NextBus Maps Vanish: Is TTC Embarrassed by Crappy Service?

Those who have been following the on again, off again appearance of NextBus information on the TTC have noticed that the route maps are no longer visible, only the next vehicle predicitions for stops.

Apparently, the maps showing the locations of the cars were just too embarrassing for TTC management as they show how erratic the service is even on lines with their own rights-of-way and supposedly good service.

This is an odd development considering that a rollout of NextBus to all streetcar lines was expected soon, and the maps are an integral part of the product.  Most of the streetcar routes appeared for a few days, and even were announced by the Mayor, but they were pulled back from public view.

At some point, TTC operations has to learn who they are working for.  We hear a lot about customer service these days, but perish the thought we actually find out how bad things really are.

If there is anyone at TTC with a reasonable explanation of why we should not see these maps, I want to hear it.

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37 Responses to NextBus Maps Vanish: Is TTC Embarrassed by Crappy Service?

  1. Steven says:

    I think that it is due to technical problems, The Nextbus map indicated that there was only one car on the 509 for much of last Saturday, which I sincerely hope was not true.

    Steve: From what I hear, this is not due to problems with cars vanishing. Also, if NextBus has lost track of all but one car on the line, this will also affect the predicted arrival times at stops. The TTC owes us an explanation.

  2. Jeff says:

    What’s the holdup? Do we use radically different bus technology than Chicago?

    “we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas”

    Steve: The only role of the technology is to unmask how badly run the service actually is at times when all of the standard excuses simply do not apply.

  3. Alex says:

    I wonder how difficult it would be to take the information they are publishing, and using it to reconstruct the maps?

    For example, right now there is shown on 509E cars at 6, 12 and 19 minutes away from Union. By going back along the line you find that the first car is at Queens Quay & Spadina, and the second one is at Fleet & Bassion, and the third one is still W at Strachan Loop.

    Even a few example snapshots would be good for illustrating the clumping.

    Steve: Yes, this would be possible, but a user should not have to do this.

  4. Robert Wightman says:

    I wondered what happened to the map. You can still watch San Francisco’s service on the map in real time.

  5. Trevor says:

    Would a formal request for ‘public’ information fix this problem? After all, as you imply, government institutions should be fully accountable (literally) to the public.

  6. DiCK says:

    Is it time to paper the TTC with FOI requests in order to determine the rationale for some of their bizarre decisions?

  7. Wogster says:

    The problem with Toronto, is it’s incredibly huge EGO. No where is this more prevalent then the TTC. They always assume that because Toronto or the TTC has a problem, that nobody has ever had this problem before.

    There are dozens of cities, around the world, that run streetcars, so how do they keep their streetcars on time.

    If streetcars are constantly behind time, then rather then hiding this, top brass at the TTC should be asking the simple question, WHY? The operators know why they are constantly behind time, so ask them. Maybe the schedule is too tight, or the traffic lights all seem to turn red as the streetcar approaches, with the stop on the far side. So, put a supervisor on the line, and every run that is late, gets asked why, do this every day for a week, you will probably get the same reason over and over, that is your answer.

    Steve: There is also the issue that streetcars may be “on time” on the average, but they run in bunches. TTC mythology states that this is an inevitable result of “mixed traffic” operations. However, the fact that cars don’t even leave the ends of the line on time, and can be found wandering the breadth of the city as a pair of cars or buses shows a combination of operators who are not doing their jobs properly and line management who make little effort to space out the service.

    The lack of regular spacing was glaringly apparent when all of the streetcar line maps were visible, and even Spadina and Harbourfront had problems at times of the day when none of the regular excuses for bunched service could possibly apply. Both the TTC and the ATU need to admit that bunching is caused, in part, both by operators and by line supervision (or the complete lack of it in some cases). Yes, there is traffic congestion and there are accidents, but they are not the sole or even primary cause of poor service.

  8. PSC says:

    Well, it’s not because Nextbus maps are down.

    Check out the Portland Streetcar Google map!

  9. george Bell says:

    One of the things I’ve noticed lately is a complete lack of regular communication on projects the TTC is working on.

