If One Bus Is Good, Seven Must Be Better

Recently, I received a note from a reader about bunching on the 29 Dufferin bus.  This is one of two routes on which increased supervision has led, or so the TTC claims, to improved service (as discussed in my recent article about the Customer Service plan).

I’m wondering what TTC is doing to prevent bus bunching as this seems to be a big problem on many routes…

I wrote to TTC customer service but of course I didn’t hear back from them. I would be interested to know what measures are in place to space out the buses. It seems to me that buses are just rushing to get to the end of the line; they basically do not care if they have 2-3 buses traveling together or if the last buses have no passengers.

I took this video as an example, there are 7 buses passing Bloor stop in under 3 minutes … such a waste from TTC. Just imagine being the “lucky” one that just missed all 7 buses. How long they will need to wait for another bus?

The TTC talks a good line about service management, but a casual look at any of the routes where real-time monitoring is possible (through the open data interface to GPS vehicle data) routinely shows bunching even at 7am when there cannot possibly be “traffic congestion” effects.  Two basic questions about bunching emerge from all of the service reviews I have done:

  • Why are vehicles allowed to leave termini very close together rather than regularly spaced?
  • Why are vehicles entering service from yards or from short-turns not spaced between through runs so that even headways are provided?

This does not require millions in high technology to implement, only the will to manage the service, something the TTC once did regularly with no more than route Inspectors on the street.  With the tools now available for vehicle tracking, it should be much easier as all vehicle locations are available online.

I plan to review the Dufferin bus operations again in the Spring (my last review was published in January 2008) once the effects of winter weather are not a concern.

Short turns disrupt service near the ends of routes, and on Dufferin this can show up as poor service to Liberty Village thanks to turnbacks southbound at Dundas.  On King, short turns eastbound at Parliament and westbound at Roncesvalles deprive riders on Broadview and on Roncesvalles (which have demands to some degree independent of the route downtown) of service.

If the TTC is going to strive for having 99% of the service advertised actually on the street, it must also strive to have that service on the route, not sitting in a short turn, or running in a pack followed by a large gap.

Has TTC Management Hijacked “Customer Service”? (Updated)

At its recent marathon meeting, the TTC considered an update on the Customer Service initiative.  Thanks to two other long items (Ashbridge Carhouse and Service Cuts), the actual discussion on this report did not occur until very late in the evening.  The report on the agenda contains the following recommendations:

1. Receive the attached matrix updating the status of the recommendations contained in the Customer Service Advisory Panel report, dated August 23, 2010; and

2. Approve the creation of the Customer Service Advisory Group, to include Commissioners, outside Customer Service specialists, the Chief General Manager and appropriate staff; and

3. Endorse in principle the draft Customer Service Business Plan, as detailed in the staff presentation.

[Updated February 9, 2011 at 9:50 am]

This was amended by the Commission as follows:

i)    That the TTC endorse the establishment of a skill-based
Commission and work in partnership with the city on a model for the TTC.

That consideration be given to the establishment of a citizen steering committee to oversee and provide input into the model.

ii)   That the Chair of the Customer Service Sub-Committee work to establish a process for citizen representatives on the Customer Service Advisory Panel.

The first staff recommendation merely updates the Commission on the area of responsibility and status within the organization for various ways in which the TTC will seek to improve itself in response to the Customer Service Advisory Panel report.

The second recommendation is notable for the absence of one group on the recommended panel:  customers.  To her credit, Chair Karen Stintz moved an amendment to correct this.  How the representatives of customers will be selected remains to be seen.

The third recommendation is a Trojan Horse.  The Business Plan to which it refers exists only in a presentation made at a busy TTC meeting, not available for review in advance, and not published since on the TTC’s website.  (The failure to publish material of this nature is an ongoing problem with the TTC’s site as compared to the City’s site where presentations generally appear before, concurrently with or at worst shortly after the meetings at which they are seen.)

Indeed, this is not a “business plan” in the sense that it might give an overview of how the many hoped-for improvements for the TTC’s business would be implemented. Instead it is a grab-bag of projects, many of which have little to do with short-to-medium term customer service or satisfaction, or with the original Advisory Panel’s report, and a decidedly thin attention to customer-related issues.

Commissioner Minnan-Wong favoured approval of only the first two recommendations, but lost out to the Chair’s position that the whole package should go forward.  This was a mistake, and I can only hope that we are not told in a few months that the more dubious initiatives have now been “approved in principle”.

