Thursday, 26 April 2012


Presto cards are on the way to Ottawa. You have no doubt seen the readers installed on a few buses, and there is no shortage of media coverage on the subject. If you listen to Lowell Yellow-and-Blue, you've no doubt heard the great conspiracy of Dalton's pet Presto scheme. Okay, welll, whatever.

I have a few concerns about how Presto will work in Ottawa, especially if the company decides to do away with other fare mediums.

Point of sale screening of fares by bus drivers will be a thing of the past. Now, some of you may think that's a great thing. It will reduce the friction of driving a bus. Let the machine do its work. What about fraud though? What is to prevent an entire family from "Family Passing" a single Presto card (With a stored monthly pass on it) instead of each member buying their own pass? There is no picture on a Presto card. Even if the company enforced picture ID with the Presto card, the card itself just flashes a green light and Presto! you're good to go. The driver has no idea if you are a student with a Presto card. The driver has no idea if you're using your brother's Presto card. There is no picture. This is a huge red flag for me. The single most effective tool to prevent pass-switching is the point-of-sale interaction with an experienced driver looking at the pass.

We have been moving the fare collection away from the driver for years now, but this is getting to the point where collecting the fare within the city itself is even too close to the driver.
To maintain a Presto card, you must always have money stored with Presto. Does that bug anyone else? It's one thing to buy a few tickets. Yes, the company gets a prepayment there too. But having an account, and EVERYONE having an account, storing money with the transit system feels, well... complicated. It feels like things can go wrong with this system. It feels too technical, too invasive to attach my name to my transit habits.

I'm old enough to remember the Good Old Days. Bus drivers were pretty much the sole contact you had with the transit company. You dropped your fare in an glass enclosed box with an envelope sized slit in the top, and watched as your quarter danced down the little metal maze, chased down by two dimes clinking to the bottom. The driver, and it was okay to call him a "Driver", tore off a transfer from a stack of papers pinched together in a giant clip. That driver punched a few holes in the appropriate slots to signify what direction you were headed in. It was a simple system, but it worked.

We somehow moved from that to a GPS enabled proximity detect card based system that stores your money in Toronto, and tracks your movements for transit planning. Welcome to the future. I'm ASTAR, a robot. I can put my fare back on, you can't. So play safe.

Now before you start making the septuagenarian jokes, let me clarify that I'm not old enough to remember when radio was king, and King was Prime Minister. But my remote control had a cord, my paint had lead, my gas pump went out of it's way to say it had NO lead, and wearing a helmet was only for the Fonz... while jumping sharks.

Fare was really simple. Like trading money for a service.

Presto works in a few ways to get your hard earned money into the system.

  • You can visit a Kiosk run by the city. Here you can pay with cash, during business hours. It wont be the corner store, but it's a start. 
  • You can visit . Here you can load up your card over the internet. This will be most popular choice, IMO. No line-ups. Easy access. Unless you remember the glory days of radio.
  • You cannot buy credit on the bus, because that would be too convenient.
  • You will be replacing a monthly paper pass with an electronically stored Presto pass.

Not everyone has the means to maintain a Presto card. Tickets are a reduction medium whereby which a person can duck into a store and buy a single bus ride for a less-than-cash cost. Charities give tickets away so people can get around in a pinch. Schools give tickets away to kids. Doing away with tickets seems like a bad idea if there is no single-ride equivalent with Presto. By all accounts,  the minimum charge to load a Presto card is $10. So if you're low on funds, or don't have a credit card to pump up the company tires, it's cash for you. That's more expensive.

It seems punitive to poorer folks, folks without internet access, and folks who need a ride from a charity.

Para Transpo riders seem to be an afterthought here too. At last check, there will be no Presto on Para Transpo vehicles. I expect that monthly passes will be honoured on a good faith basis for disabled Presto-pass users.

One more concern. After topping up your Presto card, there is a 24 hour delay between your payment and the card being ready to use. Presto explains this on their website like this: 

When I load value online, why is there a delay before it reaches my card?

Your balance is stored on the card itself. Once you complete a purchase online, the details are sent to each card reader in the PRESTO network (this can take up to 24 hours). When you tap your card as part of a regular journey, the purchase is activated and your balance updated.

Now call me a troublemaker, but that's not exactly "Presto", is it? Next you'll tell us that Smart Car drivers look really stupid driving around in them. That goes for you too, "IQ" drivers. We get the connection. 

The company seems to think we'd be impressed with the idea of our account information hopping from reader to reader all over Ontario in a 24 hour period. Your money is like the Easter Bunny, travelling thousands and thousands of miles. Lucky us! But correct me if I'm wrong here. That sounds a little like bullshit. The kind of Techie type bullshit that nerds like me use to make a simple computer repair sound like a space shuttle mission. Now don't you worry though. Deductions are instant. After all, it's always harder to give than to receive. The one barrier between loading up the card before you leave for the day is the fact that all the bus readers need time to figure things out. I'm not buying it.

I'm anxious to see what OC Transpo does to use this technology in a rewarding kind of way for customers. I hope they'll exploit loyalty programs, contests, and ways to use Presto to promote transit. 

The city plans to give away 200,000 cards for free (a $6 savings).

That's a good start. More later.

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