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.

When the City of Toronto worked on the King Street transit corridor, much detailed work went into reviewing the scheme, but even with this, the benefits were misunderstood, and in some cases misrepresented. The change in travel time, especially during the morning peak, was small because King Street was not congested at that time of day. Even in the PM peak, the change in average travel time was modest, but the reliability of travel time was greatly improved. This led to better service on the route overall.

Initially, the TTC was able to slightly improve service due to better operating conditions, but they then reversed course and burned up the “savings” with schedule changes aimed at reducing short turns. The actual change in capacity of the corridor came not from running more and/or faster vehicles, but from the replacement of older streetcars by new, larger ones.

Many years ago, during the St. Clair transit corridor debate, there were similar problems. The TTC initially spoke of using savings in travel time to cut the number of cars needed to serve the route thereby saving money, not of actually improving service. This policy came under much-deserved fire from many quarters because the upheaval of rebuilding the street would produce only a benefit for the TTC’s bottom line, not for riders. In fact, initially, the TTC did improve service, but again has unwound much of that benefit with schedule changes aimed at reducing short turns.

Both King and St. Clair brought major political battles about the use of road space with the argument that transit should get more and, by extension, autos should get less. The TTC published a chart showing improved running times from 2005 (pre right-of-way) to 2014 (post), and this is still up on their site. The problem with this rosy comparison is that in intervening years, schedules have been padded and the route is now slower than it was before the right-of-way was installed. This cannot be put down to “congestion” as the route operates in mixed traffic for only a short distance at either end of the line.

In a recent article, I reviewed the 504 King car and the travel times across the route during 2020. There has been a reduction in travel time overall, and one could make a modest improvement in service frequency using the existing assigned cars operating on faster schedules. However, this change will be lost once traffic returns to pre-Covid levels on King Street, especially on the large portion of the route where there is no transit priority at all.

In the remainder of this article, I will review the data for 39 Finch East to get a sense of the improvement, if any, that transit priority might bring, and I will turn to other proposed corridors in follow-up articles.

Travel Times and Speeds on 39 Finch East

The charts below show the eastbound and westbound travel times on Finch between a screenline just east of Finch Station and McCowan Road, the proposed eastern end of the new transit priority scheme. The spikes in travel time of both peak periods dropped sharply in mid March and travel times have stayed consistent since then.

Although there is a reduction across all time periods, the effect is greatest during the peaks. Assuming that the same number of buses are left in the schedule, but on a faster operating speed, and that this level of saving could be sustained, there would be about a 20% improvement in the AM peak, and possibly a 25% improvement in the PM peak, although the proportions are not the same in each direction. However, during the off peak, the saving is much more modest, at best 10%.

This is complicated by the fact that Finch buses do not terminate at McCowan, but continue much further east. Therefore, the percentage reduction in round trip times would not be as great as shown here because operating speeds east of McCowan would not change.

Beyond the variation in time of day savings, the increases in operating speeds from early March to May have not been uniform across the route. Certain areas were congested and now show better speed, while others are almost unchanged. Here are the speed charts comparing March to May for the two peak hours 8 AM and 5 PM.

In each chart, operating speeds for early May 2020 are in purple, while those for early March are in green. Where the green “peeks” out from behind the purple, the pre-covid speeds were slower.

AM Peak

Eastbound there are notable areas where early March service was slower approaching Bayview, Leslie and Victoria Park (eastbound charts are read from right to left). The trend lines for the two periods (dotted) are closer together the further east one travels.

Westbound operations are slower in the area between McCowan and Midland, and especially in the area between Bayview and Finch Station.

PM Peak

During the PM peak, pre-pandemic speeds eastbound were noticeably lower between Yonge and Bayview , and approaching other intersections, notably Victoria Park.

Westbound PM peak speeds do not diverge as much for pre- and post-pandemic periods although there are areas where the March speeds are lower.

The all day sets of speed comparisons are linked below with one page per hour from 6 AM to midnight. Stepping through them shows how the speeds, and the differences between early March and early May, vary over the course of the day.