There are good points within the whole, but they are drowned by the presence of projects that have no business in this plan.  I cannot help being reminded of the perversion of the Ridership Growth Strategy (a scheme for low-cost, short-term improvements) by amendment to insert subway construction to keep management happy.

Let’s have a look under the covers at this presentation and plan.

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For The Greater Good (Update 4)

Update 4 on February 9, 2011 at 9:30 am:

I have now received the official text of the amendments passed by the Commission to the staff recommendations:

i)    That staff review all of the routes and services prior to the implementation date to ensure that no routes were improperly assessed under this criteria.
ii)     That service re-allocations, including minor reductions and improvements, be reported to the Commission on a quarterly, or semi-annual basis, based on the service thresholds established by the Commission.
iii)    That TTC management staff be requested to report back to the Commission on the accuracy of ridership on transit routes that are affected and may qualify to have the service reinstated where the ridership trend may be justified.

Update 3 on February 5, 2011 at 10:30 am:

A section has been added at the end discussing the proportion of Ridership Growth Strategy service improvements that have not been affected by these service cuts.

It is fashionable in the current regime to knock anything done by the Miller/Giambrone administration at the TTC, of which RGS was a major initiative.  Saying that the vast majority of the proposed cuts are (or were) to services that were implemented under RGS gives the impression that RGS was a failure.  In fact, half of RGS additions to hours of service, and all of the headway improvements remain in place.  One might say that there is a mandate for the Ridership Growth Strategy.

One cannot expect a largely new Commission to be aware of these facts, but it is disappointing that TTC staff never pointed them out either in reports or in responses to questions at Commission meetings.

Update 2 on February 3, 2011 at 5:00 pm: A section has been added at the end of the article reviewing some of the planned cutbacks from the viewpoint of alternative ways to deliver service as well as the compound effect of several cuts on routes serving the same area.

Updated February 3, 2011 at 3:00 pm: A section has been added after the main article detailing the positions taken by each member of the Commission.

February 2, 2011, will be remembered as the longest TTC board meeting to date (and I have been attending since late 1972) starting at 1:00 pm and ending after 10:00 pm, but its infamy rests with the abuse suffered by the public at the hands of the Commission.

Beginning at about 4:00 pm (after a long series of public deputations and a vote on the proposed Ashbridge Maintenance and Storage Facility, about which more in a later post), the Commission began to hear deputations on the proposed service cuts.  The speakers list had 140 names when we began.  A few were added along the way, and by the end of the deps at 8:49 pm, many had given up waiting for their turn.  I will write in more detail about the type of issues raised, but the treatment the public received, especially by the Chair, Councillor Karen Stintz, deserves special mention.

Many people spoke to the hardships that cuts to their bus routes would bring, while many others spoke to the general issue that transit service should exist as a basic part of the city.  Some services won’t do well, but citizens deserved access to their homes and workplaces.

Some of the deputants took time off work to attend the meeting and speak out for transit service and most were not, like me, “professional” attendees at the TTC.  They waited a long time to speak, and those who stayed to the bitter end, waited even longer to find out if they had been heard.

Stintz agreed that, yes, service “reallocations” were the last choice in the tools available to a transit system in meeting growing demands on the system overall, but argued that what staff had recommended was “the greater good for riders”.  Those words will haunt her.  They should be posted on every service change notice at every affected bus stop.

For the greater good, you no longer will have service.

By the time she addressed her little homily to the multitude, thanking them profusely for their passion about transit, it was clear from other Commissioners’ comments that reversing any of the proposals was a lost cause.  We could have saved a great deal of time if, back at the start of the meeting, Stintz had announced that a straw poll of the Commission showed that all of the cuts would be approved, and the deputants should just leave now.

The real insult came in Stintz’ characterization of riders’ pleas as being from self-interest, from saving their own routes at the expense of riders on busier routes elsewhere.  That completely misrepresented the majority of the presentations.  Some spoke of special needs for residents in neighbourhoods.  Some spoke of safety walking late at night.  Some showed that TTC riding counts were clearly off because actual usage was higher than TTC stats claimed.

I will return to the arguments in more detail in an update to this article, but a common thread was that there was more to a transit route than the riding counts, counts that many did not believe anyhow.  Given the previous flagrant errors in the TTC’s analysis, it wasn’t a stretch to suggest that the counts were wrong too.

Stintz wished that all the riders who will benefit, eventually, from improved service could have attended to show their support.  Of course those riders at least have a bus, crowded though it may be.

