As the TTC ponders the future of transit service through a 5 and 10 year outlook, they seek public input on where transit should be going in the years ahead. The focus of this plan is the surface route network which is too often overlooked in the debates, political gamesmanship and pitched battles about rapid transit expansion. The City and Province routinely debate expansion projects with multi-billion dollar price tags, but invest little in the surface system that is essential to transit’s overall success.
There are 1.2 million people using the TTC’s surface transit (bus and streetcar) network every day. That’s 70% of the 1.7 million total number of people who take the TTC each day. [TTC website]
Many targets for improvement are included in the TTC’s work, but the basic provision of more and better service does not get the attention it deserves. For many years, thanks to tax-fighting limits on TTC growth going back to Mayor Ford and beyond, the TTC’s surface fleet grew slowly if at all. Fleet growth has gone, in part, to increasing the pool of spare buses for maintenance. Much scheduled service growth has been directed to replacing streetcars with buses and making allowance for slower traffic speeds and long-running construction projects such as the Crosstown.
|AM Peak Service||Buses||Streetcars|
For many years, the fundamental problem facing any call for better service is “we have no buses, we have no streetcars” compounded by “we have no garages”.
The political situation, historical and current, does not excuses total inaction. There are issues both inside and outside of the TTC that deserve debate: the relative importance of transit, motorists and other users of road space; the management of service so that riders receive something close to the quantity and quality advertised in schedules. However, there is no “magic bullet” that will improve transit painlessly without extra cost, management effort and realignment of transit’s political importance for more than big construction projects and photo ops.
The Plan will be developed in consultation with customers and stakeholders and:
- Identify key opportunities to improve transit services
- Evaluate and prioritize network-level service improvements
- Outline a five-year service-focused business plan
The Plan will also continue the TTC’s corporate focus on preparing transparent, multi-year plans and will:
- Set the foundation for future annual service plans
- Identify and link service-related operating and capital cost requirements
- Bridge the gap between the TTC’s near-term planning with long-term City and Provincial plans [p 1]
These are laudable goals, but there is a challenge for both TTC staff and for the Board: does the political will exist to produce a plan that aspires to a stronger role for transit complete with the costs and trade-offs this will require, or is Toronto afraid to contemplate anything beyond “business as usual” planning?
This is not simply a question of buying vehicles and building more garages, but of recognizing that the compound effect of population growth and more service will drive up costs faster than inflation. When the political goal is to limit fare, subsidy and tax increases, the TTC is challenged to maintain the existing service, let alone improve to address latent demand and the widespread sense that transit is not “The Better Way”.
The transit wish lists among existing riders and those who use other modes is not the same for obvious reasons. Riders want a better travel environment and service, while non-riders want fast, cheaper ways to get around. However, both groups agree on five targets: reliability, crowding, wait time, trip duration and affordability. That list says something about the quality of what is now on offer.
Far too often, calls for better transit meet with the response “we can’t afford it”, and this precludes even a study to determine what might or might not be possible. That was the strength of the Ridership Growth Strategy of March 2003. That study provided a menu of possible system improvements together with costs and potential benefits. Simply having that menu told us all what might be done should resources become available. Without such a strategy, asking for transit changes is akin to walking into a restaurant where your dinner order must await a study to find out what might be available.
In August 2014, the TTC report Opportunities to Improve Transit Service in Toronto proposed several changes many of which are now in place, most recently the two-hour transfer.
The 2019 work will “… focus on near-term improvements that can be delivered within five years that enhance the TTC’s core-competency, mass transit …”. [p 1]
Five “opportunities” for improvement are:
- Improve surface transit schedules
- Prioritize transit on key surface transit corridors
- Enhance the customer experience at key surface transit stop areas
- Provide new connections with new higher-order transit services
- Accelerate integration with regional transit agencies and complementary modes of transport [p 2]
A troubling omission in this list is explicitly the provision of better transit service. Improving schedules and providing transit priority can bring better efficiency to provision of transit, but there is no actual goal to increase transit capacity. “Customer experience” at major stops will improve, but there is nothing here about their experience once on board a vehicle.
