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Presto Farecard: Revolution or Hyperbole?

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Today’s newspapers are fawning over a new farecard (see yesterday’s and today’s headlines posts), to be called Presto, that will be used by GO Transit and the suburban bus systems in the 905 region surrounding Toronto. The project is heavily promoted by the province, which promises a seemless, integrated transit system by allowing commuters to store all their fares on one plastic card. A website is up and the initial testing will begin at two GO Stations in Mississauga on the Milton Line, along with Union Station and four Mississauga Transit bus routes.

The project is being undertaken by Accenture, and it will cost $250 million to develop and maintain for ten years for GO and eight 905 transit agencies. The Presto card will allow each system’s fares to be stored on one card, which would work in a similar fashion to London’s Oyster or Hong Kong’s Octopus cards, with fares being deducted from a RFID chip that would merely require being held in close proximity to a card reader machine.

Besides the ability of being able to store all fares on one declining-balance card (mitigating the need to carry separate fares, paper transfers and change), a benefit will also be a registration option, to allow the value stored on a card to be carried onto a new one should it get lost or stolen. These are the biggest benefits of the system planned for the GTA.

One of the main reasons why this farecard is being rolled out is because GO Transit’s current ticketing system, which uses paperboard tickets and ink-based cancelling machines, dates from the early 1980s and is now obsolete. However, this is barely mentioned as the impetus for this new system.

To hear some of the politicians, it would seem that this is some sort of breakthrough that will solve Toronto’s interregional transit woes. “It’s the only way we’ll have efficient rapid transit in the GTA” touts Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion.

“We need to move people easily. This is the only way to do it” adds Donna Cansfield, the provincial transportation minister.

But is it as much as it seems?

The Toronto Transit Commission, which moves the vast majority of the GTA’s transit riders, isn’t so keen. It would cost the TTC an additional $300 million to implement it on its 1600 buses, 250 streetcars and 69 stations, plus $25 million a year to operate it. Meanwhile, as the TTC’s monthly Metropass use rises, more riders are already dispensing with cash, tickets, tokens and transfers. Chair Adam Giambrone and the TTC has not been overly enthusiastic about signing on, particularly because of the costs, and that they do not have an immediate need to replace their system of no-tech drop fare boxes and magnetic swipe turnstiles.

Without the TTC’s participation, the Presto card will not be entirely useful. While there will be machines at the TTC’s Union, Downsview, Finch, Islington and Don Mills stations, they are designed only to allow card holders transferring from York Region or Mississauga or a GO Train at Union to get into the TTC using the card, but those passengers will still have to keep their tokens handy as they will still need them to get back to those five stations in the afternoon. Plus, other stations that offer connections to GO Transit, such as Dundas West, Yorkdale or Scarborough Centre will not have card readers.

Finally, the issue of a real integrated fare structure, a major benefit of an integrated farecard, is not being discussed. Yes, it eventually be possible to pay all fares on the Presto card, but there will yet be no fare incentive for transferring between GO and the TTC, a crucial barrier to a real integrated network. Vancouver and Montreal have fare discounts and transfer privileges between their transit systems and commuter rail lines, and London and many other cities have long had full fare integration between its bus, subway and regional rail network. There will also still be a full fare penalty for crossing Steeles Avenue or the Mississauga border. A real smartcard would be able to provide a fairer fare structure.

Adam Giambrone is probably right — there are bigger priorities for the TTC than a farecard, such as overcrowding on many bus routes, and maintenance of its large system. The province is paying for the implementation costs for GO and the 905 transit systems, if they want the TTC involved, why not at least help subsidize the cost?



  1. I prefer to have a transfer which I can see the time it expires. I’m not going to play this on memory. I wonder how time limited tickets will work with the card?

  2. At the moment, hyperbole. The TTC is smart not to drop a lot of money into this until service is improved a good bit. Also, where’s the GTTA in all this? Isn’t it their job to harmonize local and regional transit in the GTA? This really shouldn’t have been announced until there was more work on fare structure harmonization or at least improved transfer privileges.