A mark of a civilized city is that it looks out for everyone, not just those with power, or money, or those whose demands on the municipal infrastructure can be cheaply served.  We built the city as it is, hard-to-serve subdivisions and all, and we are stuck with the legacy of that built form.  As a city, we owe decent service to our residents all the way from the thousands on rush hour subway trains to the dozens on late night buses.

Karen Stintz prefers to set neighbour against neighbour with the strong, the numerous, getting not just all of the pie, but the crumbs too.

That’s not my Toronto.

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TTC Budget Update: More Service, Maybe

Today, the TTC held a special meeting to consider revised budget information in advance of a City Budget Committee meeting later this week.

When the Mayor announced that he did not favour a fare hike in 2011, this cut $24-million from the TTC’s projected revenue for the year.  $16m of that was made up with added City subsidy, and the remaining $8m was left for the TTC to find internally.

The proposed service “reallocation” would have saved $7m to be used for upgraded services elsewhere in the network, but the decision to roll back some of the planned changes reduces the savings to $4m and creates an additional $3m hole.  This brings us to an $11m total requirement.

The TTC has now recalculated its projected revenue based on the higher anticipated riding (487m vs 483m in the original budget) and on a higher anticipated average fare (1.5 cents more per trip).  These combine to add $7m to the projected revenue.

Additional savings will come from:

  • Less overtime ($1m) and less hiring to provide for filling open work (35 positions, no dollar value).  These are related in that shifts with no assigned crews must be operated by spare operators or by overtime.  The combined effect of these “savings” may be that some service will not make it to the streets especially during bad weather when absenteeism tends to be higher and the desirability of overtime lower.
  • Fewer Supervisors ($1m).  Plans to add 17 Supervisors for better on-street route supervision are deferred.
  • Bus operator recertification ($1m).  The planned change in the recertification cycle from 5 to 3 years (so that bus standards match those for rail modes) will not be implemented.
  • Gapping ($1m).  Vacancies will not be filled immediately as they occur, and restructuring of the workforce will be used to take up the slack.
  • Escalator maintenance helpers ($.2m).  This is a program set to begin late in 2011 that would allow more flexibility in the use of trades staff for escalator repairs.
  • 28 capital budget positions are dropped by reducing the scope of the Bus Rebuild Program and deferring the Fare Validation Equipment Project (about which I will write separately).
  • 3 operating budget positions in IT are dropped by not converting contractors to staff and absorbing the workload within the existing complement.

Some of the items above directly affect the rollout of Customer Service initiatives which I will describe in a separate article now in preparation.

A critical paragraph is at the bottom of page 1:

“This process will … permit us to decide in June if we are in a position to recommend adding service in September to address ridership growth consistent with our 2011 projections of 487m customers.”

To put this another way, the statements, often made, that “reallocations” of service effective in May would go “for the greater good” to other routes, may turn out to be a false promise.  If ridership and, especially, revenues stay strong through the next few months, the TTC may feel confident enough to actually improve service in September.  However, what was only last week a sure thing, the deal that gave the “reallocations” a patina of respectability, may already be coming unglued.

Not Quite So Many Service Cuts (Updated)

Updated February 2, 2011 at 8:10 am:

The staff report regarding proposed service cuts is now online.  The “Justification” section is worth repeating here:

The Commission should approve the service eliminations/re-allocations, as described in this report and as detailed in Appendix 1, because ridership is continuing to increase on the TTC and is projected to reach an all-time record-high of 487-million this year, an increase of 10-million customers over 2010. There is a need to add service to accommodate these additional customers, but sufficient funding is not available, so some of this funding must be found by re-allocating resources away from more lightly-used services to other services where better use can be made of the resources.

The process which has been followed in order to identify services for elimination/ re-allocation has been objective, consistent, and data-driven – in order to ensure fair and consistent treatment of all parts of Toronto – and reflects the concerns and input expressed by the public at the Open Houses held on this matter and in correspondence provided to the TTC.

The revised recommendations achieve the best possible balance between saving costs for the purpose of re-allocation to routes in greater need of resources, and retaining services which the public strongly advocated.  [Emphasis added]

In other words, these cutbacks are implemented in response to a funding situation.  Whether we call this a “reallocation” or a “budget cut”, the effect is the same.  There is still no sign that the Commission will address the general issue of “reallocation” as a way to handle riding growth on the busiest parts of the system.

As for the remark about the “objective, consistent and data-driven” process, I must point that detailed data published on this site revealed the TTC had done a poor job of following its own criteria.

[Original post from January 31 below]

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