Toronto loves to pat itself on the back for being the best at just about anything, although understanding exactly what that means seems to matter less than just being somebody’s “number one”. A few recent events combine to provide a view of the city and its transit system from different perspectives.
- The TTC receives the American Public Transit Association’s “Transit System of the Year” award for 2017. (See APTA 2017 Awards Program at pp. 10-11.)
- Arcadis, a design and consultancy firm, has issued their 2017 Sustainable Cities Mobility Index in which Toronto ranks 54 out of 100 on a global ranking, 9 out of 23 for North America.
- The Toronto Star, in an article by Ben Spurr, reveals that some TTC routes are crowded beyond the target level of TTC standards.
The APTA Award
The APTA award was announced with much fanfare by the TTC even before it was actually acknowledged on the APTA website. Every vehicle now sports a logo touting this win, and it is a matter of considerable pride for TTC management. Riders might be forgiven for wondering just what APTA was thinking given long-standing problems with overcrowding and irregular service. If Toronto is the best, what are the rest like?
In fact, APTA does not send out teams of mystery shoppers to gauge the quality of its member transit systems. Nominations are submitted by member agencies like the TTC and cite the basis on which they feel entitled to the prize, and these are judged by an APTA panel. In Toronto’s case, the win is for activities that, in the main, made up the Five Year Plan instituted by CEO Andy Byford in 2013, completion of activities already underway such as the Spadina-Vaughan extension and delivery of new subway cars, and reversal of the service cutbacks of the Ford era.
The list of achievements to date in the Five Year Plan is notable for the omission of improved quality of service as an explicit, measured goal. Yes, there has been a reduction in short turns, but this has not been accompanied by an improvement in service reliability. Bunching of at least pairs of vehicles is common, and the TTC’s stock answer is that “congestion” is responsible for this.
Line-by-line reports of service quality, long-promised by the TTC, have not been published since the first quarter of 2015. Even with such data, the metric is on time performance at terminals with a six-minute window to qualify for acceptable service. The result on most routes is that service can leave a terminus in pairs of vehicles and still be “on time”. Despite this generous standard, the system comes nowhere near the overall target.
Subway trains are crowded during peak periods to the point that passengers cannot board, and this cannot be fixed without additional subway capacity that is, for parts of the network, many years away.
This is the reality transit riders experience, and the APTA award and logos brought as much laughter as praise when they appeared.
When BlogTO reported on the Arcadis Sustainable Cities rankings, it did so under the mistaken headline “New ranking trashes public transit in Toronto”. In fact, the rankings look at a much broader view of how cities compare to each other, and transit is only one part of the evaluation.
The review is of urban mobility generally, with transit being an important part, but also auto congestion, cycling and pedestrian facilities. The scoring comes from three “pillars” of sustainability with several sub-indices for specific aspects of city mobility. For those interested in the component scores, a visit to the detailed rankings shows info that is not available in the main report. (Click on various tabs to see the three pillars, and then the components of these. Scores are normalized so that top cities get 100, and the actual component score can be view by clicking on the bars of the charts.)
Toronto lies in the middle of the pack at 54th out of 100, but this masks the offsetting effect of different scores in the three component pillars.
An important point to bear in mind here is that for the purpose of the study, a “city” is defined as not as the metropolitan area, but as the city proper. In Toronto’s case this means the 416 alone, and in the case of some other cities, the area covered would be less even that what Toronto represents in its own region.
The topics under which cities were scored are summarized below (click to enlarge).
These components were weighted based on their importance within each group.
