Presto May Be a Good Idea – But Only If You Can Afford It

By Saeed Mohamed

It has been over a year since the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) introduced Presto, an initiative spearheaded by the provincially owned agency Metrolinx. Presto will replace tokens, tickets and possibly cash fares by 2017, and this transition is going to be disproportionately burdensome for low-income people in the city.

Presto is a transit payment system that uses smart-card technology in order for cardholders to simply tap their way through bus and subway lines across the city. It is a change for TTC riders who purchase Metropasses every month.

Presto cards provide a reloadable service whereby cardholders can add value to their cards online using a credit or debit card, or in person at Presto green machines that will be installed in subway stations. This new payment strategy, adopted from the GTA GO-Transit system, will spread throughout the city as the primary transit fare payment method by the end of the year.

Although Presto technology is projected to boost efficiency, the card presents a barrier for Toronto’s homeless populations. It costs about $6 to purchase a Presto card and users must load each card with at least $10 each time they deposit money on the card. Also, these cards can only be purchased in person at TTC stations, or online.

One of the barriers that currently exists for transit riders is that only 11 of Toronto’s 69 subway stations sell Presto cards. Will the TTC be able to meet its own deadlines before they eliminate all other fare types? Or will people be forced to travel to specific stations to buy passes?

If this is the case, travelling through the TTC to these stations would become an even more difficult task for Toronto’s homeless population. The option to purchase passes online is also unrealistic for the homeless because of the lack of consistent access to a mailing address where the card can be delivered.

What about the people who are provided TTC tokens by charity programs? How about the children who receive student tickets from their schools through programs geared towards lessening the cost of transportation for low-income parents?

The TTC claims it will introduce one-time-use Presto passes, called Limited Use Media (LUMs), that can be purchased by social service agencies which can in turn distribute them to clients. TTC spokeswoman Heather Brown explained that “while many details are still being worked out, we expect LUMs will be just as easy to distribute (as) tokens are today.”

This update only comes after years of planning the phasing-out of all non-Presto fare types and is a policy that is still currently being worked out. This ‘solution’ is slated to come late-2017, a long wait in the dark for those reliant on token distribution programs.

City officials, TTC and MetroLinx have requested patience and understanding during this process. But homeless and impoverished communities will hardly have the time to wait around for answers when they have to find new ways to get to work, a job interview or a food bank.

Introducing Distance-Based Fares

Presto supposedly does have a solution for the rising costs of transportation by implementing “zones” where fare rates vary based on travel distance. If one were to embark on a shorter TTC ride, essentially, they would be paying less than the standard rate. Also, in December 2015 the TTC board approved peak-hour increased fare rates, meaning riders who travel during rush hour will be automatically charged an extra 15 to 25 cents from their Presto cards.

This further demonstrates that the Presto system really does not consider the pockets of its users, especially not low-income people. Only those living and commuting downtown, where TTC service is the most efficient, will benefit from Presto’s shorter distance rates. Middle to low-income, racially diverse communities who need to travel longer distances to get to work live on the outskirts of the city in suburbs like Scarborough and Rexdale.

Map 4

The blue section represents 9% of the city, where individual average income is consistently increasing since 1980. This is the area most closely located to the TTC subway system. The red section represents 25% of the city where individual average income has been consistently decreasing, and located furthest from the most efficient mode of transportation.

The TTC has done little to nothing to advance transit equity for people living in the outskirts of Toronto. In fact, the Accessibility/Equity Matters section of the Presto policy plan states, “it is beyond the mandate and expertise of the TTC to effectively resolve broader social and community issues related to income distribution.”

TTC Riders, an organization that has been advocating for a cap on fare increases, has called on the City to implement a low-income metropass. Jessica Bell, Executive Director of TTC Riders says, “people are very nervous about the $6 it costs to purchase a Presto card, along with the $10 minimum that must be loaded on the card in order to use it. All of this on top of a $3 fare each trip makes for an expensive experience. Are people going to have to choose between getting home or getting dinner?”

She commented that because there is not a lot of information available about Presto, it makes it hard for social service agencies to prepare for the transition.

There have been six TTC fare hikes since 2010, and Presto cards are facilitating a structure that is designed to continually increase its revenues at the expense of riders. Although the TTC acknowledges that there will be barriers to those with poorer socioeconomic conditions, it completely absolves itself of any responsibility to address this issue.

Instead, Presto offers limited discounts that require a flexibility that most working class transit users located furthest from downtown do not have. Will a mother be able to avoid coming home during peak hours when doing so might mean having to pay for childcare? These discounts, then, have little meaning to those of us who are the most constrained by income, distance and time.

The public transit experience in Toronto has already been awkward and messy all year. Cash fares and Metropass prices for students and adults have increased. The TTC has left subway trains dangerously humid throughout the summer. Inconvenient construction in and around subway stations have caused frequent delays and closures every weekend. And to top it all off, transit enforcement officers have been put in place to ticket hefty fines to those simply confused by the new Proof-of-Payment system.

As the 2017 operational deadline nears, the introduction of Presto appears to be yet another alienating and expensive experience for the people of this city.

To learn more about the City’s Presto plans, read the TTC policy report:




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