Travel Time on King Street: January to June 2017

With Toronto Council’s approval of a pilot project to give more priority to transit on King Street, it is worthwhile to understand how travel times behave today, and what a “best case” improvement might look like.

This article reviews TTC vehicle tracking data for the first half of 2017 on King to illustrate the variation in travel times for the Jarvis-to-Bathurst pilot area, smaller segments within the pilot, and the segments beyond. Advocates for transit priority on King routinely cite congestion and longer travel times as major issues that the pilot can deal with, and indeed journey time reduction is one of the goals of the project. However, the 504 King service operates in a more complex environment than just a congested central section, and that context must be understood in evaluating the benefits any change will bring.

In brief:

  • Travel times vary substantially depending on the time, location, direction and day of the week. Under some combinations of these, transit vehicles move quite freely on King Street today.
  • Variation in times is not always predictable. Shaving the peaks off of these variations and restoring reliability is an important part of making transit “run faster”.
  • The problem is not confined to the central part of King Street, but the pattern of delays is different than downtown.

Riders complain that the King car can be challenging to use, but the transit experience entails more than just the in-vehicle time from point “A” to “B”. First, one must walk to a stop and await a streetcar’s arrival. Then one must hope that there is room on the car to board. Finally one speeds (or not) along the route. Transit studies regularly find that of these factors, the time spent in motion on board is the least critical in terms of perceived trip length because, finally, the rider is “on the way”. Time spent waiting, let alone being passed up by a full vehicle (or kicked off one that short turns), weighs more heavily in the “why am I still taking the TTC” question unless the in-vehicle time is a substantial portion of the trip overall.

Any scheme to improve King that looks only at travel time, but ignores service reliability and capacity, will miss out on important components of what makes service more attractive, and in doing so risks limiting the potential for increased demand.

In previous articles, I have reviewed the reliability and capacity of service on King Street.

The TTC has no plans to add service to 504 King during the pilot, although they will begin to replace shorter cars (CLRVs) with longer ones (new Flexitys) in December. This will gradually add to capacity of the route, if not service frequency. At this point, the service design for September when streetcars will return to Queen Street has not been announced, and the degree to which buses will operate on King at least in the early days of the pilot is unknown. The bus trippers claimed by the TTC to be “supplementary” service in fact replace streetcars, generally at a lower capacity.

As for reliability, reduced and more regular travel times through the core will be a benefit to the King service provided that the TTC actually manages headways. There is an ongoing problem with irregular service during the AM peak when there is little congestion as an excuse, and this irregularity plagues riders, especially in Parkdale, Liberty Village and Bathurst/Niagara.

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