How “Service Standards” Can Kill Transit Improvements [Updated]

Please see the end of this post for additional text. 

Over the past few years, careful readers of the annual TTC Service Plans will notice that more and more requests for new service are denied because they don’t meet the financial criteria.  Today at the TTC we had yet another example, and it’s worth examining to see, in miniature, the problems brought on by blind, formulaic decision-making.

The route in question is the Emmett Avenue branch of Eglinton West which does not run evenings and weekends although parts of it are a considerable walk from Eglinton Avenue or Jane Street, and it has many residents and other traffic generators.   Here is the report:

Service around the large onstreet loop at Emmett is provided by the 32D branch of the route.  Requests for additional service meet with the following analysis:

  • Adding to the 32D service will require more vehicles.  The TTC does not consider the option of diverting existing buses on the 32 and 35-Jane services through this neighbourhood on the grounds that this would inconvenience through riders.  This may prejudge the issue and lead to an excessive cost estimate for the service, $350K annually in this case.  The entire Eglinton West route costs about $15.4-million to operate, and so we are looking at an increase of 2.3% in projected cost.
  • The TTC’s riding estimate indicates that the lion’s share of trips that will be taken on the added service will be by people who now walk to or from existing services.  Therefore, the number of estimated additional trips is small.
  • The standard requires that any change generate at least .23 new customers per net dollar of added cost.  The annual cost cited means that to be implemented, we would have to get 80,500 new rides from Emmett Avenue and do this only at evenings and weekends.   This is well over 200 new riders per day, but the projections are for at most 60 during the Saturday daytime period.

 What’s wrong with the numbers?

In the late 1990s, the TTC’s current standards process more or less fossilized in place.  The idea behind the .23 new passengers per dollar was based on the then-current financial evaluation model.  No new service would be operated if it incurred more than five times the system average subsidy per passenger.  Turning that around, if the average subsidy per passenger was $1.00, then the maximum subsidy was $5.00 and the passengers per dollar value was .20.  The value of .23 translates to a maximum subsidy of $4.35 and a subsidy per passenger of $0.87.

The value of .23 has not changed since 1998.

Times have changed.  Assuming that we kept the percentage of subsidy at the same level year-over-year, the subsidy per passenger will rise.   The CPI has gone up about 20% since 1998.  All things being equal, the subsidy per passenger would have been $1.04 by 2006, the maximum permitted subsidy would have been $5.20, and the screenline for new services would have been .19 new passengers per dollar.

In fact, the subsidy per passenger in 2006 was about 55 cents.  If we followed the formula, this would translate to a maximum permitted subsidy of $2.75 per passenger, and a screenline of .36 new passengers per dollar.  The TTC is still using the more generous value of .23.

Note that in all of this we have not spoken of passenger convenience or anything else vaguely connected with making the system attractive.  The entire process is highly sensitive to:

  • An outdated measure of acceptable subsidy per passenger
  • Estimates of net new riding that are stated without a supporting rationale
  • Service designs that may artificially inflate the cost of adding new services

I have no objection to the fair allocation of the TTC’s meagre resources, but we need a better understanding of how this is done and the impact of hidden assumptions in the process.

Footnote:  The reaction of Commissioners was intriguing.  First off, they took the staff report at face value, methodology included, but they also said “there are many more people waiting for service”.  This is definitely true, as the list of deferred service improvements each month gets longer and longer.  Next, the “ladies” who came to speak on this issue, including Councillor Nunziata, were told “keep trying, maybe next year if and when we change the standards”.  Leaving aside the patronizing reference to the deputation (“ladies” is not my term), the Commissioners really do need to understand just how deep the backlog in unmet demand for service we have.  This connects to my post regarding the paltry increase in budgeted ridership and service built into the 2007 budget and the as-yet uncertain future of relaxed Service Standards for 2008.

Updated March 1, 2007:

In the comments attached to this post, I observed that the Dufferin bus extension within the CNE was not subject to the Service Standards process used to block so many service requests.  In fact, TTC staff did such an evaluation and recommended against the idea because the scheme didn’t meet the standards.  The Commission chose to ignore this and implemented the service anyhow.

I am hoping to do a historical review of the evolution of the service standards, but need to get some other projects off my plate first.

6 thoughts on “How “Service Standards” Can Kill Transit Improvements [Updated]

  1. Throw the whole formula out — it’s stupid. That’s no way to run a system. What are they, robots or something?

    Steve: Not robots, but planners working in a system where politicians want financial performance measures, lots of charts and tables, and a simple number to absolve them of the need to actually think about what they will approve or not. Throw all of the numbers into a hopper, grind vigourously, and out comes the sausage that may or may not be acceptable service.