Under “People” (which deals mainly with mobility issues), Toronto ranks 65th with a score of 43.9%. The ranks and scores for sub-indices are:
- Fatalities: 18th / 90.1%
- Access to Transport Service (Bus and Metro stops per sq km): 64th / 10.8%
- Modal Split: 54th / 36.5%
- Rider Connectivity (WiFi): 67th / 32.8%
- Upkeep of the Transit System: 67th (note that there were no data for 28 cities) / 66.7%
- Wheelchair Access: 68th /55.9%
- Uptake of Active Commuting: 84th / 7.9%
- Transit Applications and Digital Capabilities: 73rd / 63.2%
- Airport Passengers: 33rd / 53.3%
- Hours of Metro Operation: 34th (in a group of 54) / 20%
Some of these numbers are a direct result of the scope of the review. For example, Toronto includes large suburban areas where route spacing is wider than downtown, and the stop density is lower. A “city” with a comparatively small suburban component would have a higher stop density. Similarly, the uptake of Active Transportation as a mode will be higher in a dense urban area than in the suburbs. By contrast, the percentage of passengers to the airport by transit is high. It could well be that the airport in question is on the Island, not Pearson Airport which is outside of the city proper. Moreover, even Pearson’s transit mode share for Toronto-based flyers is higher than for those in the 905 simply because there is better transit service available from Toronto (TTC and UPX).
Under “Planet” (which deals with environmental issues), Toronto does well at 32nd and a score of 62.5%. It is this comparatively high ranking that pulls up Toronto’s overall score and prevents it from falling to the lower tier of the global rankings.
- Greenhouse Gas Emissions: 67th / 60.3%
- Provision of Green Space: 57th / 20.6%
- Congestion and Delays: 51st / 56.3%
- Bicycle Infrastructure: 26th / 65.4%
- Air Pollution: 8th / 90.3%
- Efforts to Lower Transport Emissions: 40th / 40%
- Electric Vehicle Incentives: 34th (in a group of 62) / 100%
Almost none of these scores has anything to do with the transit system directly with an indirect effect only through the absence of good transit as an alternative in some parts of the city.As for “electric vehicle incentives”, this consists of a provincial giveaway to new vehicle buyers, not a widespread availability of the infrastructure needed to operate these vehicles. A significant part of Toronto’s good score is its low air pollution which has much more to do with changes in industrial activity in southern Ontario and the midwestern USA than it does with transit policy.
Under “Profit” (which deals with financial issues), Toronto ranks poorly at 86th and a score of 31.9%.
- Commuting Travel Time: 60th / 45.2%
- Economic Opportunity: 25th / 58.7%
- Public Finance: 74th / 14.5%
- Efficiency of Road Networks: 94th / 14.6%
- Affordability of Public Transit: 85th / 34.7%
- Utilization of the Transport System: 46th / 32.3%
Toronto’s low score here is clearly a combination of the relatively low level of public financial support and the low efficiency of the road network, something one must reasonably ask whether we should want to improve. Indeed, “efficiency” is measured as the maximum speed of the road network on the premise that higher speeds show that the roads can operate more safely. I am not sure this is a valid metric especially if one’s goal is to discourage rather than build travel by private auto.
Public financial support is measured against the operating budget, not capital, and Toronto ranks low on this score because so much of its revenue comes from the farebox. The affordability index measures the ratio of a monthly pass price to average monthly net earnings in the city, and Toronto has a high-priced Metropass compared to much of the rest of the world.
These scorings are not intended as an absolute measure, but as a way of providing a comparison across many cities. Toronto may do relatively well within the North American context, but it is still very much a car-oriented city compared to other parts of the world, and its fiscal policies are rules by keeping taxes down, not by constant improvements to transit service.
The Toronto Star article revealed that many TTC routes are overcrowded, although the degree to which this is so and the time of day when it occurs varies across the system. The following two files contain the raw data as provided by the TTC, and charts showing the percentages of overcrowding by time period.
Overcrowded routes 2017-10-25 Data
Overcrowded routes charts 2017-10-25
These data do not appear in published reports, but they should be part of the CEO’s Report to indicate the degree to which the system is falling short of the Board-approved Service Standards (see section 3.2, p. 10). The TTC, after all, prides itself on being a customer-focussed organization.