  3. Apparently even the GTTA was taken aback – at their last meeting, they were discussing possible names and marketing plans for the farecard, and now the province makes the big media splash with Presto.

    The GTTA was not involved in the MoveOntario 2020 plan either, but it will likely be charged with its implementation.

  4. RFID chips are readable from a distance with a small amount of hardware that can be easily hidden.

    And even if the information on the chip is encrypted, all a Bad Guy has to do is copy it onto his own chip to ride for free, anywhere in the GTA he wants, for as long as your balance lasts.

    It’s like a debit card without the security of a PIN number or having to actually swipe it.

    And this is a good thing how?

  5. Luke, imagine for a second it worked in Toronto. You would actually be able to transfer at places you couldn’t normally before, probably for up to 90 minutes after you entered the subway.

    You would be able to walk to a bus that wasn’t necessarily possible now and swipe your card, and in all likelihood, it would let you on.


    That aside, I cannot understand, for the life of me, why the TTC doesn’t sign on to this plan. Not because it’s good for GTA transit, forgive me for not really caring about that at all, but to actually make traveling within Toronto easier for everyone, and preventing fraud.

    Seriously, it pains me to see people on the subway “pretend” to drop in a ticket and go through the turnstile, or for people to drop in a fistful of change that is probably around $0.45 and be let on the bus and laugh about it with their friends.

    We could also really use a declining balance card… I am surprised a fare card program was not led by the TTC itself.

  6. I’m not sure what makes the paper based systems obsolete as the author states, at least if you are not setting up a regional or integrated fare system.

    I used a stored value swipeable card in Sweden a few months ago. It was very handy and if an integrated fare system were part of this project I’d say it would be good news. I was able to board a city bus in one city, request and pay for a ticket that covered my city bus to regional train to destination city bus using the swipe card. There was still a piece of paper involved in the receipt that was printed that indicated how much was deducted from the card and the valid destination which was effectively my ticket for inspection on the regional train.

  7. GMD — It’s not the paper tickets specifically that are obsolete; it’s the cancelling machines that read how many trips are left and then print out the time for your current trip. And it’s not an integration issue, but just that the machines will soon need replacing due to age, at least from what I recall.

  8. I’m in Washington DC right now and completely love how easy it is to get around here. I’d have to agree with Kevin in that I’m not sure I care if it is a financially wise system for the TTC to implement if it’s an easier system for riders. While I appreciate and am happy to hear that Metropass sales are increasing, I would never buy one because it doesn’t suit my needs. I bike most of the time so when I do take transit I usually end up dropping my full fare in change into the box because I never have tickets or tokens around.

    In DC however, on my first day I was able to walk up to a machine and decide what I needed while I’m here. On day 1 we bought a day pass to get on and off all day long. On day 2 I bought a ticket with $10 on it and have been using that to ride around everywhere. They also have a SmartCard here which as far as I can tell is an RFID type card that people can swipe to get on and off wherever they want. There are so many options and they are all easy to use. The convenience for newcomers, casual riders and daily commuters is outstanding.

    One thing I do definitely agree with is that in order for this to make sense and have real value in Toronto is that there definitely needs to be fare harmonization across all systems. Doing so can offer more of an incentive for people in the GTA to use transit to get into the city and vice versa.

    Although no expert on these systems, in response to the security concerns raised above, my guess is that there are ways of dealing with this given that millions of people around the world having been using these sorts of payment systems for years.

  9. Are smart cards that poorly secured? They’ve been working fine for years in Hong Kong and London.

  10. Question: As of last year, I could get a public transit credit on my income tax for buying a metropass, but I had to supply the receipt and/or the metropass with my return. When the switchover to Presto starts, how would I be able to claim my transit credit? The Presto just appears to me to be a glorified gift card that I spend on myself. Are these refill stations going to print receipts? Or are we going to have to register our Presto cards so that the company can mail us a form detailing exactly how much we spent on transit in a given year?

