The Mythical Finch West BRT (Update 2)

In what has to be a major “oops” for the TTC, a keen-eyed reader, Michael Forest, noticed that according to the map of the proposed Hydro corridor alignment for a Finch BRT, the western terminus is the Humber Valley Golf Course, about 5km east and south of Humber College.  This error occurs in both the background report and in the staff presentation.

The inability of the TTC to provide accurate maps now appears to have affected its ability to plan new routes.

It is unclear how a “Hydro” alignment would actually reach Humber College because the Hydro corridor turns southwest (past the golf course) to reach the Richview switching station.  On Finch itself, there is no parallel Hydro corridor from a point just east of Weston Road to Humber College.  How the TTC could cost such a route when none exists (unless there are many student golfers) is a mystery.

(One option might be to deploy a fleet of Swan Boats from the Golf Course via the Humber River to traverse the remaining distance to the College.)

Updated May 15 at 8:00 am:

The actual distance from Finch & Keele to Humber College as given by Google Maps is 10.9km, almost 2km more than the length cited by the TTC in its preliminary comparison of alternatives (9km).  The route is longer if via the Hydro corridor because of access between the corridor and Finch.  The distances cited by the TTC appear to be the length of a route to Humber Valley Golf Course which lies between Weston Road and Albion Road where Sheppard Avenue would be if the river valley were not in the way.

The corridor, as some have already observed in the comments, crosses Finch between Highway 400 and Weston Road, about 4km west of Keele.  Any BRT to Humber College cannot avoid centre-of-the-road construction for the 7km west of this point.

Original post from May 13:

At its meeting of May 11, 2011, the TTC considered a preliminary report on the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) options for the Finch West Corridor.  This scheme arises from the non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Mayor Ford and Queen’s Park (not yet presented to Council for ratification) that replaces the proposed Finch LRT with unspecified improvements to bus service on Finch between Finch West Station (at Keele Street) and Humber College.  The staff presentation to the Commission contains additional information, notably costs estimates and some operating details that are not in the report itself.

Various options are considered both for the route’s alignment and for the technology to be used.

Alignment Options

  • Mixed traffic on Finch Avenue (this is the “do nothing” option)
  • Addition of “queue jump lanes” at busy intersections with transit priority signals and farside stops
  • Construction of a dedicated bus roadway in the Hydro corridor north of Finch
  • Construction of dedicated bus lanes in the middle of Finch

Queue jump lanes would, allegedly, speed service on Finch by allowing buses to slip past lineups of right-turning cars.  It is unclear how many locations on Finch west of Keele would actually benefit from such a change, especially outside of peak periods, and the degree to which this would actually speed service over the route.  Those are topics for a detailed review.  (It is ironic that the photo illustrating the problem in the presentation does not appear to be taken on the affected portion of Finch Avenue.)

A dedicated bus roadway in the Hydro corridor would continue the route already in place east of Keele Street, but to the west it would encounter problems with terrain and major intersecting roadways, notably at the west branch of the Don River and at Highway 400.  These could be addressed, but the situation is not as straightforward as simply paving a road under the Hydro pylons.

Dedicated lanes in the middle of Finch Avenue would effectively duplicate the infrastructure needed for the LRT line (actually a bit wider to allow for safe clearance of passing buses), the very reason the LRT scheme was so hated by Mayor Ford.

Although the Hydro lands are superficially attractive, they there is a major problem beyond constructability.  Demand on Finch is concentrated on the street itself and is not all located at the major intersections.  Walking distances to transit service would be substantially increased especially for riders going to/from locations south of Finch and/or not at a major cross-street where access to the Hydro corridor would be comparatively easy.  The planned operating speed for the corridor indicates a wide presumed stop spacing, probably only at major arterials.

The two most beneficial schemes (dedicated facilities for buses, regardless of location) are also the most expensive, and therefore the least likely to be built without financial assistance to the already-overburdened TTC and City budgets.

Technology Options

  • Standard diesel buses (adding buses to the existing service)
  • Articulated diesel buses
  • Trolley buses
  • Proof-of-payment fare collection and all-door loading

Two options involve simply running more buses on the existing route (see analysis below) or running an equivalent service using artics.  If larger vehicles were used, then a move to POP would be essential so that the full capacity of the buses would actually be filled with passengers.