Where there is only a slight difference between the average load and the standard, one might be tempted to let things be. However, a critical factor not included in the data is the degree to which individual vehicle loads vary from the hourly averages. This is an aspect of service which can be quite sensitive to service quality and bunching, with the trailing vehicles running half empty while leaders of bunches are crammed. The difference between the “average” rider experience and the “typical” one can be quite substantial.
The standards are intended to allow for this effect in that there is “elbow room” to accommodate small variations in average loads. However, when service is erratic, this leeway is insufficient, and the crowding on lead vehicles, coupled with the extra wait endured for them to arrive, make for a less than ideal experience. Indeed, a route might have average loads within standards but typical riding experience of crowded, irregular service.
Finally, the TTC is fond of saying that it cannot run more service because it has no spare vehicles. This only applies to peak services, however, when the fleet is stretched thin. For off-peak services, the real issue is that the TTC is pinching pennies on service, operating considerably less of it this year than they had originally planned. That’s a political decision, one that says a lot about the kind of city we live in.
There are many factors by which a transit system and a city could be measured, and these will always come with a set of caveats, long footnotes to explain how the numbers work, and how to filter out the oddballs among them.
That said, there is an important place for seeing the transit system through the eyes of its riders and the city through the eyes of its residents. This is not necessarily the same as a more narrow view of attainment of management goals, or of reviews that only look at the tourist version of a city rather than its many neighbourhoods.
Some unknown ‘transit expert” is quoted in the Star. He seems to be onto something, must see if he has more to say….!
Steve: I added a paragraph near the end to pick up on this point:
One reason that the front vehicle of a bunch gets the crowd is my experience that the second or third vehicle is more likely to be short turned (at least my experience quite a few years ago).
Steve: Yes! Riders can never expect where the second, third etc vehicles will actually go, and so they get on the first one, relatively secure in knowing that if it is short turned, they can drop back to the following car.
When I first moved to Toronto I always wondered why they did not short-turn the leading car in a ‘convoy” – now I have lived here for a while I realise that the TTC seldom puts the customer first (or, maybe, just does not think about the customer).
Steve: Actually they prefer to let the first car go through and short turn it on its return trip unless this fouls up a crew change. The problem is more the uncertainty for following cars and how effectively their passengers are shifted onto “through” cars without waiting.
I come from a small country in Europe called Catalonia. I have also lived in many other countries including Spain, Germany, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Canada. Out of all those places that I have lived in, I can assure you that the TTC is by far the most incompetent transit agency.
I forgot to mention Hong Kong with it’s awesome transit but Hong Kong is part of China.
I also forgot to mention Austria but Austria is pretty much Germany (both have awesome transit and everything else).
I’m sure you have answered this somewhere in the myriad postings/responses to readers on this site, but I’ve always wondered why there seem to be so many short turns taking place. I understand in emergency situations where, for example, streets or streetcar tracks are blocked due to accidents, road construction, fires, gas leaks, TIFF festival red carpet events(!), etc., there is no choice but to re-route vehicles or turn them around until the incident is resolved. I suppose I can also see a situation where, for example, a school is letting out and sufficient vehicles must be in place to address the resulting volumes for that short period of time.
But are there actual PLANNED short turns? I mean, I know that the occasional bus that passes my building will only be travelling to the major street located to the south (a distance of 1/8 of the entire return-trip route length) before turning around, but it SAYS SO on the bus banner so all riders can see and decide if that is far enough for them to make their trip or for a connection or if they should wait for the next bus coming along.
The TTC have to know that several among a group of passengers waiting for a vehicle won’t board it if it shows a short turn, meaning the next vehicles will be more crowded, which makes passengers more frustrated. However, even *more* frustrating would be to be on a bus or streetcar, trucking along and then suddenly having to rearrange your planning because a short turn is called en route. It was particularly frustrating for me when I first moved to the city to be riding the subway to work towards Downsview (the “old” Downsview at Sheppard Ave./Allen Rd. – the one now called Sheppard West) and to then hear “This train will be going out of service at Wilson. Please leave the train.” all the while thinking how I’d be missing my connecting bus during the 10-minute wait for the following train and should I spend the extra $15-$20 going upstairs to catch a cab or risk being late…. I know that the “out of service” thing may be for particular system reasons and it isn’t technically a “short turn” but, for me, the result was the same as far as a disruption to my schedule and commute.
