This article looks at improvements in more detail in light of a recent policy announcement by Mayoral candidate Olivia Chow that she would increase service by 10% to reduce crowding.
What would a service increase look like “on the ground”, and what resources would it require?
What Happened in 2012?
First, a review of what Toronto lost in 2012. Crowding standards were rolled back by undoing the Miller-era Ridership Growth Strategy as an alternative to continued expansion of the transit fleet and service to match.
This table shows the service change between January and February 2012 when the crowding standards were revised.
- The number of vehicles in service is shown for each of 15 scheduling periods as reported in the TTC Scheduled Service Summaries.
- The number of hours assigned to each period is an estimate intended to average values over the system and provide a “back of the envelope” level of calculation. The actual length of time each route has an “AM Peak”, for example, will vary from route to route.
- Statutory Holidays are counted as Sundays for the purpose of calculating service operated on an annual basis.
The bus service, on an annualized basis, declined by 2.8% with varying levels of cuts for different periods of operation. Some periods saw little decline, while others took the brunt of the cuts. It is important to remember that the off-peak crowding standards for “frequent services” (every 10 minutes of better) changed by 25% while peak standards changed by only 10%.
However, system ridership for 2012 was up 2.8% over 2011. The compound effect with reductions in service were almost 5.5% presuming that the increase occurred proportionately across the network.
The streetcar service, on an annualized basis, declined by 4.0%. Because peak period standards under RGS had not been increased as there were no spare streetcars, they did not decline when RGS was rolled back. However, the off peak standard changed by 25% as on the bus network, and it was the off-peak that took the cuts. The compound effect with riding growth was just over 6.5%.
For both surface modes, what is noteworthy is that the overall reduction in quantity of service was less than the reduction in the standard implying that then-existing service was already operating well beyond the standards then in place. To put it another way, the TTC “accommodated” riding that exceeded the RGS standard by changing the standard rather than by operating more service.
The net saving of this change was shown in the 2012 Operating Budget as $14-million.
What Does More Service Look Like?
The first problem here is what do we mean by “more”. Should we only be considering peak period service, or should we also include at least some of the off-peak periods? More TTC riding actually occurs outside the peak, but this is spread over more service hours.
Bus crowding standards for frequent routes during the off-peak are only slightly more generous than during the peak. For example, on 38-seat low-floor buses, the peak standard is 53 and the off-peak standard is 48. These values refer to the average load on a bus during the peak hour within the period in question. Actual experience will vary depending on service reliability and the effect of “surge” loads from transfer connections and time-sensitive events such as school traffic.
One criterion advanced for improvements is that this be done on the “busy” routes. What would a list of such routes look like?
The first page of this table shows all bus routes that operate at headways of 5 minutes of less during the AM peak together with their vehicle requirements for weekdays through the early evening period. The total for the AM peak is 1,004 buses, and so an across-the-board 10% service increase would require 100 more buses on the street. To this must be added a further 20 for maintenance spares.
It is worth noting that 2/3 of the peak bus fleet provides the service for about 1/3 of the routes, the ones that would be targeted for improvements to “frequent” services.
The short term problem is where to get the resources for the larger fleet. Buses are available because, as I wrote in an earlier article, over 200 are scheduled for retirement this year and these could be kept active for a short term. However, the problem will be where to store them as the “replacement” 135 articulated buses are delivered over this year and before any new garage capacity is available. There will also be a need for more drivers to operate more buses.
On a previous occasion when the TTC faced a potential excess of buses versus available space due to fleet growth before Transit City LRT lines would begin to reduce bus requirements, there was a scheme to lease space for the extra fleet. This begs the question of what space is available and how the system would be operated under those conditions.
If I were to be particularly peevish, I might point to the substantial amount of parking space the TTC operates at major subway stations, an obviously convenient place to stash extra buses. Give up parking in order to run more service for riders? I can hear the screams from TTC management (not to mention certain Councillors) now.
In the medium term, the TTC needs to get on with a planned new bus garage in northern Scarborough that is not yet fully funded “above the line” in the Capital Budget.
Next comes the policy question of whether only peak services are improved or if off-peak crowding standards should be changed as well. This would make a bigger difference for many riders even on “frequent” routes because headways are wider in the off-peak. There are roughly half as many buses serving the 45 bus routes listed here during off-peak periods. Hiring more drivers only for peak operations is an expensive way to do business because of low productivity, and better off-peak service can come at comparatively lower marginal cost. Any proposal to improve service must look at this issue, not just peak periods.