    Whoever is heading up the nextbus work within the TTC needs to have a website tracking their progress (% of vehicles that have GPS would be a start). But they should also be discussing what their plans are and what their goals are. Currently the only thing I’ve gotten from anyone in the government is that the system should be up and operational completely by the end of the year….but I have no way of verifying that anyone is actually working on this goal, or that it hasn’t changed.

    It would be good if the TTC (or even the city) had a project dashboard, simple red, yellow and green markings and the date it was last updated to determine if a project is on schedule or behind, how many milestones there are, and when those milestones will be complete.

    Steve: You expect accountability? Are you mad?

  10. DavidC says:

    It is interesting that on the NextBus website they announce that contracts were signed with both TTC and San Francisco – actually a contract expansion – on the same day – September 11, 2006. Three and a half years later Toronto has (sort of) two routes showing, SF has many. The problem is clearly not NextBus but our old friend the TTC. Like many people who read your site (and you Steve), I REALLY want to support the TTC but the never-ending problems with projects and service does really make one wonder if the present cast of characters – managers and commissioners – need to be swept aside – could Metrolinx run things much worse?

    Steve: The problem with Metrolinx is that, like the TTC, it has a docile board who don’t want to challenge the staff. Their job is to make the organization look good, to be cheerleaders, not to demand excellence in a very public way. Don’t forget that Metrolinx has already blown at least $140m, possibly more, on Presto and has very little to show for it.

  11. M. Briganti says:

    I think you need to use the subway’s PA system (like Miller just did with TC) to get your point across …

    “Thank for you using the TTC. On behalf of Adam Giambrone, this is Steve MAWN-ROE — please call your MPP and ask him/her to save NextBus maps.”

  12. David Cavlovic says:

    Vanishing maps actually make sense as a metaphor for vanishing service.

    I have often wondered: does the TTC hierarchy read this blog, and do they actually pay attention, or totally ignore our plights as often posted?

    Steve: Many at the TTC read this blog, and some of them support the arguments I put forward even though they can’t actually do anything about it.

  13. Taal says:

    Maybe it was just me but having a look at San Francisco, it looked pretty bad too … at times worse then the TTC.

    Steve: I am not surprised. However, at least we can see it.

  14. Ed Drass says:

    I asked Brad Ross, via Twitter, “does Steve have a point about the vehicle location maps on NextBus being pulled by TTC?”

    He responds, “No firm decisions have been made on this issue.”

    However, I also note another message from Brad: “We want to hear what you want to say – Use #TTCpanel in your tweets or fill out our online form.”

    Steve: Somebody made a decision to pull those maps. Somebody made the decision to withdraw access to most of the streetcar routes after they were already publicly visible and no less than the Mayor had announced it. This is not an issue where a “decision” is required except by the Commission directing staff to make available to the public the information and functionality that is in the system.

  15. Tom West says:

    Steve says (in a comment reply): “Metrolinx has already blown at least $140m, possibly more, on Presto and has very little to show for it.”

    That’s a bit much, given that it will be going live in two Transit systems and on GO line in May, and by January it will be live in every major transit system across the GTA (and Hamilton) except TTC.

    Metrolinx has its faults for sure (and you and I could probably spend an hour going through them together), but Presto isn’t one of them.

    (Aside: Missasagua says implementing Presto will cost it $12m, including this year’s budget and previous years’ spending… given it has ~430 buses, I would expect TTC’s cost to be more like $120m, not the $400m they keep using without supporting evidence.)

    Steve: Metrolinx has heard that $400m figure many times and has never challenged it. If they can do it cheaper, why don’t they say so? The TTC has much, much higher ridership figures than Mississauga and a more complex ridership pattern. It’s not just a question of how many vehicles are in the fleets.

    My attitude to Metrolinx is that they should stop criticizing the TTC and start producing credible counterproposals if they know so much. Just a few days ago, a Metrolinx Presto person was speaking on the CBC news slagging the TTC for talking about open payment systems when they (TTC) didn’t even have a business model or know how much it would cost.

    Hmmm. I have an email from a senior Metrolinx exec saying that Presto will support open payment, and if that’s so, then Metrolinx should already know the cost. Criticizing the TTC in that context is a bit rich.