So, I go back to my original thoughts as to why short turns are effected, what the TTC’s reasons are for implementing as many as there are – and have been in the past – and why the TTC doesn’t seem to be worried that this can affect ridership and the mentality of riders with regards to trusting the system that should be serving their needs during their daily commutes and just getting around the city. Thanks!
Steve: The actual volume of unplanned short turns has been falling in recent years (although not to zero). You can see the stats in the recent CEO’s report which I wrote up in my article on the last TTC Board meeting.
There are planned short turns for route branches, but these are signed as you said. Also, there are running-in trips on the subway that don’t go to the terminus typically eastbound to Greenwood (for the riders, the short turn is at Pape and the trains are usually signed), and northbound to Wilson (I see these less often, but have seen trains signed for this). Of course there is the scheduled subway short turn at Glencairn in the AM peak.
Beyond that, trains occasionally go “out of service” to short turn at various locations to get back on time, although the amount of this has been reduced by having operators swap trains, in effect short turning the crew without short turning the vehicles.
Short turns make sense if they fill in gaps. Without the short turn, the gap keeps growing since the leading vehicle, as stated by Steve, will stop and every stop and quickly become overcrowded, falling yet further behind.
Unfortunately the TTC’s short turns aren’t necessarily effective in filling in gaps.
As for not short-turning the lead vehicle, the riders on that one have probably waited the longest, and aren’t going to appreciate being put back on the second or third vehicle.
I have anecdote to share. Last Friday night (Saturday morning actually) at 2 AM I was waiting at Yonge and York Mills to make sure my sister-in-law got on board the Blue Night route safely. After 20 minutes or so, a convoy of three buses showed up, the first one packed with standees of course, followed immediately by its more lightly loaded companion, with the 3rd bus pulling up a minute or so later. As a long time regular reader (and first time poster) of Steve’s wonderful blog, I know all about the issue of bunching, but I would not have imagined that this would occur at 0200 when the buses basically have the road network all to themselves with very few motorists, delivery trucks, parked vehicles, bicycles etc to blame for their line management issues!
Steve: Yes, even the night buses cannot run to schedule. I had hoped to do an analysis of their operation last year, but it turns out that the data collection system goes down at about 3 am on many days and the extracts from the tracking system were useless. I am hoping for a better arrangement with the new “VISION” system now in the early stages of deployment, but that’s going to take a while.
Steve has been posting his reviews of the performance of various bus and streetcar lines on this blog with a detailed analysis that includes the times of day, weather conditions, changes in routes, on-street delays and vehicle shortages, among other things. Invariably, the majority of issues seem to have been caused by improper flow management, insufficient vehicles, or uncaring management or a combination of these three by TTC brass of the on-the-street vehicles to adhere to “schedules” to address anticipated volumes to keep customers “happy.” Steve has even posted webshots on his Twitter account of Next-Bus-type real-time images of transit vehicles and how they are not of sufficient quantity or are spread out across the route with visible bunching in certain areas and no service at all for the foreseeable future in others.
And, yes, some of this is Bombardier’s new streetcar delays; some of it is Council/TTC Board budgeting (including the Rob-Ford-era “We don’t need money for transit – especially *streetcars* ” – penny-pinching attitude that hasn’t been fully reversed); and I’m sure some of it is just the crap that comes with running a huge transit system in a big city.
