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Public Works: Phoning in Your Transit Fare

Stop hoarding those tokens. Mobile transit ticketing is coming.

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

ttc new streetcar presto swipe

In a couple of short decades, the mobile phone has morphed from upmarket walkie-talkie into an all-around tool for texting, web surfing, music-listening, movie-watching, and point-of-purchase money-wasting. And, according to Juniper Research, the next way phones will render themselves disturbingly indispensable involves getting you on the bus.

The current fare payment system of choice in most of the developed world is some form of stored-value card. These are loaded up with virtual cash either at a booth or online, with transit fares then deducted by scanning or tapping. Even the TTC, which is a butter churn away from being the Pioneer Village of transit systems, will roll out the PRESTO card (currently usable in 14 subway stations) across the entire system beginning next year.

However, stored value cards may already be yesterday’s technology. The Juniper report notes that mobile transit ticketing is popular in Asia and Europe, with 65 per cent of Swedish bus fares already paid that way. Researchers anticipate that use will triple over the next five years, with most of the growth coming in slow-to-adopt North American systems.

Mobile phone fare payment comes in several different flavours. Near-field communication (NFC), most commonly used in Asia, is the same technology found in the newest generation of contactless credit and debit cards, as well as in apps like Google Wallet. The downside of NFC is that devices have to support it—and many phones, including Apple’s iPhone, don’t.

It’s partly for that reason that North American transit systems may be more inclined to adopt scannable electronic barcodes, which are already widely used for airline ticketing.

In places where smartphones aren’t yet ubiquitous, mobile ticketing can also be done by SMS.

All these methods may involve different means of payment (credit, debit, phone bill) and validation (visual inspection, scan), but they share one big advantage: users are able to buy tickets anywhere, any time, directly from the device. Transit providers win by reducing interactions with expensive live humans.

Mobile ticketing can also integrate with customer loyalty apps, like the one recently piloted in Montreal, to provide users with up-to-the-minute information on delays or problems, and targeted promotions from local businesses.

Rocket riders should see mobile ticketing eventually, as the functionality is a requirement for the roll-out of PRESTO across the TTC. However, at the moment there’s no firm timeline for implementation.


  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    We had phone-based fare payment in Seoul back in 2007 on simple flip-phones (though my temporary second-hand phone wasn’t set up to use it). I can’t wait for the TTC to begin rolling it out (only available at two downtown stations for a few years, I’m sure) sometime in the late 2020s.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    Money spent on modern gates would go a lot further than phone-based payment.

    What I mean by “modern” is a bidirectional turnstile-replacement that you can walk through without touching or breaking stride as you swipe your {pass, phone, whatever}. Only if your payment is not detected or fails do barriers close off the far end, preventing you from passing through:

    • Jason Paris

      Or go barrier-free like all of Germany (or our current GO system). Proof of payment checks would be far more regular though.

    • HotDang

      Couldn’t you run through fast enough to get through before the gate closes? That’s what I would do every time.

      • Paul Kishimoto

        Dunno, they seem to snap closed very quickly. You’d have to be running flat out to avoid being tripped and sent sprawling—at that speed, you could just as easily hurdle the current turnstiles.

        • tyrannosaurus_rek

          When I boarded the subway at Kansai International it was my first experience with that sort of gate. Evidently I did something wrong with my ticket because the thing closed on me, but the barrier panels could be pushed through pretty easily. Which I did.

    • tomwest

      Or copy London and have barriers that are *closed* by default, and open quickly enough that you walk through without touching or breaking stride as you swipe your {pass, phone, whatever}.

      • Paul Kishimoto

        Sure! I’d guess they can be set up to work either way—perhaps even differently at different times of day. There’s probably also a way to determine which is most efficient.

    • John Duncan

      That’s a tap-on, tap-off system. I’m under the impression that Toronto’s integrated transit system (i.e. bus, streetcar & subway) poses problems as it’s difficult to get people to tap-off when leaving a surface vehicle.

      • Paul Kishimoto

        I know—but what does that have to do with the equipment, as opposed to how it is operated?

      • tyrannosaurus_rek

        In addition to the millions of people already using it worldwide, GO commuters have figured out tap-off, so why can’t TTC users?

  • Torontopoly

    That is either a very old number or just wrong. I’ll have to check ComScore at work but even their December 2012 numbers had smartphone penetration at 62% of the mobile universe:'s%20Digital%20Future%20in%20Focus%202013.pdf

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    Did they do away with distance-based fares too? I don’t remember ever paying more than ~W1,500, but the base was W900. They had magnetic paper tickets, rechargable passes, and phone-swipe payment at the time. And seniors rode for free. And every major station had like half a dozen passenger service staff. And the stations weren’t lit with piss-yellow lights. I could go on.