to Union, that is $16 in cash back per month.

    Steve: During the TTC’s review of fare cards, the limitations of the OPUS design were quite evident. That card is no excuse for limitations of Presto.

    As for points/discounts via Loblaws/Shoppers loyalty programs, and the discount for an Aldershot/Union $400/month rider, the issues about availability of card load locations and procedures are raised by people for whom $400/month would be an astronomical amount to spend on transit. This is a major ongoing problem with Metrolinx generally – their whole mindset is built around relatively affluent commuters who have the option of driving for any of their local travel needs such as getting to a card reload point. Of course if they are travelling Aldershot/Union every day, why would they go to a Shoppers/Loblaws to load their card?


  6. The weekly pass should not have been cancelled. Vacationers like me loved the weekly TTC pass of the past. Presto should have offered a Presto Weekly pass. When I recently visited Toronto in early May 2019 for 2 weeks I had to buy the GTA Weekly pass instead. Imagine how many other visitors have been doing the same. That’s lost revenue for you.

    Steve: In this case, the matter is a TTC decision (revenue protection) rather than a Presto fault. The ability to have a weekly cap exists but it is not turned on.


  7. What is the sense behind Presto? To get 5% of TTC fares paid back into a provincial agency? When a lot of TTC funding comes from the Province? With a new fiefdom and a lot of bother in the way that likely costs over 5%? I can see the Fiefdom being happy – whose idea was that and who is running it now?

    I am no big fan of Visa, etc, but they charge less than 3% – a lot less for those with clout, ie, big businesses.

    So again: why Presto (I almost wrote Phoenix!), and who benefits?


  8. Perhaps the simple solution is for Metrolinx to find a fare media system out in the world that already does everything TTC and the other transit agency’s want to do. One that has been pre-disastered (bugs worked out) somewhere else. And sub-contract them to run a private labeled version of the Presto system.

    My other solution is to just add a transit tax or fee for every Ontario driver located in a location that offers public transit (exclude rural areas with no public transit). Set the bar at a level so that every transit system in Ontario is a free ride. Not having a fare to collect saves money on all the fare disbursement & collection infrastructure, let alone the staff and administration. And by sticking it to drivers (charge both the driver and auto licence an additional tax) you encourage the use of transit.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I was told the Presto ticket was valid for 90 days, and if it expired, a new one was obtainable at Davisville Customer Service.

    Steve: Now imagine that you live in Rexdale and work in Scarborough. How often will you pass by Davisville during weekday business hours to trade in your expired tickets?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Steve,

    I know I am coming at this from the opposite position, but in my opinion the whole problem – from day one – was the TTC’s fault (and by default the city’s fault too). Here’s why:

    1) The TTC wanted their own card. Despite the fact that the card is used throughout the GTHA, the TTC HAD to be different. I don’t just travel on the TTC – I use Mississauga Transit/MiWay, GO Transit, Oakville Transit, and the Hamilton Street Railway on multiple occasions. I have also travelled on York Regional Transit. Presto allows me to save money, and carry less payment plans. With one card I can travel on any of those transit agencies without having to constantly carry multiple payment options that I have had to pay for but may not use for another six months. Presto makes life easier for everyone.

    Steve: At the point the TTC wanted their own card, Presto simply did not provide the functionality to handle the TTC. It was a much simpler system serving simpler requirements and a much smaller customer base. Presto makes life easier for most, but not all. Part of this is the TTC and City’s fault, part is Metrolinx who don’t “think” like a big urban transit system.

    2) Presto can, and does, work. While there are other systems that have advantages too, like Oyster and Metrocards, Presto is run by a software program. Just fix the software. For example, Metrocards are only $1 in New York. The Presto card is $6 because of Queen’s Park. But what has city council done to reduce the cost of Toronto residents? If they can afford to hand out free fares to children under 12, I am certain that this costs could be reduced for people with low income for example. The TTC is also going to single use Presto cards – again something that is done in other cities.

