Analysis of Route 54 Lawrence East (Part I)

This is the first of a series of articles to review service on a number of routes both in the suburbs and downtown.  There are three sets of data for November 2011, March 2012 and May 2013.  The first two were selected to show the effect, if any, of service cuts implemented in February 2012.  All three months had fairly benign weather and this would not have much effect on service.  (The winter of 2011-12 was particularly balmy in Toronto.)

Our old friend the Queen car comes in for lots of abuse on this site and elsewhere that transit riders and critics (not necessarily the same group) congregate.  For a change, I thought it would be interesting to review a very long bus route, 54 Lawrence East, to see what its service looked like.

Lawrence East is actually longer than Queen (Long Branch), although it operates at a higher speed overall. The express service has a substantially higher scheduled speed, but does not run on the congested inner section of the route.

54 Lawrence East operates three services:

  • 54 Eglinton Station to Orton Park (between Markham Road and Morningside)
  • 54A Eglinton Station to Starspray
  • 54E Lawrence East Station to Starspray Express (peak only, express west of Markham Road)

Peak hour headways are shorter on Lawrence East than on Queen due in part to the size of the vehicles.  Although Lawrence East has a 3’00” combined AM peak service, this is only actually available at the few stops between Lawrence East Station and Orton Park served by all three branches.  Each of these operates on a 9’00” headway providing an average 4’30” headway over much of the route where only two of them are available.

During off-peak periods, half of the service operates to Orton Park and half to Starspray.

If we are to believe the common wisdom about transit routes, Lawrence East should have more reliable service because it operates in a relatively less constrained environment than the Queen car.  In fact, actual service on Lawrence East suffers many of the same problems of bunching and uneven headways differing substantially from the advertised schedule.

Comparing the two routes:

                                Queen     Lawrence East
Round trip length (km)          48.88         54.90         
Round trip time (mins)*
  AM peak                       180+6         168+3
  PM peak                       190+15        175+4
Scheduled Speed (km/hr)         16.3          19.3
  Local                         16.3          19.3
  Express                                     25.7
AM peak frequency               5'10"         3'00"
Vehicle type                    ALRV          40' Bus
Design load                     108           53
Route design capacity/hr        1254**        1060
  East of Humber                1254
  West of Humber                627
  Lawrence E Stn to Orton Pk                  1060
  W of Lawrence E Stn                         707
  E of Orton Pk                               707     
* Trip time shown as running time + recovery time
** 501 service supplemented by trippers, plus routes 508 & 502
September 2013 schedules

Scheduled service levels for the three months reviewed here were:

Weekdays                AM Pk  Midday PM Pk  Evening
                                              Early  Late
Nov. 2011               3'00"  6'00"  3'20"  10'00" 11'38"
Mar. 2012               3'00"  6'50"* 3'20"  10'00" 10'00"*
May  2013               3'00"  6'22"* 3'30"* 9'10'* 10'00"

Saturdays               Morning       After  Evening
                        Early  Mid     noon  Early  Late
Nov. 2011 & Mar. 2012   15'    8'      7'    15'    15'
May  2013               15'    8'      7'    10'*   15'

Sundays                 Morning       After  Evening
                        Early  Mid     noon  Early  Late
Nov. 2011 & Mar. 2012   15'    10'     8'    15'    15'
May  2013               15'    8'*     8'    10'*   15'

(*) Midday service was cut in February 2012 with the system-wide reduction in Service Standards.  All improvements were in response to growing demand.  The PM Peak headway was increased slightly in February 2013 to add running time without adding vehicles to the route.

What Lawrence East does not have is chronic short-turning that deprives the ends of the route of service as on the Queen car.  Some outbound Starspray trips short turn at Port Union, and some inbound trips (mainly in the peak) turn back east from Bayview without serving Eglinton Station.  Neither of these is as common as short turns at Kipling, Roncesvalles or Woodbine Loop on the Queen car.

Headway Reliability

The first and most striking fact about the Lawrence East bus is how unreliable its headway is.  This statement applies to all locations, directions and hours of service.  On the outer end of the route, beyond the Orton Park turnback, there are extremely wide swings in headway values.  Bunching is endemic on this route.

