The perils of Presto
I had high hopes for the Presto card. In theory, it would be great for transit users across southern Ontario. A single transit pass that could take you from Hamilton to Bowmanville, on any GO bus, train, or local transit service. No more keeping exact change in your pocket. No need to hold onto paper transfers. Loyalty discounts depending on how often you take transit. Online payments from your smartphone.
The potential was huge. And I think it’s fair to say Presto hasn’t lived up to expectations. There are frustrating flaws at every level of the system, and if we’re going to save Presto before it completely collapses, a real overhaul is in order.
The experiences I’m about to describe are my own anecdotes; they may not be representative, but they represent problems that need to be fixed. The reason so few of my friends have signed up for a Presto card is partly due to the bad experiences recounted by me and others.
In the midst of last August’s heatwave, I tried to board the Lakeshore West train in Oshawa. When I arrived at the platform, the Presto machines are out of order. A few minutes of confusion later, I realized that there might be a working Presto station inside the station building. Thankfully there was, and I got on the train in the nick of time, after trundling back and forth with my luggage.
Upon reflection, this is what I think happened: it was 42 degrees outside that day, and the sun was shining directly onto the Presto machines. They overheated and stopped working. I’m not sure how thoroughly these machines were tested, but reliability is key in any computerized system, which is only as strong as its weakest link. If the card readers can’t stand a summer heatwave, I don’t look forward to their performance in a February blizzard.
Second anecdote: This has happened several times, but I often fail to tap my card when I get off trains. (For the uninitiated, you have to tap once when you get on and once when you get off so the system knows how far you’ve travelled. The catch is if you forget to tap off, the system charges you for the furthest possible destination you could have gone to.)
When I get off the train, I’m at my destination. The trip is over, and I’m moving on to where I need to be. The nondescript Presto card machines don’t grab my attention as I leave, because most of them are oriented towards people entering the station. This has happened to me at Rouge Hill, Stouffville, Oshawa, and Union Station.
The fix for this is simple. Put card reading machines directly on the platform so I see them when the train doors open. Or, better yet, have the machines inside the train doors so I can tap off before I leave.
Third anecdote: I boarded the bus in Mississauga, tapped on, and got off in Waterloo. As I leave the bus, I tap off and am about to walk off when the bus driver calls me back. He thinks I didn’t tap the card properly, but I definitely saw the green light go on. He was under the impression that he had to personally take my card, and tap it himself. Which he did, thereby charging me another $4.20 to initiate a new trip. I was frustrated, but the old guy obviously didn’t know how the payment system works. So, staff training appears to be a big issue. I phoned the help line later that night, but they couldn’t verify the transaction, because it takes 24 hours for transactions to appear on my account.
Which brings me to the fourth anecdote: A 24-hour wait time? Really? You know, this is 2011. I can buy something on eBay and send the funds to a vendor on Hong Kong in a matter of minutes. This applies to topping up my account online, too. After filling out my credit card information (there’s no PayPal option), I have to wait a full cycle of the sun to use my Presto card. That means I can’t top up my account if I realise that I won’t have enough to make the trip into Toronto to see that concert tonight.
On the topic of their online tools, a Presto account forces you to use a 4-digit numeric PIN as a password. That’s about the least secure password system ever, and it handles my credit card information. Does that make me feel safe? Of course not.
One last anecdote: I checked my Presto balance yesterday morning. $39.26. Good. On the trip home for Thanksgiving, I boarded a bus at Scarborough Town Centre and tapped my card. A red light flashed. “Insufficient funds.” Exasperated, I started to explain to the driver that I did have money on the card, that I checked it just this morning. It must have been be a machine malfunction.
The driver seemed equally exasperated. “Forget it. I don’t have time to deal with this. Get in, I have a schedule to stick to.” So I rode the bus for free because the Presto system was too glitchy and time-consuming to bother with.
I think all these problems can be traced to the organizational structure of Metrolinx and GO Transit. Presto actually runs as a separate division under Metrolinx, the arms-length agency mandated by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to plan the transit system for the Greater Golden horseshoe. GO Transit is also, technically, an independent division under Metrolinx. One of the fundamental problems with this setup is that GO and Metrolinx have different mandates. GO Transit’s service area includes cities like Barrie and Kitchener, which are outside of Metrolinx’s focus on the Greater Toronto/Hamilton Area.
I haven’t the faintest clue why Presto is its own division, separate from GO Transit, underneath an arm’s-length organization that has only sporadic contact with the government. The bureaucracy is unfathomable.
Presto was supposed to be about making transit more convenient and seamless for people. Needless to say, it hasn’t delivered. We need to get rid of the silos. We need interregional transit planning to be integrated with the realities on the ground. And that means bringing everything back under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transportation. Public transit is a public service, and new departments shouldn’t be made for each little project.
For the ideas of Presto to succeed, we must kill the organizational structure that threatens to strangle it.Sam Nabi