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Your Toronto 2014 Issue Navigator

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Public Works: A Loyalty Program for Public Transit

You give plenty to the TTC. What if the TTC gave back?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

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Image courtesy of STM.

Loyalty programs are a big deal these days. From coffee-shop punch cards to drug stores aggregating your history of shameful purchases in return for free shampoo, everybody wants to give something back to the customer. And of course, they also want to keep the customer coming back.

Now, Montreal’s transit authority, STM (Société de transport de Montréal), is launching a loyalty program for transit riders. Currently in pilot under the name “Apollo,” the plan offers special deals and discounts from merchants and cultural organizations to participating holders of STM’s fare-payment option of choice, the Opus card.

STM’s program differs from other loyalty programs in that rather than accumulating points for rewards down the line, participants can derive instant benefits, using their mobile devices.

Users provide basic data about likes and dislikes, which is then funnelled into a system built by STM and its technology partner, SAP. The system has the ability to recognize where a rider is on the transit system. As a result, merchants can make on-the-spot personalized offers based on a rider’s stated preferences and geographic location (recognizing privacy concerns, the system is firewalled to ensure that no specific customer can be identified by the marketing group).

For example, if you’ve identified yourself as a doughnut aficionado, you might exit the subway and get a text offering a free coffee at the Timmy’s down the street. (If there isn’t a Timmy’s down the street, you’re not in Canada.) Or, if your falutingness is a little higher, you could be presented with opera tickets at a discount.

There are also potential transit-oriented benefits. For instance, program participants can be rewarded for using transit more frequently, and they can receive real-time “premium information” about congestion on the system so they can change their routes accordingly.

STM hopes the plan will drive increased ridership and bring in new money from business partners. The partners benefit by reaching a large group of targeted customers likely to use their services. And users, of course, get info and offers designed to gratify instantly.

The program is currently in testing with about 20,000 users, and is expected to roll out to a broader group sometime this spring.

While a program like this might be nice for the perpetually cash-strapped TTC, Toronto is hamstrung by the fact that the Presto card and other 20th-century forms of payment won’t be rolled out across the subway system until the end of this year, and patrons will continue depositing tokens into streetcar and bus fare boxes for some time after that (presumably while doffing their fashionable beaver-pelt top hats to the genial conductor).

Moreover, the payment technology used in Montreal isn’t the same as the stuff used here, so it wouldn’t be a matter of just moving some code down the 401.

But at the very least, this is the kind of program that bears investigating. And now would be a good time to start.

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