Daily Examples

These charts show the actual headways at various points along the route for the first day of each sample month.  The format of the charts is:

  • Each page contains data for one location with time reading left to right, and length of headway plotted vertically.
  • Each dot represents one bus and the time (headway) since the preceding bus passed this location.
  • Service from all three branches is plotted together.
  • The trend line is interpolated between the dots as a best fit showing the overall progressing of headway values through the day.  This line tends to stay near the scheduled headway although the actual values vary widely around it.
  • Dots near the X-axis (zero value) represent vehicles operating very close to the one immediately preceding.

The spread of the dots around the trend line shows the range of values that riders actually experience.  The horizontal scale lines are six minutes apart, and this is the range within which the TTC aims to have all of its service (±3 minutes of the scheduled headway).  It is quite clear that the data points are spread considerably wider than a six-minute range, and much of the service does not operate anywhere near the target headway.

Service is uneven westbound from Starspray at all hours, especially evenings (and weekends as we will see later).  A review of the details (not shown here) reveals that operators are inconsistent about the location of their terminal layover, and the headway leaving Starspray is uneven because they may lay over somewhere further west.  That, would explain things if headways were even west from Port Union, but they are not.  The Port Union data is less scattered than at Starspray, but there is still a very wide range of values.

Further west, the Markham Road page is the first to include the Orton Park service.  Headways here are not as extended as further east, but they are still quite uneven showing that there is no attempt to merge westbound services to provide a truly blended headway.  The situation continues westbound at Kennedy indicating that no attempt was made to even out headways westbound from Lawrence East Station.  Many vehicles run in pairs (zero or very short headways), and the pattern continues west to Eglinton Station.

The situation eastbound is no better with uneven headways leaving Yonge Street and continuing all the way to the eastern terminus.  As with the westbound service, there appears to be no attempt to smooth out headways either eastbound from Yonge or from Lawrence East Station, both locations where spacing service should be relatively easy.

The 2013 example shows somewhat less widely varying headways, but this could just be the chance of having a “good day”.  To look more closely, we have to examine month-long information.

Monthly Headway Summaries

The format of the Monthly Headway charts is:

  • There are eight charts showing various subsets of the data.
    • The first five show weekdays in each of the five calendar weeks (or partial weeks) in the month.
    • The sixth chart contains the data points of all weekdays with no trend line.
    • The seventh and eighth charts show data for Saturdays and Sundays.
    • The only statutory holiday falling in the subject periods is Victoria Day 2013, and it is included with the Sunday data.
  • There are separate trend lines for each day’s data.  These are the same lines that would appear on the corresponding daily charts shown above.

The locations are shown to illustrate the route at specific points:

  • Westbound
    • Port Union:  At this point, the inbound service should have passed whatever layover points the operators may choose on the outer end of the line, and the service should be regularly spaced.  Most of the time, it is not.
    • Markham Road:  The Orton Park 54 service has now joined in to the route, and service should be evenly spaced between the 54 and 54A braches.  Most of the time, it is not.
    • Kennedy:  The service has just left Kennedy Station, a point where any headway irregularities could be ironed out.  They are not.
    • Bayview:  The service is well on its way to Eglinton Station.  Headways are all over the place reflecting the cumulative effects on the run in from Scarborough.
  • Eastbound
    • Yonge:  This shows the headway leaving Eglinton Station eastbound where one might hope for regularly spaced service.  Most of the time, it is not.
    • Don Mills:  We are now in the main portion of the route heading through North York into Scarborough.  The service is not regularly spaced because it left Eglinton Station that way.
    • Midland:  This is just east of Lawrence East Station, and the data include (during peak periods) the 54E express trips.  Headways continue to be scattered.
    • Kingston Road:  By this point, the 54E trips are making local stops, and the plot shows the combined service heading out to Starspray.

For the weekday plots, note how the trend lines all lie together on each week’s set with few exceptions.  Although the individual data for each day may vary, the overall patterns do not.  This indicates that the amount of service operated was generally the same for each day (buses/hour and distribution of headways around averages) even though individual vehicle spacings might vary.

Saturday trend lines stay together too, although they do spread apart inbound in some cases.  This is common on charts where there are fewer data points to “nail down” the trend line, and fewer data points are needed to pull the line far from its typical position.

In all cases, the clouds of data points around the trend lines are quite wide, certainly well above the ±3 minute target range.  This shows up most notably in the all-weekday plots.

Over a period from November 2011 to May 2013, the nature of service on 54 Lawrence East has not changed much.  It is irregular and unpredictable beyond the information a savvy rider would pick up from NextBus.

In the next article, I will turn to the question of running times between points on the route and the degree, if any, to which “congestion” plays a role in the erratic nature of the service.

