A woman stands in front of the PRONTO machine at 12th and Imperial Avenue in downtown on May 1, 2023.
A woman stands in front of the Pronto machine at 12th and Imperial Avenue in downtown on May 1, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

When San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System launched a new digital ticketing app called Pronto, its leaders promised riding transit would be easier than ever before.

“Signing up for a transit pass in San Diego is anything but PRONTO,” read a Sept. 19 tweet from Connor Proctor, with Ride SD, a transit advocacy group. That was a little over a year after Pronto first took over ticketing at MTS and North County Transit District.

“It took me 191 clicks to sign up and load money into the Pronto App. It took 13 clicks to sign up and pay for Uber,” Proctor tweeted.

Proctor’s tweet struck a chord, garnering 245 likes and comments from other riders who also struggled to use the new app.

Branded in bright purple, Pronto works like this: riders download an app, load money via a debit or credit card and then scan a QR code at ticket validators on buses or trolley platforms. That, or riders can purchase a physical, plastic card at ticket machines, payday loan stores or ordered and sent through the mail. Pronto was supposed to be an improvement over the old Compass Card system launched in 2009, which lacked modern features like pay-as-you-go, which automatically bills riders for the cheapest fare option as they ride.  

A PRONTO scanner for reloadable cards can be seen at 12th and Imperial Avenue trolley station on May 1, 2023.
A Pronto scanner for reloadable cards can be seen at 12th and Imperial Avenue trolley station on May 1, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

But a growing number of passengers say the new Pronto system is user-unfriendly, deterring first-time riders from choosing public transit out of convenience. Problems scanning the QR code often lead riders to simply board without paying, riders say.

Ride SD, started by members of the existing cycling advocacy group called Circulate SD, is pushing MTS to let riders pay by tapping their credit card or Apple Pay to ride the bus or trolley, a feature available in many other transit systems. They sent a letter with over 100 signatures in October asking MTS to add this capability to the ticket validators on buses and trolleys that already allow contactless pay.

“The vast majority of San Diegans don’t currently take public transit and improving the first-time user experience is necessary if we want to encourage more people to shift their trips to public transportation,” the letter reads.

MTS staff took the matter to its executive committee of elected leaders in March for deliberation, where they revealed that, Ride SD’s demands aside, the transit agency is having trouble getting riders to tap or scan their Pronto app at all.

The debate is largely reminiscent of one from seven years ago, when criticism from Circulate San Diego and KPBS that an outdated fare payment system was holding back the region’s transit ambitions.

12th and Imperial Avenue trolley station in downtown on May 1, 2023.
12th and Imperial Avenue trolley station in downtown on May 1, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

In January of 2023, passengers took about 3 million trolley trips, but just under 1 million actually validated their ticket and paid. While passengers can load money onto their Pronto account MTS gets paid only when a passenger validates their ticket. MTS estimates it lost about $3 million in farebox revenue in 2022 because people aren’t validating tickets. They expect that figure to double this year.

Before Covid and the launch of Pronto, ticket sales traditionally supported a quarter of the MTS operating budget. In 2022, MTS only collected enough ticket money to pay for 15 percent of expenses.

“(Pronto) is a new behavior. Under Compass, we had validators and we encouraged people to tap but it wasn’t required because they had day or monthly passes so we’d collect that money up front,” Mark Olson, an MTS spokesman said.

But MTS is currently staring down a $51 million deficit in its operating budget for the coming fiscal year. The agency isn’t alone in its budget problems. Transit agencies across the state are facing a financial crisis, and transit advocates are lobbying state officials to rescue them.

Ridership is also down overall since the Covid-19 pandemic, which limited service and upended many passenger commutes permanently.    

MTS data shows lots of riders are boarding the trolley but not paying for it. / Courtesy of MTS
MTS data shows lots of riders are boarding the trolley but not paying for it. / Courtesy of MTS

In response to Ride SD’s demands, and in an effort to collect money from more by-choice riders, MTS proposed two options for contactless pay by credit card or digital wallet. One option would allow riders to tap for a one-way fare that includes a two-hour transfer at $2.50. The other is to tap for a $6 day pass.

Olson said adding this feature would cost the agency about $1.2 million up front over 10 years, not including other credit card merchant fees. The MTS board will formally take up the issue in June. If MTS gets the green light, it’d still take about a year to launch the open payment system. 

“Part of this goal is aiming to get new riders we don’t have yet, additional tourists and special event attendees that don’t want to wait in line,” said Emily Outlaw, MTS’ chief information officer, during a March MTS meeting. “It’s geared toward them but doesn’t change existing Pronto system.”

