My recent article for NOW Toronto, TTC Bus Service Losing Ground, reviewed the problem of passenger congestion on TTC bus routes and the long-standing failure of service to keep up with the rising population and employment in Toronto. This article presents the details and the wider context.
When Transit City was proposed back in 2007, the TTC expected that over the course of its implementation a large number of buses would be replaced by an LRT network that would, by today, be substantially complete. In turn, this would reduce the need for new bus storage and maintenance facilities because the growth would occur in suburban LRT barns at the Mount Dennis yard on the Eglinton line, on Finch near Highway 400, and on Sheppard East at Conlins Road.
One new garage was planned in Scarborough, although the project was delayed by Mayor Rob Ford. The garage on McNicoll will finally open late in 2020. However, the demand for storage space at existing overcrowded garages simply means that McNicoll will be full the day it opens and the TTC will be back in a situation where fleet expansion requires garages to have more buses than they were designed for. A ninth bus garage sits in the long term plans with a 2031 opening date, but there is no funding for it and the TTC has yet to identify a potential property. They will remain short of garage space for the coming decade.
This creates an odd sort of response to requests for more service: we have no place to store the buses. That, of course, is a chicken-and-egg situation where the TTC (and the City) can avoid the cost of providing more service by claiming that they couldn’t run more buses if they wanted to. Unfortunately, this does not accelerate the provision of more garage space, and the service vs storage deadlock remains.
The amount of service the TTC fields every day is affected by several factors:
- the size of the fleet
- the average capacity of a bus
- the average age and reliability of the fleet
- the proportion of the fleet needed for maintenance spares
- the number of buses required to supplement the streetcar network
- the number of buses reserved for extra service, especially to handle subway emergencies
- the budget for service
As the TTC migrated from a fleet of high-floor to low-floor buses, the capacity of vehicles dropped by about ten percent. This meant that more buses were required to provide the same level of service, a process that occurred gradually until late 2015 when the last of the high-floor buses were retired. Conversely, low-floor two-section articulated buses can carry about 50% more passengers than a standard bus. These vehicles began to appear in the TTC’s fleet in 2014, but they make up less than 10% of the fleet today. The only planned expansion is for the TTC to buy 68 more in 2021.
Older buses tend not to work as reliably as young ones, and if a fleet is not regularly replaced, a higher proportion of it can fall into those “twilight years” when maintenance needs are higher and buses are more likely to fail in service. The TTC used to keep its buses for about 18 years and overhauled them twice during their lifespan. The argument for this was that the overhauls were cheaper than simply buying a new bus.
However, the bus building industry no longer produces vehicles with a long intended lifespan, and 12 years is a more common retirement age. This also avoids the need for that second overhaul to keep an older bus on the street.
The TTC has shifted to a 12 year replacement cycle for buses, and took advantage of federal “stimulus” funding to replace many older vehicles that otherwise would have remained in service. This gets over the one time “hump” of changing to a shorter life-cycle, but it also accelerates the need for ongoing spending because the annual replacement rate is now 50% higher – about 180 buses per year, rather than 120. This budget effect is compounded by the shift to more expensive hybrid or all-electric vehicles.
The newer generation of buses is also more technically complex, and a larger proportion of the fleet is required for spares to ensure that maintenance is preventative, fix-before-break work rather than gambling that a bus will continue to run even after it should have come into the shop for a check-up. A few years ago, the TTC changed its maintenance practices so that buses cycled through routine inspection and repair more frequently with the aim of reducing in-service failures. This had the desired effect, but at a cost of taking a larger maintenance pool from the fleet than in past years.
Finally, new buses often go through retrofit programs during their warranty period, and this further increases spare requirements if there is a sudden influx of new buses in a short time period.
That’s just the story on the maintenance side, but there is also the dreaded line whenever service is discussed: “subject to budget availability”. In other words, even if there are enough buses to improve service, there may not be the operating budget dollars (and the drivers this would pay) to actually field more vehicles.
Both the streetcar and subway networks make demands on the bus fleet.
It is no secret that the TTC has had problems with both its old and new streetcar fleets, but the biggest problem now is that growing demand on the streetcar routes exceeds the capacity of the new streetcar fleet.
- When there were too few streetcars to operate that network, buses substituted to make up the difference.
- Traffic congestion continues to worsen leading to slower service.
- Construction projects shut down parts of the streetcar network from time to time.
At various times over recent years, there have been buses running on portions of Carlton, Dundas, Queen, King, Kingston Road and Bathurst. Some of these cases have been complete replacements while others are on portions of lines affected by construction.
With the streetcar shortage, construction work provided a rationale to bus a route and free up vehicles, but this grew beyond beyond construction season to semi-permanent replacements.
