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The rollout of reloadable Presto payment cards through Toronto's transit system was plagued with problems.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

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In the Toronto area, the reloadable Presto card is supposed to be the commuter’s Holy Grail, usable on both GO trains to the suburbs and TTC subways, streetcars and buses. Instead, card readers and reload machines have been plagued with malfunctions since the wide-scale TTC rollout began in 2016.

That Canada’s largest city is having difficulty integrating different modes of transportation illustrates the challenges of urban mobility around North America. A host of additional new transportation options and technologies are complicating the situation in virtually every major municipality. Autonomous cars, buses and cabs, electric vehicles, shared rides, e-bikes and motorized kick scooters will soon compete for space, users and dollars.

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In other words, if cities are having problems with integration now, they ain’t seen nothing yet. Mobility experts are concerned. How will all these modes co-exist and integrate with existing options, and will anyone be able to ensure that they can?

“This is the open question for the 21st century: Who’s going to manage that complexity?” says Matti Siemiatycki, interim director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto. “Government now has to be very pro-active in recognizing there’s a huge state of flux here.”

Observers suggest the Presto boondoggle is an example of how not to handle complexity. Metrolinx, the Crown agency that manages public transit in Ontario, and therefore the Presto program, hasn’t won many fans for what appears to be a top-down approach.

In July, the agency rejected an overture by Finnish company MaaS Global, which has successfully integrated transit, taxi services and bike-sharing into one smartphone app in several European countries. The company had been eyeing Toronto as its first expansion outside of Europe.

Metrolinx, however, isn’t sure who should build and control such an integrated service.

“The question of who owns the platform in the future is a very good one. There’s a race to get all of the components in,” says Doug Spooner, manager of mobility management at Metrolinx. “We’ve got to get those options in place before we can start to talk about that unified platform.”

To that end, Metrolinx is currently running a pilot project in Aurora, Ont., that integrates ride-share services with GO trains through a smartphone app. The effort follows a similar experiment in 2015 and 2016 with online app RideCo, which the agency deemed a success.

Metrolinx is also now in the early stages of rolling out a Presto app that will ultimately let commuters pay fares with their smartphones.

Despite the issues, the integration is delivering some benefits to commuters. Travellers get a $1.50 discount if they combine GO and TTC trips, for example. “That’s a piece of progress,” Spooner says.

Passengers prepare to board a westbound streetcar on King St. in Toronto on Feb. 8, 2018. The city's King Street Transit Pilot, launched in late 2017, has reduced wait and travel times along the major downtown thoroughfare.

Fred Lum

Toronto officials think they’re having success in other areas. They point to the King Street Transit Pilot, which involves mostly shutting off one of the city’s main downtown streets to cars, as an example of how complexity can be properly managed.

The key, according to Toronto’s chief planner, Gregg Lintern, is to have clear goals at the outset of any effort.

The project, which kicked off in November, 2017, and runs till July of this year, had three desired outcomes: To increase the number people moving along the street, to accommodate individuals who still needed to drive into the area and to provide economic benefits to both travellers and businesses in the area.

On those fronts, the city reported in November that daily ridership has increased by 11 per cent to 80,000, with wait and travel times both dropping. While car traffic is generally banned on King Street, allowances are made for taxis, ride-shares and quick drop-offs. A study by Ryerson University in September also found the pilot project is saving commuters the equivalent of $11.5-million a year in time.

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So far, the city believes it’s succeeding on all fronts.

“It’s a broad lesson learned around complexity. If you simplify your outcomes and what you’re trying to measure, you can evaluate all of the options more clearly,” Lintern says. “You can measure if you’re being successful, which is even more important in a world where anecdote seems to be beating data.”

Josipa Petrunic, executive director of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium, says Toronto’s approach on the King Street pilot is a good one. Government should be setting clear targets, then getting out of the way and letting the private sector solve problems with innovation.

“The public sector is a critical partner in setting societal goals,” she says. “They absolutely shouldn’t be the ones creating the fundamental solutions. We see this so many times in Canada.”

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