San Diego Councilwoman Vivian Moreno voiced concerns that taking such an action would offer all the bells and whistles to one population, while inconveniencing the 400,000 or more regular transit riders that use the Pronto app. 

Pronto, while at times cumbersome, was designed so low-income riders can pay reduced or capped fares. That capability isn’t possible yet through credit card or digital wallet functions, Outlaw explained. 

Join the Conversation


  1. Nobody’s taking MTS who doesn’t have to because of the homeless. You can make it one-click, you can make it snap-your-fingers and board, doesn’t matter. Just a few months ago MTS sent out a notice telling anyone who rode the trolley to be aware that they were exposed to tuberculosis. You think the problem is the ticketing technology?

    1. What makes you or anyone think the homeless people are the ones that had tuberculosis on the trolley. I have worked with them for several years and I have never seen or heard of any of them having tuberculosis. Most of them are people that have had some bad luck that put them on the streets. Yes I agree there are some that are killing themselves with drugs, but there’s a lot more that are trying to get their lives together. There are more people that are not homeless that do drugs and comit crimes, but it is so easy to put all the blame on someone else because they are down on their luck. Have you even tried to find out what happened to them that put them in this situation. How many people have been put out on the street after COVID that were inside. That’s why the problem is getting worse. So now these people are no good. You need to check things out before you judge a person.

    2. You are not wrong, about a quarter of the time I take the trolley there is a homeless person either causing a ruckus or sleeping. I usually head to the opposite side of the trolley car or different car entirely if there is time as I don’t want to spend my time listening to someone rant profanities and worrying about how this could get ugly real fast. Turnstile installation at stations may provide a deterrent effect.

  2. There is an error in this line: “Ride SD, started by members of the existing cycling advocacy group called Circulate SD”, it should be “Bike SD” not “Circulate SD”

  3. Perhaps some people don’t tap because the trolley comes before they can tap. It’s hard to time it right if you are an occasional rider. Why couldn’t they just have a place on the trolley to tap?

    1. Yelp! This had been me multiple tines. Hoo on without paying or wait 15-20 for the next trolley?…

    2. Anyone who thinks that having a validator on board the trolley is a good idea has never ridden the trolley at rush hour. These ‘choice riders’ are largely spoiled, entitled rich folks who want everything to be ultra-convenient and available on their phone. When people board at a busy time, there is a mad dash to get a seat, and having them try to access a validator on-board would be a major disaster.

      As for revenue loss: let’s face it the design of this trolley system is bargain-basement, no matter how you look at it. Rapid transit in other cities around the world have controlled-access turnstiles and personnel maintaining the stations. While still not perfect, such a system weeds out the majority of cheaters and miscreants, as opposed to enabling them as it does in San Diego.

      I’m really tired of hearing from these ‘choice riders’ who mainly use it to avoid parking fees at recreational events. Sorry you’re too cheap to take an Uber or Lyft, but the system is not designed to cater to you. It’s designed to get students, the poor, and environmentally conscious commuters to and from their schools and places of business efficiently. Enabling the homeless and the mentally ill to cheat the system CERTAINLY drives down ridership. Anyone who doubts this can just take a ride from 12th and Imperial to America Plaza, and count the loonies and street people who hop on and off to do their nefarious business downtown. Oh, and be sure to bring your toddlers along for the ride… no? I didn’t think so.

  4. Who approved that sysyem to begin with??? I’ve riden transit around the globe and never tan into a system this difficult the validate! The QR readers are BADLY designed and never should have been accepted to be installed as is. I’ve had difficulty getting them to validate as well as they have zero graphics showing how to correctly place your code to get validated and it’s unreliable even after you figure it out. Where else is this system installed?? Please find out and MTS should look into suing the developers who are profiting off the poor performance of their validation design and public documentation. And of course people who can’t get the system to respond are going to ride t
    rather than face the time penalty for waiting and then what if still can’t get it to work?

    1. Absolutely. Just got back from Israel. The RavKav system there works flawlessly. There’s an app you can use to either buy fares directly and scan your phone, or you can use it to recharge a plastic card. Every method of transit has scanners in the front and the back.

      Better than that was London a few years ago. You just scan your credit/debit card. If you don’t have one, you can get a card that can be reloaded.

      That system already allows for “capped” fees – if you use more than one method of transit it doesn’t allow the total for a single day to go over $15.