  11. Sabrina> Yes. You will have to register the card to get the tax credit, even if it is for a weekly pass. According to the website, you will also have to pay $5 to purchase the farecard, and I wonder if registration will be extra.

    I am currently a Metropass Discount Plan subscriber, so I get the Metropass mailed to me, with money deducted from my bank account (which you may be able to do with registration of the Presto card). I actually get a small discount for the extra convenience, and a receipt in the mail around tax time. I don’t think the Presto card will give the same convenience I get for paying less than the Metropass going rate.

  12. The current tax credit system is so flawed anyway, it really deserves an overhaul.

    When I was hanging out with my friends at TransLink I got to see a letter Howard Moscoe had sent to the agency, with a picture of eleven TTC tickets. On the eleventh ticket was a picture of Stephen Harper.

  13. Most of the cards that have been in use for years require you to physically swipe them (the same way you swipe a debit or credit card) or insert and withdraw them (like security passes and “key cards”) at the card reader.

    These Presto cards only have to be brought within range of a card reader to give up their information. They use RFID chips like those in merchandise anti-theft tags.

    Readers can be built that can read these cards from greater ranges than the intentionally short-range “official” readers, so a Bad Guy can “swipe” your card from several feet away without your knowledge.

    As always, Wikipedia has more:

  14. I call bullshit on the TTC’s $300M figure for implementing this on their system.

    1600 buses + 200 stations + whatever = 2,000 sites @ $150,000 a pop. Pardon? Close to a quarter of the cost of a new bus?

    $25million to operate it? How? That’s a staff of 75 technologists!

  15. here’s the trick to put in a fair fare zone boundary system:

    have a bunch of small zones and have the fare increase incrementally. either that or cover two zones with the base fare.

    so, for example, let’s say that downtown is one zone, cross bloor, it’s another zone, cross eglinton, etc.

    one zone will cost, say, $1.75, two zones $2.00, three zones $2.25…

    that way the incentive to not cross fare zones is greatly reduced.


  16. Sue, I understand your concerns on such security issues. However, it’s my understanding that numerous other cities – including the highly successful London and Hong Kong systems – are now RFID-based as well. Have they been hacked in the way you describe?

    I understand that they have sufficient security to be reliable, but feel free to let us know otherwise.

    As for the GTTA, leaving them out of the loop on both this and MoveOntario 2020 does not bode well for its supposed purpose of system integration. I’m optimistic with the launch of the technology, but the jurisdictions involved really need to start working together more directly if it’s to be as successful as it could.

  17. Remote thievery may be more complicated than you say, Sue, if the Presto card is smart enough to do some calculations. Perhaps it can engage in a cryptographically-secured, challenge-response dialogue with the card reader, making it immune to the replay attacks that you propose.

    It’s more work to secure it than to leave it open to eavesdropping, of course, so I’m not claiming that Presto is necessarily going to be this good. It may be ages before we even learn whether it’s secure or not, obscurity being the order of the day for such things.

  18. If the problem we have is that there just aren’t enough people taking long single-passenger car rides every day, zone fares are the perfect solution.

    Pollution and congestion problems, though, need to keep the TTC cheap enough for someone who needs to get from Scarborough to Etobicoke every day to consider it worth the extra inconvenience to take transit.

    We can have fairness or we can have usage. I prefer usage. Every suburbanite whose ride downtown I’m subsidizing is a suburbanite who isn’t slowing down my streetcar with their SUV.

  19. If the TTC doesn’t want into the card then let them stay out. But they should not be allowed ever develop a smart card of their own. When TTC’s time for smart cards come it MUST be the same system as the rest of the GTA.

  20. Hi Sue,

    The Presto card sounds almost exactly like the “Oyster card” that’s been in use in London for almost 4 years.

