Some Thoughts on PRESTO

If there’s one thing that Greater Toronto Area commuters have strong opinions on, it’s Presto.

Presto (or PRESTO as the marketers at Metrolinx like to yell), is an electronic fare card system that is being rolled out across 11 different Ontario transit agencies from Hamilton, through the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa.

The goal of Presto is to create and run a unified fare payment system for Ontario commuters so that those using multiple transit agencies to get around will be able to use a single fare card system to make the trip.

TTC and Presto – together at last

The TTC wasn’t exactly excited about implementing Presto, but after years of dragging their feet on switching over, they’ve recently accelerated the pace of the roll out and now expect to have it complete by the end of 2016.

Since I’m a TTC rider only, and have happily relied on monthly Metropasses for the few years, Presto has been something I’ve spent little time researching.

But in late December, after a bit of consideration, I decided to take the plunge and switch away from using a monthly TTC Metropass in favour of Presto. My reasons were three-fold:

  1. We’re moving within walking distance of my work while we renovate our house so I don’t need a Metropass for the next three months.
  2. Based on my transit usage over a year period, I think I can save a fair bit of money using Presto and paying per ride vs. buying 12 monthly passes via the Metropass Discount Plan.
  3. I want to use and understand Presto now since the TTC is planning to phase out tickets, tokens and Metropasses in favour of Presto by the end of 2016.

First Impressions

Getting a card was fairly easy. I could have purchased one at a TTC subway station, some Gateway newstands or at Union Station, but instead I chose to order one via the Presto website and have it mailed to our house.

The card itself costs $6 and you need to pre-load it with some money. I put $25 on mine, so the total cost was $31.

When the card arrived, I went back to the Presto website and registered the card to my account. This allows you to track usage, protect the funds on the card if it’s lost or stolen, and it also allows you to setup autofund so I won’t find yourself without funds on your card.

The site advised me that I needed to use the card within 30 days to activate it, and that tapping the card on any Presto device would do just that.

Declined 🙁

My first try using Presto was a failure. I tapped the card on the Presto reader on a 504 King streetcar and was greeted with a “declined” message. I paid with a token instead and got in touch with Presto via Twitter for help.

They suggested I visit the Presto kiosk at King St. subway station to check the status of the card there. I stopped in and checked on the machine there which reported the card was registered, active and had $25 loaded.

Later that day, I logged into my Presto account to see if the card status was updated…it wasn’t.

That led me to do a bunch of research on how Presto works. That research helped me understand why there was a discrepancy between what the kiosk said, and what the website said. And it also helped me understand why my initial attempt to use Presto failed (more on that in a bit).

The next morning I logged in and my card was active (as I expected it would be). I try using Presto again on a 504 King streetcar to go to work and everything worked as designed. Within about 4 hours, the trip showed up in my Presto account online and the balance shown was accurate – $25.00 minus the $2.90 for my one TTC ride.

Lesson One: Patience!

First up, Presto cards use a proven technology used by many other fare card systems around the world, including London’s Oyster and Vancouver’s new Compass.

Like those other fare card systems, there are some quirks to get used to.

The one thing that trips a lot of users up initially is that everything takes a few hours to a day to actually happen, including adding funds to cards. The reason everything is delayed by hours (adding funds, showing trips taken, etc.) is that the card is where all the info is stored and the many Presto readers you tap aren’t connected to the Presto system at all times.

When you tap on a streetcar, the device and the card interact. There isn’t any communication with the Presto system at this point. Instead, the card keeps track of everything itself and updates the Presto device with its new information (funds balance, and trip info).

At some point periodically during the day, or overnight, the vehicle the Presto device is on connects to Presto. In some cases that overnight when it’s in the garage. It appears that TTC streetcars connect more often, perhaps using the cellular connection already in place for the Nextbus tracking system. When the readers connect, they uploads all the data to Presto. That updates the system with any trips registered so the remaining on the card can be determined.

The same delay would apply when you add funds to your card online, but in reverse. Once you add funds (or use autoload to add funds), the information needs to get to the card itself.

The Presto system sends all the updates to every single device (many, many thousands of them) when the devices ask for an update. Since devices on vehicles are only connected to Presto periodically, that data can’t filter out to every device immediately. It could take 24 hours or even longer to make it to every device on the system.

The next time you tap your card, the device and the card share data and the card learns that it has been loaded with more funds. In the case of some kiosks that have a persistent connection (apparently the ones at Union Station, for example), this can happen quickly as the funds can be added into the system, and then your card can immediately learn of its new balance via the built in reader in the kiosk.