The problem with most of the folks sitting on the TTC Board and on Toronto City Council – and I mean absolutely no disrespect to Steve’s hard work in doing the analysis that actually SHOWS what the problems ARE and is provided with suggestions on how to fix them – is that I can already see the glazed-over looks from the likes of Councillors Vincent Crisanti, Glenn De Baeremaeker and Denzil Minnan-Wong as they look at this information and say, “Well, TTC Brass tell us that it’s traffic and there’s nothing to be done and there’s no money in the budget for more vehicles or drivers or ….” Steve almost has to have little cartoon pictures of sad buses with sad-faced passengers to “show” what the problem is and just forget all about those numbers and stats and budget proposals and stuff. Like Steve has said, the TTC Board has to be all sunshine and unicorns when it comes to money and service and passenger satisfaction.
SO – it seems that, to supplement Steve’s hard work at number-crunching and data analysis, Raymond needs to be taking a video of this bus mini-parade while ensuring the camera’s/phone’s Date/Time stamp is visible in order to present it to the TTC Board and other city councillors to say, “LOOK! This is what passes for transit “management” in this city. And picture it if it’s pouring rain or freezing cold and you’ve just missed this mini-parade of 3 vehicles and are now waiting for the *next* one to take you somewhere. When is *it* going to show up?”
And then maybe a whole pile of “Raymonds” need to be taking videos of similar situations on a regular basis to “prove” to the Doubting-Thomas budget hawks of TTC-Board-land and Council that no, service is not adequate and what passes for “good” – well, it AIN’T. How is it that if drivers complain about the Gardiner Expressway or the DVP, the Public Works Committee and Council seem to fall all over themselves to fix whatever the problem is, at whatever the cost while transit users almost DO have to have video proof of the stupidity of the system to even get a hint of interest – and even then, there’s no guarantee of anything happening, because, well, you know, the money thing… (oh, and Councillors don’t use transit, so they really don’t care).
Best Transit System Awards? Adequate transit for a constantly growing city? Time for the little boy to shout out that the Emperor has no clothes.
Steve: There is a catch 22 in pointing out the bad line management – bunched vehicles represent wasted capacity, and if only the TTC would manage the service better, they would not need more of it. Or so goes the penny-pincher’s argument. Of course what the TTC may need is managers who don’t look for the first, quick, non-TTC “problem” to blame for their service being a mess even under ideal conditions.
Andy Byford came to Toronto from England and Australia. Wonder who is waiting in the wings, come from other than North America, England, or Australia? What would someone from Spain, Germany, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, or Thailand say should they get the top job, but end up without the resources those originating countries give their transit agencies?
They’ll probably not accept, if they saw what the TTC has backing them.
Seems to me a little GPS technology could solve the problem. A GPS unit on the bus could kick in a speed governor when bus B gets too close to bus A.
And why can’t a fully crush loaded bus run express (or no pick up, signaled stops only) to the station or transfer point where the load gets off and let the bumper hugger 2nd bus earn it’s keep? Yes seeing a full bus go buy or not let me on is annoying, but there is no room to get on anyway so…
Bottom line it comes down to management – with all the reporting, a basic passenger count on a crowded bus should signal the manager they need to keep the spacing and they should act.
Or due to penny pinching are there now fewer line/route supervisors than there used to be?
Steve: On rare occasions I have been on vehicles that have been instructed to hold to space out the service, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
Yet another anecdotal response to the discussion of bunching: around 22:20 I was walking the dog a couple of blocks along Lakeshore Blvd. as part of his evening constitutional. In the approximately 5 minutes it took me to walk about 400m, *6* westbound 501L buses passed me! And as I turned off Lakeshore, I could see the lights of at least 1 more not more than a minute away.
I’m pretty sure that that route isn’t scheduled for 1 minute headways, “Frequent Service” notwithstanding, much less during evening service…
Steve: Yes, the 501L bus service is a disgrace for bunching, not to mention long waits at Roncesvalles for crew changes. One big problem is that the buses have far too much running time to deal with conditions when portions of the route are blocked by construction and there is severe traffic congestion.