    Wikipedia also has a very long list of municipalities that use contactless smartcards for their fare systems. This isn’t particularly new technology for transit agencies.

    That said, I’m content with the TTC holding out with their current low-tech solutions until the arrival of all-door LRT loading forces the issue. With the current funding arrangements it just doesn’t make sense spending money on a not-yet-necessary fare system when much of the system is in bad shape.

  21. “However, it’s my understanding that numerous other cities – including the highly successful London and Hong Kong systems – are now RFID-based as well. Have they been hacked in the way you describe?”

    Not sure about transit cards, but the UK’s passports bear the same RFIDs, which were famously hacked within 48 hours of first being issued to the public.

    I do imagine that when money goes missing from one of these cards, it will be blamed on the owner’s miscalculations or, at best, a computer error.

    “Remote thievery may be more complicated than you say, Sue, if the Presto card is smart enough to do some calculations.”

    It’s not. The card’s chip carries only enough info to identify the owner (say, an account number). The terminal that intercepts that identification does the work of looking you up in its database, logging your passage and deducting the amount owing from your account. (Which raises the secondary issue of personal security — this system will have a complete record of where you go and when.)

    You can Google for the software you need to do this. If you work in retail, you already have access to the hardware. You will need to bring to the table a post-highschool understanding of computers and some basic soldering skills in order to boil these down into a remote scanner you can carry in your backpack.

    Granted, the odds that you or I will be the ones who are victimized by this are slim to none, just like identity theft. But just like identity theft, this is way easier than it should be to do.

  22. Sue… it sounds like a fair bit of work to steal from one of these cards… and what would be the benefit exactly? I mean I guess if you managed to steal a card that had the automatic $10 refill set on it… but even then… what if the TTC automatically emails and or sends you a txt message everytime you get a fill up charge… people would notice that their card has been compromised fairly quickly.

  23. London’s card is the “Oyster”, Hong Kong’s the “Octopus” Toronto gets the…..”Presto”?!

    Can’t we have a seafood-name smartcard too, like those cooler, bigger cities? How about the Trout? You could even make the thing look like a trout. We could all walk around with floppy, rubber, trout-like farecards with their tails spilling out of our manbags and purses. And every time we passed through the turnstiles we’d just slap it with our electronic-chipped “trout” and off we’d go.

    Think of the advertising possibilities, the canuckian cachet.

  24. Sue, although the UK passport example is scary, the Wikipedia article on Hong Kong’s Octopus card specifically notes, “The Octopus card and system have never been successfully hacked.”

    Mobius, don’t forget it should sound good in both English and French.

  25. “Sue… it sounds like a fair bit of work to steal from one of these cards… and what would be the benefit exactly?”

    I’m not pretending to know all the details, but from what I do know, it seems to require a fair amount of expertise but a lesser amount of work. And once the first scanner has been made, making others is easy.

    The benefit can be the entire balance of someone else’s card (say $200 from a GO Transit rider), as many times and from as many different victims as you like.

    “Sue, although the UK passport example is scary, the Wikipedia article on Hong Kong’s Octopus card specifically notes, ‘The Octopus card and system have never been successfully hacked.'”

    But I wonder for how long that will be true?

  26. Fare integration across transit systems would be one important aspect. But the card I was hoping for would keep track of your trips over the course of a month and offer you the best fares based on your travel history. For example, a monthly TTC pass works out to about 36 trips. So if I made more than that many trips in a month, the cost for the month would be capped at the cost of a monthly pass. You could implement the same type of approach for the number of trips in a day or the number of trips in a week. This card would act more like a credit card – you get a statement every month. I suspect it would be more expensive to establish and maintain, but it would probably be more attractive to people who having riding habits that are on the cusp of making the purchase of a metropass worthwhile. It would also promote walking/cycling in milder months: people who buy into a monthly metropass plan (like me) wouldn’t feel like they’re wasting their money by opting for a healthier commute and not using the pass.

