The Toronto Transit Commission met on March 27. This wrapup includes comments on:
- Purchase of Articulated Buses
- The CEO’s Report for March 2013
- The Gateway Newsstand Contract
- Priorities for Subway Station Elevators
The Leslie Barns project, and the streetcar system renewal in general, received comments in the press recently about the scale of expenditures, and the sense that the TTC estimates understated the full cost. See the National Post here and here. I will discuss these issues in a separate article.
Updated April 2, 2013: Rahul Gupta has addition background on the Gateway issue at InsideToronto.com.
I have already written on the Torontoist website about the implications of larger streetcars and buses for transit service. In brief, the TTC remains committed to cutting costs by increasing the ratio of passengers to operators, but much less committed, if at all, to improving the capacity and quality of service on the streets.
When the new cars were ordered, TTC emphasized that capacity would be increased on streetcar routes to address long-standing shortfalls. In an era when discussions of new revenue tools wonder how many billions might be extracted from the southern Ontario populace, the starvation of the TTC (and transit systems generally) for operating funding is a disgrace.
CEO Andy Byford will be presenting a five-year plan for the TTC sometime in the next few months. Will we get more of the same, or will there at least be an option for aggressive improvement of transit service and capacity? Will TTC Commissioners finally break free of the budget madness at City Hall where every dime of new spending is viewed as “gravy” to be eliminated? Stay tuned.
The TTC has not published the presentation materials from the meeting for this report. I have scanned some of the printed handout here.
The TTC expects that the new buses will carry 45% more passengers than the current low floor fleet. This presumes a fairly even distribution of passengers through the vehicles that will come with all-door loading.
The seated loads for the two vehicles are 48 and 36 respectively for an increase of about one third. The design loads for service are based on seating plus 20% for frequent routes (10 minute or better headways) where the larger buses would be used.
The presentation cites the improved productivity of carrying more passengers with fewer operators, and takes a reductio ad absurdum approach of comparing bus routes with the subway. Trains are used to carry the 486,800 passengers who ride daily between Finch and Union, something that is clearly impossible with buses. The use of larger trains somehow “justifies” the use of larger buses.
What the TTC neglects to mention is that when the larger TR trains were added to the line, they did not cut service by 10% to pack more riders into the bigger trains and reduce operator costs. The additional capacity was badly needed to handle a backlog of demand for service. This aspect of the equation–the ability to add capacity without more operators–is completely missing from the discussion.
Instead the TTC cites several routes where ridership is strong and growing, and then shows proposed service levels with no provision to accommodate growth, nor a discussion of how much of the “saving” available with artics will be eaten up by the need to run more service on these routes.
The estimated savings from replacing 206 regular buses with 153 artics is $9-million annually. These could be “reinvested” by:
- Reducing crowding standards from 53 to 48 during peak periods on standard size buses (there is no mention of a comparable reduction on artics). This would take the standards back to the Ridership Growth Strategy era.
- Creating a network of routes with 10-minute or better headways as proposed in the Transit City Bus Plan. This would affect off-peak services on major routes by guaranteeing that service would never fall (on paper) below 6 buses/hour. If this is pursued, the plan needs substantial revision to take into account changes in the LRT network plans, and to include the streetcar system.
- Creating a network of express services on major routes. Some of these are on the list for artic bus operation and it is unclear what the combined effect of the new expresses plus the headway widening due to artics would produce, especially for “local” services.
- Balancing the operating budget. For two years, the TTC has cut services in order to reduce costs on marginal off-peak lines (2011) and increase peak crowding (2012). The TTC is running out of places to trim “fat”, and the use of artics to raise the passenger-to-operator ratio is one of the few places left . The value in terms of service quality is not considered here despite the TTC’s new-found fetish for “customer service”.
If route capacity is replaced on a 1:1 basis during all hours of service, the additional capital cost of the artics will be recouped in three years, according to TTC management.
The TTC does acknowledge that longer wait times are a disadvantage for riders especially on evenings and weekends, and they suggest that a 10-minute maximum be placed on new headways. Unfortunately, given the shambles that passes for service on some routes, a 10-minute schedule will quickly turn into very wide service gaps, especially if short-turns continue to occur. This policy would reduce some of the savings available, showing clearly that the TTC has already factored the wider headways during all operating periods into its calculations.