    Steve: Just “fixing” the software is not as easy as it looks because there are constraints on fitting software and data on the readers and on the cards. Some of the limitations are a direct result of this. For example, the reason why Presto tickets will expire after three months is that ALL of their serial numbers are downloaded into every reader so that invalid (spoofed) serial numbers can be identified. There is only so much storage for this list. Yes, you might ask, why isn’t the list a rolling range of numbers. I believe the reason is so that the list can constantly be updated as tickets are used. Anyhow, it’s a Presto architecture and management issue.

    3) The two hour transfer. This could have been implemented as soon as Presto was made available in Toronto. Even then, why can I have a two hour time based transfer if I pay cash in Mississauga and other cities, but not in Toronto? This is not Queen’s Park’s fault – again it’s the TTC and Toronto deciding this and making me use a Presto card to get a two hour transfer.

    Steve: Yes, this is definitely on the City/TTC who could have gone with a two hour transfer from day one, but did not want to spend the money on the effectively reduced fare. However, with this functionality available everywhere else in the GTHA, it’s hard to understand how Presto could justify a $5 million charge to the TTC to implement this on the TTC system. It feels like a money grab by Presto for something that was treated as a change order with a net new cost, but shouldn’t have been. At that point, the TTC was playing nice with Presto, at least in public, and so Toronto ate that cost.

    4) Instead of working with Metrolinx and Queen’s Park, the TTC/City seems to take position that they (the TTC) are so hard done for because of Presto. Guess what, this is the 21st Century and a lot of agencies use a card like the Presto card. The TTC needs to stop whining and deal with life in the 21st Century.

    Steve: The TTC’s valid complaint is that many problems with Presto have cost them revenue. It is not the TTC’s fault that devices – which were specified by Metrolinx – don’t work reliably. Moreover, Metrolinx is supposed to provide support for devices, but doesn’t staff at a level adequate to do this work on a timely basis. TTC staff regularly complain that they could fix things faster if only Metrolinx would let them do this.

    5) While the readers for the subway have to be different why the readers being used on the buses and streetcars are different to the ones used on other GTHA vehicles is beyond me. Then the TTC complains about the machines not working. Well why are you not installing the same ones that everyone is using?

    Steve: Ask Metrolinx. It’s their system. Maybe they cheaped out on the large volume of units required to equip the TTC.


  11. “I am no big fan of Visa, etc, but they charge less than 3% – a lot less for those with clout, ie, big businesses.”

    Fare transaction are much smaller than typical credit card transactions. It’s not at all surprising that a larger fraction of the transaction would be required to run the network.

    Not to defend Presto in general, but just noting that the context is quite different from credit cards.


  12. “One of the big problems to having accounts like that, and/or requiring credit cards to pay fares is that many poor folk do not have a credit card, or even a bank account. So, they end up paying more, especially if they’re not on ODSP or OW and can’t get the fare discount Presto card.”

    This is easy to fix. Ontario should bring back the Province of Ontario Savings Office. All OW/ODSP/etc. payments, without exception, should be made by direct deposit. Recipients could use an existing bank account if they have one, or they could open a Savings Office account, which would come with a debit card and/or a credit card that charges directly to their deposit account (i.e., no actual credit would be advanced). Anybody could open a Savings Office account, but the difference with a regular bank would be that the Savings Office would rarely if ever say “no” to anyone. If they want their OW/ODSP/whatever as cash, no problem – use an ATM. No need to use a cheque-cashing place.

    Sometimes the answer to “not everybody has that” is just to make sure that everybody has that.

    Steve: Except that a problem of the Presto fare system is not going to be addressed by opening another government function, especially under the Tories who want to close, not open such entities.


  13. Presto is a failed LIBERAL program. Please don’t blame Dog Ford for it. Send your Presto related complaints to Kathleen Wynne.

    Steve: This comment is published exactly as received. Yes, Presto is not a Ford project, but he appears to have embraced Metrolinx as the vehicle to implement his transit schemes. Their hubris will do much damage to Toronto’s transit system which they have never really understood.


  14. Steve wrote:

    “The TTC’s valid complaint is that many problems with Presto have cost them revenue. It is not the TTC’s fault that devices – which were specified by Metrolinx – don’t work reliably. Moreover, Metrolinx is supposed to provide support for devices, but doesn’t staff at a level adequate to do this work on a timely basis. TTC staff regularly complain that they could fix things faster if only Metrolinx would let them do this.”

