Following in the footsteps of Seoul’s Upass, Hong Kong’s Octopus and London’s Oyster card programmes, Ontario-based prepaid transit card Presto is expanding. Ellie Chambers reports from Canada as the scheme gears up for full deployment on the Toronto Transit Commission network (TTC)

Many in London, Seoul and Hong Kong will be familiar with the idea of a dedicated transit card, a prepaid device which allows the user to pass through ticket barriers and board buses and trains seamlessly.

The Oyster card is now ubiquitous in London, with over 43m Oyster cards issued by June 2012. It also accounts for more than 80% of all journeys on public transport in London according to Transport for London.

With a modest 830k users across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) and Ottawa, Prestocard, a division of Ontario government transport agency Metrolinx, isn’t quite there yet. But that doesn’t mean that executive vice president Robert Hollis doesn’t have ambitious aims for the scheme.

He says: "The organisation’s mission is to champion the development and implementation of an integrated transport system.

"Today Presto is replacing the aging and outdated fare collection systems of the past with a modern, integrated solution that is reflective of our society’s overall technological advancement."

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Progress to date

Since it was launched in the GTHA in 2010, Presto has made great leaps forward. To date, it has signed up 10 different transport networks to the transit card, including GO Transit, OC Transpo and MiWay. It is fully deployed on 9 of these systems and is also available at 14 TTC stations, with full deployment planned for 2014-16. The TTC network, which claims to have the second highest ridership in North America, will also add trams to Presto’s network of services.

The scheme is also live in Ottawa, where the rollout should be completed in October. Overall there have been 131m tap payments with Prestocard to date, there are 8,000 Presto devices on trains, buses and subways, the transit card gains an average of 35,000 customers per month and takes CAD7.6m ($7.3m) a month in GTHA fares.

Hollis explains that this is only the beginning. He says: "Presto’s vision from the outset was to have an integrated single fare system across the whole of Ontario.

"Across the lake in Quebec, we are integrated with their system and we actually get about 5 thousand riders a day come from there.

"Today the GTHA cards and the Ottawa cards don’t work together because they are on different platforms. By the end of the year, the cards from Ottawa will work in Toronto and the cards from Toronto will work in Ottawa.

"If you are a business traveller or someone who travels between the two regions, you will only need to have one card."

Why a dedicated transit card?

Critics may ask why commuters need a dedicated transit card, when the vast majority of Canadians carry credit and debit cards.

According to Hollis, about 80% of Canadian credit cards are NFC enabled, meaning they could offer the same tap and go convenience as Presto.

However, Hollis argues that Presto offers transit-specific benefits that credit cards cannot.

He says: "When passengers tap on a fare payment device it instantly calculates and validates the lowest fare, the co-fare between municipalities and it also processes transfers with a reliability of 99.95%.

"Card holders are using Presto and moving away from the paper passes and tokens. The Presto card also allows users the choice of using the auto-load feature, like a Starbucks card, where if it falls below a certain value it automatically loads a preset amount.

"Presto users who register their cards have the additional benefit that if their card is lost or stolen we’ll replace the money and transfer it to a new card."

Presto also has an inbuilt feature to prevent customers who don’t auto-load their cards from getting stranded.

Hollis says: "We have what’s called a last ride home feature, where if you are out of money we will let your card go into a negative balance to get that last ride home – we want you to get home safe."

The future

Although a staunch supporter of dedicated transit cards, Hollis can see the benefits of opening up the platform in the future, to allow payments from regular credit and debit cards.

He says: "Closed card is still going to be our fundamental system. For the regular user, Prestocard will be our premium product, but we are aware of open payment systems emerging around the world.

"We already ran a pilot on TTC last Fall, where we accepted credit cards and it was very successful. For tourists and infrequent users, the credit card and an open system is a better way to go."

Presto is also keen to adopt new forms of payments and is keeping a close eye on developments in mobile payments in Canada.

Hollis says: "On the mobile payments front, we see more and more payments going mobile.

"In Canada, we have seen a couple of pilots between banks and telephone companies on putting credentials from credit cards on SIMs for mobile phones. We are working with the telcos right now to see what this means for Presto."

Although relatively small at present, Presto has big plans for the next few years. In 2015 Toronto is hosting the PanAm games, and Hollis hopes to have key subway stations on the TTC network Presto enabled in time to serve the influx of customers.

He says: "It took some time to build momentum but we wanted to phase it in gradually to make sure all the systems worked and that our customers were well-educated in the shift to electronic media.

"We now do about 10m taps a month and in the next 2 years Presto will really start to pick up.

"In terms of the Londons and Hong Kongs of the world we are a long way behind but we are growing and we mean to catch up."