    The real problem is that Metrolinx is locked into a 10-year contract with Accenture to provide the back-office functionality for Presto, but we don’t know the terms of that contract or the technology upheaval needed to change vendors at renewal time.

  16. Wogster says:

    I know how to solve the bunching problem.

    1) When an operator is too close to the car/bus ahead, they should call control, control would then either tell them to fall back, or would contact the car head, and tell them to proceed semi-express (only stop at stops to drop passengers), until the spacing is back on track.

    2) Put in more line supervisors on routes that have problems. For example putting a supervisor at St Clair W, with a couple of stop watches to re-space east and west bound cars.

    I’ve seen on buses where one bus gets behind, the next bus dutifully pulls in behind, as the first bus pulls into every stop, before they loop more then twice, it’s 5 buses.

    Steve: This issue came up at the ATU forum last weekend. The ATU claims that operators are disciplined if they run skip-stop or otherwise adjust their operation to get back on time. This has been directly contradicted by TTC management at another recent public meeting, but the ATU drags out the same story. In any event, route supervisors (either on the street or in CIS control) should be able to tell operators to run skip stop when it would aid the restoration of proper service.

    The real challenge is to prevent two (or more) operators from always running in a pack, but using skip stop to spread out the demand between them, thereby ensuring a nice long break at the terminal.

  17. Brent says:

    The crappy service isn’t a reason to take down the NextBus map — the crappy service is exactly WHY WE NEED the NextBus map! Taking the map down won’t change what the service actually looks like… but leaving the map up could at least make the service a little more tolerable, by making it easier for riders to adjust their travel plans.

  18. Gordon says:

    I cannot help thinking that there is a fundamental problem here. If service is 15 minutes or more, most customers will know the schedule and time themselves to the next scheduled vehicle. They expect the vehicle to be on time.

    If service is more frequent, customers will go to the stop without regard to the schedule, expecting a vehicle within a few minutes. With frequent service lines the customers expect headway service not scheduled service.

    Using a scheduled service for a busy route will naturally produce the effect we are seeing. If a vehicle is delayed for any reason it is difficult to catch up mostly because of heavier passenger load, and the following vehicles will just close in.

    An answer may be to select certain routes to be operated by headway schedule.

    Steve: I have been making this sort of argument for some time. The TTC needs to have advertised time points at major stops for infrequent services, and buses have to stick to these time points. For frequent services, a regular headway is far more important than the schedule.

  19. Rob M says:

    I wonder if we’re not getting carried away and a little bit paranoid here.

    I don’t think the average person is interested enough or, in some cases smart enough to digest all of the information that was presented on NextBus. There are likely plenty of riders who commute from, say Etobicoke to University Avenue everyday (just an example) who have no idea where Jarvis Street is or a ballpark idea of how long it should take to get from there to University.

    Those of us who are interested in transit have likely spent hours looking first at paper maps of the city as kids and then the Google (or other electronic) maps as adults and can interpret this stuff quickly as we have an idea of time between stops, distances, vehicle headways (at least what the Service Summary says they should be) and number of vehicles that should be in service at a given time.

    I think we should always remember that for many of us this is a hobby. I really don’t think too many riders could spot chaos on NextBus even if they were looking for it. If the TTC is trying to hide something by limiting the presentation of information they may be a little paranoid too.

  20. Wogster says:

    This is why I think that drivers should be instructed to contact control if they catch up to the previous bus/streetcar. Where systems like NextBus can be helpful to management, is that when they see a line in trouble, they can send a supervisor out to straighten it up again. St Clair seems to be a chronic problem, so stationing a supervisor semi-permanently at St Clair W, to monitor the streetcars would be a good move.

    Steve: There are two problems here. First, you assume that the supervisor will actually manage the line to produce an even headway rather than to shuffle cars around to keep operators on time. Second, a supervisor on the route cannot manage regularity everywhere. This needs to be done centrally supplemented by monitoring systems that tell operators where they are relative to other cars on a headway basis, not just on a schedule.

  21. George Bell says:

    What does the mayor think about annoucing something then having it pulled a few months later? He must be getting used to that by now….

