Monday, July 25, 2011

PRESTO! The Card is Here!

After overpromising a March start, York Region Transit (YRT) finally launched the Presto Card to it's transit system as a fare payment option.  On July 18th the Presto system went live on York Region's transit system.    So far there have been lots of pluses and minuses about the system during the roll out. 

The first issue remains the delays in rolling out the Presto system in York Region.  Yorkregion.com reported the original delay back in March 2011 with the Region of York being tight lipped about the delay.  At that time I noted there was no mention in either the Region's Transportation Comittee or the  Regional Council's minutes or staff reports about the delay.  It was not until I heard rumours there were technical difficulties that needed to be worked out that caused the delay.  But about a 90 day delay?  Was this so the great YRT "everything is hunky dory!" marketing machine could get their act together and overpromote the launch of Presto?   For months several YRT buses had the Presto green advertising bus raps on them promoting the launch of the Presto card, yet no explanation was coming forth about the delayed launch date being due to technical difficulties.  To be clear, technical difficulties do occur with new and proven technical installations, thus, a proper customer update that technical issues have caused YRT to push back the launch date and updates are coming soon should have been publicized to YRT customers via their website, their My Transit customer newsletter, and, since Presto has been a large taxpayer investment in transit, a mention at the Region's Transportation comittee. YRT and the Region really dropped the ball on communicating with the public non positive news about the roll out.

Next comes the expected traditional YRT overhyped roll out date of July 18th.  Ironically this type the prehype just was not there.  Perhaps this was because the Summer 2011 edition of My Transit had already hit the printer and was being distributed on the buses by mid May so that marketing option was not a possibility and the budget on bus advertising raps had been blown already with the promised launch of March 2011 that that was not an option either.  The only mention was on the YRT website with the promise of a July 18, 2011 launch. YRT did miss an marketing option though through the local municipalities Notice Boards in the local papers.  Local municipalities post these noticeboards weekly in the local papers to provide information to residents about upcoming activities, meetings and other relevant public notices.  Richmond Hill and Aurora both have previously had YRT transit updates included in these noticeboards so why was the launch of Presto not included in there as well?  The great YRT marketing machine seems to have missed this but may have been caught off guard with the push back of the launch date to properly organize a marketing campaign on the fly.

Perhaps the marketing budget was not for the marketing purposes advertising the launch date but for ensuring the launch day itself was overmarketed. On the YRT website, YRT promised prospective riders that their team would be at Richmond Hill Centre to help sign up people with the Presto Card and show them how to use it. YRT even promised 5,000 cards would be given out free with the $6.00 issuance fee waived as long as riders purchase $19.00 worth to put on the card. 

On July 18th I took VIVA Blue up and down Yonge Street a couple of times including through Richmond Hill Centre.  In the afternoon at Richmond Hill centre as I waited to transfer buses I noted the YRT tent was there with at least four laptops set up.  This same tent was staffed by two burly YRT Special Constables who were sitting there making sure the laptops did not grow legs and walk away.  I also noted the YRT Special Constable SUV was illegally parked on the island where the buses pull up to.  This despite there being a perfectly good parking lot less than 90 feet away for the peons who ride transit can park their vehicles to ride transit.  But I digress, this would obviously be such a burden to them to park over there instead of pulling right by "Do Not Enter, Buses Excepted" signs and park right in the middle of transit island.  Also on hand were five Presto swag outfitted agents all standing around talking with each other. These agents were not really useful either as after I boarded the bus I was waiting for a YRT customer had questions for the driver.  Not one of the Presto agents walked over to lend a hand so our bus could get on it's way.  About thirty passengers were on the bus delayed because a Presto agent couldn't walk less than thirty feet over to provide a little customer service. 

Overall a quick calculation of what I observed for the roll out of Presto so far:

$6.00 x 5,000 = 30,000 in free Presto cards handed out. (costs noted based on promotion on YRT website)

$15.00 per hour for 7 Presto Agents for four eight hour work days to provide customer support = $840 (all these numbers are estimated).

Bus wraps, lap tops,  paying two special constables to guard the lap tops, printing of promotional materials before Presto was rolled out and the Presto Machines themselves?????

As you can see the costs of the Presto Roll out exceed probably exceeded $50,000 to launch the machines themselves.  And there is no word yet on how much Presto (i.e. the Province of Ontario) and YRT (Region of York) are paying for the launch.