    Today we saw the perfect example: The folks on Emmett Ave. talked about long walks to buses, the density of housing that isn’t being served, and the level of transit dependency in the area. All of this was ignored by the Commissioners. They have problems in their own wards, but not once did any of them ask staff to address the root issues of the methodology of the analysis for the simple reason that it’s too complex.


  2. I guess it was that process that threw me off the whole “public input” process, when I had recommended service changes to 104 FAYWOOD/105 DUFFERIN NORTH/117 ALNESS configuration of poor service in the Dufferin/Overbrook quadrant. Howard Moscoe backed my proposal but it was totally twisted into something that a) didn’t look like my proposal and b) was not feasible BECAUSE it became so nonsensical.

    Speaking of deferrals, how much longer are they going to put off extending the Premium Fare service east of Neville Park Loop? Has this not gone on now for ten years?

    Steve: I have to admit a certain conflict here because I believe that the Premium Fare service should be abolished. People should not have to pay a premium to get decent service. Fix the Queen car.

    Having said that (putting on my dispassionate transit critic hat), there are two issues. First, until the replacement bus service (the 13 Neville Park bus) operated during the track reconstruction, I don’t think that the TTC was too happy about running service south of Kingston Road and this may have affected their evaluation of such an option.

    More to the point, who is such an extension intended to serve? If the bus just went up to, say, Bingham Loop or even to Victoria Park Station, then it might be a useful extension. However, if the intent is to go east on Kingston Road why not just provide a bus on that street running downtown. Of course there is the little matter of the dwindling service on the 502/503 streetcar and the irony of asking people to pay extra to get service they should have as of right.


  3. Steve

    Was the local ward councillor present?

    Also – perhaps you could indicate for this and future refusals how the proposal compared to Joe Pantalone’s Soccer Stadium Rocket.

    Steve: Yes, Councillor Nunziata was present.

    Let’s compare the two requests:

    The Eglinton/Emmett service would cost $350K/year. It would serve an area that has a considerable population. It is an off-peak only service and requires no additional vehicles.

    The Dufferin service will also cost $350K/year. It serves an area with no resident population. It will require two additional peak vehicles that will be reallocated from services elsewhere. It was not subject to the financial evaluation and ridership projections of the Service Standards process.


  4. Steve et al……

    143 proposal was to run from Birchmount Garage via Danforth Rd, Warden(or some slight variation),to Kingston, down Courcelette and then Queen west to Neville to route (since the buses originated at Birchmount there was no extra cost and maybe snare a few extra people en route). Mr. (now Councillor) Heaps lives on Courcelette and has kids going to that school, teamed up with the school principal to gang up/beat on Brian Ashton who lodged the objection.

    As long as Heaps still lives there, and a school is still there, there will never be an extension running down the hill on any street prior to Neville!!!!

    As an aside, some of the more-eager 143 drivers sometimes go home from Neville via east on Queen and north on Fallingbrook to Kingston( cutting out 10 minutes of travel back to Wineva and up). Residents on Fallingbrook routinely phone this in, the TTC posts a supervisor who then nails the drivers up on Fallingbrook. The operator then loses three days pay !


  5. “Of course there is the little matter of the dwindling service on the 502/503 streetcar”

    I use that route almost every day, but the one thing that makes me wonder why are they having that route running once in every 20 min when its between 11 am to 3 pm. It’s almost a pointless route .. why do they still have it? Replacement with buses?

    Steve: There is a huge problem with the 502 service on Kingston Road and that 20-minute headway. If the 22A Coxwell bus were extended, people would have twice the service as, indeed, they have much better evening and weekend service. When a 502 is short-turned eastbound at Woodbine Loop, this puts a 40-minute gap in the Bingham service. When a car is short-turned westbound at Church and returns east from Victoria, it misses the two prime stops on the outbound route at University and Yonge streets, again putting a 40-minute gap in the service. This is should be completely unacceptable, but it’s been happening for years.


  6. Why would TTC ever short-turn a route on only a 20-minute frequency?

    I can understand short-turning on routes with a 3-5 minute headway. And I can understand short-turning once you are running so late, that the vehicle behind you has caught up.

    In all my years living in Montreal, I can’t recall ever seeing a short-turning bus. I saw vehicles go out of service because of mechanical problems. And the occasional vehicle, where the driver tossed everyone out to get on the bus right behind – but the two buses were together at the same stop.

    Coming from outside Toronto, I find that there seems to be a bit of an obsession here about short-turning vehicles here. I can understand it on some very frequent routes during peak periods. I can’t understand why anyone thinks the practice benefits service on infrequent and off-peak routes.


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