Tuesday, August 07, 2012

PRESTO! An Explanation Please

The Presto fare payment system being rolled out by Metrolinx throughout the Toronto area and Ottawa is supposed to make fare payment for transit riders easier.  Transit users would be able to use one card to ride all the transit systems in the Toronto area which would remove the necessity of carrying tickets, tokens, passes and other transit brick a brack.  The dream of modern reliable fare payment options appeared to have dawned on the Toronto area after years in the darkness of tokens and easily counterfitable tickets.   Torontoians would finally join the ranks of Hong Kong and New York City transit riders with modern flexible transit fare payment technology.  The dream and optimism was there in the beginning, but then Metrolinx and it's contractors have fallen apart. 

In the beginning everything seemed to be working as it should be on a major roll out.  GO Transit, a division of Metrolinx, started testing the card technology on the Lakeshore West Train line.  As with any well designed project, there was to be kinks when items leave the lab.  Even Google Beta Tests new technologies before rolling them out to all users (e.g. Gmail, Maps, etc.).  Grand designs for roll out of the technology in 2011 and 2012 went from there. 

Then the technological issues and lack of planning started to arise.  First the Toronto's TTC refused to adopt the Presto card as it called the technology outdated because the card was the only way to pay the fare instead of allowing for credit cards, Presto Cards and, eventually, cell phones to be used.   The TTC initially said it would undertake it's own tender process for a more advanced fare payment system provided by the private sector.  But after exploring a few options, it was determined Presto would be the best choice as the province was willing to provide some funding for implementation.  However, the TTC currently only has select stations that connect with regional transit on the Presto system.  Thus, presently the largest transit system in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is not using Presto to it's fullest potential and is unlikely to until the next year.

Technological problems and secrecy are prevalent in roll out of Presto.  Only the good news is trumpeted by Metrolinx and the transit agencies in the Toronto area.  Delays and technological glitches go unexplained.  A prime example was the roll out of the Presto Card with York Region's YRT System.  The promised date of March 28th 2011 came and went with no communication from YRT.  I commented at the time it left riders and taxpayers confused:  . 

Recently York Region Transit (YRT) has delayed the launch of the Presto Card on it's system from Monday March 28th to some unknown date. Yorkregion.com reports that the Region of York's Transportation Department, which YRT is under, refuses to comment on why the delay. This is despite a report to the Region's Transportation comittee's March 2nd meeting from the transportation department making no mention of a delay and that March 28th was the target date. As well there was no mention of the Presto delay in the Region of York's council minutes for March 24, 2011. One would think that an update to government officials on why delayed roll out would be required as there is signicant amount of the regional and provincial money being invested. But politicians, YRT Customers and taxpayers are left without answers even after a news reporter asked questions.

YRT, as per usual practice, rolled out the marketing campaign for Presto in March 2011 with bus wraps, newsletter advertisments and much much more.  But no explanation came forth on why Presto was delayed or what the issues were for the delay.  It was all hush hush because, quite frankly, Presto might become an embarassment for both YRT and Metrolinx if the real reasons came out. 

Fast forward to July 2011 and at least some of  real reasons finally came out.  Presto was not ready for prime time at YRT.  The lack of advertising for the July 2011 was pretty noticeable.  Optics didn't look good for YRT's Marketing department as it appeared they blew their Presto advertising budgets on the March 2011 roll out with nothing to show for it.  No newspaper advertisments were put out and YRT's transit newsletter, My Transit, had been printed in May.    But that was not to say YRT didn't blow the budget with the roll out of Presto though.  I commented more on that roll out back in July 2011.  Bottom line, advertising was overblown and a weak overpiced roll out occurred. 

Then the technology and inital set up of the Presto cards started to become evident.  Yorkregion.com reported several issues with the incorrect set up of cards which resulted in children and students being charged adult fares.  The only place to resolve these issues?  YRT's Transit Office open a very conveinent 8:30 to 4:30 Monday to Friday.   

Add to that issues with the cards themselves malfunctioning with YRT's Finest Fare Enforcement Officers with the below being a prime example:

Two weeks ago on CBC Radio's Metro Morning with Matt Galloway, a freelance reporter reported that he tapped his Presto Card at Finch Station and boarded a northbound VIVA Blue bus. YRT's Transit Enforcement was on the VIVA bus checking fares. They tapped the reporter's card to show he hadn't paid. He disembarked the bus with the transit enforcement team and tapped the Presto Machine he used and it showe he paid. In the meantime, the VIVA Blue bus pulled out without the reporter on the bus for which he duly paid his fare and he was made to look like a fare evading scofflaw when in fact the reporter had fully paid his fare and was entitled to board the bus. There was no word of an apology from York Region Transit or Presto.