The TTC’s Corporate Plan includes five critical paths including “Move more customers reliably”. However, it also includes “Transform for financial sustainability”. These are competing goals especially when just keeping the lights on may require decisions to cut or constrain growth plans.
This competition is made explicit by two sections side-by-side in the report.
The Plan will continue the TTC’s corporate focus on preparing transparent, customer-facing, multi-year plans that:
- Set the foundation for future annual service plans that will outline, in-detail, service improvements for the upcoming year;
- Identify and link service-related operating and capital cost requirements over a five-year period which will provide the public, the TTC Board and elected officials with a transparent blueprint; and
- Bridge the gap between the TTC’s near-term transit planning with long-term population and employment growth projections, rapid transit plans and the Official Plan.
The Plan will also strive to be realistic in the actions it identifies to ensure what is being planned can be delivered. This includes planning within the constraints of the TTC Operating Budget and Capital Budget. As such, the Plan will be developed noting the following key financial assumptions over the next five-years:
- Operating Budget: The TTC 2020 Operating Budget will increase to account for the annualized cost associated with implementing new service in 2019 only. Between 2021 and 2024, multiple funding scenarios will be prepared to account for a range of possible funding scenarios from a -1% to +1% change in the Operating Budget.
- Capital Budget: The availability of fleet including buses, streetcars and subway trains and facilities will generally align with the TTC Capital Investment Plan, noting that vehicle requirements across all modes are predominantly unfunded and any new procurement for buses, streetcars and subway trains cannot be achieved beyond 2021 based on current available funding. [pp 3-4]
If the opening premise is that costs will grow by at most 1%, then “we can’t afford it” becomes a filter that will screen out options before they even reach the discussion phase. To put this in context, the two-hour fare was estimated to have a $20 million effect on the TTC’s operating budget. That is over 1% of the gross budget of $1.9 billion, and over 3% of the $622 million operating subsidy. A two-hour fare would be knocked off of the table if a 1% filter decided which options were even considered, let alone proposed for implementation.
It is telling that the two-hour fare was finally introduced in part as an inducement for riders to switch to Presto, but the comparable change in operating cost for opening the Vaughan subway extension was never an issue during budget debates.
The gaping hole in this report is an aspirational view of transit. What might it look like if only there were the will to make it better? If there is a cost, at least let everyone know what it might be and what will be needed to bring about improvement.
Looking Back Ten Years
The TTC’s performance relative to the city as a whole over the past decade is not impressive. Ridership is falling on both a per capita and per service hour basis. This trend did not start only yesterday, but is a multi-year problem. Even when total ridership was rising, the rate of growth dropped year by year eventually going negative. The TTC celebrated the growth, but ignored the declining trend.
Over the last ten years, population has grown and as such so has the annual service hours that the TTC operates. Since 2015, the TTC has implemented a number of service initiatives that have increased access to service at all times of day to reflect the vibrancy of the city the TTC serves. Some of these initiatives include: Line 1 extension to Vaughan, express bus services, All-Day Every-Day network and the overnight network. [p 6]
While initiatives to improve service are worth touting, these points require some context:
- The Vaughan subway extension improves transit access to the northwest, notably to York University, but a large proportion of its riders were already on the TTC, and demand beyond the University is not strong.
- The Express Bus services are almost entirely a rebranding of existing routes (the “E” branches and the 180/190 Rockets) into the new 900 series of routes, but with very little new service. On many routes, the “new” and “old” express services are the same.
- The All-Day network was originally created under Mayor Miller, then dismantled under the Ford cutbacks, and then reinstated under Mayor Tory.
- Most of the overnight routes already existed in 2008, but in 2015 several routes were added to fill in gaps in the network.
The report cites transit growth as leading economic growth:
Residential growth in the city, along with other factors such as road congestion and the increasing cost of vehicle ownership, is occurring in a manner that will increase demand for transit in the city at a rate that exceeds population growth. This relationship has been observed since the adoption of the Official Plan in 2003. Since 2001, population and employment grew at 0.6% and 0.9% per annum respectively, while TTC ridership grew 1.7%. Annual service plans will quantify these growth “hot spots” to identify potential service improvements. [p 6]
The relative growth numbers here do not align with the table above probably due to a different base of comparison. The table shows transit losing ground, while nearby text in the report shows transit growing faster than population and jobs.
