Why new accessibility features in Presto’s payment system still fall short

By Aaron Broverman - Published on May 3, 2016
woman using a wheelchair on subway platform
Paying a fare still is not easy for people with disabilities, despite the introduction of integrated payment systems such as Presto.

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I have a confession to make: until recently, I never paid for a ride on Toronto public transit.

I have cerebral palsy and use a mobility scooter, and some time ago made it my policy not to pay for something I couldn’t entirely use. Right now, 34 of the Toronto Transit Commission’s 69 subway stations are accessible, with 100 per cent accessibility across the system not scheduled until 2025. (And even that is in doubt, due to continuing budget shortfalls.)

It is also difficult to pay for service in the first place. Fare attendants aren’t always in the booth, and when they are it can be difficult to reach the change receptacle from my scooter. Most attendants seem to sympathize, because on numerous occasions they’ve just waved me through.

Late last year, it started to look like paying for a ride would get easier. The much publicized Presto card integrated payment system arrived at 27 Toronto subway stations, with plans to have it at every station by the end of 2016. 

Finally, you could load a card online or at a station with a debit or credit card; no more fumbling for change or trying to reach the receptacle. But when I went to an accessible station where Presto is a feature, I discovered paying a fare still isn’t easy.

At 26 of the TTC’s 27 Presto-enabled subway stations, waving the contactless payment card does not open the accessible fare gate. According to TTC spokesperson Kadeem Griffiths, this is because the radio frequency identification technology behind the card can’t “speak with” the existing accessible fare gates and works only with turnstiles.

NXP Semiconductors developed the MiFare card technology used by Presto and other transit systems in 800 cities across the globe. Mahdi Mekic, NXP’s marketing director, says the TTC first piloted the Presto card in 2009 before starting its rollout to the public in 2015.  “It’s just a matter of an upgrade,” he says. “MiFare technology is a microchip, and six years is a very long time in the microchip world.”

The gap between testing and launch put the card reader technology out of date once it was unveiled to the public. The TTC is now forced to play catch-up, with plans to upgrade the remaining 41 subway stations with new accessible fare gates that work with Presto Cards by mid-2016. The organization also plans to retrofit stations where Presto already operates with a reader that can synchronize with the fare gates. Until the fare gates are upgraded, TTC collectors are expected to assist people with disabilities using Presto.

Here’s what that looks like.

I tap my Presto  card against a reader near a turnstile. If a collector spots me, they’ll manually turn the turnstile. Then I drive my scooter in front of the fare gate and the collector lets me through by either opening it from the booth or pressing the button on the gate’s other side. Unfortunately, if they don’t see me, or are not in the booth, I can’t get through. In both scenarios, I’ve lost my independent use of Toronto’s subway system.

Luke Galvani faces the same barrier for a slightly different reason. The 23-year-old has Duchenne  muscular dystrophy, and went to the media after no longer having access to the previously barrier-free SkyTrain in his hometown of Vancouver. Earlier this year SkyTrain’s operating company, Translink, made a permanent switch to fare gates opened by a contactless card system called Compass, which requires users to tap in or out before fare gates will open. Prior to Compass, access to Vancouver's Skytrain system was completely unobstructed and operated on an honour system with transit security doing periodic spot checks for tickets.

Galvani’s disability means he can’t lift his arms. Like me, he is now completely shut out from using the system on his own.

“Translink promised to position fare attendants to help open the gates at all stations, but many didn’t receive proper training on what they were supposed to do, so they’d mill about on other levels where they couldn’t see incoming passengers with disabilities and we couldn’t signal them,” says Galvani, who once waited 10 minutes at a fare gate before an attendant let him in.

In Toronto, the TTC plans to install a high reader on the top of the coming accessible fare gates, with a lower reader on the front. These lower readers will also be retrofitted onto new accessible fare gates at stations where Presto is already installed.

But the TTC has no independent travel strategy for people like Galvani, who cannot use their arms. When asked about this, Griffiths pointed out the Support Person Assistance Card, which allows personal support workers to ride the TTC for free, and reiterated that TTC workers would be happy to provide assistance.

“I’m very aware that dependence is my daily reality,” says Galvani. “Sure, these transit systems do have people to assist you and I’m fine with that if they are there, but I do wonder what would happen if people with disabilities were included in the design process from the start, and what things might look like then?”

According to Metrolinx spokesperson Kim Johnson, people with disabilities were consulted in Presto’s design, and are still consulted to this day. It was feedback from visually impaired customers, for example, that resulted in a “P” placed in braille on the Presto card to help distinguish it from other cards in a wallet. Metrolinx, however, apparently did not account for people who can’t wave the card.

Mekic says a hands-free solution that will allow transit cards to be read without removal from a wallet or backpack is currently being piloted in cities in Europe, Asia and North America. NXP is also piloting a fare gate system that stays open until someone without the proper card approaches.

“The challenge started with trying to provide service to disabled individuals, but what transit network operators are saying is, once we enable this option for this category of travellers, everyone will want the convenience of not having to fumble for their card,” says Mekic. “So hands-free MiFare cards will likely have an impact on public transport in general, not only for individuals with disabilities.”

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