    I hope there is a tell all book in his future about all the crap that can’t be controlled when you are mayor…

  22. Alex says:

    Rob M: I disagree. It’s the average person who doesn’t know/care much who needs the maps more.

    I don’t really care about how long it will be for the next streetcar at my stop, because I’m not at my stop right now. If I was to want to optimise my journey, I have to include the time it takes me to walk to the streetcar stop. This means that I’ve got to have knowledge of the route, and get the arrival times of an earlier stop, compensating for the time it will take to get to my stop. I can do this, because I know the routing.

    For an average person, they can look at the map, and see the line and the position of the cars. They will see that there is a large gap before their stop, or they will see that the cars are well spaced. They don’t need to know the routing, because that’s obvious from the map, and they don’t need to calculate the time, because they can learn the point on the map where the ‘next’ streetcar will be.

  23. Kristian says:

    We keep coming back to the point that managing lines to headway makes most sense but that this is not at all the goal of the TTC.

    So long as the entire system is organised around operator schedules there will almost surely never be an effective method for maintaining vehicle spacing. In fact, often the short-turns used to put operators back on schedule actually do great damage to headways in both directions, in some cases more so than any other contributing factor.

    The two goals are not fully compatible under the current policies such that keeping vehicles spaced evenly likely requires far too much supervisory involvement than is possible or practical. The TTC have acknowledged, perhaps reluctantly, via their own experiments with step-back crews and SACs in the subway and on the 501, that detaching operator schedules from the lines removes the vast majority of the instabilities and ripple-effects of short-turns. If headway was the primary goal, detached from crew schedules, then even a simple computer program and CIS screens aboard vehicles or line-side signals could do a better job then all the human oversight – probably a much better job. Is that their real fear?

    Steve: I don’t think there is any fear of job loss, and if anything the TTC has been woefully inadequate in their use of the technology and information they have had available for decades. The analyses I do, for example, have been immeasurably helped by the use of GPS vehicle location, but you may recall that I published many articles based on the old “signpost” technology originally used by the TTC’s system. It had its problems, but it was not difficult, once one figured out the peculiarities of a route, to produce reasonably good analyses from the raw TTC data.

    Originally this sort of analysis was to be part of the CIS, but it was never implemented. There is an organizational paralysis within the TTC between the IT folks who would build (or at least specify and manage integration of) any new tools, Service Planning who would love to get their hands on such analyses on a regular basis, and Operations who seem content to blame all of their problems on traffic congestion rather than figuring out how their lines actually operate and doing their best to work in a challenging environment.

    I built my own data digestion and analysis routines in my spare time (mind you, it was a fair amount of spare time), and I didn’t have a multi-million dollar budget. Imagine what the TTC could have done. (Please don’t laugh too hard at this point. I am reminded of the trip planner.)

  24. Rob M says:

    Re: Response from Alex above

    I didn’t mean that the average person was not going to find the service useful. They would definitely use it to find out where the next vehicle was coming from and the arrival time at their stop, etc.

    What I don’t think they’d do would be to look at the line as a whole and spot cars that are out of place or gaps that are maybe a bit too large. If the TTC were trying to hide something here I would think that type of information is what it would be – things that make their service look unpredictable and poorly managed. Whether or not the average rider would be able to spot some of these things (or even care to look for them) I think is highly questionable.

    Steve: However, the “average rider” would quickly learn about pulling up their favourite route’s map to show what a mess it was at any hour of the day or night. Members of Council might do the same thing and ask difficult questions of TTC management. After a while, they would tire of the same lame excuses, and that management might find their talents more profitably used elsewhere.

    What galls me in all of this is the degree to which people are tired of bad service and looking for alternatives. This fuels calls for a private sector takeover, even though a private company might be just as incompetent. If you went to Loblaws and your favourite food was perennially out of stock because of delivery problems, the last thing you would want to hear about is traffic congestion.

