Hamilton's transit authority is implementing free rides and more service locations in an effort to get more riders using PRESTO cards. (Adam Carter/CBC)

City hall hopes to save more than half a million a year by getting more of Hamilton’s transit users to use plastic PRESTO passes.

Hamilton lags far behind other communities in use of the pass: Just 7.7 per cent of all HSR trips use  PRESTO cards compared to 60 per cent of transit rides in other communities.

More users will mean more savings.

The city is implementing a loyalty pilot program that means free rides for users in an effort to get more riders using their PRESTO passes for local transit. It will also set up three more locations where users can load up their passes.

As of Oct. 14, the city will implement a loyalty program that means PRESTO users pay for 11 rides in a week. Every subsequent ride in that calendar week is free.

It is also setting up three more locations where riders can load their PRESTO cards.

The more people who use their PRESTO pass, the more money it will save taxpayers, said Don Hull, Hamilton’s director of transit. Currently, it costs the city more than $500,000 extra per year to operate both the PRESTO and the paper system.

“Right now we have a duplicate system, so we’re paying for both,” Hull said.

“We have to remove the parallel system. Once we do, the operating costs will go down substantially.”

Metrolinx gives the city $11 million per year in provincial gas tax money, and that agreement dictates that Hamilton use the PRESTO system. But so far, the PRESTO uptake for HSR riders has been drastically lower than other municipalities. That’s not only because of ingrained rider habits, but Hamilton hasn’t had a reliable system in place to make it easy for riders, Hull said.

The city spent $6.5 million in recent years to install PRESTO machines, which are on all HSR buses. But riders only have three locations — and a website — to load up their cards.

Current PRESTO locations are at the Hunter Street GO station, city hall and the Dundas municipal centre. The city is adding three more locations — one near Lime Ridge Mall, one at Eastgate Square and one downtown, said Nancy Purser, manager of transit support services.

The city will also roll out a publicity campaign to promote the loyalty program and encourage more people to use PRESTO passes.

The loyalty program “will be helpful for those people who currently ride with a monthly pass,” Purser said. “They have to pay for that totally upfront so this will help improve cash flow for them.

“It will also benefit those riders who travel right now using PRESTO. We’ll start rewarding them for the travel that they do within a week.”

The city’s public works committee approved the plan at its meeting Monday morning.