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Headspace: Ernie Wallace, PRESTO

by Luca de Franco

Presto, the GTA-wide electronic fare card introduced by Metrolinx, is set to undergo a significant transformation. The TTC, despite the changes being proposed for Presto, remains skeptical of the system and announced earlier this year that it intends to pursue its own open fare payment system instead. Spacing sat down with Ernie Wallace, the executive director of Presto, to discuss “Presto: The Next Generation.”

Spacing: What is Presto “The Next Generation”?

Wallace: In the very near future, by 2012 at the earliest, transit operators utilizing the Presto system will be able to accept multiple forms of payment. For the casual traveller, this means if you want to use your credit or debit card for travel then you’ll be able to that. Presto is also considering expansion in the direction of commercial uses for the card, what we call “near transit.” Near transit has the same function as Public Transportation — mobility and travel. Although this is purely fiction now, maybe you could use your (Presto) e-wallet for some private transit options, e.g. taxis.

Spacing: Toronto has a new public bike system rolling out: BIXI. Is bike-sharing a possible use for Presto?

Wallace: It seems perfectly reasonable at some point somebody should be able to use their Presto Card to access it. We haven’t sat down with BIXI yet but that’s exactly the kind of thing we hope to move forward on in terms of different products and services for Presto. We have to move and change Presto to a more open architecture, and we’re in the process of doing that. Once we’re there, Presto will be able to plug and play with other products and players. We’re looking to it over a period of the next 3-5 years.

Spacing: Are you also considering a Presto smartphone app?

Wallace: With technology advancing by next year it will be entirely possible to put all your cards, credit, transit, etc…on your mobile. One of the most obvious ways of doing this is for the user to install a Presto app onto their smart phone. The application then interfaces with the phone and transmits payment through the mobile operator. We’ve already demonstrated phones with Presto apps on them.

Further up, Research In Motion has proposed an idea of making the entire fare payment system virtual. The direction they’re moving is not to install apps but using the phone, instead, as “Digital ID.” The phone would function as a front-end device; you press your phone to the Presto reader and it knows who you are. Once the system identifies you, it will automatically link to a preferred payment method which you’ve specifically assigned to use for transit, i.e. a virtual online credit card, virtual transitcard, etc… For security purposes your “digital identity” would be held in trust through authentication.

Spacing: Using Smart Card Technology, transit operators have the option of offering users specialized fare structures. Can you explain how that system works?

Wallace: We expect by 2012 that the operator, whether it’s GO or the TTC, would be able to go online, define a particular product, and execute it within 24 hours. There would be no reason why, for example, you couldn’t designate a smog day, by route, assign a special reduced fare, have in place for 24 hours, and then revert back to normal fare structure. Aside from smog days, the capacity is there for the operator to provide such options as Remembrance Day discounts for veterans, or, as another example, structure fares for a Breast Cancer Awareness day. The operator will be able to design products targeting a specific group of people who have a particular travel need. We’re also looking at other incentives that go beyond those aimed specifically at commuters. Ultimately it’s up to the operator to decide, but rewards programs are another possibility. We’re talking about a program where the cost is zero after a certain number of trips.

Spacing: What spurred Metrolinx to consider these enhancements to Presto?

Wallace: We were always going to do it. The idea began to coalesce around 2006 and we began serious considerations a year ago. Whether it’s transit systems, or health systems, or anything else which grows increasingly dependent on technology, if you wait until after the system’s been implemented to consider changes then you risk becoming a very dormant technology. If your question relates to the press about other providers taking their own direction, I think that’s a bit of red herring. Presto Next Generation is the kind of system we proposed for the TTC from the beginning. The TTC has its own reasons for going in their own independent direction. Since the summer of 2009, we were well under way looking at different operational architectures for Presto, as well as building towards having a card library and the variety of features mentioned.