    Yes, this is a valid complaint. However, at the same time what has the TTC done about it? If there is an agreement in place that stipulates that Metrolinx can only fix the problem then why haven’t the lawyers be instructed to go to court?

    I agree that Metrolinx could have done things better at the same time I wish the TTC would stop blaming Metrolinx and then sit back and do nothing about it. I think for me this is the main problem I have with the TTC over Presto. They blame Metrolinx when things go wrong but won’t take the legal steps to make Metrolinx live up to its commitments. I feel bad in a way that I feel so ‘anti-TTC’ about this, but at the same time they could have, and should have, dealt with things better when it became apparent that there were issues instead of just complaining about the issues.

    Steve: Very bluntly, until quite recently, TTC staff were under instructions not to rock the boat with Metrolinx lest this upset other delicate files such as SmartTrack that depended on Queen’s Park’s co-operation. As for only Metrolinx being able to perform fixes, that’s a catch-22. If TTC mucks with Metrolinx equipment, Metrolinx can say that it does not work because TTC broke it, and that would undermine claims the TTC might make.


  15. I was on a bit of a transit odyssey yesterday and was amazed at the number of people boarding streetcars who seemed to be confused as to WHERE on the reader they should tap their PRESTO cards. They often tried tapping at the top and then wildly all over. Those around the readers often gave advice and many people were finally able to tap correctly. However, many gave up. If they eventually have to tap in at a subway station the TTC will not lose a fare but… Of course, I saw no fare inspectors (and have not actually seen any for several months now.)

    Steve: Yes, I have not seen a fare inspector, at least on duty, for ages.


  16. @ DavidC
    I don’t bother to tap on the streetcar. I have a pass. They already have my money.

    Presto is simply a sinecure to funnel money to government connect flunkies and Accenture. I’ve hated it since my first trip. The system is dumb as a bag of rocks and always designed to fail in their favour.

    My first trip, I borrowed my wife’s card. Used it to get on GO train at Union. Got off at Clarkson GO. Forgot to tap it when leaving because I was in a hurry to catch the Mississauga Transit bus that was already there. Tapped the card onto the bus about half an hour after boarding at Union, which is the time the train trip takes. Presto charged something like $15 for a trip to the end of the line in Hamilton! They argued that because they didn’t know where I got off this was legitimate. Except they knew where I got off and when because I tapped on a Mississauga Transit bus 30 minutes or so after tapping on at Union. My wife is tenacious and got a refund, but that was just pure bullshirt. If tapping the reader when you leave is mandatory to ensure the correct fare is charged, then there should be fare gates you have to tap out to exit. They exist in many other places I’ve travelled that use farecards. But Presto prefers a system that fails in their favour, stealing who knows how much from travellers every year.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I believe there are some political things between TTC and Presto that blocking Presto fare integration on TTC. As TTC doesn’t own Presto, Presto can refuse (kick the ball) the requirement from TTC and the other transit. One of the the best example is TTC buses operating in York region. The Presto fare integration for those routes have been postponed indefinitely because Presto refuse to support the requirement.


  18. In response to Bill. My comment was about people who had Presto cards in their hands and tried to tap in but were not clear how to tap properly. Some managed to do so (after help or flailing around); others gave up. Clearly the TTC loses PRESTO revenue because Presto readers are not intuitive (and often do not work even if you tap correctly.)


  19. In Seoul, one can pay for transit (they have a large and well-run system) with a Visa or Mastercard,. No complications, almost everyone has one, the payment system is competently managed…. Could the TTC adopt such a sensible system, or why not?

    Steve: Credit/debit payment would have been part of the system TTC planned to adopt before Queen’s Park forced them to use Presto. For Presto, a major change in their handling of fare charges is needed before they can handle these cards for anything other than a standard adult fare. The problem is that a Presto fare is calculated in a “conversation” between the reader and the card, and the account balance lives on the card (with a central copy that is not updated in real time). For a credit/debit card, calculations must occur at the central system. Presto plans to make this structural change in coming years, but dates are hard to come by especially with cuts in Metrolinx funding by Queen’s Park.