  25. Kristian says:

    On a side note, on the Keele bus I was taking home south yesterday the operator took a CIS call on the speaker instead of the handset and so I could hear the conversation. The operator was asked if upon arrival at Keele Station he would be interested in taking the bus out of service for reassignment to a “streetcar shuttle”. This meant there was a problem on one of the streetcar lines and the bus was being ‘stolen’ from the 41 route to fill in service. I had the benefit of hearing the rest of the story from a family member who had been by the incident scene on his way home – two streetcars had collided at the College/Dundas intersection fouling both the 505 and 506 routes. Lots of amused bystanders were hanging around gawking and snapping photos.

    Accidents happen, and at least we have a pretty responsive system in place for replacement service. But taking a bus off the 41 Keele route in the evening would have made a mess of that service because of how infrequent it runs after rush hour. The gap caused by the loss of that bus likely would have been about a half hour and it probably remained as a gap for the rest of the evening. A very important part of the evolution of TTC route management is going to involve responses to emergencies and other disruptions. There has to be a better pool of buffer vehicles/operators preferably via improved headways in order to help smooth out disruptions. There also needs to be an understanding that gaps of 20 minutes or more are completely unacceptable (especially in bad weather or very cold winter days). I have waited out a number of gaps of more than an hour in the afternoon rush on the 47B/C (approx. twelve minute headway normally). The only thing that saved me in winter was that my stop happened to have a shelter. Actions or inactions have major consequences for the riders and there won’t be any change unless those responsible feel major consequences themselves. The situation might also have been a lot different if they hadn’t closed so many of the smaller centrally-located garages. (The new Mt. Dennis Garage seems to be a partial acknowledgement of that error.)

    Steve: Another interesting example of lack of communication with passengers is that no alert was sent out to riders of the Carlton or Dundas routes. Normally something like this would have triggered an alert including a note on the TTC’s Facebook page. However, there have been no posting there for over 24 hours including a subway outage at Eglinton yesterday evening.

  26. Kristian says:

    I’ll hold back my laughter. The TTC doesn’t seem to know how to do anything without expensive consultants and multi-million dollar contracts, neither of which any of us seem to find ‘funny’. Perhaps in another sense of the word though…

  27. DavidC says:

    (Please don’t laugh too hard at this point. I am reminded of the trip planner.)

    Yes, one really only can laugh – though the Trip Planner is still called Beta I really cannot get over the fact it tells one to take the subway but not where to get off to get the connecting bus. One may argue about some of the routes suggested – fine in a Beta product – but to say “Take Subway towards X” with nothing to say where to get off…..

  28. M. Briganti says:

    I’m not so sure the average rider would even bother to pull up these maps on a regular basis. I don’t know if anybody here remembers TimeLine, but once the novelty wore off it wasn’t really used all that much by TTC passengers. It could only read off schedules, but I used it alot and found the system to be fairly accurate. The system would only get 37,000 calls per month in those days, which was nothing.

    We keep getting into this endless manage-by-headway debate. When you’re trying to schedule a workforce of thousands, it can’t be done. It can only work in automated subway systems. Drivers don’t like not knowing exactly when and where their shift is going to end. When we used to have all those subway delays in the 60s (route integration) and late 80s (equipment breakdowns), lots of drivers asked to be transferred to the surface because the subway was forcing them into one hour of unplanned overtime almost every night. If they tried doing this on the surface, overtime costs would skyrocket and the drivers would eventually revolt. Plus, I don’t see how you can hold a streetcar in mixed traffic. A bus can pull over and a streetcar on a ROW can just stop in its tracks, but how do you adjust headways on streetcar routes without short turning — it’s just not possible.

    And, forcing buses or streetcars to go slow or hold for headway adjustments is another pain in the ass for the riders on those vehicles. I endured these both on the subway and various bus routes, and it was extremely annoying.

    Steve: When three streetcars pull up together at a stop, and there’s a big gap behind them, it is child’s play to space them out properly. Of course, the route supervisors don’t always know that the gap is coming, or they care more about short-turning the “late” car at the head of the parade. One reason that car may be late is that the parade of three immediately ahead of it wasn’t broken up, and that car is carrying a too-wide headway and passenger demand.

  29. james a says:

    “No firm decisions have been made on this issue.”

    What an infuriating situation. The TTC has a demonstrated working solution to provide useful information to their customers. How can there possibly even be a decision to be made about this?

