Where’s My Streetcar? (Updated)

Today, TTC Chair Adam Giambrone gave a press conference at noon at 1900 Yonge Street about the Transit City Electronic Customer Communications Plan and the Next Bus Arrival Project.

A report on this subject will be discussed at tomorrow’s Commission meeting, and it went online this morning after the original version of this item was posted.

At the risk of prejudging the announcement, I can’t help thinking this is another wonderful example of millions of dollars worth of technology being used in place of the basics: running frequent, well-managed transit service.

The report addresses several related projects:

Next Bus Arrival

This system, to be integrated with both the City’s new standard street furniture program and with the TTC website, will provide estimated arrival times of approaching vehicles.  A critical part of such an undertaking will be accurate knowledge of a vehicle’s position and movement along a route, and in turn this depends on converting the antiquated vehicle monitoring system now in use (CIS) to use GPS data rather than “signposts”.  (For more information about how CIS works, please refer to this article.)

Also needed will be information about the alleged destination of the vehicle.  In the case of buses, this could be obtained if the code for the current route sign display were available to the monitoring system, although keeping CIS in sync with the frequent updates to the database in bus signs would be a challenge.   For streetcars, there is no way to know what sign is set by the operator, and drivers would have to key in a destination code to the CIS unit for each trip (and every time they are short turned).  I doubt that this information would be reliable and a next car display would proudly announce a car to Long Branch that was in fact turning at Shaw Street.

My real concern about this system, aside from the dubious value of building it at all when there are far worse problems with service quality and management, is that the TTC will undertake a typical design that works only when everything runs as it should.

The pilot will involve 12 bus stops, and I will bet that they will be on a sleepy route such as Bayview that was the testbed for the on board stop announcement system.  Figuring out when the next Queen car will show up and where it is going is a much bigger challenge.

The total project cost is $5.2-million, but it is not clear whether this is just for the central system and additional costs both for shelter-based equipment and on-vehicle system changes will be add-ons to the project.

E Commerce

The TTC is planning to contract with an external agency for online sale of passes.  This project has a budget of $1.2-million, but there is no detail about what this covers.

TTC Website

Evaluation of responses to the Request for Proposals is now underway and approval of a vendor is expected in January 2008.  The new site should be rolled out in “late spring 2008”.

Wheel-Trans Remote Trip Booking

The ability to make, inquire about and cancel bookings via the Internet should be available in February 2008.  It is unclear whether this is a real-time booking system, or simply a portal allowing users to queue up emails to Wheel Trans staff.  Further clarification is needed.

I will update this page based on whatever presentations or discussions occur at Wednesday’s TTC meeting.

12 thoughts on “Where’s My Streetcar? (Updated)

  1. Interesting announcement from Adam. Cash strapped transit system that is threatening to cut routes and reduce service because of lack of operating funds can dig up millions in capital funding. This type of announcement should be to announce that the TTC is postponing capital expenditures (aside from state of good repair) and diverting this funding into operating budget.

    E-Commerce, TTC Website, and Wheel-Trans Remote Trip Booking make sense to me as these are badly needed to improve customer service.

    Next Bus (Vehicle) Arrival is premature in my opinion. Get rid of current CIS and replace it with a GPS system first. The next step is to review and actually make improvements to route management policies that are truly in line with providing customer service instead of constant short-turning to keep the schedule adherance mandate. In other words: improve the service reliability first, then worry about announcing the arrival of the next vehicle.


  2. I’m scared by your prediction that the next vehicle displays will only work when everything’s running smoothly. It’s the poor conditions where they’re potentially most useful! Accidents, road closures, etc. would all be less frustrating if you knew to take a different route.

    The signs could have interesting psychological effects. Predictability — the sign says “6 minutes”, and sure enough the bus is there 6 minutes later — could make waiting time feel shorter. At the same time, they’ll draw more attention to the wide gaps if the signs show wait times that are far longer than the scheduled headway. Maybe that’ll increase pressure for better route management. (I know, it’d be cheaper to just fix the service and do without the fancy signs.)


  3. Given the TTC’s precarious financial situation, I feel that next bus arrival signs are an unneeded luxury and a waste of money. The TTC should instead be spending its limited funds on more important things, like improving service. Bus arrival signs are of little value since they are typically installed at major stops with frequent bus service, where there is little need to make customers patient, while it is too expensive to equip all minor stops with the system. They do not aid accessibility like the on-board bus announcement system. If the TTC wants to go ahead with this project anyhow, it should install it on Queen, to provide hard evidence of how poor the service is and force the TTC to fix it 🙂

    Steve: Maybe we need signs that are incapable of displaying times greater than, oh, 15 minutes. They could just give up and say “???”.


  4. On the contrary – I think next vehicle display would be one of the few things that could boost ridership in the system and provide some kind of guidance as to which alternative route to take to the destination.

    If I walk to King and Bay and see that the next 504 won’t be for 20 minutes due to a breakdown at King and Bathurst, I don’t have to wait and hope, I can just walk to the subway and take that, or take the Bay bus to Bay Station. Information empowers riders.

    I have a Blackberry and thus could take advantage of e-mail alerts and such but let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of TTC users who don’t. With Toronto Hydro rolling out citywide wifi you’re talking about a kiosk-mode tablet – all you need then is power and that could be drawn from lighting the shelters. Yes, if you used off the shelf hardware they could be stolen but there are ways to secure them physically and with hardware lockdowns and security tracers.

    E-commerce and so on is nice but it would be better if the objective is to avoid kiosk lineups to make the VIP programme easier to join, perhaps by allowing payment by credit card number rather than sending in void cheques and so on.