  27. Having lived in Europe (Dusseldorf) I’ve noticed that there, a fully automated fare card system meant that much fewer staff were required because everything could be purchased at machines, even in the “U-bahn” stations. I wonder if some of the costs for the TTC could be offset by lower staffing requirements at subway stations, i.e. that outside rush hour only the busiest stations would require an actual person in the booth. I doubt this would be an incentive for the TTC to get on board, given how the ATU would view this, but as a transit user (and taxpayer), I’d be curious if this analysis has been done.

  28. I personally feel Presto is a solution looking for a problem. It is all great and gee-whizzy, but are the benefits worth the cost?

    Real fare integration is needed first, and some form of smart card would simplify its integration. I don’t have a problem with zone fares (where zones exist currently – I am not in favour of splitting current zones into multiples), but there are three things that are needed to make them fair (pardon the pun) so that they will attract people to use public transit: wide boundaries, fare suplements, and equal treatment.

    A wide boundary is important, to eliminate the unfair treatment of people close to the boundary. Currently, the Toronto/York Region boundary is Steeles (that’s easy, make the political boundary the fare boundary). A wide boundary would cover, say, 2 km south of there to Finch and 2 km north to Centre (on Yonge). A passenger travelling into the boundary area from either zone does not pay any extra. Only a passenger that crosses entirely through the boundary area will have to pay more.

    Fare suplements means that when you pay to cross entirely into the next zone, you do not pay a FULL extra fare. You pay a supplement, say $1 extra.

    Equal treatment means it does not matter who’s vehicle you are on, you pay the same supplement on the vehicle you use to cross the boundary, and the transfer issued is good on any vehicle in either zone.

    A nearby example of wide zone bounday with fare supplemnts is YRT/VIVA in York Region. The boundary area between zone 1 and 2 runs from just south of King Sideroad to just north of Bloomington Sideroad. The supplement for travelling in the two zones is an extra $1.

    A smart card system would help in the implementation of this, though still may not be necessary.

    I don’t totally dismiss a smart card system without – I just don’t believe the cost is justified.

    A smart card system has a nice advantage for the user: no need to decide if you want to go with a pass or not. Whether this would be implemented or not is another issue, but a smart card system CAN automatically cap your daily, weekly, or monthly spending at the cost of a pass. Say you set out for the day – do you use tickets or a day pass. On the TTC, the decision point is 4 rides (tickets tokens are $2.10, the day pass is $8.50). What if you don’t know at the start of the day that you will need 5 or more rides? Without a smart card, you gamble. With a smart card, each trip deducts $2.10 form the card’s balance until you reach $8.50 for the day, then no further deductions occur until the next operating day. The same logic could apply to the weekly pass and the monthly pass. Furthermore, since monthly passes and weekly passes (when 4 consecutive weeks are purchased) are tax creditable, the system can automatically generate a receipt (probably through a website) for what you ended up purchasing after the fact.

    There is one advantage to smart cards that I’m hoping the TTC will not realize: they can keep their antiquated trip-based fare/transfer system. I am a big fan of time-expiry transfers that act as 90-minute or 2-hour passes. The A-to-Z system used by the TTC dates back to the days when transit was only for uni-location commutes. More fare disputes with drivers exist over whether your transfer is still valid, or valid at all at the place you are using it. Why should your transfer at a street corner be invalid becuase you bought a Big Mac while waiting for the bus, when other transit users can do the same inside the fare-paid area of some subway stations?

    Rant aside, the truth is that a smart card system has the power to figure out if you are still on your initial A-to-Z trip and NOT deduct anything from your balance or if you are now on your way back or have stopped over and are on another leg of your journey and deduct another fare. Shhhh! Don’t tell the TTC about this possibility!

  29. Sue,

    Your fear is completely unfounded. Put on a thief hat and ask yourself if the benefits of stealing Presto credits outweighs that of, say, old school pickpocketing.

