I take the subway in Ontario’s capital city almost every day. I don’t need to commute to work because luckily I live close by. But if the job takes me downtown, which it frequently does, the Toronto Transit Commission’s subway system ̶ at least in off peak hours ̶ is the best way to get there.
Since I ride the rails so frequently, I figured it was time to purchase my own Presto card, so as not to require fumbling for change or buying tokens anymore. The idea behind an electronic fare card is that you don’t need to get a new one every month. You can reload it indefinitely and just tap your way through subway turnstiles, or onto buses and streetcars. In Boston, they have a Charlie card. In London, England, they have an Oyster card.
Toronto’s transit system adopted Presto much later than many other major transit systems adopted their own reloadable cards. In fact, Presto, an initiative by provincial transit agency Metrolinx, is already heavily used on GO Transit across the GTHA and in places such as Hamilton and Ottawa. In contrast, the TTC has been slow to roll out the card and only promises to have its entire network converted by late this year. But at least they’ve got it available for use now.
Anyway, it all sounded simple enough. Alas, it wasn’t.
The TTC provides more than 500 million rides on its system annually. That’s 500 million different stories of connections to mass transit, and this is just one of them. But I suspect I’m not the first person to whom this has happened.
I discovered getting a Presto card in Toronto isn’t that easy. While they are available for purchase online, if you’d like to pick one up during your commute they sell them at only 11 of 69 subway stations. Union is one of those stations and since I happened to be there earlier this week, I thought I’d try purchasing a Presto card there.
I spoke to the attendant behind the glass. Apparently, he doesn’t sell them. He told me to try one of the red machines about 20 metres away. So I did. But apparently, I tried the wrong red machine. There are about half a dozen of them at Union Station, and only one sells Presto cards.
I eventually got to the right one. I followed the steps. It actually wasn’t too complicated, even for a Luddite like me.
Then it came time to pay. I put in my credit card as instructed, but something evidently went wrong. When I pulled the card out as the yellow light flashed urging me to do, the machine gave me the following message: “Your purchase can’t be completed. Please go to the Collector’s Booth for help.”
So I did.
The collector reiterated he doesn’t have the Presto cards to sell, and urged me to try again.
So I did. But this time, I took with me a very helpful young man in a red shirt who was there to help customers with problems. He told me this machine ̶ the only one selling Presto cards ̶ frequently freezes up. He was right about that. Five minutes later, the machine was still frozen, displaying the “Your purchase can’t be completed” message. I knew that already, and was looking for some new guidance from the machine. Eventually the machine did unstick and displayed another message: “Sorry for the inconvenience. Thank you for choosing the TTC.”
I appreciated the machine’s courtesy, and very much wanted to choose the TTC. So with the help of the young attendant, we tried again. I let him do all the button pushing this time, in case it was my error that messed things up on the previous attempt.
I was partly frustrated and partly delighted when he had no more luck than I did. If a young man in his 20s couldn’t get the damned machine to work, then I knew it wasn’t this old fogey’s fault the first time.
“I hear complaints about this machine all the time,” he told me.
“Doesn’t anyone complain to head office about getting it fixed?” I asked.
He didn’t know. He promised to call it in.
At this point, we were 10 minutes into our attempt to purchase a Presto card, which as we all know, is the most convenient way to travel. If you can actually buy one. You can even ride the UP Express to Pearson airport for only $9 with a Presto card. If you can actually buy one.
After 15 minutes in total, consisting of two failed attempts to purchase a card and waiting for the machine to unstick, the very courteous TTC employee told me that the only machine dispensing Presto cards was apparently not working and if I wanted, I could visit the Dundas or Queen’s Park stations and try there.
I TTC’d straight home, defeated once again by technology, and determined to share my minor story of being yet another consumer ticked off by the system’s inadequacies.
Funnily enough, the next day I found myself at Union Station again, having subwayed to the Fairmont Royal York Hotel to take in a speech by Progressive Conservative Party Leader Patrick Brown. I thought, dare I try again? Can I subject myself to even more humiliation? The answer was yes. Subjecting myself to ridicule and humiliation is part of the job.
I touched that same machine’s screen, followed the prompts, popped in my debit card instead of credit card this time (fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me) and within a minute, I was done. Presto! The machine spit out the Presto card at the bottom and that was that.
Why that didn’t happen the night before on the same machine is anyone’s guess. These damned machines are apparently as temperamental as television personalities. But at least I have my Presto card now.
The following day, I couldn’t wait to try it. So I hopped underground to one of Toronto’s busiest subway stations, at Yonge and Eglinton, and guess what? They don’t take the Presto card there. Apparently, fewer than half of subway stations currently do. The Main Street station is one of them. Main Street in Toronto ̶ unlike in every other city in the world ̶ actually isn’t anything close to being a main street. It’s in the east end, and frankly there’s precious little commuter traffic there compared to Yonge and Eglinton. But Main station has Presto card access and Eglinton station doesn’t. So I had to fumble for change just like I always have.
I do like the TTC. I want to love it. But some days, it’s awfully hard to.
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