During the summer, the TTC has surplus vehicles and streetcar substitutions do not affect the availability of buses on bus routes.
Long-running projects (such as the water main reconstruction on Dundas) and route conversions due to a shortage of streetcars (such as on Kingston Road) are another matter. These take buses away from the bus network during the peak season. That said, the number of buses involved has been overplayed in some circles primarily as a way of carping about the Bombardier cars or about streetcars in general.
Subway shuttles place their greatest demand on the bus fleet when emergencies occur during the peak period. There are some vehicles at each garage that are “run as directed” buses, but these are nowhere near enough to make up for losing a busy part of the subway system. If there is a peak period shuttle, it requires not just the spare buses but vehicles and operators “borrowed” from other routes.
There is always a balancing act between having enough spare buses and staff to drive them for most emergencies, and the cost of having unused resources that are always a target for the budget hawks looking for “waste” in the TTC.
All of these factors affected and constrained the growth in bus service over the past decade, and will continue to do so without a significant change in TTC planning and funding policy.
Evolution of Bus Network Capacity
The chart below shows the number of buses in service during the AM peak period.
The green portion of the bars show the articulated bus fleet from 2014 onward, and the red portion shows the buses dedicated to streetcar lines. Note that the TTC bus fleet is over 2,000 vehicles, but the scheduled service sits at about 1,600. This shows that the TTC has a spare ratio of at least 25% which is high by industry standards. For every four buses in service, one is in maintenance. This begs the question of whether the worst of the worst buses in the fleet ever get out of the yard.
The chart below is an adjusted version with each articulated bus counting for 1.5 standard sized vehicles. The green band is wider, but not by much. Of particular note is the fact that the top of the green band (the capacity of buses operating on bus routes) has not changed very much. This is a direct result of the limit on fleet growth and the high proportion of spares.
The afternoon peak fares somewhat better because there are fewer vehicles in service then compared to the morning. This means that there is more headroom for service growth without expanding the fleet.
Another way to look at these data is to plot the capacity of scheduled service to a base year. The chart below uses February 2014, six years ago, as a reference. To put this in a political context:
- 2010: The last year of David Miller’s mayoralty
- 2011-2014: The years of the Rob Ford mayoralty (yes, the election was in fall 2010, but the effects of a new administration take a while to show up in budgets and agency plans)
- 2015-2018: John Tory’s first term as mayor.
- 2019-present: John Tory’s second term.
Even during the Ford era, there was some growth in the capacity of TTC bus service, although this was in part due to a budgetary windfall the TTC had and they could afford to improve service.
Growth during the Tory era has been slow, especially for AM peak service thanks to the constraints on fleet size and the allocation of new vehicles to priorities like maintenance, not to additional service. The only significant network change occurred in December 2017 when the Vaughan subway extension opened.
A Publicity Shell Game
Some years ago, the TTC Board told management “build us an express bus network”, and in due course the 900-series of bus routes came to be. There was only one small problem: almost all of the routes were identical to the “E” branches of existing routes. They had a new brand and colour, but very little actual change in service.
Recently, I updated the history of the 900 services to show changes since they were introduced. In several cases, service is less frequent now thanks to schedule changes in the name of “reliability”. To put this another way, the TTC tried to make some express buses too “express” and drivers could not keep up with the scheduled travel times. The fix was simply to run the same buses on wider headways (the interval between buses) and thereby extend the travel times at no cost.
The TTC trumpeted the express bus network, but in almost every case, it was a case of business as usual, not a real improvement.
Throughout 2019 the TTC made schedule changes on many routes in the name of service reliability. There were two motivations for these changes:
- increased traffic congestion
- a desire to schedule service so that most buses under most conditions would be able to make their trips without being short turned
These are valid goals on their face, but in the majority of cases they were achieved by running buses further apart in order to lengthen trip times. For example, if 10 buses run every five minutes on a route, then the round trip time is 50 minutes. If they run every six minutes, the round trip is 60 minutes giving them 20% more time, but at the expense of a 20% cut in service capacity. If one wanted to maintain the 5 minute frequency, but with the longer travel time, then 2 more buses would be needed.
The TTC argues that the “before” service would already be performing worse than the scheduled value and, therefore, the change would not be as great as it appears. However, wider headways combine with the typical irregularity of service to mask any benefit. Moreover, the goal of reduced short turns benefits riders on the portions of routes where fewer or no short turns makes for better service, but at the expense of overall line capacity.
Also, when travel times are more than most trips will actually require, drivers have less incentive to stay on time because they can always make up time from the padded schedule. There is a trade-off in that schedules with more generous times allow service to reach the terminal even under poor conditions (bad weather, unusual congestion along the route).
