Megan H. asked us about the implications of Toronto’s upcoming fare system changes on people experiencing homelessness.

This week, news reports surfaced about the Toronto Transit Comission (TTC)’s decision to phase out tickets and tokens. Presto, a Metrolinx smartcard system – one that has cost $700 million to develop, according to the auditor general – will be fully integrated across the TTC by the end of 2016, with tokens and tickets being accepted into mid-2017. While this may be a welcome change for some of us, Presto raises a few concerns for people living in poverty and/or experiencing homelessness.

Public transit is very important for this population, as it is usually the only means of transportation available to them. Many are forced to choose between basic costs (like buying food) or a few tokens. The benefits of public transit can go beyond simply getting from point A to point B – providing transportation to people experiencing homelessness often opens up opportunities that weren’t there before. For example, an Edmonton study found that by providing youth with monthly transit passes, their encounters with police and the criminal justice system were reduced. Even so, it appears that people living in poverty or experiencing homelessness are not being fully considered in the TTC changes.

Guelph Presto
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How Presto will work is mostly unknown

Presto, in its current form, charges $6 for new cards, which can be purchased in-person or by mail (takes 7-10 days to arrive). Users must load at least $10 onto each card. Debit, credit and cash can be used. It is unclear how this will change during its rollout, but as it stands, Presto does not make it easy for social agencies – who previously purchased tickets and tokens to distribute ­ – to provide transportation passes to the people they serve. At $6 per card, that’s a hefty markup for handing out TTC rides.

Smartcard systems like Presto assume that people can pay via debit card, credit card or mobile device. That is, indeed, the biggest draw for people like me, who have these things. But what about people who don't have access to these cards? Many people without a fixed address don’t get the luxury of a bank account or a credit card. For these people, who then have to use change to load a card, the Presto process could be more of a hassle than handing over change, tickets or tokens.

Another concern is increased surveillance. Not only does Presto have access to people’s financial accounts, it also tracks our movements – something many people may not be comfortable with. Who has access to this information, and how will it be used?

According to The Toronto Star, there will be a report in November that makes recommendations on how Presto integration (including buying rides in bulk) will work for riders. Hopefully, some of these issues will be addressed.

Public transit in Toronto and other Canadian cities

In Toronto, fares are high and discounted transit plans are dismal. The 12-month pre-authorized plan offers passes to adults for $129.75, and $102.75 for seniors/students – which is as low as monthly passes get.

Most available discounts in the city – via preauthorized plans or Presto – are implicitly most beneficial to people who already have more money. If people get rewarded for loading more money onto a card (ie. buying transit rides in bulk), then they are really being rewarded for having more money to spend upfront. This is a luxury afforded by a minority of transit riders. In 2006, commuters with the lowest income (less than $20,000 a year) were 1.6 times more likely to use transit.

The city and the TTC claim Presto will make discount fares more possible, writing in a joint report:

Smartcard technology will allow for a wide range of fare-pricing options that could not be accommodated previously…For example, fare prices may be linked to travel time, peak/off hours, distance, or vehicle type. Moreover, the Presto cards could also be linked to a low-income rider’s registration in a discount transit fare program funded by the city or through a partnership with an external organization.

Of course, this would be great – if card signup fees were waived and there actually was a low-income program in Toronto. According to numbers compiled by The Toronto Star, Toronto has the second-highest ridership in North America, but receives the least amount of government subsidies – meaning it relies mostly on riders for funding. Because of this, Toronto riders see plenty of fare increases but few financial breaks. In 2014, city council voted to look into creating a low-income transit pass, but have not made any statements yet this year. The following infographic from Toronto Public Health, though somewhat dated, shows just how expensive transit can be in Toronto for people with low incomes:

People on low income can't afford a Toronto Metropass
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Other Canadian cities are leading the way when it comes to creating low-income transit programs. Recognizing the relationship between poverty, transit and social isolation, Calgary implemented a low-income monthly transit pass. Edmonton Transit is considering a similar program. Other examples include the British Columbia buss pass discount (seniors and people receiving disability benefits) and Saskatchewan’s discounted public transit program (people receiving social assistance).

Some American cities with homeless populations have similar transit systems: 

  • New York City’s system, MTA, offers mixed fares available at booths, on buses and in vending machines. Metrocard users get an 11% bonus and various discounts, while others can use cash to pay fares. MTA only charges $1 for new cards, and they can otherwise be refilled and reused. Like Toronto, MTA only offers discounts for seniors and people with disabilities.
  • In San Diego, MTS offers discounted fares and passes for seniors, people with disabilities, and people receiving Medicare/social assistance. MTS uses a smartcard system called Compass, which charges a $2 administration fee for new cards. People with discounted passes and fares can only reload their cards in person.
  • In San Francisco, the SFMTA uses a multi-pass system like the TTC currently does, with single-rides, smartcards (called Clipper cards). The system offers discounts to seniors, students and people with disabilities/who receive Medicare; as well as those who are considered low income. Clipper cards cost $3, which is waived for discount fares/passes and for adults who opt to use the autoload feature.

What can be done?

While the city of Toronto and the TTC both seem committed to full Presto integration, there are still many unanswered questions, including:

  • How will rider details (finances, travel information) be used and/or protected?
  • Will card fees be waived for bulk purchases (by social agencies) or for people designated as low income?
  • Can multiple cards be easily loaded? (Is there a way to reproduce the simple act of handing out tokens and tickets?)
  • How can people without debit/credit cards and cell phones going to receive and maintain cards? Will this option be available at all stations/points of access, or just a few?
  • Will a low-income transit pass program be implemented after all?

Write your local councillors! Let them know that these questions are important to you and that you expect the city of Toronto and the TTC to take poverty and homelessness into account while integrating Presto. 

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons; Toronto Public Health