Where is Development Happening?
Maps of locations where development is happening are telling for the concentration of activity, and for the large areas with relatively little built or in the pipeline. Particularly troubling are areas that are already, comparatively speaking, transit deserts in the northeast and northwest of the city. This is not to say demand is absent, but if planning for improved service is driven by development activity, it could miss the latent need for better transit where there are already people, but without good transit to serve their travel needs. A closely related problem is the origin-destination patterns of potential riders who, the further one gets from downtown, the more likely their travel will not align with a downtown-focused transit network.
Improving Surface Transit Schedules
The TTC cites many changes in past years that were aimed at improving service.
Starting in 2015, the TTC has undertaken a multi-year, multi-faceted program to improve service reliability. The program includes the following initiatives:
- Route Management
- new practices to deliver reliable service (2015)
- Customer focused metrics (2015)
- Reliable schedules (2018)
- Centralized transit control centre
- Vehicle Reliability
- operate reliable vehicles to minimize in-service failures (2015 to 2019)
- 204 new low-floor streetcars (2015 to 2019)
- 1,180 new buses (2015)
- Optimum spare ratio (2015)
- Preventative maintenance programs (2017)
- Optimum bus life program
- Operating Practices
- secure additional vehicle and operator resources (2016)
- “Run-as-directed” vehicles (2018)
- Resilient workforce program
- leverage technology to make better decisions (2009)
- PRESTO (2018)
- Automatic passenger counter (APC) technology (2019)
- New CAD/AVL system
The service reliability program has resulted in significant improvements. Between 2016 and 2018, mean distance between failures has increased 100% (bus), short-turns have decreased by 33%, and on-time departures have increased by 5%. [p 10]
I have written about several items in this list, but a few deserve comment:
- The metrics used by the TTC to report on service quality are inadequate to showing what the typical rider experiences. This includes a focus on times at terminals, an “on time” metric that allows bunching as a routine part of service, and counting short turns with no regard to what they achieve [see Zero Short Turns Does Not Equal Better Service]. Crowding and the factors affecting it such as vehicle bunching are reported at only a summary level, if at all.
- The 1,180 new buses were purchased to soak up the federal Public Transit Infrastructure Fund phase 1 money and to allow early disposal of unreliable older buses, ironically many of them hybrids bought under an earlier federal program. The improvement in bus reliability is a compound effect of now having a very young fleet and of changing the spare ratio so that more preventative maintenance can be done. The longer term question is whether the improvements can be sustained as the fleet ages, and what the effect of a new generation of battery buses will be.
- CAD/AVL (Computer Aided Dispatch / Automated Vehicle Location) technology is now being implemented with the new VISION system. To date there has been no indication of how the TTC might use this to improve service regulation, and irregular service across the network remains a major problem both for vehicle crowding and for credibility of the advertised service level. Achieving this requires more than schedules that reflect actual operation conditions – it requires the recognition that service must actually be managed to hit targets that riders will see on the street.
Unfortunately, Toronto is a long way from having would-be TTC riders dancing in the streets, and despite the long list above, the TTC has a long way to go. A particular challenge is the fiscal and political environment where improvement is largely sought through “efficiency”, and the TTC revenue (fares and subsidies) is constrained below the combined rates of inflation and population/job growth. The problems are inevitably linked because better support for transit funding will only come if riders and non-riders alike can see better transit, but this is difficult without better service. A subway network a decade in the future makes for photo ops, but little to help transit in the short-to-medium term.