However, this tactic is driven by the two measures reported for service quality:
- the number of short turns
- on time performance
These do not give a full overview of service quality along a route, but the schedules are built to make those numbers look good. This provides “improvements” on paper, but not necessarily for service overall.
A related issue is crowding. If buses are scheduled to run less frequently, then more riders are on each vehicle. This strains route capacity and, in some cases, pushes crowding beyond TTC standards. There has been talk at TTC Board meetings about a regular crowding report, but nothing has appeared yet.
The actual changes in bus schedules for 2019 were reviewed in a series of articles on this site broken down geographically across the city.
Buses on Streetcar Routes
The need for buses to supplement or replace streetcars on some routes is often cited as one reason service cannot grow. This is misleading because (a) the number of buses allocated to streetcar service is low relative to the fleet, and (b) that number has declined from its peak. If the buses now used for streetcar route service went back to the bus network, they would only provide a one-time 4% capacity increase. This assumes that the buses would actually find their way to bus routes rather then being retired.
Current plans for bus replacements are:
- March 29, 2020:
- Streetcar service returns to 505 Dundas supplemented by some peak period bus trippers.
- Streetcars removed from 511 Bathurst for construction projects.
- Spring-Summer 2020:
- Streetcars removed from 506 Carlton for construction projects.
- 505 Dundas route shortened due to construction on Dundas west of Lansdowne.
- 503 Kingston Road route reverts to streetcar operation between Bingham Loop (Victoria Park) and Charlotte Loop (at Spadina & King).
This basically shuffles streetcars around between routes where they can operate, but does not drive up the bus requirements. In any event, much of this period corresponds to the summer holiday interval when there are many spare buses.
The Five Year Service Plan and Ten Year Outlook
The TTC has a plan for where its services are headed, and I reviewed it in detail a few months ago. While this plan looks good as a glossy document, it is not an aggressive attempt to build transit’s role for mobility in Toronto.
The anticipated total ridership for 2019 is 525.3 million. Within a five year horizon to 2024, the plan aims at ridership growth to 560 million in 2024. This is a compound annual growth rate of about 1.25%. This will keep up with population and employment growth, but will not shift many more riders to transit.
The peak bus fleet is planned to grow by about 80 vehicles (about 5%), but two other changes will free up vehicles for redeployment within the network:
- The opening of Line 5 Crosstown will release between 50-60 buses from the Eglinton corridor for use on other routes.
- The planned purchase of additional streetcars will reduce, although not necessarily eliminate, the need for buses on streetcar routes.
A key point will be whether the TTC (and City Council) treat the replacement of buses by expanded rail operations as a chance to improve service elsewhere, or instead as a chance to cut the size of the fleet and save on operating costs. Opening Line 5 is projected to add substantially to the TTC’s net budget (the portion paid for through subsidy), and there will be a strong temptation to “save” money by retiring rather than redeploying buses no longer needed for the Eglinton corridor.
The ten year outlook makes no mention of a ninth bus garage for future growth because it currently lies just beyond the plan’s horizon in 2031. However, planning and construction must begin within this decade, and that would have to be accelerated if a more aggressive growth policy were attempted on the transit system.
TTC management does not intend to revisit this plan until mid-2021 for the 2022 budget cycle.
In the short term, the political emphasis lies with rapid transit projects and the provincial plan for new routes: the Ontario line (aka Relief line), the Eglinton West LRT subway, the Richmond Hill extension of Line 1, and the Scarborough Subway extension. For these projects, Queen’s Park hopes that the federal government will make a 40% capital contribution, but it is not clear whether this will happen, nor how much these projects will crowd out other capital needs.
The recently approved City Building Fund includes money for buses and streetcars, but only one third of the total needed on the assumption other governments will each chip in a third. The buses this money will buy primarily will go to replacing older vehicles, not expanding service. The need to buy about 180 buses a year just to stand still takes big bite out of capital budgets, especially with buses now costing $1.0 to $1.5 million each for green technology.
A constant problem in TTC planning is the reticence to “think big” in the name of fiscal sustainability. For many years, this produced capital budgets that hid billions of dollars in necessary projects lest politicians were terrified by the effect this would have on taxes either directly, or through borrowing. Operating budget projections ignored the cost of substantial system expansion.
The result was a mindset that transit cannot be expanded because it is “too expensive”.
The capital plan unveiled in 2019 shook the ground under the city’s financial planners, not to mention Council, but at least it gave a sense of the spending actually needed. Even at that, the plans for surface service are modest and, at the time it was published, did not account for additional costs of electrification of part or all of the bus network.
With the political focus on rapid transit, Toronto has no idea of what would be needed or what could be achieved if plans for the surface network aimed higher.