Presto, Change-o?
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.




Presto, Change-o?

Photo by Remi Carreiro/Torontoist.

One of the biggest TTC rider gripes these days is how we pay for our transit fare. Without a doubt, the smorgasbord of fare types can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned transit rider: we have antiques known as tokens; magnetic striped Metropasses and weekly passes that can only start on the first of a month or a Monday; scratch-and-ride day passes; and of course, the all-too-confusing-on-when-and-where-you-can-actually-use-them paper transfers. Not to mention that, come September, all post-secondary students will join high schoolers in needing TTC-produced photo identification to buy and use a discounted student Metropass. Worldly travellers to locales like Hong Kong and London all return to Toronto after using Octopus and Oyster cards and cringe while reaching into possibly-bacteria-ridden token dispensers at their local subway station, all asking, “Why are we so behind?”

The TTC’s fare system has served Toronto well for the past half century, despite its perceived antiquity. Other than tokens lost through holes in our pockets and the odd bust of token and ticket counterfeiting rings, the system has yet to suffer a catastrophic failure. Ridership has grown, and continues to grow, despite the TTC’s lag in updating fare payment systems, making it hard to blame the TTC when there were more pressing needs with limited funding. Among things that have pushed a new fare payment system aside include replacing thirty-year-old buses and streetcars; repairing fifty-year-old subway tunnels; and maintaining a “state of good repair” in tracks, stations, and buildings. Besides, research shows that the best way to increase ridership is not to implement smartcards but to add service, and the TTC has adopted this approach since the introduction of 2003’s Ridership Growth Strategy [PDF], leading to a consistent increase in ridership despite the economic downturn in 2009.
So it wasn’t surprising that when the Province of Ontario announced Presto in 2007—an initiative to develop a single smartcard that can access transit systems across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA)—the TTC didn’t share their enthusiasm. TTC staff estimate the cost of implementing Presto on the TTC’s 1,800 buses, 150 Wheel Trans vehicles, 250 streetcars, and 69 subway stations will be nearly $450 million. Of this cost, the Province has committed just $140 million, leaving the cash-strapped TTC to cover the balance.
Flash-forward three years and Presto has begun rolling out across GTHA transit agencies, most notably on GO Transit’s Lakeshore West line over the past several months. And as this roll-out begins, TTC Chair Adam Giambrone has initiated an exploration of another fare payment system, known as “open payment”—perceived by many as a competing, parallel system. Among those doubters are the Ministry of Transportation (which is developing and implementing Presto) and mayoral wannabe Rocco Rossi, who wants to create a “Presto Plus” card for use at libraries and recreational centres (a plan which would face a mountain of jurisdictional and logistic hurdles). So which system is best for Toronto and TTC riders?
Why not both?

What’s Open Payment?

Open payment allows customers to pay using a variety of fare media, including credit cards, debit cards, and potentially, mobile phones, using similar contactless technology. We already see open payment in everyday usage, with systems such as Mastercard’s PayPass, VISA’s payWave, and Toronto-based ZoomPass. In addition, contactless debit cards are on the way from many Canadian banks. An open payment system would require the installation of readers that accept any type of card at TTC turnstiles—much like a smartcard, you would tap, then enter.

What’s Wrong with Presto?

Really, nothing. Presto is a great initiative that will help encourage inter-regional transit use by creating a consistent fare medium. For the vast majority of Torontonians, however, a Presto card is not vital to their transit experience, as for the time being, few of us cross fare boundaries or travel between multiple transit agencies as much as transit riders outside the City. It’s hard to blame Giambrone or the TTC for finding a different solution when Presto is largely for the benefit of 905 transit commuters who do travel from local transit to GO Transit to the TTC.

So Why Are We Looking at Open Payment?

Open payment could essentially supplement the Presto system on the TTC, and fill the gap between today and when Presto is eventually rolled out years from now. Giambrone believes that implementation of open payment could occur as soon as next year, while Presto’s next major TTC roll-out is not expected until after 2014, when the Sheppard East LRT is completed. In addition, open payment has the advantage of being backed by major financial institutions, which theoretically should dramatically decrease start-up costs, as the system operator would get a cut of the revenues—no different than when you use a credit card or debit card at your corner store. Finally, open payment would instantly place a transit pass in every resident and visitor’s pocket [UPDATE, 10:48 AM: almost], removing the need to purchase and load a Presto card.

Solution = Presto + Open Payment?

In the statement released by the Minister of Transportation, Kathleen Wynne, she states that, “best of all, the Presto system is also being developed to accept other cards—like debit or credit cards.” If Presto is developed to open payment standards, then logically a TTC open payment system can be rolled into Presto in the future. After all, that is what “open” is about—interoperability. Open payment may in fact bring the TTC closer to Presto, as the infrastructure to support Presto can be developed in tandem with open payment. Meanwhile, open payment would provide Torontonians and TTC riders greater choice on how to pay for transit.
In the end, Presto is not going to happen tomorrow in Toronto, and the TTC’s exploration of open payment ensures that all options are considered for improving its customers’ experience.