It has been about a month since the HSR finally turned on the green light of the new fare payment system that is being rolled out across the GTHA. While other municipalities have had Presto for over a year, and the hardware has been installed on the HSR fleet for months, we are just starting to see the benefits here in Hamilton.
The launch of the new system has seen little fanfare. Aside from a single, small article in the Spectator, a few posters and a solitary Presto-branded bus, little has been made of what should be a fairly significant addition.
I get the impression that even this lackluster promotion wouldn't have happened at all were it not for ad materials from Metrolinx, the regional transit body that has overseen the Presto project.
When I first heard that Presto cards were available on GO Transit last year, I quickly ordered one through the website.
To my dismay, the system was only available on the trains rather than the GO buses, so it wasn't until I happened to spot a Presto reader attached to a turnstile in TTC's Union Station that I was able to use it at all. Implementation on the GO bus system is planned for later this summer.
Although I have great faith in Presto's potential, my initial experience with the underlying technology was admittedly not good. One of the helpful features of the Presto system is the ability to carry a small, negative balance, in case you find yourself needing one last ride home before you can top up your balance online.
The problem is, once your balance goes negative, you can't do anything about it unless you visit a Presto agent (the flesh and blood, human type).
After carrying a balance of -$2.50, and trying and failing to load the card online, I finally gave up and visited the GO Station downtown. This wasn't a chore for me personally, since I pass by or through it at least twice a day, but I could imagine this simple obstacle would be enough for some to abandon Presto altogether.
I can't fault the customer service I received at the station. The attendant quickly recognized and explained the problem. I was able to pay the negative balance plus a 25 cent fee to have my card liberated from cyber limbo. Once done, I could resume topping up my card online or in person as needed.
For the month of May, I decided to continue to load funds onto my card on an as-needed, ad hoc basis. So far it's working.
For June, I will likely load a monthly pass onto the card, retaining a small 'e-purse' for use on other transit systems. The problem is, in order to purchase said monthly pass I must once again visit my flesh and blood human friend at the GO station on Hunter street. Again, easy for me, yet likely not so much for others.
With all this technology, chips on cards, an online network of stationary and mobile readers and the ability to add balances online, why should I ever need to directly involve another human being in the process?
It would be a great addition to the Presto website to be able to purchase transit passes online, or even to have a recurring purchase set up to automatically charge my credit card each month.
My hope is that someday I won't even have to think about bus fares as long as I have this card in my wallet.
Overall my experience has been good. The system has worked well - aside from my negative balance issue and the requirement to talk to actual humans (ha ha).
Transfers have been handled properly (two hour limit, no real limitations otherwise), and it's now the end of May and I no longer have to worry about how tattered my paper HSR pass has become from frequent trips in and out of my wallet.
I am rather disappointed to see so few others using Presto. Most days I get funny looks from other passengers when I use it, and I have even surprised a few drivers (!). I have had a couple of passengers ask me where I got it, or how much it was.
If the HSR were doing a proper job of promotion and education, this information would be everywhere and they would be dedicating a promo budget, handing out free cards during rush hour, generating buzz on social media, posting more and better signage at bus stops and on buses themselves.
I am hoping that this is just a 'soft launch' to make sure the bugs are worked out before they start advertising. It would be sensible to have a live test going before making a huge splash, only to see the system buckle in a very public, embarrassing and expensive fashion.
The problem is, as a paying Presto user I have had to dig more than I should have had to for any bit of information about HSR/Presto procedures.
Even now, as I have used it for a month, there are still questions. Perhaps when I visit the flesh and blood human Presto salesman tomorrow, he'll be able to explain things.
This essay was first published on Dan's blog
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