[Methodology:  Background information on the techniques used in this analysis is available in a technical article: Methodology For Analysis of TTC’s Vehicle Tracking Data.]

12 thoughts on “Analysis of Route 54 Lawrence East (Part I)

  1. Thanks for posting this. It’s interesting that the 54 suffers as much from bunching as the streetcar does. (My own experience with the route is that it often pays to deliberately miss a bus because the next one is close behind and much less crowded.)

    Note that the 54 doesn’t pass Kennedy station; it goes via Lawrence East station on the RT.

    Steve: Ooops. Editing error. I will fix. I meant Lawrence East (was thinking of service east of Kennedy when I wrote that).


  2. This review is of particular interest to me because I live near the corner of Lawrence and Birchmount. My experience of the 54 Lawrence East bus mirrors your charts. The service is just not reliable and there seems to be no effort over many years to remedy this. Despite the posted frequency of service waits of 20-30 minutes are not uncommon at any time of the day or night.

    Traffic along Lawrence Ave east is usually not that bad in comparison to other suburban arterials so I’m looking forward to your evaluation of the causes in part 2.

    My solution has been to take the 17 Birchmount to Warden Subway instead which is pretty good overall — fairly frequent and reliable. I haven’t ridden the 54 in over 2 years.

    I have a lot of sympathy for transit users in Scarborough who are beyond easy reach of the Bloor-Danforth subway line. It seems that lengthy suburban bus routes like the 54 are trying to serve two disparate needs and failing at both. One is local service on the street they primarily run on. But the widely varying headways make this impractical for local trips. Who is going to wait up to 30 minutes for a bus when the trip itself will only take a few minutes? The second category are riders travelling cross-town without wanting to transfer to the subway. Lawrence Avenue East has no diamond lanes, no traffic signal priority that I can see, and no express service between Lawrence East and Eglinton stations. Nineteen km/hour will seem pretty slow when your destination is 15-20 kilometres away.


  3. And to think that a good LRT network connected to a good subway system could help.

    Steve: Ah, but the powers that be would rather posture and try to score political points. If only Karen Stintz and the TTC devoted a fraction of the effort expended on the subway proposals to getting service on the bus routes under control, Scarborough might even think kindly of the TTC.


  4. Do you have any idea what this route will look like once the Eglinton LRT opens? Will it terminate at Leslie/Eglinton or Don Mills/Eglinton, or will it take the jog through the Bridle Path and go to Lawrence station?

    Steve: According to the EA, Lawrence East will terminate at Don Mills Station. There will not be a bus interchange loop at Leslie/Eglinton, and the Leslie bus is proposed to be through routed with a Leaside bus running down Laird. What will serve Lawrence from Leslie to Don Mills is unclear. In any event, this is all going to be shuffled around by 2020/21 when the line finally opens.


  5. Good analysis, Steve, and having used the 54 often all my life it is dead on. The one thing I can say is there is little to no passengers past Port Union eastbound. Starspray loop and its surrounding area border Pickering and is incredibly isolated. It’s so isolated a car is needed if you live in that area. All in all however east of Lawrence East the service is decent albeit not ideal. It’s better than Queen and adequate for the area. I find heading west past the RT or heading east towards it the service is sparse and honestly it’s easier and sometimes faster to take other routes to get closer to where you are going (i.e 25 Don Mills to get to shops at Don Mills).

    Steve: The area around Starspray may be sparsely populated, but the service east of the Orton Park turnback serves many more riders than on the outer end of the line. They are all subject to the erratic headways “out east”, and the route as whole provides unreliable service over its entire length.


  6. We moved out to the Port Union and Lawrence area in 1977 when I was 16. Reading this report gives me the sense that not much has improved. My high school was on Lawrence between Brimley and Midland. The biggest complaints at the time were long delays followed by a number of buses; and 54 drivers not waiting when they saw the Markham 102, Kingston 86 or the Eglinton/Morningside 34 letting out passengers. So much of this comes down to drivers making riders feel they are accommodated.


  7. Let me guess – like the Dufferin bus, the drivers on this route like to take breaks together and then all leave at the same time? Looking forward to reading part II.


  8. It is very interesting (if depressing) to read this major analysis of a major bus route and it does raise the question of “Why?” Clearly the problems of schedule or spacing adherence are not (or not only) other traffic, weather, streetcars vs. buses or poor route supervision on one route. Are some routes simply too long for the TTC to manage? Do they really manage routes at all, or with proper knowledge of what is going on – on-street supervisors relying on sight? Do other transit authorities have these problems? Does avoiding driver overtime or ensuring exchanges occur cause problems.

