TTC Crowding Standards and Service (Updated)

Updated Nov. 19, 2016 at 10:10 am: The TTC has updated their comment on the status of the service improvements implemented in 2015-16.

Identifying the specific routes which would be affected would be done in 2017 following a review of the initiatives implemented in 2015-2016. [Email from Stuart Green]

The Star’s Ben Spurr had an article on November 18, 2016 about the degree to which the TTC fails to meet its own service standards for vehicle crowding.

The many debates about budget and service routinely ignore the question of whether the TTC actually meets the Board-mandated standards, and instead we are treated to complaints from the budget hawks about poorly performing services.

In my review of the proposed 2017 operating budget, I noted that the traditional targets of such complaints do not offer much latitude for savings, while much more money is on the table from potential reductions of service quality and reversal of the recent Tory service improvements such as the 10 minute network.

For reference, here are the current standards taken from the TTC’s website:


The TTC has provided the detailed list it sent to Ben Spurr, and here it is.

The list comes with various caveats from the TTC, notably that many of the routes that are “over” the standard are only slightly past the line by say a few passengers over the target.

In a nutshell, 43 of the TTC’s bus and streetcar routes exceed crowding standards at one or more periods during the week and on weekends. In most cases, though, the average number of passengers per vehicle is only slightly in excess of our crowding standards…one or two people in some cases.

The standards, as the chart in the PDF illustrates, vary between periods and vehicle type. Also, in off-peak periods, the standard is the number of seats on a vehicle. So if just one or two people are left standing, that would exceed the standard but is not overcrowded, per se. [Email from Stuart Green in TTC Communications]

As regular readers know, I have written extensively about service reliability on the TTC. This affects the actual quality and capacity of service in many ways:

  • Vehicles that are bunched often have extra space on the second (third, etc) vehicle because everyone boards the “gap” vehicle. A strong inventive for this behaviour is that dropping back to a following, less crowded vehicle may leave the rider turfed off when it short turns. Despite TTC claims that total short turn counts are down, this remains a problem and rider behaviour reflects their experience.
  • The number of vehicles per hour operated is not always the scheduled value. Therefore the actual capacity of the route could be less than advertised.
  • On routes with articulated streetcars or buses, regular single-section vehicles can often be found in place of artics. The result is a loss of capacity and greater than scheduled crowding.

Past observations by TTC planners have rather quaintly observed that the cheapest “new” capacity one can provide is to operate reliable service so that loads are evenly distributed. I leave it to readers to contemplate the degree to which the TTC achieves this, especially when it has a six-minute wide window within which vehicles are “on time”. For frequent routes, vehicles in pairs can be on time even though they provide gappy service. This is a very long-standing problem, compounded by the fact that the TTC does not even regularly meet its rather generous “targets” for headway reliability.

I asked the TTC how the average loads are calculated as reported in their tables. Specifically, is the average calculated based on the observed number of vehicles, or on the scheduled service, and is the percentage of load based on the scheduled vehicle type rather than what actually operates. The TTC replied that the capacity used to calculated the percentages is based on scheduled values and vehicle types, not on the service available to riders on the street.

This is an important distinction for routes with erratic service and frequent replacement of large vehicles by smaller ones, notably 501 Queen. It is quite possible that the actual average loads considerably exceed available capacity even though they may fall within theoretical values based on the schedules. What may look like a seated load on paper could well have a considerable number of standees because headways are wider and/or vehicles are smaller than planned.

One might reasonably ask for additional information that must be available from the underlying TTC data:

  • What is the actual capacity of the service operated against which the crowding values are calculated?
  • How variable is the headway (maximum and minimum values, percentage of vehicles close together, etc.)?

With respect to monitoring service for schedule changes, the TTC says:

The specific decisions on when and where to adjust service to these standards are made by TTC staff. In a typical year we make more than a hundred service changes. We regularly conduct reviews of ridership to assess needs across all routes. If there is a route that needs some additional service, we will try to balance that against a route that may have capacity to spare.

In a large, busy system such as the TTC’s there are always some routes at any point in time that have crowding that exceeds the crowding standards. And while we would obviously prefer our customers are not on crowded vehicles, we have to balance the availability of resources like vehicles and operators with delivering service to the entire city.

Through regular service reviews and with arrival of the new vehicles, there is an opportunity to increase capacity on some of the busier routes like the 504. In particular the TTC’s new high capacity low-floor streetcars will assist in reducing overcrowding on our streetcar routes.