The TTC has never looked kindly on trolley buses, although the language in the report is tempered somewhat in the staff presentation.  The real problem in this case is that, like the Transit City LRT proposal, a network of lines for a new technology is required to make an investment in that technology worthwhile.  The marginal cost of switching one route to TBs loads all of the startup and specialized maintenance costs on one project.

Another concern would be the degree to which a BRT facility would be used by Finch buses (as TBs) as against other routes piggy-backing on the reserved roadway.  The full advantage of electrification may not be available to every vehicle on the route.  In any event, bus technology is not up to the eventual demand for this corridor and a debate over TBs versus diesel diverts attention from the LRT vs BRT issue.

Options for Further Analysis

The presentation contains a table listing five combinations of alignment and technology together with preliminary costs.  (See page 16 of the presentation)

The TTC report claims that current service to Humber College runs every 160 seconds.  In fact, there are four services on Finch, most of which to not go to the College:

  • 36A to Kipling (every 8′)
  • 36B to Humberwood (every 8′)
  • 36C to Jane (every 16′)
  • 36D to Weston & Milvan (every 16′)

Thus, the AM peak service to Humber College is every 8′ (PM peak is 6′).  The peak hour ridership west of Keele is 885, while east of Keele it is 1,010.  This translates to an average peak load of 39 west of Keele and 45 east of Keele.  I leave it to regular users of the 36 to comment on actual conditions both as to headway and crowding.  Demand for the LRT proposal was projected to peak at 3,000 per hour west of Keele, and 2,200 east of Keele.  However, all day ridership would not be proportionately higher and this begs a question of what the demand pattern for this route will really be.

Standard Buses in Mixed Traffic

In this scheme, 10 buses would be added to the existing service from Yonge to Humber College.  At an estimated speed of 20km/h and a round trip distance of about 30km, these buses, by themself, would provide roughly a 9′ headway (1.5 hrs or 90 minutes round trip, divided by 10 buses).  Current service to Humber College is every 8 minutes, and so this would roughly double capacity on the western part of the route.  The effect would be less further east where branches of 36 Finch West merge into the service.

(If the added buses only operated to Finch West Station, they would save about 12km on their round trip and provide more service, but Finch West Station won’t be an option until about 2016.)

Articulated Buses in Mixed Traffic

This option is simply a capacity-for-capacity equivalent of the first option with artics rather than with standard diesels.

Articulated Buses with Queue Jump Lanes

This version saves one artic bus relative to the second option and increases the projected speed from 20 to 23km/h.  (The actual saving would be greater because of benefit to the existing service, not just the added buses, but this has not been included in the summary.)

Improving the speed to 23km/h reduces the round trip time from Yonge to Humber College to about 78 minutes.  In this analysis, the TTC has chosen to save vehicles rather than increase capacity (the same stunt they originally proposed for St. Clair) in their scheme.  This is an improvement for TTC budgets, not for customers.

BRT on the Hydro Corridor

This scheme would see 12 articulated buses operating between Humber College and Finch West Station at a projected speed of 35km/h.  With a round trip distance of 20km, this would provide a headway of about 3 minutes (a round trip time of about 35 minutes operated by 12 buses).  Stations would be widely spaced, on a par with the faster parts of the subway system.

Only four buses would be saved on Finch Avenue itself because considerable demand would remain on that street.

BRT on Finch Avenue

This scheme would provide reserved lanes as far east as Keele, and would have a net addition of 3 artics to the Finch Avenue service.  Operating speed would improve to 25km/h.

This option is expected to be available by 2014, while the Hydro corridor option would not be available until 2016 presumably because of special requirements at major crossings.

There is no mention of the time required for an Environmental Assessment or Transit Project Assessment for the options involving substantial construction.

Cost Comparisons

Although cost estimates are shown for the five options, there are several factors that undermine their credibility, at least for comparative purposes.

  • Only the marginal capital and operating costs associated with each option are shown.
  • There is no provision for maintenance spares (typically 15%).
  • There is no provision for garage modification costs (applicable to all artic bus options).
  • No value is assigned to the standard diesel buses that would be released by conversion of Finch to artic operation (35 buses plus 5 spares at a replacement cost of $650K each is $26m)
  • No value is provided for the modifications needed at Finch West Station to accommodate frequent bus service on Finch Avenue that was originally to be replaced by an LRT station.