The TTC seems to do little to manage replacement shuttle services wherever they run, especially at off hours. During the daytime, I have seen route supervisors out at Long Branch dispatching the service.
I was waiting for an eastbound 501L at Thirty First yesterday evening, around 6 PM. In my fifteen-plus minute wait, at least six 501L buses went by westbound, four in a tight group. Eventually the third or fourth bus in that parade showed up with another bus right behind it. Where all those other buses went, I don’t know.
During the whole time, I listened to the complaints of a lady who found it incredible that the buses never come, and then they come three or four at a time, and what kind of management is this? “Now I am late for work!” she said.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was on my way to a transit advocacy meeting. 😦
I looked at the APTA thing in more detail, and it might actually make sense in the end. Toronto won in the category of agencies with over 20M trips, and there isn’t that much competition. The New York subway is currently considered a disaster zone of constant underinvestment where everything is regularly falling apart. I’m not too familiar with the Montreal Metro. I think it’s improving, but they were starting from a state of crumbling subway tunnels only a few years ago. The Washington system had to shut down entirely for a few days due to a broken safety culture. Didn’t the Vancouver transit system lose a vote for more funding because suburban residents were so disgusted at the poor level of service they received?
Given the competition, the TTC might actually be doing ok.
As a practical matter, it’s not such a simple solution, especially in the downtown core. If your Google Maps has ever gone haywire going to the ACC, you know what I mean. Whether it’s a physical solution, employee directive, or active management, the decision that it’s a problem to be solved is the first step that we’re missing. Short-turns were reduced by padding the schedule, when it might have been better to say “wait a light cycle if you can see the next vehicle” or some equivalent. The bottom line seems to be the bottom line, not the best service per dollar spent.
Steve: The whole business with surface route scheduling and management is a good example of “managing to the metric”. The goal is “reduced short turns” and so they are achieved by issuing edicts and padding schedules which has some unwanted effects I have discussed elsewhere. Then there’s the “on time performance” which is now measured only at terminals, and is so generous as to be laughable on the TTC’s headways. Even then, they are not close to hitting their target even after gerrymandering the metric to be as easy a success as possible.
On the other hand, I found Sustainable Cities Mobility Index doesn’t really translate into having a good/bad/big/small transit system, but basically penalized cities for their historical structure. The first third was “people” which was transit stop density and transit use modal splits (Toronto was 65th). The second third was “environment” (Toronto was 32nd) which is city based, not transit based. The third third was “profit” based on modal splits (again), affordability, and “commitment to improving infrastructure”. I’m not sure why Vancouver is 8th and Toronto is 86th on this metric. It’s a flat fare vs. 3 zones; 34% transit use vs. 21%; and if Vancouver is outspending us, I’m going to do a spit take.
Steve: I published the Sustainable Cities piece as much to show how not every press release should be taken at face value. I really got the impression that the consultants who put together the rankings did not fully understand the cities they looked at. Another big problem is that the positional ranks told us nothing about the numerical scores for which one had to dig on their website. In some cases, many cities were tied for the same value, but still “ranked” as if they were better or worse. This is just bad reporting to the point of incompetence.
I really think that the sponsors of this report are looking to sell their consulting “expertise” and this might be considered a “business development” exercise.
Perhaps the best thing to say about an *American* Public Transportation Association award is that it’s like doing the best in the remedial class. Toronto wins because the US systems all suck so badly, and the other Canadian systems haven’t been particularly impressive lately.
At this point world-class transportation systems exist in China, Japan, Russia, and most of Europe. Mediocre systems exist in North America.
The TTC’s recent accomplishments, while not impressive by world standards, beat the pants off the recent accomplishments of the systems in New York City (hah), Boston, Philadelphia, DC, Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Sacramento, San Francisco, and arguably Chicago and Los Angeles as well.
For all your problems, we wish we had management as good as you do at our urban rail systems. 😦
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Rather like winning a less stupid award?