There’s a bit more to things than this reply lets on. Every year there is a “Service Budget” (the one for 2017 was probably set a few months ago), and Service Planning works within this to allocate service to the available resources. However, a critical component is the number of available operators and this runs into the dreaded budgetary problem of “head count avoidance”. In off peak periods, routes may cry out for more service, but vehicles will sit in the yards if there is nobody to operate them.

Yes, the TTC’s new cars will help to reduce crowding when and if they actually arrive, and when they start operating on really busy routes like King. On 510 Spadina, the introduction of low-floor cars was accompanied by a cut in the number of vehicles in service, although the net change remained an increase in capacity. This has long been an issue in plans for fleets of larger vehicles because in some cases, notably the conversion of bus routes from regular to articulated vehicles, the “new” service has roughly the same capacity as the old by the simple expedient of running two artics where there previously had been three regular sized buses. Years ago, the same fate hit the 501 Queen car, and service quality (not to mention ridership) has never recovered.

The TTC’s first goal for many on Council is to reduce costs, not to increase service, and claims that there will be more capacity must be tempered with the observation that such an improvement may not be “affordable”. Just look at what happened with 514 Cherry which was supposed to be a net addition to service on King Street, but which the Commission refused to fund. The result was that service was reallocated between the 504 and 514 routes with only a modest improvement in the portion of the route where they overlap. (The question of how irregularly the 514s actually appear is another matter.)

Going into a year where the Service Budget is planned to rise only by 0.4%, there is not much headroom for more capacity, and anything added on one route will inevitably be taken from another. This may be “efficient”, but it runs headlong into policy objectives such as the core network of 10 minute services, all-day service on all routes and the existing crowding standards. As the budget report showed, there is not much available to trim from the lightly loaded routes when resources are needed on busy routes elsewhere, and the more likely situation will be to pack in more riders.

The problem is even worse if the TTC contemplates relaxing the standards so that average loads on vehicles will rise. We already know from experience that many routes are crowded, and the last thing they will need is less service and even worse travel conditions.

I asked whether the cost estimates for savings on these proposals included detailed lists of possible service changes. The TTC replied:

The table shows broad categories that generally would reflect the reversal of service initiatives implemented in 2015. The specific service changes within each category have not been identified.

This was further qualified in a separate email after this article was published:

Identifying the specific routes which would be affected would be done in 2017 following a review of the initiatives implemented in 2015-2016.

What a marvelous way to short-change debate – don’t tell people what the actual effects might be. This is precisely the sort of campaign one would expect from an anti-transit Council or Mayor who would say “this won’t hurt too much”, or so a Councillor could claim they never knew the details of what was planned before it happens. Will someone on the TTC Board please make an official request for the details before this goes to Council?

On a more general note, the primary function of the TTC is to provide transit service. The Board sets policy and sits back expecting that service actually operates within those parameters. However, there is always a Catch-22, the caveat in any policy “subject to budget availability”. This allows the Board to pass a policy promising the sun, moon and stars to transit riders, but it’s ok if staff only delivers a few minor planets in a far-off galaxy because they couldn’t afford to deliver more. Meanwhile, Council blithely approve billions in spending on capital projects.

This is not to say that those capital projects are unneeded (that pitched battle has been debated elsewhere), but it is a double standard to treat capital funding as something we must do as an integral part of city growth and prosperity while at the same time starving day-to-day service because keeping taxes down is the paramount goal.

Every month, we see a CEO’s report from Andy Byford full of beautiful pictures and graphs, but with very little commentary on the basic question: are we providing the service that Toronto needs, and if not, what do we have to do to achieve this?

It’s all very well to have customer surveys and indices of station cleanliness, but what about the actual service on the street? Is the plateau in ridership related to the system’s inability to carry more riders or to attract business?

TTC staff are supposed to be producing a new Ridership Growth Strategy for the TTC Board in January. It’s a shame this wasn’t produced as an integral part of the budget. How bad is the service today? Where can it improve? How much more would be possible and at what cost? Those are questions no penny-pinching Mayor wants asked let alone answered.

In a few days, the TTC Board will consider its 2017 budget, and we will see just how much appetite there is for forcing Council to cough up the money needed to run the transit system, to pay for all those photo ops a few years ago when John Tory claimed he would reduce the damage wrought by Rob Ford.