Transit Priority Lanes Can Help, But They Are No Panacea

At the TTC Board meeting on Wednesday, June 17, a motion by two councillor/commissioners, Brad Bradford and Jennifer McKelvie seeks to fast track the installation of five transit priority lanes that are part of the TTC’s 5-Year Service Plan.

They argue that buses are the workhorses of the transit system, and much can be done to assist with the city’s covid recovery by improving key parts of the bus network.

Bus service is already the workhorse of our transit system – moving over 260 million passengers a year and more people than any other transit mode pre-COVID. Buses have been critical in moving essential workers throughout the pandemic and they will play a critical role as ridership surges in the next stages of economic reopening…

This is a noble stance, one long overlooked by a political environment where promises of new subway lines a decade away take precedence over actually running better service now. However, there is a risk that the focus on buses will be undermined by expecting too much from comparatively simple interventions in how roads and transit actually work.

The bus priority transit corridors in the 5-Year Service Plan focus on parts of the city where our service has experienced more acute overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically for suburban transit-reliant communities.

Overcrowding was a serious problem on the TTC before the pandemic, but one would hardly know this by the rarity of TTC reports on the subject. For years, transit service has been strangled both by a shortage of buses and garage space, but also by a lack of urgency, a sense that everything was just fine. That suited a fiscal plan that spent little on expanding the bus fleet and concentrated instead on replacing the oldest and least reliable buses while constraining operating costs.

The TTC faces a difficult choice in coming months: should it run as much service as possible in order to maximize the space available to those riders who chose to return to transit, or should it limit service based on financial pressures to minimize the ongoing loses in fare revenue? We know how much the TTC is losing, but there is no commitment from any level of government to sustain transit over the next year or more as demand recovers.

Improving the speed and service reliability will increase capacity on the system at no additional operating cost. Bus priority corridors may be a more cost-effective solution to current real-time responsive measures to address overcrowding, while also improving service. As the routes speed up, the number of buses required for standby decreases, thereby reducing operating costs.

This is a simplistic view which includes the unfortunate phrase “no additional operating cost”. This is the sort of outlook that bedevils attempts to improve transit, the idea that there is a “free” solution to our problems. However, there is an assumption that the capacity issue can be addressed simply by running buses faster, and that transit priority will provide what is needed. In fact, this is unlikely on the scale that is required.

A further conundrum lies in statements from Commissioner Bradford that the TTC would “flood” routes with service according to a CBC interview.

Bradford said flooding the five busy corridors with buses would help front-line workers — who don’t have the luxury of self-isolating — move more quickly between work and home. It would also make it easier to physically distance, since more buses would mean more elbow room between passengers.

A “flood” of buses is possible only if the TTC actually operates more service as the change in travel times from transit priority, by itself, will not achieve this goal. In the short term, the TTC has more buses because it is not running full service, but this will change as they ramp up to full pre-Covid levels on major routes. There are also buses from the spare pool which is quite generous thanks to the comparative youth of the bus fleet, but running service beyond the 100% level pushes up operating costs at a time when fare revenue is running well behind historic levels.

Since the travel and work restrictions of the Covid-19 era have been in place, we have seen a worked example of what a Toronto largely without congestion looks like. This gives us a chance to compare bus travel times and speeds for the old “typical” workday with many weeks of lower traffic and little congestion. That is likely to be a best case scenario because buses have also benefited from reduced demand and shorter stop service times. Even if traffic congestion is eliminated, higher demand will lengthen times at stops and this component of today’s savings will be lost.

Five corridors are proposed in the TTC’s Service Plan and in the Bradford/McKelvie motion:

  • Jane Street: from Eglinton Avenue to Steeles Avenue
  • Dufferin Street: from Dufferin Gate to Wilson Avenue
  • Steeles Avenue West: from Yonge Street to Pioneer Village Subway Station
  • Finch Avenue East: from Yonge Street to McCowan Road
  • Eglinton Avenue East/Kingston Road/Morningside Ave – from Kennedy Subway Station to University of Toronto Scarborough

What we do not have, and what the TTC has never produced, is a detailed review of these and other parts of the city looking at where and when congestion occurs, what the physical constraints to taking over road lanes might be, and just how much time might be saved by their implementation. These are key elements both in designing any priority scheme and advocating for it against the inevitable opposition of motorists, businesses and residents along affected streets.

In particular, if we are not prepared to give real transit priority at the locations and times when congestion is at its worst, and the effect of taking road space from cars will be severe, then this scheme will not succeed.

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