How Should We Measure Transit Service Quality?


The question of service quality has been a central thread on this site more or less since its inception.  It is not enough to have service on a street (or even in a subway or on a private right-of-way) if it shows up unpredictably, or can’t be used because it is overcrowded or short-turning before it gets to many riders’ destination.

For as long as I can remember, the TTC’s stock excuse for poor service was “traffic congestion” coupled with “it is impossible to provide good service with streetcars running in mixed traffic”.  When detailed information about vehicle movements on the transit system became available, it was quickly evident that congestion was only one problem.  Moreover, some bus routes on wide avenues exhibited service qualities almost indistinguishable from streetcars tethered to rails on narrow streets.

After a period when the Toronto supported more spending on transit to improve loading standards and hours of service, the city swung to the right treating transit service as a waste of taxpayer dollars.  Despite cutbacks that could throttle demand, transit riding continues to rise, and with it the problems of service quality.  Much of the service improvement we do see is funded not by subsidies but by fare revenue, not to mention by overcrowding.

The TTC has focused much effort the “soft” improvements — cleanliness, information systems and customer relations — but for the really important one — service they actually provide to riders — the jury is still out.  The situation is compounded by budget constraints of the Ford/Stintz era, of just getting by with trims around the edges, but with no sense of a plan to make substantial improvements.

The time is overdue for a clear direction on improving transit service.  The answer is not just to run more buses or build more subways, although service improvements are needed.  We must also run the buses and streetcars we have more reliably.

The common thread through measurement schemes is that a transit system must be viewed from the passenger’s point of view.  They are the people actually riding and telling their car-driving friends how good or bad transit is.  In Toronto, at least, the riders are also substantially paying for the service.

How should we measure how the system is performing now and in the future?

For those who do not want to read to the end, no, I do not have a grab bag of solutions, a “right way” to do things.  What we do need is a better understanding of how the system behaves at a detailed level — are there specific problems on individual routes that can be removed or at least lessened, and are there systematic problems with transit operations?

Some issues are external — there really is traffic congestion — but the question to answer is how we will deal with it.  Will transit priority really take precedence at a possible cost to other road users?  Some issues are internal — is there really enough service on the road, and could these vehicles be better managed?  What improvements will riders accept with glee — service reliability — and which will they regard as “nice to haves” that don’t address the underlying problem that “my streetcar never shows up when I need one”.

Detailed reporting together with measurements that riders can understand are essential to maintain the transparency and credibility of a transit agency.  One common element through this review of many systems and papers is that any measurements should be based on what the rider sees, not on management’s view and goals.  The purpose should not be to trumpet how good Toronto’s transit is, but to find how to make it better.

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