  20. A little off topic but just to illustrate the issues with presto are not limited to the TTC:

    If you take a go transit trip transferring from a train to a bus you need to tap off the train and tap on the bus. The problem is that when you tap on the bus you need at least $5 (I think it’s actually more than that) net balance on your presto card in order for it to be accepted even if the bus leg of your trip may be less than that. That means that if I load the exact fare required to take the train/bus combination trip on go, I would not be able to do so as the remaining balance to ride the bus would be deemed “too low”.

    There are also issues riding through the former YRT fare boundaries using presto even though it is all one fare zone… Hard to see how this is an improvement over the old passes which seemed to (almost) always work?


  21. As people have pointed out, the TTC is losing money over faulty Presto readers but the TTC is also losing money by not enforcing fines against people (including drivers) smoking unlawfully on its property. The TTC is also losing money by not enforcing fines against cyclists who sneak bicycles on trains during rush hours through automatic entrances. Why not enforce the law against smokers and cyclists? I see lots of bicycles and even wide two wheeled electric scooters being unlawfully ridden on sidewalks. Why not enforce the law against them so that the city will have more revenue as well? Why not issue fines to dog owners who let their dogs unlawfully roam around leash free? The TTC and the city have plenty of sources for revenue, they are just not willing to enforce the law to collect it. I guess that more people need to start complaining until action gets taken.

    Steve: The TTC barely has enough fare inspectors to enforce Proof of Payment (I have not seen any actually on duty in weeks), let alone Bylaw No. 1.


  22. The problem of using Visa and MasterCard as a fare payment scheme is that it’s rent-seeking behaviour. Basically, it means that Visa and MasterCard take 3-5% of all transit revenue in perpetuity without really providing much of a service. Once they have that monopoly, nothing stops them from raising rates or refusing to add new features in the future. Why should any government willingly submit to that? It’s like a permanent tax on transit that goes to a private company for no particular reason. With cellphone payments, all that cash will go to Apple, Samsung, and Google instead. At least with PRESTO, the 3-5% of fare revenue skimmed off goes back to the government. Metrolinx probably doesn’t spend that money wisely, but at least it doesn’t go to a private company that literally does nothing but sit around while the money rolls in.


  23. Reply to Ming

    Visa and M/C nominally charge about 3%, plus more on premium cards to pay for the points. But they are in competition, and it is possible to negotiate down to below 1 1/2%. This is my experience as a small business – I am sure the big operators do better, perhaps down to 1% or so. In return, they offer a reliable and almost trouble-free collection system. Data re traffic? I don’t know, but am fairly sure they could do a good job of that, too.

    I am not a big fan of the card companies, but they do what they say they will. And it seems likely to be a better job at lower costs than Presto. And we (almost) all have the cards already.

    Cheers, Ted


  24. I agree with Aam Aadmi. Something has to be done about the menace of bicyclists on the TTC during rush hours. I have been hit by bicycles on the TTC. I pull the emergency alarm on trains if I see a bicycle during prohibited hours because this is a huge safety risk and not to mention the fact that we have bicycles blocking several empty seats on very crowded trains.

    Steve: Pulling the emergency alarm is excessive for this type of behaviour. I have no use for cyclists who feel that rules do not apply to them, but not at the expense of disrupting subway service during the peak period.


  25. I’m not sure rebuilding PRESTO as a centralized system with reliable Internet access is doable yet. I’m sure there are still many tunnels and other weird locations that don’t have good mobile data access. And I seriously doubt that Accenture or the province could afford the expertise needed to make a transaction processing system that’s fast enough and reliable enough to build a usable transit payment system like that. Just look at how long you have to wait when you pay for something by tapping your credit card. There would be a huge queue of people lined up subway turnstiles waiting for their taps to be processed. You need Google-level expertise to build a centralized system that can process that volume of data at millisecond speeds. The banks and big consulting firms don’t have it.