In the case of a brand new card, once it’s registered, every device across the entire Presto system (province-wide) has to be told that the card exists to make it usable.

That data is sent to all Presto readers by the system as each device connects, and the user of the card then has 30 days to tap the card on a device to make it active. If a card is unactivated for more than 30 days, the Presto device drops the information because it can only store so much data and un-activated cards aren’t worth wasting space on.

If you attempt to use a new card where the Presto device hasn’t learned about your card yet, it’ll fail like mine did. Likely the reader on the streetcar I boarded hadn’t been updated in quite some time and I was just unlucky.

So why doesn’t Presto just work like my Starbucks card?

Unlike your Starbucks or Tim Horton’s card, Presto cards are smart. While a Starbucks card is literally just a barcode or magstripe and nothing else, the Presto card contains a small computer and secure memory that keeps track of how much money is on the card, along with other info like whether you are a student, or have a monthly pass.

Your Starbucks card number (not the card itself) is used by the Starbucks point of sale (POS) system to draw funds from your account.

Think of the combination of your Presto card and a Presto reader as being like the POS computer.

The Starbucks POS relies on a persistent connection between the POS system and the Starbucks card servers back at Starbucks HQ. If that connection between the POS and server is lost, you aren’t buying coffee.

A Starbucks card is literally just a plastic card with a number on it that does nothing and has no ability to store your balance or stars or even your name. Your Presto card on the other hand, does have all this info stored on the card, plus a computer system to process transactions.

Along with (eventually) millions of Presto cards, there are literally tens of thousands of Presto devices across Ontario in 11 different transit agencies stations and on thousands of vehicles. To have a persistent Internet connection for each device is unreasonable and would slow everything down immensly if Presto were to use non-smart cards.

Picture the boarding process if every transaction required communcation between the device and a main server somewhere over the Internet. Each tap could take 4-5 seconds like they do with your Starbucks card, and the delays would pile up.

Or imagine if you were boarding a bus and the bus lost its Internet connection for some reason. Instantly, there would be no way to pay for your ride and everything would grind to a halt. Now envision that potentially happening across thousands of vehicles in different locations across Ontario.

Even on a good day, when everything was working well, just maintaining a connection to each and every Presto device would be a challenge with moving buses, tunnels, underground stations, weather, etc., nevermind handling the tens of thousands of simultaneous transactions.

Instead, the Presto card itself smart and the device connects only periodically to exchange info between itself and the system, and to get information that needs to be provided to the card.

In this way, each device doesn’t need to be connected constantly, and there’s no reliance on a persistent connection to transact which improves reliability and speeds up individual fare taps to where it’s instantaneous.

Yes, there are a few downsides to that approach (the delays in transactions being posted and money being added being the most significant). The benefits of the approach used by Presto means it’s far less likely that riders will face a scenario where a Presto failure means they can’t tap to ride a vehicle.

Some other considerations

There has been a lot of discussion around Presto being a waste of money, or needlessly complex. Some have suggested that Metrolinx should have just bought an existing system and implemented that.

Those arguements fail to take into account the unique challenge that Metrolinx has in integrating multiple transit agencies under a single fare card system.

For example, while most existing fare systems need to work only with a single agency, in the case of Presto, it’s 11 agencies and each agency has different fare rules and pass types. For example, a single user might do a trip with a Presto card on Durham Transit with one set of rules, then a GO Train trip with zone-based fares, and the also a TTC trip with it’s own rules about transfers and things like student fares.

Presto also has to work across a very large geographic area stretching from Hamilton to Ottawa today, and even further in the future. That also means millions and millions of people using Presto daily.

Roll out challenges

While it’s taken quite some time to roll Presto out across all systems in Ontario, keep in mind that even rolling out to a single agency represents a huge undertaking.

The TTC in particular has multiple challenges including a large fleet of 250 streetcars (with 2-3 Presto readers per vehicle) and 1,200 buses (with 1-2 readers per vehicle). Add in subway stations (with asbestos and other issues) that need to be retrofitted with Internet access, kiosks and new fare gates to allow the Presto devices to connect underground, and you can see the scope of the work required.

With all that taken into account, I’m fairly pleased with how Presto works for me today. It’s a single card that I know I can use for the TTC, and for the occasional time I take a GO Train. There are a few gaps in the system now (lack of Presto devices on TTC buses and many subway stations), but nothing that I can’t workaround by carrying a backup token or two.

We’ll see how the rest of the city reacts over the next 12 months as Presto becomes the payment system for everyone.