What Is A PRESTO Card?

GO Transit by Richard Eriksson
GO Transit by Richard Eriksson

If you are a regular GO transit rider, you may remember that you started seeing these green PRESTO machines on the GO bus a while back. Though I knew it probably had something to do with paying the bus fare, I didn’t know how it worked. Then, earlier this year, I got a PRESTO pamphlet, from a GO Transit employee, which briefly explained what it is and how to use it. However, it didn’t really answer the most important question: why? Why should you switch from your paper 10-ride or monthly passes to this new electronic card?

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I found my answers earlier this month. My first reason to switch to PRESTO was that it looked cool when you use it. You just walk up to a PRESTO pay machine and tap your card on it. A chime then sounds and a couple of lights turn on, which signals that you’ve paid your fare. Once you get used to this swipe-less, slot-less method of payment, you can even leave your PRESTO card in your wallet or purse and just walk up, tap your money holder on the machine, and continue walking all in one smooth motion.

If you’re taking GO Transit, you have to remember to tap off your PRESTO card at a pay machine when you get off at your destination station! Otherwise, your card will get deactivated and you’ll have to go to a GO or city transit station to activate it again.

You may ask: how do I put money on the card? You can load your card at the ticket counter in most GO stations and participating city transit stations, or online at prestocard.ca.

As I started using PRESTO during my daily commute, I discovered many benefits to the system:

Flexible payment

This is probably the main reason why I continue to use PRESTO. For a distance-specific fare system like GO Transit, you no longer need to buy another ticket to take another transit route; PRESTO automatically calculates your fare based on how far you’ve travelled. You can get on and get off at whichever GO station you’d like, and PRESTO charges you accordingly.

One card for multiple transit systems

PRESTO isn’t only for GO Transit. When the Government of Ontario, GO Transit, and nine city transit partners worked together to develop and design PRESTO, the main goal was to come up with one fare system for the GTA and beyond. Thus, you can also use PRESTO with MiWay, YRT, Oakville Transit, Brampton Transit, Burlington Transit, Hamilton Street Railway, Durham Region Transit, and at certain TTC stations.

No need for exact change

With a system that automatically calculates and deducts your fare when you tap the card at a pay machine, there’s no need to dig in your pockets for quarters.

No need to wait in line to buy tickets or passes

Since you only need to buy the PRESTO card once, you don’t need to buy tickets or passes every week or month. The only reason you’d need to line up at a ticket booth is to reload your card in person, but you can also skip the line and just do it online.

No more throwing out tickets and passes

Using PRESTO also eliminates the waste from throwing out used-up or expired tickets and passes.

Free new card for GO 10-ride and monthly pass holders

A nice bonus is that if you have a valid GO 10-ride or monthly pass when you get a PRESTO card, you save the $6 card issuing fee.

PRESTO Card by Wikimedia Commons
PRESTO Card by
Wikimedia Commons

While there are many benefits to using PRESTO, I’ve also found a few issues that need to be fixed.

First, there are some annoying restrictions when you reload money online. While it’s great that you can choose to pay via credit card or Interac, it takes up to 24 hours before the money can be used. In my experience, reloaded money shows up on my card approximately 8 hours after the online transaction. This means you have to reload hours before you use your card, which isn’t exactly the most convenient of systems.

The reload delay relates to another issue I have with PRESTO: the lack of a money reloading machines next to the pay and fare checker machines, just like the TTC and GO Transit have machines that sell fares. This machine would be very useful if you forget to add money online in advance and the line at the ticket booth is way too long. An alternative would be to add the money loading functionality into the existing pay machine. Most importantly, the reloaded money needs to be usable immediately, so you can just pay, tap and get on your transport.

Of course, the team behind PRESTO had already thought about these money reloading problems and designed a solution: AutoLoad or automatic money reloads. However, setting up AutoLoad isn’t a very user-friendly process. First of all you have to sign an agreement which may not be something everyone wants to do, just to use automatic reloads. Secondly, the prestocard.ca site doesn’t explain clearly how AutoLoad works. What’s Threshold Value? How’s that different from the AutoLoad Amount? Though I can guess what each term means, this uncertainty makes me less likely to try AutoLoad.

Despite these issues, I’m still happy I switched to PRESTO to pay for GO Transit. I’ve yet to use it for TTC, mainly because the system isn’t available in all stations yet. However, I do believe it’s a step in the right direction in making public transport more convenient. Hopefully, PRESTO will convince Ontarians to leave the car at home, reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, because it really does make the daily commute on public transit easier.

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