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I owe the TTC money. Maybe as much as $50.

I didn’t mean to become a chronic fare cheat and I maintain it’s not my fault. In fact, it was a huge relief to read that I’m one of hundreds of thousands of people who simply can’t pay their public-transit fares because the machines that are meant to collect our money are broken.

The TTC has inadvertently given out 1.4 million free rides over the past two years because of faulty technology, the Toronto Star reported recently. That includes both the green Presto card readers found at all subway, bus and streetcar entrances, as well as the giant, useless machines that are supposed to allow users on the still-newish Bombardier Flexity Outlook streetcars (don’t get me started on the continuing mess around them) to pay by cash, credit, debit or token.

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I use tokens because everyone I know who has a Presto card, which allows users to access not just the TTC but the GO train and other Ontario systems, complains about it constantly. Apparently, it’s difficult to buy one in the first place, difficult to put more money onto it and difficult to make sure it is debited the correct amount, but otherwise really convenient.

The TTC has actually advised Presto users in the past to carry another type of fare in case of broken card readers, which is hilariously insulting. I’ve personally witnessed a bus driver refuse to take a passenger who didn’t have any other payment, which would make me irate.

So I’ve stuck with the little fake gold-and-silver coins that get hoarded every time there’s a fare increase – which comes with its own set of issues. If the slot to slide the token into isn’t blocked, there’s a good chance the machine won’t print out a transfer, a problem about which drivers don’t care one bit.

If I’m connecting from a Flexity Outlook onto another TTC vehicle, I wait to pay on the second part of my journey. If I’m staying on the streetcar, I hold my breath as I ease the token into the machine, expecting not to receive a transfer.

At this point, I usually hope the machine is broken: If I’m going to get in trouble from a transit enforcement officer, I’d rather be clutching a sweaty token as proof that I do have a fare than explain why I don’t have a proof of purchase. And lucky me, it often is, which is how I became a fare evader, ripping off the public-transit system.

These problems sound silly, but they’re not. For one thing, the TTC needs every penny it can get: While fares lost to broken machines represent only 1.3 per cent of all rides taken, the system currently has a $2-billion-plus capital-projects shortfall, some of which is meant to cover important infrastructure updates for accessibility. The TTC has billed Metrolinx, the provincial agency that oversees Presto, for $4.2-million in lost fares, but so far, Metrolinx shows no indication of paying.

It’s also unfair and unsafe to place the burden of broken payment machines on riders. While I, a middle-class woman with a professional vocabulary, would likely be respected during an uncomfortable conversation about my missing transfer, that’s not true for everyone.

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In February, one transit enforcement officer was suspended after a black teen was first pulled off of a streetcar by a group of transit officers, then tackled before being handcuffed by a responding group of Toronto police. That’s a violent, inappropriate response even if he did try to skip out on $3.25 and there’s been no evidence the 19-year-old didn’t pay his fare. Over all, the TTC can’t honestly police fare evaders if being able to pay for a transit trip is a constant, regular problem.

Fixing the payment issue has been another act in the TTC’s endless comedy of errors. In April, the system began swapping out the machines with new ones that make it easier for people paying by cash or token. But – wait for it – those machines didn’t allow for payment by credit or debit card.

The short-term fix to that problem is to make sure each Flexity Outlook has one of each machines: the old ones that usually don’t work for cash or token, and the new ones, which definitely don’t work for cards.

One day, in the magical future, all streetcars will supposedly have another set of even newer machines that accept all of these forms of payment, but there’s no timeline for when (let alone a dollar figure on what all this machine-swapping is costing us, the riding public). For now, I’ll keep practising my lack-of-transfer speech, I guess, and pocketing my ill-gotten savings.

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