    Hopefully this story gets picked up by the more mainstream city blogs and whatnot. This utter lack of transparency absolutely needs to become an issue in this fall’s election.

  30. Gil says:

    With the suspension of the NextBus maps on their website has the display map at Spadina also been disabled? You’d think more people who regularly use the station would notice that unless they’re all just chalking it up to poor maintenance.

    As for the general public not using the maps on the NextBus website, I am reminded when the service was first offered and you could see all the routes. At the same time the Tamil protests which block University and Yonge Streets were going on. People in the office were using the maps to see how far the streetcars were getting before they started piling up. Most chose to simply walk than ride the streetcar the few blocks it could go.

    The same could apply to routes which have detours on them. I presume the signal does not disappear if it veers off course? The display can tell you that there is no streetcar for an extended period, but the map will tell you where they’ve all gone. That is if the maps were more customer-friendly.

    Steve: I am not sure that NextBus will tell you where cars that have gone off route are. Although this info is in the data feed from the TTC (and shows up in maps built from it by George Bell), NextBus is designed around the concept of a vehicle on a route. Diversions and short turns have to be defined to it, and cars following non-standard routes need to be manually assigned to them by TTC supervisory staff. This is a significant problem for NextBus in Toronto.

  31. DavidC says:

    Though I may simply be too cynical, it seems to me that now the maps are not visible the spacing of the 509 and 510 is greatly improved. If I had time I would go to Harbourfront and see if they are actually now just using the timetable times.

    Steve: I am just looking at the 510, and the times northbound at Bremner at this instant are 5, 16 and 18 minutes. Nice regularly spaced service there.

  32. Robert Wightman says:

    Steve:

    “I am not sure that NextBus will tell you where cars that have gone off route are. Although this info is in the data feed from the TTC (and shows up in maps built from it by George Bell), NextBus is designed around the concept of a vehicle on a route. Diversions and short turns have to be defined to it, and cars following non-standard routes need to be manually assigned to them by TTC supervisory staff. This is a significant problem for NextBus in Toronto.”

    I have seen a couple of Spadina cars that must have been stolen or on diversion on Carlton, Parliament and Bathurst on occasion.

    Steve: When you say you have seen them, do you mean by on street observation, or somehow on a Nextbus map? I don’t believe that their system can handle cars that go off route, and this is a major problem given typical TTC operations.

  33. Robert Wightman says:

    Steve:

    “When you say you have seen them, do you mean by on street observation, or somehow on a Nextbus map? I don’t believe that their system can handle cars that go off route, and this is a major problem given typical TTC operations.”

    It was on the NextBus map but it was a while ago. It showed the cars on the street but the street did not have a red line designating it as a route. The Sunday that the Spadina cars had to run in on Queen farther than normal it showed them going along Queen and I think down Church. I also saw a Car “materialize” on College eastbound then go down Parliament and west on King to Spadina. But when they had the buses on Spadina none of the cars that were supposedly on Bathurst from the 510 showed up. Perhaps they turned this feature off.

  34. Gil says:

    When the service first started you could see the 508 returning back to Roncesvalles along College. The TTC’s trip planner does offer the 508 as an option when getting to say Parliament and Gerrard from downtown. For the brief period the extra routes were shown you could see the 504 running to the Sunnyside loop. The replacement bus service was shown, but I don’t think they showed the buses plying the replacement.

  35. Hanson says:

    Next streetcar arrival for Routes 501, 504, 505, 506, 508, 509, 510, 511, and 512 are now online at nextbus.com. The maps with the location of the streetcars is still not back up.

  36. Andrew says:

    The times are back for all the routes, just in time for today’s announcement of the new signs, but the maps are not, alas.

  37. DavidC says:

    As some people may know..

    The Text is at: http://www.nextbus.com/

    The Maps are at: http://www.nextbus.com/predictor/publicMap.shtml?a=ttc&r=504

    Neither of these URLs is noted on the TTC website so it’s not clear how they expect customers to find them.

    There is also no link from map to text or vice versa.

    TTC customer service at its best!

    Steve: This is one of many examples of half-implemented measures. The TTC is great on calling for reports and even starting to implement them, but the execution is half-hearted and incomplete far too often.

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