4 thoughts on “Transit Priority Lanes Can Help, But They Are No Panacea

  1. As a TTC operator who drives the Dufferin route daily, I can tell you if we had bus-exclusive lanes, no on-street parking and traffic signal priority, our buses can move more quickly.

    Steve: That is definitely true, but making it so will not be easy, and might not produce as much improvement as hoped. A worst case situation would be to give “priority” where there is spare road capacity and delays are less of a problem while ignoring the most congested areas. Dufferin is a special case because it is narrow and taking lanes is not as easy as on some suburban roads.

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  2. This blog, as always, is a real dose of pragmatism. Even with the fresh tranche of ‘ammunition’ (and hopefully yet something concrete from the Feds for ops, not just infra) it’s essential we keep aspirations ‘dry’. Every shot has to count, and altruism is going to take us backwards, not forwards.

    This is as ‘concrete’ as it gets:

    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?

    Of course, as it now stands, there’s no way to answer this save to flip the question over and posit:

    ‘If service is limited, then so is the economy. It’s like asking how much oxygen the patient can surrender before asphyxiating’. Or perhaps cutting water supply by half…where would that get us? “Savings?” Hardly.

    Edmonton is talking about shutting down their entire LRT system. I don’t have the most recent link, but this will suffice to buttress my point.

    Edmonton’s economy and density, I think it’s safe to say, is different than Toronto’s, but how close are we to doing this here?

    I apologize for not having something positive to add, save for the mixing of pedestrian and *folded cycles* on board of buses. (Full bikes can still use the racks front exterior). Tory is waddling towards the pond on this, but as to whether he’ll allow his polished brown Oxfords to actually step in the water to tie the mesh together, at least in the core, remains to be seen.

    I’m surprised actually that he’s gone as far as he has, albeit weekend warriors acting crazy on bikes on closed off roads is a nice distraction, but NOT what’s needed.

    Tory’s got to think long-term on the cycling and pedestrians onto transit aspect for *week-day commuters*. Some attest as to how “we really are changing”. I’m not so sure.

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  3. Thanks for doing this type of in depth study, I usually find some interesting nuggets in the results. On the route currently, is there any form of Transit Signal Priority (TSP) given to the buses on the route. During the implementation of the King Corridor, the existing TSP was turned off, and finally re-instated after several months. Obviously this would have an effect on running times.

    Steve: I don’t think there is any TSP on Finch East as things stand given the traffic volumes at cross streets and size of the intersections. Yes, that experience on King with the off again, on again TSP was not one of the City’s finer moments.

    In order to be clear, is the plan just to concede a lane to Transit, or concede a lane to transit, switch all stops to far side and implement TSP for the buses running in these lanes (Bus Way Lite), or go whole hog and build a true Bus Way like we see in York Region?

    Steve: I don’t think there is any plan, just one of these marvellous political “do it” moves that will leave staff scrambling. Media interviews suggest that all we will see is painted lines and some signage, but no physical changes as these take time. A lot of work went into the King Street design, even with its flaws, and that bore fruit in getting a general level of buy-in despite some griping. I cannot see how the scale of five long transit lanes can possibly be studied properly in such a short time, and there is a big danger that the benefits will not be what is hoped for, thereby undermining the general idea.

    You won’t see a York Region style implementation because of (a) the cost and (b) the fact that there is no room for two centre lanes plus islands at stops in a lot of the proposed areas, not to mention the lead times to build that sort of thing.

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  4. In Vancouver BC we have a similar situation. Many years ago some bus routes have various parking restrictions during the rush hours/daytime I understand that Transit saved between 20 to 25 buses. Further extending parking restrictions on more bus routes could save another 10 to 15 buses. However, travel time savings are only 10 to 15%. You need a proper busway to achieve higher travel time savings.

    I propose that any buses that are saved be used to complete the grid system in the City of Vancouver. While many people think that Vancouver’s overall transit system is quite good, they do not know that the per capita annual ridership is only around 100 rides while it is around 200 in Montreal/Toronto.

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