    I think that you have only surveyed long routes (all streetcar routes plus a few bus ones). Maybe you should look at a short (and/or infrequent) route to see if it too gets screwed up. If they can’t manage a short or infrequent route that certainly will tell us something.

    Steve: When service leaves the ends of a line on a ragged headway even on weekend and holiday mornings and evenings when there is no “congestion” and running times are, if anything, too generous, this shows that no attention is being paid to the quality of service. As for short routes, even Bathurst and Harbourfront don’t run like clockwork, although the latter for obvious reasons has no recent streetcar data.


  9. My parents moved from Davisville and Mt. Pleasant to Lawrence and Warden in my first year of university before the Bloor Danforth Subway opened. (I have never forgiven them.) If the service on Lawrence was good it was 10 minutes faster to use the 54, the subway and the Carlton car. If there was any weather problem then it was usually faster to take the University subway to St. George, the Bloor Danforth car to Luttrell and the 67 Pharmacy to 2 blocks north of Lawrence.

    After the Bloor Danforth subway opened it was no contest, bus down Warden then BD subway then University subway was a lot faster, even when it only ran to Woodbine. Outside of the rush hours 54 was a well behaved line with one branch leaving Eglinton on the 08 and the 38 with the other branch on the 23 and the 53 with the last bus at 2:05 a.m. There seemed to be a greater respect paid to timetables then than seems to occur now. While I hate to use the term perhaps there should a greater consequence for intentionally running late or early.


  10. I know that you don’t have the data for this route, but I see similar problems with the 7 Bathurst, which unlike the 54, doesn’t have any branches (if you don’t count the 160 Bathurst North), but just about every bus is supposed to run end-to-end from Bathurst Station to Steeles.

    Northbound, short-turns are common at Wilson, Sheppard and Finch; southbound, short-turns usually occur at Roselawn, Eglinton or St. Clair West Station. Short-turned buses sit at each location to get back to their supposed schedule, even if there’s a gap in service that they could be filling if they went back into service, even after a 5 minute convenience break. I’ve waited 20-30 minutes at Bathurst Station on a Saturday afternoon for a northbound bus; the line-ups at the front and rear doors can curl back onto themselves. Sometimes, more buses ‘serve’ St. Clair West than the supposed terminus at Bathurst Station.

    Roselawn, by the way, is a horrible place to short turn a bus. (In actuality, passengers are kicked off at Ridelle.) There’s only the infrequent 14 Glencairn that connects there, and it’s a bit too far to walk to Eglinton. There’s nowhere to go. It’s convenient for operations though as it’s easy to turn a bus around there. I’ve been kicked off a bus there twice, on the second bus in a two-bus convoy and left to wait for 15-20 minutes late in the evening.

    Dufferin has so many buses on it, it strangely almost works, even with the short-turns endemic on that route. Other routes like Bathurst (and Lawrence East) give new meaning to the acronym “FS” printed on schedules, and I sure don’t mean ‘Frequent Service’.


  11. Personally, I would expect to see things like this on any route with as short a recovery time as 54. Would you really expect on-time performance when after driving for almost 1.5 hours you get 2 minutes of recovery time (I assume the recovery time is split evenly)? If you arrive late, then you will leave late. If you arrive on time and need to use the restroom, then you will leave late. The best way to improve reliability would be to adopt a standard, where feasible, of a minimum of 10% recovery time at the end of the line to account for late buses and human needs.

    Obviously it would not be possible to have a large number of buses hanging out at Eglinton Station, but there would certainly be room at the east end of the line. Accomplishing this may not even cost as much as you may think, because a more reliable route operating at a wider headway would probably provide better service than an unreliable route ostensibly operating “frequent service”.

    Steve: I agree with you up to a point. A common complaint is that running times on TTC schedules are too tight, and if only they were relaxed, service would be better. Maybe.

    What still stands out is the fact that even during periods where there is no congestion and running times are adequate, service is irregular and the merging of the two branches does not appear to be managed to truly blend the headways.

    Long routes are challenging for crews and for crew scheduling, but if more attention is not paid to regularly spaced (and for wider headways, on time) service, riders of these routes are doomed to complaining about the frustrations of using transit. This type of problem shows up on every route I have analyzed and speaks to a pervasive problem with service management.


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