Reports on transit priority weigh down the bookshelves of transit activists and professionals around the city, but there is little to show for all of that work. There is a limited number of “diamond lanes” for bus priority, and motorists do not reliably observe them. Attempts to limit parking on transit routes run headlong into local businesses who fear bankruptcy if the space in front of their shop is unavailable even when it could do far better work for the city carrying traffic. A few streetcar routes have their own lanes although these are compromised by traffic signals than can actually slow rather than speed transit by giving priority to turning motor vehicles. Away from the core, where auto traffic is predominant, taking lanes for transit is not popular. Streetcars/LRT take the blame for this, but even a Bus Rapid Transit corridor would need road space for reserved lanes and loading islands at stops.
The map below shows routes carrying over 30,000 trips per day. Although many of these are clustered downtown, there are several in the suburbs notably on the main east-west corridors. This presentation skews the inclusion of routes because it ignores the trip density – how many people ride a service per route kilometre – and looks only at total passenger counts.
The underlying counts are in this table. As a simple example, three routes are shown below. Although its trip count is much lower, St. Clair is also a shorter route, and its trip density is not much below King which gets a lot more attention (at least now that the furor over the St. Clair right-of-way has died off). Lawrence East carries about the same ridership as St. Clair, but over a much longer route.
Other factors that affect density numbers is trip length, turnover (ons and offs along the route) and the degree of all-day and bi-directional demand. King shows very high counts because it has strong all-day demand between many neighbourhoods. The focus has been on the core area with the King Street Pilot, but demand is strong on other route segments as well. Riders there may not get the patios and the congestion free ride across downtown, but they do benefit from improved service reliability.
Very short routes automatically have a lot of turnover because riders cannot travel far before transferring. This creates anomalies such as the 64 Main bus which has a higher ridership density than 54 Lawrence East, although it has far fewer vehicles, service and riders. Kipling South does better than both of them and it is a route with strong demand between the subway and Humber College at Lake Shore Boulevard. This route has both express and local service.
My point here is that raw trip counts and other metrics can be deceiving about routes that deserve better priority in Toronto’s streets. In the map above, the absence of north-south routes is quite obvious, but is this a side effect of the relative length of these routes compared to the longer east-west ones?
|512 St. Clair||35,500||7||5,071|
|54 Lawrence E||36,900||27||1,367|
|64 Main||4,984 *||3.35||1,488|
|44 Kipling S||10,046 *||5.8||1,732|
(*) Count from 2016 Open Data report which is the most recently published. The value for Kipling South dates from a period when the express and local services shared the same route number.
Rider Experience at Transit Stops
The TTC looks to creature comforts at major stops as a way to improve the system, and maps out the heaviest locations for transfer movements. This is an intriguing collection considering that there are very high volumes for the transfers between Carlton, Dundas and Queen service with the Yonge subway and the Spadina streetcar, but the stops on King, the poster child for high demand don’t qualify. This is an indication of just how widely distributed the demand on King Street is.
Surface-to-surface transfer connections are no fun especially on wide suburban streets with little shelter. However, I suspect that if the criterion were lowered, many more stops would show up on this map.
The TTC compares these busy stops to the GO network:
To appreciate the magnitude of 4,500+ customer-trips per weekday, there are six GO Stations that exceed this threshold: Union, Clarkson, Oakville, Pickering, Ajax and Whitby. [p 16]
One might also note that there are fewer than 4,500 riders/day at six rapid transit stations including two on the extension from Sheppard West to Vaughan.
Enhancing the customer experience at key stop areas and other busy locations provides place-making opportunities to improve transit in the City. Enhancements at key stops include, but are not limited to, the provision of amenities and construction of operational improvements:
- Enhanced shelters which are larger, protected and heated
- Expanded and pleasant waiting areas
- Provision of real-time information communicating expected arrival times
- Provision of Wi-Fi for customers
- Construction of accessible platforms
- Expansion of on-street bus bays to accommodate multiple bus berths [p 16]
A great deal of this smacks of a very suburban commuter view of a transit stop where there is relatively infrequent service. Real estate for on street stops is hard to come by, and those 4,500+ riders will be divided between the four corners of an intersection for bus-to-bus connections unless locations are consolidated by making half of them farside so that they can share a shelter. Even that would be less than ideal because the shelter could not be physically beside both stops. (For example, a westbound nearside stop would be right at an intersection, but a connecting northbound farside stop would be some distance away.)
