Updated December 19.
It is possible to have and use a Presto card without registering it, but there are a number of benefits to registration. For one, if your card is lost or stolen, you can get its balance transferred to a new card, and for another, you are entitled to the Transit Tax Credit provided you use it for at least 32 fares with one transit operator in a calendar month (something only available with monthly passes or with four or more consecutive weekly passes!).
I recently came across someone who uses an unregistered card and always adds value using cash at a GO station. His reason: he doesn’t want his movements to be “tracked”. This is not a discussion on privacy issues and such, though I will say that there is not a staff of people creating files on each Presto user, or any for that matter. We can’t afford to do it, and nobody is that important. If you are nearly that important, then you will have paparazzi following you around and they will be disclosing your movements far sooner than Presto’s back end database gets updated. From my experience, Presto’s back end is usually updated overnight, but frequently requires a second overnight period to capture everything.
To be sure, a subpoena could be issued that would force Presto to reveal a user’s transaction history, but don’t forget that this can work in favour of the user by providing an alibi. For instance, I can prove that I was at Finch Station on December 11 at 10:07 a.m. - well, at least I can prove that my Presto card was there.
The accuracy of that tracking works well when a card is tapped at a TTC subway station or a VIVAstation, but not so accurate when one taps on a moving vehicle. I would have thought that Presto terminals on board buses would somehow be tied to the GPS system that makes the stop announcement system function. It isn’t, and if Presto’s ability to know where the bus is were used to announce stops, people would be in an uproar. That is, if they were on a bus where the announcement system is set loud enough to hear. To be fair, I suspect that some YRT operators turn down the volume to avoid the waterboard torture-like effects of a system that announces the road you are on over and over again (i.e.: a bus travelling on Yonge has each and every stop announcement end in “at Yonge” or “on Yonge”), but I digress.
If you board a bus that has been sitting in one location for a while, such as at a route terminus, there is a very good chance that the transaction record will correctly show the stop where you tapped. Otherwise, it will show you boarding either several stops before where you actually boarded, or perhaps even several stops after you have boarded. I have seen records showing that I tapped on at the stop that I actually exited.
Better accuracy probably isn’t necessary, most of the time. What if you board a bus that crosses a zone boundary? Only YRT has fare zones, so this does not apply to other GTHA systems.
Tapping on a bus that has just crossed a zone boundary becomes an issue when the Presto terminal on board “thinks” it is still in the other zone. This happened to me last Friday (December 14) and I am in the process of getting the issue straightened out.
I was travelling completely within YRT’s zone 1, but my destination was at Yonge and Bloomington Road, the northern border of zone 1. The southern border of zone 2 is at King Road, so all stops from Bloomington to King inclusive are in a dual zone area. The $1 zone upgrade is only required for travel all the way through the overlap.
Having made this trip before, I have tapped at the Presto terminal on the southbound VIVAstation at Bloomington to confirm how much time remained on my fare. No additional charge occurs. However, on last Friday a YRT route 98 bus came first and I boarded it and tapped the terminal on the bus. I was charged a $2.80 fare, and the transaction record shows that the bus was at Yonge and Henderson (a zone 2 stop) and not Bloomington. Further in my trip, I tapped on another bus well within zone 1 and was not charged anything and the time remaining reflected my original zone 1 tap, not the more recent zone 2 tap.
There are a few things that people should be aware of. When travelling on YRT where the trip crosses into another zone, it is important to pay the correct fare before. This may seem obvious since one must pay a fare before making any trip, but zone boundaries can make this not so clear. The stop announcement system on board does announce a reminder to help with this. If one knows at the start of the trip, they can pay for the second zone up front. If it is not clear until later in the trip, the $1 supplement can be paid.
To pay for two zones with Presto, the terminal needs to know this before you tap. At a VIVAstation, there is a button on the terminal labelled “2 zone” that is pressed just before tapping. On a bus, the operator must do this for you, so you must let him or her know you want to pay for two zones ahead of your tap.
Now, if you have already paid for one zone and go through the same process, the system will recognize that you have a single zone fare with time remaining on it, and it will only charge you the $1 upgrade.
This makes the software-writer side of me ask: if you have already paid a single zone fare, why do you even need to use the 2-zone procedure? The system should be transparent to users and charge them properly when they tap. The system obviously “knows” that a previously-paid fare is from a different zone, since in my case it charged a complete new fare. The system should have recognized that and charge only $1 extra and not $2.80 extra, which was still wrong, but a little less so.
I contend that if I actually boarded the bus at Henderson, the system should have recognized this and only charged the extra $1. In response to this query, Ashley P., Communications Assistant at YRT, informed me that it was because one is supposed to pay for the additional zone before travelling into it. The implication is that in my scenario someone only pays for zone 1 and travels on YRT into zone 2, thus committing fare evasion. While that could be the case, it is also possible that someone boards and leaves YRT within one zone for the first part of their trip, then by walking or getting a ride with someone, continues on YRT from a stop in another zone. This $650 million system should be smart enough to know that only $1 more is needed.
For gosh sakes, I can board an HSR bus in Hamilton and pay with Presto, then get a ride in a car to somewhere in York Region and board a YRT bus, and if this boarding is within two hours of the HSR boarding, I don’t pay any extra fare when I tap on. At least, that is the case according to YRT’s transfer policy. This policy should be implemented with Presto, though I haven’t tried it yet to know for sure. One day I will give it a try.
YRT’s customer service is pretty good at resolving Presto-related fare issues. They cannot credit one’s Presto account, but they will mail out a ticket as reimbursement. I will update this post as new information becomes available.