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Presto: 5 ways to make us like it

By Evan Thornton on May 5, 2014

In 2013 Ottawa finally got something people in a lot of other cities have been using for a decade or more: transit “smart cards”. Used with onboard electronic card readers, Presto Cards have replaced the old monthly passes and greatly reduced the need for paper tickets. They have changed the way we purchase and use bus fare. But the transition hasn’t been problem-free. Almost from the outset, critics have taken to social media to vent their frustration with Presto problems; the backlash even has its own twitter account. And almost a year later, by OC Transpo’s own admission, many of the card’s features still go unused by Ottawans, and several months ago the transit agency recently announced it wanted to figure out why.

In the spirit of civic engagement then, here are five things we think Presto and OC Transpo could do to make us like our Presto Cards.

1. Find out where your customers are, and go there to sell the Presto cards

We’ll start with the low-hanging fruit. It’s so easy that just about every other transit system in the world has figured it out. Customers can be found in large numbers at major bus stops and transit stations — so that’s where we’d like to find some means (a staffed booth, a newsstand, a vending machine, whatever) to purchase our transit fare. But for some reason it won’t explain, Transpo doesn’t do this fancy “geo-location” trick and it never has. Not for passes, not for tickets, not even to make change. And certainly not for Presto cards. By now we’re so used to it we don’t even complain about it. We have to wonder — was that exactly the kind of conditioning they wanted to put their customers through before rolling out Presto in the first place?

TMV and Presto at Guelph Central Station. Photo by Royal_Rivers on Flickr.

TMV and Presto at Guelph Central Station. Photo by Royal_Rivers on Flickr.


2. Cut way back with the digital identifiers.

Loading a Presto Card for the first time is as easy as A,B,C!
Uhm, plus D, and E, and F…oh, and G.

You will just need:

A) Your user ID,

B) An eight-digit or greater password

C) Your seventeen digit card number, conveniently presented in an unbroken string of 10-point font at the bottom of your card. Seventeen!

D) A PIN number (different than your password)

E) Since all the above is so much fun to remember, Presto recommends you should also register a “nickname” for the card. In a problem-free session — i.e., about half the sessions you log on to — this will save you no time whatsoever. But it will help you to keep your card separate from a family member’s registered to the same master account. Therefore, this “nickname” step, compared to the rest of the death-by-data-entry involved, is actually a good idea. Because loading a Presto is such a time-suck that you do not want to get mixed up and start all over again — believe me on this one.

Right, so you’ve done all that. The next thing is to remember is that the only stored information Presto keeps is what makes life easier for them, so something as basic as remembering your credit card details from month to month is right out. Unless you choose “Autoload” of course – which means they can go in every month and take the better part of a hundred bucks out of your account or credit card balance unless you remember to tell them to stop, like before a vacation, or the end of term, or moving away — you know, all those times when there’s nothing else to worry about, right?

So for a typical user, you next have to input:

F) Your name, address, phone number, credit card number, credit card expiry date, and security panel number. That’s right – despite knowing your user ID, password, PIN Number, 17-digit Presto number (and nickname!), as soon as you go to pay you’ll be treated like they never heard of you.

G) But they’re not done. You know when you buy a ticket from Air Canada, and you think you’re finally through all the BS and are finally booked, but then get that sinking feeling when you get kicked over to “Verified by Visa” for one final password — the one you of course forget because you only use it a couple times a year for flights? Well the good news is you might start remembering it more often, because now you’re going to be using every time you load your Presto. Yep, at least with an Air Canada ticket you’re getting away to somewhere with a better transit payment system. With Presto you’re just purchasing bus fare for your daily ride. But hey, that daily bus fare does come with a suffocating 13 levels of security, so that’s just as much fun right?

3. Use Social Media Properly

Presto actually has a well-monitored twitter account, and a chirpy and upbeat response team “Sorry to hear you’re having trouble. We’ll be happy to look into this for you.” is a typical tweeted response to a user issue.

But what about when, after going through all the rigamarole listed abovd the Presto site still won’t load your card? At your wit’s end, you finally tweet Presto to let them know — only to discover that Presto has been having one-to-one twitter conversations at the same time with other users having exactly the same problem. In other words, the site is broken and can’t process transactions, for anybody. What then?

Well then it should be high time for somebody, somewhere at Presto HQ to admit it is the fault of the Presto website — again — and tweet that fact, and Facebook update that fact . That way, the thousands of people across Ottawa and the GTA currently trying to load cards could stop thinking it’s their browsers, clearing their caches, borrowing other computers, and generally enjoying miserable and frustrating times. All those thousands of people — they would know that it is not their fault. Yes, via the amazing medium of social media, they could all be mass-alerted to try again later, after the “all-clear” tweet has been sent by Presto. That’s how responsible organizations use social media when there is a problem, and it shouldn’t take a high-priced consultancy team to get that across to Presto – it’s well-known practice for any large organization that deals with the public.

4. Stop making Ottawa look so Bush League

Ok, so we know what a pain it is to obtain and load a Presto Card – and we *live* here. Now imagine you are a visitor to Ottawa, in town for a short while and eager to explore the sights. In major cities around the world that means you go to a transit station – like our Transitway stations, for example — and there on the wall is a machine that lets you buy a fixed-term transit pass. Could be for 72 hours, could be for a week – could be for a month. They don’t care where you live, where you bank, what your “nickname” is – they simply do the obvious thing and sell you a pass, usually with some kind of magnetic strip on it that stores the value. It’s pretty simple — and at this point in the 21st century, it’s pretty expected.

In some other cities the transit systems create a simple online form that anyone with a credit card can use. For example, I was through to checkout on Portland’s online transit pass store in 3 minutes recently, and I’ve never even been to Oregon before. And if you are visitor, Portland transit will even send the pass out to you before you get to town.

Note: we’re not even going to mention a mobile app.

5. Figure out who should take full responsibility for it.

As it stands, OC Tranpso distributes Presto cards but refers complaints and issues to Presto. Presto handles issues and complaints, but it’s a scheme developed by bureaucrats, so it’s not at all comfortable with actually selling you cards. It reveals its commercial unease when it makes you click “agree” to an astonishing five-page legal agreement, reproduced here in its entirety. If you even manage to get to page 3 of that, remember, we are just talking about bus fare — not taking out a mortgage.

In the end it boils down to this: As transit users, we’d like a single point of contact where we can obtain information easily and have issues resolved promptly. We’d like to be able to buy our fare cards close to where we live and work and use transit.

The way we get around our city is important to all of us, so we’d like to be treated like who we are: the citizens who support the system with our fares and taxes.

Why is that too much to ask?

Evan Thornton is the founding editor of the Spacing Ottawa blog. Originally from Winnipeg, he’s been an avid transit user since the day his mother gave birth to him after rushing to the hospital on a Portage Avenue bus.