A man helps an older woman use the PRONTO machine so she can purchase a ticket to ride the trolley at 12th and Imperial Avenue in downtown on May 1, 2023.
A man helps an older woman use the Pronto machine so she can purchase a ticket to ride the trolley at 12th and Imperial Avenue in downtown on May 1, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

San Diegans are seeking validation – of their bus or trolley ticket fare.

I reported last week that the Metropolitan Transit System is having trouble getting riders to pay through a digital ticket app called Pronto. And in response, the Metropolitan Transit System agency pointed to a survey showing 92 percent of riders were satisfied with the service.

That’s not what our readers said.

Most of the 158 commentors on a Reddit post of Thursday’s story were downright frustrated or are just plain giving up on Pronto.

“The fact that MTS doesn’t have tap to pay for phones is such a missed opportunity,” wrote one Reddit commentor. “I’ve had so many situations where I just gave up scanning my phone QR code because of how difficult it is.”

Members of a new advocacy group called Ride SD are calling for MTS to simplify its system and allow riders to avoid Pronto altogether by enabling credit card or Apple Pay tapping on ticket validators, which will be considered in June. Meanwhile, it’s incredibly easy to avoid paying for San Diego’s bus or trolley system. Even those who really want to pay, cannot.

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

“The number of times I’ve ran in front of an approaching trolley in Little Italy to validate because there isn’t a damn scanner on the side I enter… It’s ridiculous,” one Reddit commentor wrote.  

Commentors also shared that bus drivers are waiving on riders for free if they struggle too long to scan the Pronto app’s QR-code-based ticket before boarding. First time trolley riders miss the trolley that takes them to Petco Park for a San Diego Padres game while figuring out how to buy a ticket.

Other Reddit commenters complained that the chest-high purple boxes posted on trolley platforms where riders are supposed to tap Pronto aren’t placed in convenient or obvious locations. Or there aren’t enough of them. Or, why aren’t the ticket validators actually on board the damn trolley in the first place, is a top complaint I’ve heard over and over.

“It’s a terrible system that is incredibly easy to manipulate and ride for free for months on end,” wrote another Reddit commenter who said they use both the bus and trolley almost every weekday. 

Pronto is supposed to work 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. 

MTS signed a $37 million, 10-year contract in 2018 with a company called Innovations in Transportation, Inc. to develop the Pronto ticketing system. Of the four companies’ proposals that made their way before an MTS selection committee, INIT was the second choice after assessing four criteria including cost to build, operate and maintain. It remained in second place behind a company called Conduent Transportation Solutions, Inc. through three additional sets of evaluation by that MTS committee. A San Diego-based company called Cubic, ranked third.

Ann Derby, a spokeswoman for INIT, said in an email that the company “worked very closely with MTS to build a user-friendly app that meets the needs of its riders.” Derby pointed to the app’s 4.6 out of 5 on Apple and 4.0 out of 5 on Google.

MTS has chalked up problems like these to riders getting accustomed to the 2021 switch to the Pronto system.

The survey MTS spokesman Mark Olson pointed to asked 1,842 riders who take the bus or trolley at least three times a week to rate their satisfaction with Pronto. But those who took it were regular riders who are generally poorer San Diegans. About 84 percent of respondents earned less than $50,000 annually and 55 percent earned less than $20,000. The most negative feedback MTS got from these respondents was on the location of its ticket validators – a complaint shared by Reddit readers.

The surveyed riders are different from those that use transit by choice – people who own a car but prefer to take public transit and probably a larger portion of commentors taking to Reddit to complain. It’s these choice riders who recently organized to ask MTS add credit card tapping.

If public transit and Pronto is your only choice, and sometimes you get to ride for free because of it, I’d be pretty satisfied, too.

In Other News

  • Our North County reporter, Tigist Layne, is following Carlsbad’s quest to decarbonize and electrify its buildings, a plan they put on hold after a federal appeals court ruled the city of Berkeley’s natural gas ban went too far. Read and subscribe to her North County newsletter if you live there!
  • In more MTS news, its bus drivers are on strike over forced, unpaid breaks and a lack of access to restrooms. (Union-Tribune)
  • That rainy winter and this lush spring means there’s more fuel for wildfires as the region approaches summer – that has fire officials worried. (Union-Tribune)
  • A lot of solar farms are being built out east in Imperial County where land is cheap, as we reported this time last year. But will it still be cheap when you add the cost of a $2.3 billion transmission line to get it here? (Voice of San Diego and Union-Tribune)
  • Relationships between the biggest Colorado River users are becoming rosier as CNN reports California, Arizona and Nevada announced a deal to cut 10 percent of their combined use.

Join the Conversation


  1. It worked fine until my credit expired. I tried to load a new one to no avail!! Even after deleting and reloading the app, so many glitches!!

  2. MTS should have hired San Diego. Cubic Transportation Systems (CTS), part of Cubic Corporation, was named “Ticketing Enabler of the Year” in the 11th annual Transport Ticketing Awards program that recognizes today’s top companies, technologies and products in the global smart ticketing and mobility industry. The award was announced at the Transport Ticketing Global Summit held March 7-8 in Olympia, London.

    Transport Ticketing Global is the world’s largest event for the smart ticketing and mobility community. This year’s awards saw 10 companies shortlisted for the coveted Ticketing Enabler of the Year category, with Cubic selected as the winner among several well-known, highly esteemed companies.

    Cubic Transportation Systems’ platform enables customers to acquire new digital transit cards and purchase tickets without visiting a ticket kiosk or vending machine, offering enhanced flexibility and efficiency that reduces barriers to travel. Unlike traditional barcode and SMS mobile ticketing solutions, digital contactless card solutions offer tap-and-go functionality.

    1. Agree, who is making these decisions? How was “pronto” selected? All these contracts and lack of oversight is milking our city.

  3. The criminal thing to do here would be to offer free public transportation and living wages.

  4. “But those who took it were regular riders who are generally poorer San Diegans. About 84 percent of respondents earned less than $50,000 annually and 55 percent earned less than $20,000.” What does their income have to do with the validity of their feedback? It seems regular rider’s opinions are more relevant than random users on Reddit.

  5. I have two issues with Pronto/MTS.

    1. Fare purchase machines do not have any rain protection. Try to buy a fare in the pouring rain holding an umbrella.

    2. Fare machine orientation. At the end of the line, Santee trolley station, one fare machine faces south right into the sun. Try and use the screen with the full sun on it.

    If MTS wants more riders, fix the problems.

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