Everything you wanted to know about PRESTO, Toronto's green transit smart cards.
Torontoist Explains is a recurring series where we tell you everything you need to know about local issues, ideas, and how things work.
If you’re a TTC rider you’re familiar with the token, the little grey anachronism that symbolizes Toronto’s legacy of transit inertia. However, you’ll soon have more room in your change purse, as green PRESTO card readers have begun popping up on our streetcars, buses and subway stations.
PRESTO, of course, is the technology (often referred to as a smart card) that lets users store cash value on a card and deduct the fare with a quick tap.
Here’s what you need to know about Toronto’s newfangled transit payment system.
What is PRESTO?
PRESTO is a division of Metrolinx, the Ontario government agency tasked with managing and integrating transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). (PRESTO, by the way, is not an acronym; presumably the caps are just to get your attention.) The roll-out of the electronic card started in late 2009 at three GO stations and Union Station subway, and has since expanded throughout the GO system, and to regional transit networks including Oakville and Burlington. In Toronto, PRESTO cards can be used at 26 subway stations and on all new streetcars.
How does it work?
The bold venture into 20th century technology is a stored value card that lets you put money on your card and have the appropriate amount deducted when you tap the card at the beginning of a transit trip (for GO Transit, where fare is based on distance, you can set a default journey or tap the card at both ends of the trip). You can load the card either online, or at a PRESTO kiosk or self-service reloader. Another option is Autoload, so that whenever your balance falls below a pre-set amount, the card will automatically draw money from your bank account.
Wasn’t there some controversy around implementing PRESTO for the TTC?
It’s axiomatic in Toronto (let’s call it “Ford’s Law”) that as any transit proposal gets close to implementation, the probability of someone trying to railroad through an expensive and controversial counter-proposal approaches 1. PRESTO was no exception.
In 2007 the government of Ontario government awarded the contract to develop a transit smart card for the GTHA to consulting firm Accenture. In the same year, Toronto City Council agreed to work [PDF] with the province to ensure that the future system would meet the City’s needs, leading to the 2009 Union Station pilot. However, by 2010, the TTC decided it would be interesting to also move forward with an “open payment” system allowing riders to pay their fares using debit or credit cards. This move was backed by some members of Council, including then-TTC chair Adam Giambrone, who saw it as cheaper and more flexible than a smart card system. Opponents observed that this would be an expensive proposition, especially since we’d already committed to PRESTO. Supporters asserted that the two systems could co-exist, although they didn’t offer much evidence as to why that would be a good idea. However, only one vendor stepped up to bid on an open payment system, and by mid-2011 Toronto abandoned the idea and slunk back to PRESTO.
So are there plans to make Presto payments available via other cards or devices?
Yes, the fares and transfers machines on the new streetcars and stops along their routes (509 Harbourfront and 510 Spadina) will be retrofitted to allow TTC customers to pay their fare with contactless credit or debit cards, instead of cash or tokens. Beyond that, in August of this year, Metrolinx issued a Notice of Intent seeking PRESTO strategic partnership opportunities, including a partner or partners to provide functionality so users can connect their PRESTO cards with their credit, debit or pre-paid cards, as well as “the delivery of mobile solutions that improve the customer experience”. The precise meaning of the last phrase is uncertain, but it likely includes the ability to use your phone more or less like a PRESTO card.
Is there a timeline for the rollout of Presto to the entire TTC system?
Why yes, and thanks for asking. Metroxlinx advises that:
- PRESTO will be available at all subway stations, streetcars, buses, and Wheel-Trans by end of 2016.
- All legacy streetcars enabled by the end of 2015.
- More self-serve reload machines will be deployed at PRESTO enabled subway stations in 2015.
- Fares and Transfers machines will be retrofitted with a contactless credit/debit payment option by late 2015.
Will the GO system have fare integration with the TTC?
Other transit systems in the GTHA have co-fare arrangements with GO, meaning that you can get a discounted fare when transferring from one to the other using PRESTO—for example, when you use PRESTO to ride from Union Station to Burlington, you can transfer to a Burlington Transit bus for only 75 cents instead of the usual $2.70. At present, there are no such arrangements for the TTC, although it’s possible something will be negotiated in the future.
Will the TTC move to zone-based fares when PRESTO is fully implemented?
That’s not clear—last year the TTC specifically took it off the table, suggesting it was unfair to people who lived farthest from downtown. However, Metrolinx doesn’t seem to have given up on the idea, so we could see it at some point.
Why does it sometimes take a day from the time a card is loaded from a bank account for those funds to appear on the card?
If you’re already a PRESTO user, you may know the sinking feeling that comes from a tap generating the disheartening thud of not-enough-funds instead of the jaunty chirp that signals transit entry success. This can happen even if you’ve loaded money on to your card online the same day, since it can take up to 24 hours for all the PRESTO devices around the province to sync. To avoid disappointment, you can always load money instantly at a station or self-serve reload machine.
How do I sign up?
There are a few different ways:
- Online at www.prestocard.ca
- By phone at 1-877-378-6123, TTY #711 or 1-800-855-0511
- TTC: in person at the Davisville Metropass Discount Pass office
- Union Station: Pre-loaded cards available at the Pass Vending Machine
Going in person to buy will avoid a seven to 10 day wait for your card to be delivered.