The second page in the table shows the streetcar routes subdivided by the principal type of vehicle they use. (CLRVs are the standard streetcars, while ALRVs are the longer articulated variety found primarily on Queen.)
For years Toronto has seen little improvement in peak service on the streetcar network because replacement of the older cars has been such a dragged-out affair. Even the new low floor cars are arriving later than expected, and the delivery date keeps receding into the future. Current plans call for 3 cars/month to start arriving in April 2014 with 510 Spadina cutting over to low-floor operation at the end of August.
The TTC plans to start retiring older cars as soon as possible, but this is extremely short-sighted on two counts.
First, there is a long-standing demand for better service, and telling people on major routes that they must still wait years more to see it is, quite bluntly, a disaster of “customer service” which has been the TTC’s focus of late in the absence of actually running more vehicles. Second, the fleet plans do not take into account the fact that larger ALRVs will be retired first even though the routes they serve won’t be getting new cars right away.
The TTC’s most recently published plan for the streetcar network was presented in June 2013. According to this plan, we should have had 9 new cars on the property by the end of 2013 and a further 34 in 2014. We will actually do well to have 27 (3/month for 9 months), down from the originally anticipated 43, although the TTC says that Bombardier can make up the pace in the contract. How soon this might actually happen is another matter.
The fleet plan called for conversion of 510 Spadina, 511 Bathurst and 509 Harbourfront, plus partial conversion of 505 Dundas, by the end of 2014. In practice, at best Spadina and Bathurst will be completed in 2014. Riders on 501 Queen will have to wait until late 2015 or early 2016 to see the new cars, and 504 King won’t likely get them until 2017.
Meanwhile, the TTC will begin retiring the ALRV fleet used on Queen and King in 2014/15, but has shown no plans for how they will replace the capacity of these cars on the affected routes, let alone make any service improvements generally. This is a recipe for making riders even more disenchanted with streetcar service, an issue that was raised by the Customer Satisfaction Survey for 4Q2013.
The TTC argues that keeping the ALRVs in service is challenging due to their low reliability (they were particularly affected by the cold winter of 2013/14), but they will not be in any position to retire this fleet for the 2014/15 winter because (a) enough new cars won’t yet be on the property and (b) the number of CLRVs that will be released by early conversions to low floor cars will be inadequate to replace the capacity of the ALRVs.
To put this in context, the TTC requires 38 ALRVs on the road for AM peak service on King and Queen. If the same capacity were provided by CLRVs, they would need 57 cars. However, only 25 cars will be available from conversion of Spadina and Bathurst.
I have repeatedly raised this concern with the TTC, and nothing has been done to change the fleet plan even though this problem was evident in earlier versions.
The TTC really needs to build a new fleet plan reflecting, at a minimum, preservation of service quality on routes that will not get the new low-floor cars for several years, and as an add-on, improving service as older cars are displaced. This is not rocket science, but what is needed is the will to actually improve service, not tell us to wait, and wait, and wait.
How Much Will This Cost?
As always with TTC budget work, this is a tricky question and much depends on the assumptions.
The TTC publishes a summary of daily ridership and operating costs for most of its surface routes (2012 is the most recent year available). Adding up the cost of all routes gives a total of about $1.6-million for one day’s operation. Pro-rating this to a full year gives a value of $480m (treating weekends as one day for budget purposes gives a 300-day year). However, the total TTC operating budget is $1.6-billion.
The difference will come from the rapid transit system (not included in published route-by-route figures), from fixed costs that do not vary with the amount of service, and from overhead costs not allocated to specific routes. Little of this would be affected by improved service on surface routes. (It is also possible that the formula used to allocate costs to routes is inaccurate and understates their cost, but if so, the TTC is publishing misleading data.)
An across the board 10% service improvement should, therefore, cost at about $50m, and the value would be lower if the goal is to reduce crowding on selected routes and times, not simply to improve service everywhere all day long.
The Ford/Stintz Legacy
What we see here is the effect of a classic attitude to public service that not only can we make do with less, but that future attempts to reverse such changes are hamstrung by the ancien regime’s decisions about system resources. We could be suffering for years into a post-Ford era for the short-sighted planning foisted on the TTC.
Do we want a better transit system, or will “less is more” prevail as the guiding principle? Do we even care about surface transit routes which provide vital service to a majority of riders, or do we only care about promises of new subways in decades to come?
TTC management and the Board have a duty to undo this damage as quickly as possible. This will not be easy, and both staffing and fleet arrangements in the short term will have to be changed. Saying “this cannot be done” is not an acceptable policy, and I would happily boot anyone out the door – politician or management – with this as their debating position.