First-year student arrives at U of T with a plan to improve Toronto’s transit

Zarif Ali says the idea for his rewards-focused app grew out of a Grade 9 geography project

A member of New College, incoming first-year student Zarif Ali is hoping to study computer science and meet others who are passionate about improving transit and “other things that ... could dramatically improve our quality of life” (photo by Polina Teif)

Zarif Ali is betting the University of Toronto – and its culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in particular – can help him get where he wants to go.

A recent graduate of the International Baccalaureate program at Scarborough’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate, Ali has been making media headlines in recent months for Transit+, his concept for an app that would incentivize public-transit riders through a rewards program while consolidating other features from existing apps, such as route and schedule information and digital fare payment.

“It was originally part of our Grade 9 geography culminating project,” says Ali, 18, who will be starting first year in the Faculty of Arts & Science as a member of New College with an eye toward entering the computer science program in his second year. “Our teacher assigned us to create something that would improve the quality of life in Toronto.”

He says had wanted to attend U of T ever since middle school and made up his mind when he discovered the university had a specialist program for designing computer interfaces.

“I was immediately interested, as that relates directly to how I want to thrive in my career. It was very clear to me from the beginning that U of T was going to be my top choice – and so I actually didn’t end up applying anywhere else.”

Inspired by a transit-focused episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s talk show Patriot Act and his own burgeoning interest in computer science, Ali decided to focus on a digital solution to the issue of transit cuts and fare hikes due to transit agencies’ lack of revenue.

“Transit+ is like Starbucks Rewards for your transit fare,” he explains. “The more you ride the TTC or Metrolinx using your Presto card, the more points you would be able to rack up – and at the end of the week or month, you could redeem them for a free bus ride or even a weekly or monthly pass. And if you wanted to incorporate small businesses around the city, you could have them do promotions within the app for you to redeem using Presto or your credit card.”

Ali points to other transit agencies that have implemented similar systems over the years, such as the STM Merci loyalty program in Montreal that was able to generate $100 million in additional revenue from new ridership over the course of its three-year pilot project, according to a study, or Hong Kong’s Octopus smartcard and its rider perks.

“Right now, the app is very focused on the rewards program – it’s meant to incentivize people who are either considering using transit, or already using it, to use it more frequently. If you're able to increase ridership, you increase the total revenue that the agency is able to bring in,” Ali says.

Encouraged by his teachers and fellow classmates, Ali kept fine-tuning his idea for the Transit+ app throughout high school while continuing to learn more about computing by watching YouTube videos and taking a Grade 10 computer science course.

“I’m interested in computer science because of how it enables you to create things that are accessible to so many people,” Ali says.

He credits his experience at Wilfrid Laurier for helping him prepare to enter university.

“The teachers there were absolutely wonderful in guiding everyone throughout our high school career – especially in the last two years in the IB program,” Ali says.

“There was definitely a competitive atmosphere, but it just fueled everybody to try and do the absolute best they could in whatever field they wanted to get into. And happily, everybody in my friend group was able to get into their top choice for university.”

Ali’s former geography teacher, Karen Pak – who graduated from the master's program at U of T's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in 2017 – says the school project that led to Ali's app was based on principles from the Global Ideas Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, where she was formerly the mentor program manager. She says Ali's enthusiasm for learning will serve him well in university.

“As an educator, you always hope that students will be sparked by something to make learning truly tangible and applicable,” Pak says. 

“Zarif deserves all the credit in taking this opportunity and turning it into a pathway for his creativity and intellect – a winning combination. I know he will go on to accomplish incredible innovations and inspire others to do the same.”

As he gets ready to start at U of T in September, Ali is as focused on his academic goals as he was on building Transit+.

“I’m hoping that I can meet the requirements to get into the computer science major. After second year, I want to go into the focus in human-computer interaction program, because that’s where you get to learn about design fundamentals.

“And I’m hoping to meet like-minded people at U of T who are also as passionate about computer science and improving things like transit or looking at other things that could be very simple to implement, but could dramatically improve our quality of life,” Ali says, adding that he’s planning to join some of U of T’s entrepreneurship clubs and accelerators to help him further develop his app.

For Transit+ to become a reality, Ali knows he’d need buy-in from TTC and Metrolinx – and has already reached out to local politicians, activists and transit staff who've offered feedback and even helped him refine his pitch.

Ironically, Ali – who immigrated to Scarborough from Bangladesh with his parents in 2010 – has never been much of a transit rider himself. But that’s all about to change as he gears up for his daily commute to campus this fall.

“I've always been lucky enough to have my schools or wherever I need to go really close by, so I never really rode transit that much,” he says. “But now that I'm coming downtown to attend U of T, I feel like having a program like Transit+ in place would be great.”