Real-time information is already available at many locations across the network, and it should be installed at far more than a handful of stops with very high demand.
If transit service at these locations were frequent, reliable and could accommodate demand, the “dwell time” of passengers would be low.
This is a half-baked proposal that does not address the fundamental problem with service frequency and reliability at major bus-to-bus connection points.
Connections to Higher Order Services
This extremely brief point drags in a familiar planning issue, the links between the surface and rapid transit networks. The map shows the 2024 configuration which will include 5 Eglinton and 6 Finch West, but will not include the extension of 2 Bloor-Danforth. This raises several key points, none of which are mentioned in the report.
First, because the TTC rapid transit stations are generally located at major intersections, they already connect with the surface network. Where they are “off of the grid”, and especially at terminals, there can be a “black hole effect” where surrounding routes are gerrymandered to feed into the terminal. This may help riders who are bound for the subway, but can severely impair the ability to make trips that do not align with the rapid transit network.
Second, GO stations tend to be in industrial areas because that is where railway corridors are located. Links between TTC routes and GO trains are difficult in most places. In some locations, a physical connection might be created (Dundas West to Bloor GO is the most glaring example), but at many places, connections are difficult because rail lines just are not in convenient transfer locations. Even without the physical problem of getting from route to route, there are the questions of GO service levels, available capacity and fare structure.
Third, although 2024 is just shy of its alleged opening date, there is the ever-present issue of SmartTrack. Which of its stations will actually be built, and how good will the service provided there be? This scheme was sold to voters by now-Mayor Tory on the basis of much more frequent service than GO now plans to operate, and with full transfer rights to and from the TTC. Without the service and fare integration, the justification for SmartTrack will collapse, but there could be an attempt to force-feed it by restructuring surface routes.
Continuing along the focus on commuter trips, the TTC proposes that there be better integration with services from the 905.
Residents of the GTHA routinely travel across municipal borders. Thirty-five percent of all AM peak period trips with either an origin or destination in Toronto cross the municipal boundary. Peak period transit travel is still heavily focused on the downtown core. Forty-six percent of all trips destined to Planning District 1 (downtown core) are made by transit. The transit mode share for the same period to all other areas of the city is only twenty percent. This Plan presents an opportunity to integrate service with neighbouring transit agencies to improve transit for existing customers and new riders that travel across municipal boundaries. [p 19]
A key phrase here is “peak period transit travel is still heavily focused on the downtown core”, and the relatively high transit mode share for PD1 compared to the rest of the city makes a brutal point about transit’s relevance to travelers in Toronto’s suburbs, never mind to and from the 905.
There is a fascination with making trips across the 416/905 boundary simpler and cheaper at both the TTC and Metrolinx, while we leave riders who simply want to get around inside of Toronto to fend for themselves. The plan is completely silent on the need to improve travel within Toronto where there is almost certainly a stronger market than in the outer suburbs of the 905.
The TTC must do a better job of reporting on what it is and is not achieving against today’s standards and any that might come in the future. This should not be an exercise in constructing “goals” and “metrics” that are easy to hit and which mask the day-to-day rider experience. The job here is to make management look good only if the transit system is truly superb. Gold stars should be earned and hard to come by.
Any plan which will focus on the surface system must address both the growing density downtown where riders flood from new buildings onto overcrowded streetcar lines, but also the large suburban bus network where there is an increasing demand for transit because the model of driving everywhere simply does not scale as population grows and demographics evolve.
Links to regional networks are important both to eliminate artificial boundaries and to exploit, to the degree practical, capacity in the commuter rail network. However, both of these bring complex problems of jurisdiction, service levels and fare subsidies where the TTC and City can only suggest, but not implement changes.
The TTC’s plan is, at present, a draft and will go through some modification based on public feedback. However, it risks aiming too low, seeking modest and, in some cases, superficial change. There is a real danger that the plan will be driven by budget considerations rather than starting with making transit “the better way” and then looking at what this might cost.
Tell Toronto what transit can do if only we have the will to try.