Presto Overcharged Me and the TTC Mailed a Token to Make Up for It
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Presto Overcharged Me and the TTC Mailed a Token to Make Up for It

An easier—and better!—solution would be to adopt two-hour transfers.

A version of this article originally appeared on Sean Marshall’s blog, Marshall’s Musings.

Long ago, the Toronto Transit Commission should have adopted a two-hour unlimited transfer system and ditched its archaic transfer policies, much like Mississauga, Brampton, York Region, and elsewhere in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

When I made the argument about two-hour transfers last year, the TTC had just introduced proof-of-payment on all streetcar lines and had started to adopt the Presto card for fare payments. Sometime in 2017, the TTC will eliminate all tickets, tokens, and passes, instead relying on Presto and new limited use media (LUM) paper cards for single-ride payments and day passes. (LUMs are common on some systems that have gone to smart card technology; Montreal, for example, has the L’occasionnelle card, augmenting the plastic Opus Card.)

About half of the buses and over one third of all TTC subway stations now accept Presto as payment (for regular adult and student/senior fares, deducting the same fare as the applicable token or ticket price); according to the TTC, the full rollout of Presto machines on the bus network is supposed to be complete by the end of the year. But the TTC likes to remind its passengers that they should carry alternative forms of payment in case Presto is not available (for example, when shuttle buses replace subway or streetcar services).

I’ve been using Presto happily when it’s available. Presto is all-but-necessary to ride GO Transit, OC Transpo, UP Express, and suburban transit agencies; with Presto, transfers and GO Transit/suburban bus co-fares are automatically figured out. I can always review my account, which accurately keeps track of my transit fare payments and transfers. There are times when Presto is not an option, such as traveling in Scarborough, so I always keep a few tokens or cash for those instances.

But on Sunday, September 18, Presto finally didn’t work for me. I blame this not on the beleaguered payment card, but on how the TTC insists on making Presto work with its interpretation of outdated transfer policies, rather than making its fare policies work for Presto.

Screenshot from Sean Marshall's Presto overcharge.

Screenshot from Sean Marshall’s Presto overcharge.

After a wonderful evening visiting the In/Future arts festival at Ontario Place, I boarded a 509 Harbourfront shuttle bus at the Exhibition grounds at 9:22 p.m.. The streetcar that normally operates from the Exhibition to Union Station was not running due to maintenance in the Bay Street tunnel. The shuttle bus was equipped with a Presto machine, and I tapped my card. The bus let off its passengers at the corner of Bay and Front Streets, just outside of Union Station, and I transferred to the subway—a completely valid transfer—at 9:49 p.m.. But that resulted in a second charge of $2.90.

My mistake was expecting that Presto would correctly recognize the trip from the 509 shuttle bus to the subway as a valid transfer. Normally, the 509 streetcar has a direct connection to the subway platforms, without the need to pass through fare gates. Elsewhere, the transfer between streetcar and subway at downtown stations is not a problem when using Presto (like the transfer from the 505 Dundas streetcar to Dundas station on September 10).

Luckily, I checked my transaction history on Monday, and I caught the error. I immediately went on Twitter to complain. The @TTCHelps account told me me to give TTC customer service a call, and they apologized (though reminded me that I should always get a paper transfer when paying with Presto) and promised to mail me a token as compensation. I got the token in the mail five days later, “in the interest of good public relations.” Mailing a token is one way to refund an improper charge, but it’s not efficient.

I will say that the TTC customer service staff are great people who sometimes deal with unreasonable customers. The agent I spoke with was very understanding and agreed with some of the specific issues that frustrated me that day.

The letter with the token.

The letter with the token.

Had I not checked my balance, and not immediately complained, I would not have received this refund. How many customers, acting in good faith, get double-charged using their Presto cards and don’t even know it? Unfortunately, the TTC’s Presto fare machines don’t provide fare balance or transaction data, unlike those used by GO or suburban transit operators (see photo below), so we don’t know.

GO Transit Presto fare machine, which displays card balance and time left to complete ride/transfer

GO Transit Presto fare machine, which displays card balance and time left to complete ride/transfer

Even when Presto is fully rolled out, the TTC’s transfer rules are unclear, and riders are susceptible to unfair double-charges for completely reasonable one-way, continuous trips.

Last year, I warned about the potential troubles in forcing Presto on top of the TTC’s archaic transfer system: “if a passenger taps onto another vehicle on the same route, which is quite a common occurrence due to delays, short-turns, and diversions/shuttles, the Presto Card will deduct a second fare.”

The TTC already considered time-based transfers in 2014 as it planned for the transition to Presto for fare collection. At the time, the Commission estimated that it would cost $20 million in annual revenue, as some passengers would take advantage of making stopovers en route or quick return trips on one fare. Another excuse I heard is that the TTC is waiting for Metrolinx to finalize its regional fare integration strategy.

But a modern transfer policy would bring the TTC in line with other transit agencies in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, would make the Presto card much easier to use, and would buy a lot of goodwill, especially if it was introduced to coincide with a fare increase. It’s also worth noting that when the TTC eliminates transfers, tickets, and passes, its customers will be required to pay $6 for a new Presto card. It’s only right to incentivize its loyal customers to make the switch.

I’m happy to get a token refund and an acknowledgment of my predicament. But I had to notice the charge and complain, and tokens will soon be phased out. A better solution is available—and needed.

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