If that was not enough, when confronted about the issues with Presto, YRT and the Region of York clammed right up.  Bruce McCuaig, the President of Metrolinx, was on CBC Radio's Metro Morning and was interviewed at the time by Matt Galloway.  McCuaig refused to apologize for these indicences but did point out there would be technological glitches from time to time.

YRT even tried to paint the roll out of Presto as successful.  YRT General Manager Rick Leary claimed the rollout was successful as only eight complaints had been registered.  I took Leary's claims to task in a posting in August 2011.

YRT continues to struggle with acceptance by it's passengers with Presto as the only place to load obtain or load a card in person is the very convenient YRT Office open only during regular working hours.  Add to this YRT passengers can only use Presto for 10 ride ticket function which basically gives one ride free for every 10 taken.  Unfortunately, weekly and monthly passes are not available at this time and the only place to obtain a card authoried by York Region is the YRT office which is open during not very convenient hours, but there are is promises to roll out to retail locations in the future.

The City of Ottawa has also run into issues in rolling out Presto.  Ottawa was expected to piggy back the roll out of the card after the Toronto area had successfully completed it.  The main issue in Ottawa though is someone at Metrolinx believed the Presto System was ready for a more advanced version two.  This was despite Version 1 of the Presto System not being fully implemented or used in the Greater Toronto Area.  As an example, in York Region, Presto Cards can only be purchased from YRT Head Office in Richmond Hill and not commercial retailers.  As well the cards only work for single ride fares in replacement of the ten rides worth of tickets and is not available for monthly pass holders who continue to use paper passes. 

The new system in Ottawa optically looks better than the YRT version with larger screens and tap on and off points at each bus entrance and exit.  However, it currently doesn't work to several technical issues including:

a) Presto system rebooting when cards are tapped. 

b) Presto taking minutes to boot up when the bus is started.

c) Cards being debited once, twice or not at all.

The City of Ottawa had spent numerous amount on promotion of the new Presto System for an expected roll out of July 1st.  Even a month before Metrolinx said the system was ready for launch in Ottawa.  In fact Metrolinx continues to advertise that Presto will be launched in Summer of 2012 on their Presto website.  Thus, City of Ottawa council is quite upset with Metrolinx and is investigating repayment of some of the costs associated with Presto. 

Bruce McQuaig, still the President of Metrolinx, replied to the question of the City of Ottawa receiving any compensation for Metrolinx's delays in implementation:

 “offset reasonable and documented and unavoidable costs in the areas we have agreed.”-  Ottawa Citizen article.

Translation: the City of Ottawa is out of luck in attempting to get any money back on the unproven Presto Technology without reams of paperwork itemizing line by line costing which will suck more staff time than any cheque from Metrolinx would compensate for.

The only difference in terms of Presto between York Region Transit (YRT) and OC Transpo (City of Ottawa's Transit System) is the relationship with Metrolinx.  YRT needs Metrolinx as it is the agency who decides on funding for future transit projects within the Greater Toronto Area.  Whereas, the City of Ottawa plans and seeks funding for it's own transit operations and expansion. Thus, Ottawa is not as beholden to Metrolinx as York Region Transit is for the future.

For the future, OC Transpo and Metrolinx are working on a February 2013 roll out.  City of Ottawa has approved a new fair structure for the interim period that mirrors the discounts for ridersherip for Presto.  Metrolinx and it's contractor are working on tweaking the Presto system and continuing testing.  This all seems very promising that the city is communicating so far with it's ridership on how Presto's issues are being resolved. 

Metrolinx is acting though is nothing wrong in Ottawa. The Presto website does not mention the delay and still points to a summer 2012 roll out.  It was only interested in doing damage control by sending it's President and Vice-President to take the heat from the Cit of Ottawa's Transportation Committee.  There were no answers at the time on how the city would be refunded money spent promoting Presto or the delayed roll out.  Metrolinx has also failed to apologize to both YRT and OC Transpo customers for the delayed roll out and technical glitches that befell both systems.   

Ottawa needs to continue to communicate with it's ridership, councillors, and taxpayers on the progress and hinderances of Presto.  The City needs to learn from the YRT and other Toronto area municipal transit systems in failing to communicate with it's stakeholders about the roll out of Presto.  Failure to do so could leave bad optics to riders and lower the trust of ridership in the transit agency itself. 

Metrolinx needs to realize it is in a communications quagmire.  It has failed to roll out the technology to all the systems on time without any technological issues.  Both YRT and OC Transpo are prime examples of poor planning on implementing new technology.  The systems were promised to transit users and taxpayers and then delayed due to technological or other undisclosed issues. On top of that, Metrolinx then tried to release the second version of Presto while the first version was not fully rolled out anywhere as advertised to replace both monthly passes and 10 ride ticket equivalents.  While all of this is going on, Metrolinx has painted the picture that nothing is wrong and Presto is a great system that we are confident in.  To bad many transit users in both York Region and Ottawa beg to differ.

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