The presentation states that the BRT on Finch option is $600m cheaper than LRT, but this is not a valid comparison because it ignores both the difference in future capacity and the fact that the Finch carhouse, part of the project, was intended to serve as a base for at least one other LRT line.  LRT vehicles and infrastructure have a substantial lifespan well beyond that of a bus fleet.  Without question, building BRT is cheaper than LRT provided that’s all you ever expect to run.

Commission Debate

During debate on this item, the Commission asked that a more definitive report come forward as soon as possible so that it could be incorporated in the budget deliberations, and staff agreed to report in September.

Commissioner Parker, showing a rare independence from the Ford orthodoxy, stated openly that “we all believe that the right way to go is LRT”, but that this option has been taken away.  There would be no subway on Finch because the demand does not justify it, and buses are a second best substitute for LRT.  Parker felt that the ultimate goal should be supported by whatever is done in the short term, e.g. the construction of a dedicated right-of-way.  The preferred option is the biggest challenge [because of opposition to taking road space], but we [the TTC and Council] need to get to work on this now.  Anything other than LRT or BRT on Finch would only be a stopgap.  [This is a paraphrase by me of Commissioner Parker’s remarks.]

Other Commissioners noted that there are many projects competing for funding including Sheppard, the Waterfront and the Airport, and Commissioner Norm Kelly suggested that talk of any construction on Finch was akin to “playing air guitar and thinking you’re making music”.

Commissioner Crisanti, a Ford ally new to Council, was clearly looking for the cheapest way out, but that really isn’t a viable option.  Debate on what might happen will now go into the background until staff reports back.

The underlying question — is a Finch “rapid transit” intended to serve long-haul riders across the top of the city, or the many riders who use local service on Finch itself — must be addressed as part of the debate.  What will demand look like once the Spadina extension to Vaughan opens and more riders flood east to the subway?  How many trips will be unaffected by the subway?  Any cost comparisons must look at demand patterns and service plans in a post-Spadina world.

All of this may be moot if Toronto cannot figure out how to pay for what is now a local project.  Even the simple act of adding 10 buses to 36 Finch West would add operating costs of roughly $3m per year.  What service cuts elsewhere would be needed to pay for this, and is Finch the appropriate place to spend what little money is available?

Toronto and the TTC set the pattern for transit budgeting with the service cuts that just went into force.  One can argue that these marginal services were unneeded, but the amount saved is small, and it may be more than consumed simply by unexpected increases in diesel fuel costs, let alone any new service.

Providing good transit service requires the will to fund and operate it, not simply drawing a few lines on a map and calling that a plan.  Whether we actually see a plan for continued improvement of transit service through the coming Ford era will become evident over the next few months as the City considers its budget options for 2012 and beyond.

49 thoughts on “The Mythical Finch West BRT (Update 2)

  1. Are guided buses capable of Multiple Unit Operation? Can guided buses be coupled to make trains?

    Steve: My response to that would be “it depends”, and an important controlling factor is just how “guided” the buses are. It’s one thing to run along a right-of-way where the vehicles are constrained by a “track” of some sort, or possibly using some sort of radio guidance system. However, if the buses are ever going to run into an area where they don’t have exclusive right-of-way, things would get more complicated. Also, of course, someone need to invent a “multiple unit” control system for bus engines and braking systems. This sounds like one of those Rube Goldberg development projects that certain government agencies (or private sector firms feeding at the public trough) could waste a vast amount of money on.

    The more people try to make buses like trains, the more they remind me of the advocates of “personal rapid transit” which blends the worst aspects of the private auto with infrastructure-intensive forms of rapid transit.


  2. As an LRT line, the 20-year peak ridership would be 3000 pphpd (exceeding the capacity of BRT without by-pass lanes). But I guess as a BRT line, the 20-year peak ridership would be lower, possibly below 2000 pphpd. So, is it not valid to claim that in 20 years, the capacity of a Finch BRT would be exceeded (because the ridership may grow at a slower rate for BRT than for LRT)?


  3. Page 2-2 of the Environmental Assessment for the original Finch West LRT plan says:

    “Given the transit forecast demand is between 2,300 and 2,800 customers, approximately 45 to 55 buses would be required per hour to service the demand”

    I guess the report writers assumed that the ridership would be that high, whether it’s LRT or BRT.


  4. Why would the TTC have opted for centre platforms for some of the Finch LRT? One presentation said that additional property requirements would be due to the presence of centre platforms (and I guess that takes more space).

    Steve: Where there is a centre platform, the street design cannot use the trick of integrating turn lane layouts with platform space such as is done for farside stops on Spadina and St. Clair. Although a shared platform does not, strictly speaking need to be twice the size of one platform, the road would still be wider than with offset platforms.


