PRESTO: Your Ticket to Ride

Amelia Bredo

If you’ve ever experienced another city’s system of public transportation, your return to the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) was likely accompanied by mixed emotions. Toronto’s streetcars, buses, and subways are crucial to the city’s operation, but the TTC falls behind other major cities in several key ways, namely in the use of an outdated token and cash-fare system. According to the TTC’s website, Toronto’s buses, subways, and streetcars are used by over 1.6 million people every day, and ridership totals 525 million people a year. With ridership like this, it is a wonder that the TTC has continued to conduct business largely through token and cash fare, unlike its international counterparts. Shockingly, subway stations were not even equipped with debit machines to purchase tokens until December of 2014.

Currently, however, the TTC is undergoing a major change in operation. If you’ve used Toronto’s public transportation in the past few months, you may have noticed a new addition to the City’s streetcars and subway stations. At the end of 2015, PRESTO terminals became available on all new and legacy Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) streetcars, and in 26 subway stations. The service will continue to be expanded throughout 2016 to include Toronto’s bus system, and to ensure compatibility throughout all subway stations. Although PRESTO will be fully implemented by mid-2017, many people continue to wonder; what exactly is PRESTO?

PRESTO is a “pay-as-you-go” electronic fare card. You can purchase a card for $6 and preload it with anything between $10 and $1,000. Then, when you enter a subway station or streetcar (and, eventually, a bus), you are simply required to “tap on” when entering. Transfers to different vehicles mid-trip also require a tap, though you will only be charged one fare. TTC users don’t seem to have warmed up to the system just yet; Councillor Josh Colle, who chairs the TTC board, anticipates the need for a “huge public communication and public outreach to educate passengers”. This is a concern that accompanies any drastic change in service delivery or policy. PRESTO, however, is already being used by nine transit systems in the Greater Toronto Area, including York Region Transit, Brampton Transit, and Go Transit. This lends confidence that Torontonians, too, will be able to adapt to the new method of payment. Likewise, the system’s gradual implementation is likely to lessen the impact of such a huge change to the way that Torontonians, and tourists, traverse the city. Those who use Go to enter Toronto are already well adapted to PRESTO, and as the shiny new green boxes selling PRESTO cards pop up in subway stations across the city, curiosity alone is sure to win over some TTC users. Either way, a Toronto Transit Commission news release states that tokens and cash fare will be “progressively” phased out, forcing people to adapt as early as 2017.

When PRESTO is fully implemented, and tokens and cash fare are eliminated by mid-2017, PRESTO will at last make the TTC comparable to other major metropolitan transit systems. London, England, for example, has used a similar payment service since 2003, when the Oyster Card was introduced. London also continues to offer single tickets, though the price of a ticket fare is much higher than an Oyster Card fare. New York City also uses cards in lieu of cash fares or tickets. With the city’s MetroCard, users are able to choose between a weekly, monthly, or pay-as-you-go card. The adoption of PRESTO by the TTC reflects these systems in many ways, though there continues to be room for improvement.

Several transformative options are available to the TTC, which continues to struggle to meet the needs of a growing clientele and limited funding. Toronto is North America’s only city to receive under $1 of municipal funding per ride. At 88 ₵ per ride, compared to $1.21 received by Montreal, and $1.63 received by Vancouver, Toronto’s Transit Commission must find additional ways to raise funds and improve services. Several options may be explored in the coming years, after PRESTO has been fully integrated.

The Toronto Transit Commission could explore fare-by-distance or zone-dependant pricing. In London, zones have been in place for years. The city is divided into zones that form rings around the city’s core. The more zones a rider travels through, the higher the fare. The TTC may find some success in adopting a similar system. Instead of charging a flat rate per ride to customers, as is done now, the TTC could determine prices based on distance travelled. In such a case, an individual who only travels four subway stops will enjoy a lower fare than a person who travels 8 stops. Similarly, you might currently choose to walk the distance of four streetcar stops because you are not willing to pay the $2.90 PRESTO fare for such a short journey. However, you might be willing to pay $1.50, for that same trip. With this method in place, the TTC could accommodate the needs of more people, and collect additional fares. This method could, however, unfairly disadvantage people who are traveling further distances, often from low-income neighbourhoods, to enter the city. Three Cities Within Toronto, a study conducted by University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski, clearly outlines Toronto’s growing income polarisation. Low-income Canadians, particularly newcomers, are disproportionately concentrated in the Toronto suburbs, where distance from the city’s core ensures more affordable housing. A subsidised PRESTO price for low-income travellers is a potential remedy to this issue, though additional funding from the City of Toronto is necessary for such a program’s success.

The TTC may also consider time-dependent pricing, which could include increasing fares during times of high occupancy, such as weekday rush hours, and lowering fares at other times. A 2015 TTC Fare Policy Report conducted “fare impact analysis scenarios” to project the outcomes of several potential “peak fare” price alterations. The Report found that “factoring in ridership loss and switching rates, the revenue potential of a 15 cent increase in peak pricing alongside a 5 cent across the board off-peak discount could result in an overall $2M net revenue gain”, and went as far as to recommend the implementation of Peak/Off Peak pricing by 2018. The potential reaction of passengers, who have little control about when they use public transportation, is unclear. Most people cannot change their 9 to 5 jobs to suit the TTC, and may find it in their interest to look to other forms of transportation, including UberHop, a new and unregulated carpooling service. An influx of former TTC passengers travelling on TTC routes in Ubers does little to alleviate the congestion that Toronto is already struggling against.

Options are abound, but each is accompanied by complications. The implementation of PRESTO is a natural predecessor to the TTC’s further transformation, and it is likely that discussion on the matter will continue for many years to come. As for now, I encourage those of you who have yet to make the switch to PRESTO to use up your tokens, maybe save one or two as souvenirs, and embrace the convenience of the pay-as-you-go electronic fare card that has been enjoyed by other major cities for years.


Amelia Bredo is a 2017 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She also holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto with a double major in English and History. Her policy interests include immigration, corrections, and social policy. 

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