    Steve: A centralized system does not have to be able to process data in real time. All that is required is the ability to store card usage and reconcile the fare later on. Phil Verster has already mused publicly about why Metrolinx should be in the business of running a payment system when this is a natural function for banks.

    I think the current PRESTO model could easily be extended to handle LUMs or even monthly passes that don’t have to start at the start of the month! LUMs aren’t so hard. I’m pretty sure they could make full PRESTO cards made out of paper for only a few pennies each. There must be something else holding things up. I suspect that the PRESTO people are filled with tech bros who are more concerned about theoretical privacy and security concerns than about building a useful service. Meanwhile, fraudsters are just using free “child” PRESTO cards and making a mockery of the entire PRESTO security design. I sort of suspect the TTC IT people are also filled with tech bros too. The TTC iTunes music playlist? Requiring people to download an app to report harassment? PRESTO readers that don’t show your card balance? Definitely, tech bro moves.

    Steve: LUMs already exist &ndash they are called Presto tickets and they are made out of paper. A rolling validity period for a pass is also possible, but has not been implemented. This is more likely to show up first for a short term pass.

    @Ted Syperek
    It’s not a cost thing. I’m just morally opposed to the idea of a private company worming their way into a position where they can impose a mandatory tax on society. It’s not appropriate for the government, which represents the will of the people, to be beholden to a private company like that.

    @Edward Brain
    I believe a PRESTO card costs $6 because at one point, you were allowed to have a $-6 balance on your card with GO Transit. I may be mistaken though, and that policy may have changed.

    Steve: No, the $6 fee was a cash grab by Presto.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. The TTC once said it hopes to have Presto Tickets available in all subway stations by the end of this summer, but there has not been any further expansion beyond the stations from Lawrence West to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. Is this summer still the target for completion?

    The TTC report seems to say it cannot eliminate concessionary cash fares until Presto Tickets are available at all subway stations. But, why the condition? One could tell seniors/students to get a Presto Card for concessions. Why cannot the TTC immediately discontinue senior/student tickets and concessionary cash fares? The TTC could continue to sell and accept tokens until Presto Tickets are widely available.

    Steve: Presto tickets are available at all stations as of July 8 (yesterday). What remains is to make them more widely available through other fare outlets, and that is currently bogged down in the Metrolinx/Loblaws/Shoppers contract.


  27. I’ve used my credit card to pay via tap for London Transport bus and underground trips in the UK several times in the past 2 years…

    I was given the confidence not to buy a Oyster Card (their Presto equivalent) because they are now advertising *all* the features of Oyster Cards are now also available for people using credit/debit cards to tap in / out of the system. This includes daily caps. I see a single line item on my credit card bill for each day where I’ve used the system.

    Just wondering what is so different about London UK fare structures compared to here?

    Also FWIW I’ve never had a card reader problem in London UK; here is it endemic on TTC.

    Steve: The difference is that in London your taps are accumulated through the day and the fare you owe is reconciled afterward. With Presto it’s all done on the fly between the card and the card reader. This requires a complete redesign of the Presto “back end”, and brings a question of whether this should be left to Accenture, the current provider, or given to one of the banks who are already set up for this kind of thing.


  28. Good thing Accenture got a 10-year extension (noncompetitive) on running Presto in 2016 or else they’d never have enough time to catch up with technology from 2006.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. It seems to me that this Presto situation has aroused a particular lot of interest and ire. For all of that, is there any chance that some reasonable change could happen, that some rational analysis will be undertaken? New guys or old guys at Queen’s Park – it seems to make no difference.

    Steve: Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster has mused publicly about why they, as opposed to a financial institution, should be in the payment business. Many of Presto’s limitations will only be eliminated with a major re-engineering of its “back end” processing to do more of the work that is now handled by the “front end” readers and card loading functions. However, Accenture’s contract to provide Presto services runs until 2026, I believe. Time to start planning a transition now.


  30. Steve, the article was quite informative.

    I was wondering how does the Presto receiver get the updated account balances from the server? Is it by means of any wireless communication mode like WLAN (especially, the ones in TTC buses), even though not in realtime?

    Steve: It’s a wireless link, but directly from the reader back to “central” as Presto predates buses having their own WLAN.


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