    1. You don’t know the card you’re sniffing is worth $0.01 or $10.

    2. No personal ID is on the card (each card chip is only tied to its balance and other card-related properties, see #4) so the max value you can steal is only equal to the card’s value. ID theft is _literally_ (not figuratively. Literally and I mean it) impossible, unlike the UK passport case.

    3. You can only use the credit for transits (I know, you can do a lot with the Oyster and the Octopus but in TORONTO, transit will be what Presto’s only capability in the short run).

    4. In other smart card systems, customers can put a limit on the card, so you can say “make it impossible for the card to hold more than $40 anytime). (a “card-related property” in #2)

    Smart RFID thieves who still find it benefitial to steal disregarding points 1-4 will randomly steal someone’s card ID. Given enough people who use it, their fishing operation will at most make me lose maybe $40 over many years, if you’re unlucky.

    It’s no worse than being pickpocketed at a TTC station. However, since nobody needs to open a bag to use smart cards, real pickpocket cases will likely drop and the overall change will be a _Net Decrease_ of theft.

  30. I now have a little collection of these smart cards going: I use one here in Chicago and while traveling in DC, Boston, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. One big advantage to the agencies is indeed reduced staffing and equipment needs. Cash costs a lot of time and money to process, and machines that use cash (or issue paper receipts) have moving parts which constantly break down. Smart cards appreciably speed up boarding for buses and streetcars.

    On transfer times: you can generally check your transfer time remaining at any rail station add-value machine.

    On the theft issue: “contactless” generally requires very close proximity, about 2-3mm. It works through a wallet, but as others have pointed out, “cloning” attacks are quite difficult. Since the cards are registered, like a credit card, a lost or stolen card can be called in, cancelled, and replaced.

    Similarly, since the cards are registered, it’s easy to track one’s purchases (and expenditures — hence movements, which creeps some people out). This would be a good way of handling the income tax credit.

  31. Toronto isn’t in favor of this because of the $300 million price tag, plus the $25 million maintenance cost, but the reality is, this is a long term investment. The TTC loses millions due to ticket fraud. I`m not saying the Presto Card will fix this, but it would certainly improve fare security issues a bit.

    Having traveled across Europe and East Asia, I have to admit, Toronto as well as the GTA has a pretty embarrassing system. I hear International Students at the local universities giggling over it all the time. We aren’t Communist North Korea, its time for an updated fare system. This is a perfect opportunity for TTC to attract new 905ers out of their cars.

    The fare system may still be out of date, but at least with Presto, it provides Metrolink with the instrument needed for a fair but complex fare structure.

  32. Transit smart cards have been used for years, even in a couple of small French towns with a population of 500 000 max. with the suburbs, and of course in Milan, Paris, Toulouse, Lyon, London, Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagoya etc. etc. These cards DO NOT deduct money from a user bank account as one swipe the card but from a stored amount of e-money in the card. The user has the option of loading the card with more money from a bank machine OR having the card automatically topped up from a bank account(can be a special account set up just for that purpose, not your secret life savings account). As soon as the topping up occurs an e-mail is sent to the user. MOST TRANSIT USERS choose a monthly pass. Actually in many European towns it is weekly, monthly, yearly (the cheapest option as it gives at least one free month. one still pay by the month, not all at once). More and more cell phone users have a transit smart card chip in their cell phone. Many transit cards are also used for small purchases in convenience stores, coffee shops etc. or to pay for parking. Last year I went straight from Canada to Osaka (plane) then to Hiroshima (train) and finally to a small town outside Hiroshima (more train). I went to a 7-11 near the hotel to buy some food and the person in front of me waved his transit smart card by a terminal to pay for his purchases. That card is actually good for the transit systems of several towns (some close, some far, from one another). Think Hamilton,Toronto, Montreal and Quebec city on one card. We are a bit late in the game.