  5. Fordites (Stintz, Pasternak, etc.) have been claiming that most of the 36 Finch bus riders are headed for the subway during morning commutes. Looking at the destinations map on page 4 of the preliminary report on BRT, I’m having trouble seeing how they could be right. Could one determine what proportion of Finch riders head downtown or to other parts of the City?

    I’m thinking about counting the circles that are close to Finch Avenue West in the origins map to get the ridership originating around Finch. Next, I would count the circles throughout the city (areas that are reached by conceivably taking the subway as one leg of the trip, excluding the area around Finch West) to get the ridership that once rode the 36 bus that also take the subway. That would get a rough estimate of how much ridership originating on the 36 bus that actually heads straight for the subway. I’m unsure if this approach is correct, or if the above politicians used this technique to back up their claim.

    What units are the coloured circles given in? Does a circle of size 700 actually mean 700 people?

    Steve: I don’t know the dimensions/scale. Obviously the received wisdom is that Finch needs subway-oriented service, and that’s no doubt true for some, but not for all riders. The only way to “justify” using the hydro corridor (which itself only exists for less than half of the proposed route) is to presume that the vast majority of corridor riders would actually benefit from it.


  6. If centre platforms can preclude turning configurations, and if they make the road wider, why the use of centre platforms? What advantages do they have over off-set platforms?

    Steve: It depends on the layout of surrounding lands, and in a few cases, connections to other services. For example, if a station is also a transfer point to the subway, then it could have one common surface platform that would include the vertical access to the subway below. Sometimes, there is only room to widen a road on one side of an intersection.


  7. If I’m reading the preliminary plans for the Finch LRT correctly, motorists can only cross the tracks at intersections with LRT stops.

    Hypothetically, if we had an LRT with stops 500 metres apart (and motorists can only cross tracks at the intersections with stops), then what’s stopping very long trains of 4 or more LRV’s from being considered? Even if blocks are less than the train length, I wouldn’t think it would make a difference for other traffic since they can’t cross at those smaller streets anyways.

    Steve: If you have trains that long, this implies very substantial demand at stops and that translates to a lot of pedestrians who have to make their way across traffic flows to get to the loading island. We seem to be getting embroiled in discussions about very high capacity LRT when many potential corridors don’t need that level of service.


  8. I didn’t see any one who uses the 36 route in the comments when I scanned through (if I missed them, I apologize). I have lived at Jane/Finch, and now live off of Sentinel. I can tell you that the 36 is underserved; if coming up from downtown on the Yonge line between 4 and 6 pm, I regulary watch 6 or 7 39 route buses leave before a 36 bus picks up, and by then 4 or 5 subway loads have arrived, and the outside waiting area is full (and oh, how fun that is in winter) and has about 3 bus loads of riders waiting. Getting on the bus during the morning rush means standing up until you get to Keele.

    As for the distance between Keele and Jane, most people get off at Jane and Keele, obviously. The other three main stops are Sentinal, Tobermory, and Driftwood, east to west. Sentinel obviously runs up to York University, and has it’s own bus route. Those three streets have the largest clusters of apartment buildings between Keele and Jane, and in my opinion would need stops in a new system.


  9. I was going to wait for a Finch transit update to continue this discussion, but seeing how that’s off the table, I might as well ask now.

    Steve said:

    “If you have trains that long, this implies very substantial demand at stops and that translates to a lot of pedestrians who have to make their way across traffic flows to get to the loading island.”

    This wouldn’t necessarily mean that every LRT station would see a proportional increase in passenger traffic, would it? As you’ve mentioned elsewhere on your blog, just because the Yonge Subway transports 30,000 pphpd south of Bloor doesn’t mean Wellesley Station would have to handle that passenger flow.

    If the same logic applies to LRT lines, then why not just grade-separate the potentially heavily-used LRT stations, and keep the lightly-used stations in-street?

    Steve: This is valid provided that the train length stays at something that will fit into an on-street setting. Even if only one person gets on or off (someplace like Bessarion Station say), you still need room to stop a full-length train. A good example on the old streetcar system was, of course, the transferway between the Bloor-Danforth streetcars and the Yonge Subway. This kept the streetcar/subway interchanges off of the road, but provided a convenient link for riders. The service provided was two-car PCC trains on a headway of about 60 seconds.


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