Recommendations on what should be done will be presented by staff “in advance of implementation”. If past experience holds, this means that the Commission will be presented with a fait accompli after the schedules have been posted, not when there is still time for policy guidance to affect the outcome.
A strange catechism has taken root at the TTC, and it runs like this:
- Greater per-bus capacity, leads to
- Fewer buses needed, leads to
- More space/time between buses, leads to
- Buses less likely to catch up to each other, means
- Less need for short turning.
Remember this, children, because it is the new received wisdom for service planning and operations.
With frequent service (2’38” on the sample route, Dufferin), when a bus is caught by a traffic signal, it will incur extra waiting time. The TTC quotes 70 seconds as the delay, but of course that’s a full cycle, and the delay is only from the tail end of the amber for the stopped bus through to the end of the cross-street’s red. This is more like 30 seconds, not 70. In any event, according to the TTC, the following bus may catch fewer reds, carry a shorter headway and catch up eventually to its leader.
The TTC then claims that this bus (the one that is already early) will have to be short turned. This is nonsense, as we have seen in many route analyses published here. Buses are unevenly spaced because they leave terminals on unreliable headways, and en route will carry different loads. A short turn will typically occur because a bus is late (likely the one following the gap created by bunching), or, sometimes to fill large gaps coming the other way on the route. The latter is often a matter of chance as the re-entry of vehicles from short-turns does not appear to be well monitored.
If the claim that wider headways with artics will reduce bunching were true, then we should see little bunching outside the peak period especially evenings and weekends when headways are wider. In fact, on Dufferin, the service is demonstrably worse. The problem is not the type of vehicle but the way the buses on the route are mismanaged.
The TTC presentation notes that the single biggest component of trip time is spent serving passengers at stops (16-20%). Faster service through all-door loading can reduce this, but it requires proof-of-payment fares and inspectors. It is unclear whether the extra cost of fare inspection for this mode of operation has been factored into the net savings for the larger buses.
If there really are savings to be had, this could be used to trim running times and partly offset the planned wider headways. However, it is important to note that many stops only serve a few passengers (though the cumulative effect can be substantial), and the greater component of delay in these places is the need to stop at all, not the time taken by passengers getting on or off. All-door loading can reduce this at major stops and also aid in better distribution of riders within vehicles, but the effect will not be proportional at every stop on a route.
Larger buses should be better able to handle surge crowds such as those from special events or school dismissals. However, this depends on the capacity actually being available, not already filled with “regular” riders. With design loads that use almost all available space, the ability to handle surges is compromised. Moreover, heavily loaded buses take longer at stops because passengers must force their way around each other to board and leave.
The TTC raises the issue of winter operations and notes that artics are used in snow-prone cities. Stories of buses jack-knifing and of artics being pulled from service elsewhere seem not to have reached TTC ears.
Overall, the presentation has an “emperor’s new clothes” feeling to it. By claiming that somehow the wider headways to be operated will actually improve service, TTC management ignores both their own experience with headway management and the well-known planning rule holding that wait times are a greater detriment for would-be riders than in-vehicle time. An opportunity to publicize new vehicles as a way to actually enhance service capacity and quality has been completely wasted.
The CEO’s report covers the transition from 2012 to 2013 with some measures still reporting 2012 results. (In the discussion below, the TTC refers to “periods” which are a standard length in full weeks to eliminate calendar effects between periods and between successive years.)
Ridership for period 1 was 46-million compared with a budget figure of 47.2m, but still slightly better (0.5%) than the 45.8m figure for the same period in 2012. Bad weather and worse than usual illness in the GTA are held responsible.
The financial results still reflect 2012 operations which ran better than budget, but we don’t yet have numbers for 2013.
Punctuality values are still high for the rapid transit system, and the TTC will raise the bar for the Sheppard and BD lines to match currently achieved values. On the YUS line, problems with the new TR trains are reported as declining, but no stats are included.
On the surface routes, punctuality remains near the target levels of 65% (bus) and 70% (streetcar) for trips that are within 3 minutes of the planned headways. Looking at moving annual averages, there has been a small improvement in the bus system results, but the values will have to stay above last year’s numbers to sustain this. Moreover, the target itself is low enough to imply that one in three vehicles is not within the 3-minute band for “punctual” service. On the streetcar system, the values stay fairly flat allowing for seasonal effects of construction delays. These scores do not reflect the worst of the winter weather and snow which came in February.