      What if instead of reinventing the wheel so they can flow hundreds of thousands of dollars to developers to create something that already exists, we just used one of the many systems around the world that we already know work flawlessly.

      Too simple? Of course, that’s why government is government.

      1. A fare comparison would be to compare the amount of resources the international or New York metros dedicate to transit service. You’ll find that the unwillingness of San Diego taxpayers to support alternative modes to the car is the reason for MTS’ woes. It’s not just important to vote for ballot measures to support transit but also to advocate for what really matters to a transit system – frequency and span of service. Blaming MTS for not being able to perform miracles with a fraction of the resources they would need to provide an effective alternative to the private automobile is a waste of everyone’s time and a distraction.

        1. MTS should be buying systems that have been in service for years and other City’s have vetted. It’s one of the benefits of being a laggard.

          1. Government procurements go through a competitive bidding process. It’s like hearing your neighbor likes her Tesla, deciding you want a Tesla, then buying next year’s Tesla – there’s so much more to it.

            1. I left out the word “not”. It’s not like a private purchase. Competitive bids for technology are particularly problematic. Also, if it’s a system that’s been in use for years and vetted, if it is selected, the product would be obsolete by implementation – see the Clipper Card in the SF Bay Area. I remember being at an MTC meeting hearing how the tech was obsolete during the planning stage and it wasn’t implemented until several years after. I believe it was selected after a successful deployment in Canada.

              1. Perhaps if we stopped making excuses for government incompetence and started expecting them to figure out how to operate effectively they would not continue to be incompetent.

    2. The QR readers all suffer from the same problem: stray sunlight. A simple fix is a shade around the sides of the sensor. I saw a bus driver do just that with tape and a piece of cardboard. Problem solved. The ones on the Trolley platform have similar issues, but if you stand so that your body is blocking the direct sunlight shining on the sensor tray, it works flawlessly. Should be a simple retrofit to add something similar but more durable…

  5. Pronto doesn’t allow you to add a credit card to the account. Dumpest system ever.

    1. Don’t think that’s correct. My Pronto card, both the plastic card and the app version, are both linked to my credit card. The issue for me, is half the time I can’t get the reader to scan my phone. I run out of time, and have to jump on without paying.

  6. Just got back from New York City where it was extremely easy to tap and pay to enter the turnstile and use the subway, with free transfers included, until you exit the subway system. Contrast that to San Diego, where I have had a pronto card for well over a year, and have never used it once, and still don’t know how to. Tap and pay is definitely the way to go. And I have no desire to load too much money onto a card system when I don’t know that I will even be using it in the near future. Regarding QR codes, of course we all know that is currently the system in place to board an airplane. For those to work, your phone screen display has to be on full brightness (usually turned up automatically by the app) and the scanning procedure does take a couple of more seconds than tap and pay does, plus your phone QR code does need to be properly lined up with the scanner… Something that a lot of people don’t know to do, or don’t understand.

  7. Another issue is the process to qualify for a reduced fare. As you will find if you read the following website, the only way a person can qualify for senior, youth, and other discounts is to visit the Travel Store in downtown San Diego, wait in line, and so on. It’s in an area where safety is uncertain, but does MTS really need to force seniors and kids to go downtown to qualify for the reduced fares? https://www.sdmts.com/fares/reduced-fares

  8. Took the Coaster to the Padres game yesterday. Reader wouldnt take my Pronto because there wasn’t enough $ on it despite signing up for the auto re-load feature when it dips below $5. My primary crc had expired but I already had 3 crcs loaded into the app , why didn’t it just take the next one? As I waited for my train I watched 3 or 4 people struggle with the ticket system and/ or Pronto.
    Maybe they should re-name the system “Ikyhara ” — for sure it would take your money, immediately lose half and the other have would be spent on 5 star restaurants.

  9. Whoever decided to put the scanners all the way at the end and NOT next to the ticket machine is a total moron. Nobody wants to walk so far to the scanner just for it to not work anyways. Why aren’t these located in more convenient areas?

  10. Make MTS board member ride the system everyday until this kind of stuff gets fixed.

  11. I consider myself intelligent. It’s silly and hard to figure out when you’re rushing to just hop on.

    Hell, I hate time once and I still couldn’t figure out what the machine as asking.

    As someone from LA, the metro is better.

