When I first started taking public transit in Toronto half a century ago, you paid for your fare by going up to a man in a booth, slipping some cash to him through a slot, collecting your tickets or tokens and putting them in a glass box. If you were planning a transfer on your trip, you pushed a button on a machine and collected a paper transfer.
Oh, how times don't change. The booths are still there. So are the collectors. So are tickets and tokens. So are paper transfers. On the streetcar, quaintly, they give you your transfer by hand.
Lines still form at those old station booths at busy times as commuters try to pay. Those who just want to show a transfer or pay with cash in exact change wait fuming in the line or try to squeeze past the queue.
It's a hell of a way to run a railway. The Toronto Transit Commission is years behind most other major cities at introducing more modern ways for commuters to pay for their ride.
Transit riders in Hong Kong have been using the Octopus reloadable smart card since 1997. London's popular Oyster card has been in use since 2003. Toronto's equivalent, Presto, isn't scheduled to be in full use throughout the TTC till 2017 – maybe 2016 if chief executive Andy Byford manages to speed things up.
Toronto's backwardness drives the new mayor, John Tory, around the bend. During the election campaign, he often talked about the TTC collector he saw doling out tokens from a little breath-mints tin.
"We can't go on the way we're going on," he said this week. "It's archaic, it's cumbersome, it is inconvenient for people and we simply have to modernize the way the city does business." In an age when you can go into many coffee shops and pay with your phone, he said, the current system is "almost prehistoric." As he put it, "This city is two generations behind other cities and even the private sector in terms of using technology to make people's lives easier and more convenient."
He has got that right. Since 2012, TTC users have been able to use credit and debit at collector booths to buy the Metropass, but not tickets or tokens. That not only slows up the purchasers and those waiting in line behind them, it burdens the TTC with handling, counting and transporting all that cash.
The rollout of Presto – trundle-out, more like it – has been endless. The provincial government started looking into a fare-card system way back in 2001. Bringing it in has been complex and costly.
You can use it on the GO system and on various transit networks from Brampton to Burlington to Ottawa, but still not on most of the TTC. Even now, Presto is online at just 15 subway stations and, as of last month, on three new-generation streetcars.
The good news is that Mr. Tory, Mr. Byford and the new chair of the TTC, Josh Colle, all seem determined to get cracking. They stood together at a subway station on Tuesday to announce some modest progress. As of Jan. 1, TTC users will be able to use a debit or credit card to pay for fares at collector booths in all subway stations, as long as they buy at least $10 worth.
The equipment is already in place. I used it to buy 20 tokens from a booth at St. Patrick station on Wednesday with a credit card. After I inserted my card in the machine and keyed in my PIN – the simpler tap-to-pay function is coming sometime next year – the collector handed me a receipt, counted out my tokens in lots of five and pushed them through the slot. (The dispensers that used to deliver tokens in a little chute are gone, eliminated when the TTC installed new protective glass for the collectors.) By TTC standards, this is close to revolutionary.
More is coming. The agency hopes to bring in tap-and-pay purchasing for single fares starting next year. When it introduces Presto throughout the system, it plans to use an open-payment model. That means riders will be able to use not only Presto cards but debit cards, credit cards and, yes, even phones to pay their fare.
Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, says that, "When Presto is fully deployed, there will be more than 10,000 Presto devices in streetcars, buses, subway stations and self-service kiosks for the 1.7 million customers who rely on the TTC every day."
Tokens, tickets and transfers will be phased out. One fine day, not too very long from now, the collector in the booth with his little glass box will be no more.
The 21st century, authorities assure us, is just around the corner.