  5. My understanding is that the TTC will also replace all the old Solari flip signs as well with a new subway train destination/next train countdown clock arrival system.

    I don’t even know why they would do this, since trains run every 5 minutes, and since they’re no more Y. Maybe for delays?

    Steve: I haven’t heard anything about removing the Solari signs which are used for the scheduled short turns on University northbound to Spadina.

    Yes, for delays would be nice, although the important part for that will be the placement of announcements on the screens rather than a message “the next train is at Eglinton” that doesn’t change for 20 minutes. One big problem is that the video screens are installed in only about half of the stations, and there are not enough of them to be visible throughout the stations.


  6. E-commerce could help eliminate the extremely long lineups we have for buying metropasses at stations and institutions like the University of Toronto. However, a much more intelligent idea would be to have metropasses that work for 30 days from the date of purchase (whenever that is), which would avoid the need for selling passes over the internet because people would buy passes evenly throughout the month.


  7. If next bus actually worked, I agree that would be great for passengers. However, if LA is any guide even if all the buses had GPS it would still not work well, because it seems that on any given day 10% of the buses have malfunctioning GPS systems. Most of the buses run so frequently anyway that it seems like it would be a waste of money to inform people that the next Finch West 36 is arriving in 1m23s. How about using the installed dot matrix signs for supervisors to tell people that, for example, due to an accident on Queen the next streetcar will arrive in 40 minutes?

    The stop announcement is long overdue and will benefit everyone, not just the blind. Especially at night and in unfamiliar suburban areas, I was always worried that I would miss my stop. I can’t be the only one.

    Steve: The TTC claims that it will install Next Bus capability only on routes with headways greater than 10 minutes. Cynics among us will point out that EVERY route has service this bad at some time of the day by design, or by the way they are operated. Just look at the huge gaps on Queen!


  8. The ‘Next Bus Arrival’ sounds great in theory, but I am wary of it becoming one of those ugly pet projects doomed to delays, glitches and cost overruns. For a cash-strapped TTC, it sounds really expensive to equip random bus stops(and no doubt city councillors will argue which ward gets priority) with this notification service. However, if the service does go ahead I can see it being most useful if put in the subway/bus depot hubs like Kennedy Station, Scarborough Town Centre, Don Mills etc.. Large numbers of people transfer to buses in these hubs and when there is even a slight route delay mass confusion and unruly, overlapping line-ups result. It would be nice to know when the next bus is coming so a person can decide if they want to wait it out or take another route. I can’t tell you how many times the 132 Milner has failed to show up at the STC, and if I had known about the 16 min delays I could have opted for another hub route instead of standing in line feeling like a dummy.


  9. I must say I’m thrilled about the Next Bus coming quickly. I had no idea that it could be done for only $10 million (plus all the other aspects). Perhaps if you are mostly on the subway, it won’t add much – but if your frequently using buses and streetcars – particularly in sections very prone to short-turns, it would be a godsend.

    Just in my regular trips, it would be wonderful to know at the stop near my house, if a car will be coming in 2 minutes, or 20 – for if it is 20, there are 3 or 4 other ways I’d start going. And when leaving the office (we’re on the Graydon Hills route), I never know if I’ve just missed a bus or not. If I’ve just missed a bus, I might as well start hoofing it to Don Mills Road, or head the opposite direction to York Mills station … or if things are really dire, walk to Leslie Station. But I can’t make these decisions without information. Or even when I arrive at Pape to get on a Don Mills bus. If I know that it’s going to be 25 minutes for one to come … then I’d just go back down and take the subway.

    Heck, I’d much rather have this information, and forgo the service improvements, even though some of the routes I use are being targeted for improvement!


  10. I think if we want to start gaining public confidence in Transit City, Next Bus should be rolled out to all streetcar routes first to reposition streetcars as a premium transit product, as well as night bus routes for safety reasons (so people aren’t obliged to wait at stops alone when the bus is 15 minutes behind). After those are taken care of, then do the rest.


  11. I’ve seen the system at work in Vaughan, and if there’s traffic, it’s useless. For example, the display will sit at “Next bus in 15 minutes” for 20 minutes — ie, it doesn’t change because it’s based on the closest vehicle’s current position and the time it would take that vehicle to get to your stop under normal conditions. Since the vehicle isn’t moving, or moving very slowly, the estimate is meaningless.

    Even in the subway, without the Y interchange and alternating destinations, next train signs and countdown clocks are useless. Maybe they will be needed when VCC opens to identify short turns, but I agree with Steve — spend the money on better service instead.

    Steve, are the new subway trains going to include side destination signs? This would do away with the need for platform signs altogether.

    Steve: I know there are plans for video screen but they face inward.


  12. I agree that an arrival system will boost ridership. There is nothing worse than standing in a cold bus shelter in January not knowing when a bus is coming. If the system can tell me that the next one is delayed and won’t arrive for 25 minutes, I get that time back. I can go to a coffee shop, go back to work or stand around…in other words, I control my time, not the TTC.

    From what I’ve read, these systems are used in San Francisco and Washington and work well. I would expect that building out any system would start out on the easier routes since this is the easiest to debug and let’s face it, any system this complex is not going to work perfectly the first day it is installed.

    Let’s also hope that the TTC seriously evaluates a local candidate Grey Island Systems. It would be nice to see the money stay in the city and for jobs to be created here.

    Steve: “Next Bus” systems are a clear candidate for sourcing through Metrolinx, not through local systems. It will be important that displays at stops where routes from different operators within the Metrolinx network share the stop that info from ALL systems can appear on one display. We keep hearing about regional integration, and yet I would not be surprised to see mutually incompatible systems used by different transit agencies.


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