There are some good marketing aspects YRT managed to acquire including a free how to use Presto video.  Over at Yorkregion.com a video is up showing YRT General Manager Richard Leary modelling how the Presto card is used to pay fares.   This is precisely what YRT could have produced themselves and uploaded to YouTube could have helped.  In the past VIVA and YRT have used videos to show the public how VIVA would like before VIVA was launched in September 2005.   Those videos showed riders how to validate a ticket, purchase a ticket, to board a VIVA vehicle and how the routes would operate.  A similar video could have been produced for Presto but sadly was not until Mr. Leary mugged for the press.

The major issue with Presto is the cost of the card itself.  Riders are required to pay $6.00 for the card itself without anything on it.  So for $6.00 all you get is flashy green credit card that does absolutly nothing.  You can not get on a bus until you add value to the card.  The card though is refillable at any time.  As of right now Presto can only be used in York Region for single or multi rides with the intent on eventually replacing the current fares of ten paper tickets that can be purchased at select merchants throughout the region.

Contrast this to New York City and famed "Metrocard." Metrocards are magenetic stripped cards provided free as long as the rider pays a fare to board the city's transit system.  Metrocards can also be loaded with ten rides, day passes, weekly passes and monthly passes.  The added bonus of weekly and monthly passes is the user can use it for 7 (weekly) or 30 (monthly) days from the date of purchase.  Thus, you are not hogtied like you are with the YRT GTA weekly pass into using it between Monday to Sunday of a certain week, you can use it from, for example, Wednesday to Tuesday if it is a weekly.  New York City at least makes it convenient and economical for riders to pay and utilize their fares. 

The New York City options obviously gives more flexibility and less costly fare payment options than the current fare options provided by YRT.  Hopefully Presto in the future will be broadened to replace and improve the fare payment options, but the initial $6.00 fee for the card needs to seriously be relooked at as I believe this is nothing but a cash grab by YRT or Presto. 

Another issue that YRT should be working on is where do customers obtain the Presto card for $6.00.  Currently the only place in York Region to pick up a Presto Card is at the YRT offices in Richmond Hill between 8:30 to 4:30 Monday to Friday.  Otherwise riders have to travel outside the region to purchase their card to places like Brampton and Mississauga.  Presto does advertise that riders can puchase Presto cards "at any PRESTO activated GO Transit rail station", but then does not give a list of these stations and the hours.  Perhaps Presto could provide a continously updated list of fare purchasing locations that include contact information and hours that the fares are sold similar to how York Region Transit does on their website.  This would allow riders interested in Presto to see when and where to get their card at a convenient time for them.  Presto does provide an online order option, but many people are leary of purchasing things online.   But then again, allowing YRT customers to conveniently purchase their fares was never a forte of YRT at times. Hopefully YRT is working on getting their fare providers up and running with the distribution of Presto cards. 

There are some kudos to go to YRT, the Region of York, Presto and the provincial government.  One of the kudos is to the way fares are now collected and receipts (transfers) issued to passengers.  Previously, YRT local route (e.g. Route 4, Route 85,  Route 98, Route 99, etc.) had to let passengers board pay their fare and have the driver manually rip off a transfer just right.  The transfer had to be ripped just right as across the bottom it shows when the passengar has until to use the transfer (i.e. 2 hours after paying initial fare).  This manual process resulted in short delays while drivers readjusted the transfer ripping equipment and punched new booklets of transfers.  As well added waste was created as YRT had a different coloured transfer booklet for each month. There was much wasted customer travel time and probably paper waste using this manual system.  

Fare payment and transfers all changed with the installation of Presto.  The added bonus of the Presto system is not only is there an added convenient way to pay a fare, the transfer system has been automized as well. Now when a passenger boards a YRT vehicle with a cash fare and drops it in the fare box the driver can push a button on the Presto machine to have a transfer automatically printed which now removes the need for the driver to fiddle with outdated transfers while passengers waste their time watching the second hand on their watches wizz by.  But this method of printing transfers is not new.  YRT's counterparts in Ottawa at OC Transpo have been offering automated transfers similar to Presto's since at least 1998.  But at least for YRT this is a step forward and a significant improvement over TTC that offers one way travel only for one fare nevermind the need for two way travel within a time period.

With Presto there seems to be the intent of getting it right.  But the launch in York Region by YRT leaves quite a bit to be desired.  The setting of the launch date, the marketing, the overall launch date and the launch date itself are concerning.  As well, YRT needs to work with Presto in setting up a better network of agents to provide convenient locations to pick up Presto cards and refill their cards.  The start of Presto in York Region has had a rocky start to begin with.  But hopefully Presto will lead to better fare collection processes and convenience of use for passengers similar to other more advanced transit systems around the world.

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