I will not belabour the question of the meaningfulness of these stats as this topic has been discussed on this site before. The TTC plans to introduce new measurement schemes later in 2013 at which time we will see how well they address limitations of the current methodologies used for subway and surface measurements.
Elevator and escalator availability is reported as high in the range of the 97% target. This is another measure that needs to be revisited as it does not necessarily reflect the all-day status of these devices.
The Customer Satisfaction Survey rating declined from 74% to 72% in the fourth quarter of 2012. This disappointed the TTC given the efforts they have made, but there are a few basic questions including:
- What level of change in this rating is simply statistical variation? Is this a one-time blip or is it part of a downward trend?
- Which TTC initiatives actually improve the factors that matter most to riders? Cleaner stations and trains may be appreciated, but what about service? The ability of the service scores to reflect customer experience at a fine-grained level is dubious.
The Customer Satisfaction ratings for 2012 were 76%, 74%, 74% and 72% for each of the quarterly polls. No previous data are available because the old “Chief General Manager’s Report” did not include it. The numbers suggest a downward trend over the past year, and this obviously begs a question of whether crowding and general condition of service issues dominate the results.
The TTC plans to begin publishing route-by-route service scores fairly soon. These will likely be based on the current methodology for measuring service quality and, presumably, these will be migrated to whatever new scheme is implemented later this year. An important component missing from the online reports is historical data so that the trend in values from day to day can be examined without having to manually capture and track this information.
Gateway Newsstand Contract
In October 2012, the Commission at management’s recommendation approved an extension of the lease under which the Gateway newsstands in the subway operate. As things stood, there were varying expiry dates for the many locations, and these would be consolidated to simplify contract administration by the TTC and planning by the lessee. In fact, the head lease is held by Tobmar Investments who sublet the newsstands to independent operators.
This arrangement was presented as an “unsolicited proposal” to the Commission, and in the process of lease approval and further discussion, the details of the new contract were released as part of a Commission report. This makes it nearly impossible for the TTC to conduct a fair competition if the proposed contract does not hold.
Another company, International News, objected that it did not get a chance to bid, and the question of fairness escalated to the Mayor’s office.
In January 2013, the matter was back at the Commission with a management recommendation to conduct an RFP for new bids in light of previously unexpected interest from other parties. After considerable discussion, the Commission voted to re-affirm the deal with Tobmar. This decision was now back at the Commission for reconsideration at the March meeting.
The room was packed with representatives of many newsstand operators for whom the replacement of Tobmar by another head lessee would likely be an end to their business. Tobmar itself presented information about the process leading to their original proposal in 2012, and it became evident that “unsolicited” was hardly an appropriate description. TTC management had opened discussion on various issues including the question of renovating some locations in advance of the Pan Am Games (lest Toronto look not quite world class enough, I suppose). These discussions had been underway for some months before the October 2012 report.
The debate that followed was unlike anything I have ever seen at the TTC with open hostility in the questioning of management by the Commission and clear feeling that inaccurate information had been provided to previous meetings. The whole matter has been put over to the April 2013 meeting when management will present a consolidated view of events taking into account information about past negotiations provided by Tobmar.
In response to a deputation in October 2012 and a request from Commissioner (and former Vice-Chair) Peter Milczyn, TTC staff reviewed the priority for elevator installation at Old Mill Station (located in Milczyn’s ward).
Leaving aside stations on the SRT which will be rebuilt as part of whatever technology supplants the current one, Old Mill ranks last among inaccessible stations with 4,774 daily passengers. For this reason, it is scheduled near the end of the elevator project list in 2023. (Two major stations, Islington and Warden, are further off in 2025, but these are placeholders pending possible redevelopment at both locations.)
The fundamental problem facing the TTC and its legally mandated implementation of accessible facilities is that Queen’s Park legislates the timelines, but provides no funding. Only the far-off 2025 deadline for completion of all retrofits saves the TTC (and Toronto) from having to fund and launch an aggressive program to rebuild three dozen stations in a brief period. Indeed, station reconstructions generally have slowed down thanks to capital budget cuts at the city, and some elevator projects may have to proceed as free-standing projects with all the inefficiency this brings.
While I sympathize with Commissioner Milczyn and the plight of his constituents, his efforts might be better spent on securing funding for the entire program, not just for his local stations.
The Commission decided to defer the entire matter for three years to see whether circumstances will have changed. This sounds as if they are waiting out elections and policy developments at all three levels of government.