  12. It comes down to the angst and bitter feelings that riders have with regards to the way trolley ticket enforcement and the guys in florescent vests, treat the riders. Yesterday I filmed a mom with two small children handcuffed by the florescent vested employees because she had no fare ticket on her. The children were obviously, freaking out and screaming bloody murder at seeing their mother handcuffed! They seemed to be about 7 and 8 years old. There was a boy and girl. They will be traumatized for the rest of their lives. The mother was crying, sobbing loudly the entire time and begging the trolley enforcement to let her go. There were approximately 7 trolley employees present that stood around and would not budge while this woman cried and cried and begged for them to release her while her children were freaking out. I asked a trolley employee what happened , and he told me ,” this doesn’t concern you..move on!”. Well, it does concern me as it concerned all the onlookers. A complaint with the city is being filed. I hope a lawsuit is forthcoming.

  13. Actually, MTS is screwing riders with the new pronto card who do not use the App! The card is NOT loadable on busses so you are forced to pay twice for many trips. For example, if I start my trip at Balboa Park or any other of the many hundreds of bus stops throughout SD where there isn’t a Pronto card ticket machine – I must pay in cash and THEN get to the card machine to pay for the rest of my journey! So, a simple $2.50 one way journey to run an errand will cost me $5! Multiply that by the many riders who encounter this, multiplied 7 times a day and Pronto is definitely on the winning end of these types of transactions. The pandemic relief funds they received from the Feds could have fixed this problems, as those relief funds were in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but MTS declined to do so.

    1. One time a trolley cop told me “I would yell at my wife like this!” I was 12 and felt singled out because my shirt said Punk Rawk. He also yelled at a kid with a skateboard that was next to me, but not my friend who had accidentally rubbed ge writing off of her ticket so it appeared blank. He let her slide, but not me? We had both purchased a ticket for 1.25 instead of 1.75, so I asked him if he wanted the change and he said no, then proceeded to tell me he would yell at his wife like that. Wtf?

  14. I didn’t find it that difficult when I started to use the trolley system to get to and from Aztec games a couple of years back. What is a pain is that it won’t let me pay twice, once for me, once for my grandson. I had to buy him a card. This seems silly.

  15. Mesdames, Messieurs, America is still a free country, and it is an honor to address all of you. I am running for mayor of San Diego and

    yes, I will lose in the sense of being elected. I will win in the sense of instilling truth, honor, integrity, fairness, morality, ethics and common sense within

    the body politic. The voters in this great city remind me of my time in Ireland where I watched in awe the sheep following the leader on mountain trails. It

    is so sad and frustrating that the seemingly majority of voters are always unhappy with their elected leaders. The Mayor of San Diego has surrounded

    himself with yes men and yes women. This attributes to the degradation of political policy. My heartfelt belief is that any so-called leader in a democracy

    ought to surround themselves with contrary confidants offering disparate points of view. San Diego is not about the mayor. It is about humanity and the

    totality of our human experience. Public policy must yield to common sense. As one of hundreds of examples, 80% of San Diego bike lanes must be

    removed. And this measure comes from an Ironman triathlete. One who has logged more cycling miles on San Diego streets than maybe anyone.

    Vision Zero has failed! Vision Zero must be disbanded. Circulate San Diego is a circus and likewise put to the wrecking ball. Errant wild out of control driving must be criminalized for the safety of society.

    Mister Kevin Faulconer, a career politician has in Tom Shepard, le creme de la creme. Untold millions will be spent in dark sinister money to win this

    election. The voters really and honestly don’t care but I do and this in part is why I choose to run. Your reporters will label me as a crackpot and worse. You will burn me at the stake. I have been hundreds of times to Rouen so I can take the heat.

    I will not participate in your debates and/or questionnaires because quite frankly, I don’t want to be used as a scapegoat and prop for your insincere

    notion of American equality. There is no equality in America and God knows you know it! With best intentions, I am,
    Dan “Danny” Smiechowski

  16. Not enough scanners so people skip if the train comes right as they get to station. Need more scanners and scanners on trolly. Also, you should be able to scan your pronto app multiple times to pay for out of town guests or partners. Take way too long to register in he app for the first time.

    1. There is at lease one scanner/validator at each end of the platform, where you enter. Do you not have time to see and use it?

  17. PRONTO is horrible! I took the trolley for the first time in years. Downloaded the app but could not figure out how to get it to work. On the whole ride I was afraid the entire rider that I’d get ticketed for fare evasion. I was relieved to get to my stop. I’ve got money stuck in that app that neither me nor the city will ever see. It’s a terrible system!! I’m not riding the trolley again until you fix it. Are you listening City of San Diego?

  18. Endless promotion of this ‘story’, and ZERO coverage of the transit strike. Way to go, Voice of San Diego…

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