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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Life with PRESTO

For the past three weeks, I have joined the anonymous tribe of commuters in the Toronto Area for the daily pilgrimage from the suburbs to the city. In all, nearly 200,000 people use GO Transit to do this. For someone who loves railways, these three weeks were quite significant as they marked the first time I had ever taken a train on a regular basis - a feat ever more impressive when you consider that I don't have a driver's license and have thus not simply substituted one means of transport for another. Unlike the majority of commuters, I was not travelling to go to work, but rather for archival research. It was this that made me pay attention to those travelling around me.

I am an observant person anyway - it is in the nature of authors and photographers to be so - but my searching through old boxes of documents made me especially so. I used the word "tribe" very deliberately to describe commuters as I think that social scientists should pay more attention to this interesting group. The commuters' conventions of lining up to board the train, the repetition of where to sit, of "owning" a seat and the rift in the space-time continuum when one fails to get ones usual square foot. Consider also how we choose who we sit next to. Generally, I sit wherever I can get a seat facing forward, but subconsciously I am assessing gender, age, disposition, facial expression and I'm sure other factors I haven't even considered. Although the behavioural science of commuting is interesting, it is peripheral to the main topic of this piece: PRESTO.

Just as both jobs and the trains that take people to them are going high-tech, ticketing technology has also evolved. Gone are the cardboard monthly passes as well as the beloved 2 and 10-ride tickets which needed to be cancelled before each trip in a process known affectionately in my family as "kachunking". While the single and return tickets remain, the others have all fallen to the PRESTO smart card, a credit card-sized piece of plastic similar to other systems used around the world.

Although the rollout has been slow (and is far from complete) and the system's installation cost is one of the highest in the world, the system has worked well for me. The initial registration of the card was complicated and the autoload feature did take days to work properly, but once that was complete, the system could not be simpler. At each end of the journey, I hold the card against a reader to deduct money for the cost of the journey. While it doesn't "kachunk", it does beep - leading to a new verb in my family: to "beepy-beepy".

The PRESTO card is part of the surge in new digital technology which has so changed our society by placing so much data into computer code, a medium that has proven disturbingly permanent. Normally, I refuse store loyalty cards on principle: why would I want to attach my complete purchase history to my name so that marketers could follow and predict my every decision? It seems that the more freedom the digital world supposedly gives us, the more our behaviour enslaves us to governments and corporations. It is then paradoxical, if not hypocritical, that I registered my PRESTO card and set an autoload. The entire system is set up to allow you to make anonymous cash top-ups, but I chose to automate everything because it was easy. As a result, I never had to worry about being unable to pay the fare, but my travel history has now also been recorded in startling detail. For instance, on the 22nd of August, 2013:

  • 6:42 am - I deduct money for a trip starting at the Whitby GO station
  • 7:38 am - I end my journey and deduct the balance of the cost of my trip at Toronto Union station
  • 5:21 pm - I deduct money for a trip starting at Toronto Union Station
  • 6:35 pm - I end my journey and deduct the balance of the cost of my trip at the Whitby GO station
  • 6:35 pm - my card autoloads
  • 6:41 pm - I deduct money for a Durham Region Transit bus (I was lazy)

While this does not tell you where I live, or where I went and what I did in Toronto, the picture is disturbingly clear. In many ways, this is more invasive than any loyalty scheme, even allowing you to construe the discounted fares available for using PRESTO cards as a sort of payment for data, yet I still chose to do it without a great deal of worry. That is the key to data mining in the 21st century - we don't worry about it. This brings me back to the start of this entire commentary: commuters.

Technology has indeed allowed our actions and decisions to be logged like never before. In return, we have been able to access content from the remotest parts of the world. GO Trains are no exception to this, whereas commuters once read books or newspapers, today they are more likely to catch up on work or videos on LCD screen-adorned devices. Adding this to the already invasive noise of cellular telephones has compelled GO to introduce "Quiet Zones" on all rush-hour trains. For my part, I look out the window, while those around me are engrossed in their latest gadgets, thankfully now mostly in silence.

My research is now complete and so I have abandoned the tribe to resume my normal, less traceable life. I have enjoyed the train journeys immensely, just as I enjoyed watching my fellow commuters. There is but one question that lingers in my mind: who will get my now-vacant seat today?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I've noticed most of those things about commuters as well. But you'd be surprised - in the UK anyway quite a lot of work has been done on the social ecosystem that is the 'commuter' trains.