39 Finch East Travel Times (Updated)

Updated July 20, 2020 at 5:00 pm: A comparison of travel times for local 39 and express 939 service on Finch East has been added at the end of the article.

This article continues a series comparing travel times on proposed bus priority routes in the “pre-covid” era of what we once thought of as “normal” traffic with the conditions since mid-March 2020. The latter probably represent the best case for any future prioritized transit operations and a comparison can set some expectations on what might, or might not, be achieved.

It is easy to draw a line on a map and say “Put transit priority here!”, but this quickly runs into the fact that others, notably motorists, also use the road and one must be able to make a pro-transit case based on evidence that there actually will be an improvement, at least for transit riders.

Such a case must deal with several factors:

  • The benefit to running time is usually location and direction sensitive, not to mention varying by time of day.
  • Locations where congestion is a problem are also those where taking road space away from motorists will be most difficult.
  • The level of service on some routes during off peak periods coupled with low potential time savings makes permanent reservations hard to argue for especially where lost parking would be an issue.
  • Even in the less congested conditions of recent months, the reliability of TTC service leaves a lot to be desired. (I will turn to this aspect of service in a later article for all of the bus lane proposals.)

The offsetting benefits are:

  • Reduced and more reliable running times with the worst case delays “shaved off” in the manner seen on the King Street pilot.
  • A small reduction in the number of vehicles required to provide service, or conversely, the ability to improve service without adding vehicles.

Better service can result from a combination of more frequent scheduled vehicles and more reliable headways. Indeed, riders could see more benefit simply from buses showing up regularly than from actual in-vehicle travel time. Sadly, the TTC’s focus is on saving money first, not on improving service reliability and capacity, and this will potentially undermine the entire transit priority project.

This article reviews data from 39 Finch East, and will be followed by reviews of 60 Steeles West and 54 Lawrence East in future articles.

Technical note: Finch East is a route whose behaviour I have been following on and off for several years, and I therefore have a sampling of data going back to 2011.

Finch East Travel Time Charts

Weekdays

The TTC proposes to establish a reserved lane on Finch Avenue from Finch Station just east of Yonge Street to McCowan Road. Here are the travel times in each direction over this part of the route as seen at different times in the past decade. Of particular note, for westbound operation the traditional peaks almost completely vanish.

Updated July 20, 2020 at 5 pm: Note that for November 2011 and May 2013, although the peak periods includes express trips under the route number 39 Finch, they only went to Seneca College and therefore do not contribute to travel times measured between Finch Station and McCowan. Express services were provided over the years by routes 139, 199, and 939, but there data is not included in the charts below.

As in previous analyses like this, there is a drop to May 2020 values with a small recovery in June 2020. March 2020 lies between most of the data and the low months because the shutdown for covid began mid-month. This is shown quite clearly in the weekly breakdown for that month.

Weekends

Saturdays also show a reduction in travel times, but not as large a change as for weekdays.

On Sundays, the change in travel time is even smaller than on Saturdays.

Weekday Speed Profiles

The speed profile charts here compare early March 2020, before the pandemic shut everything down, with early May 2020. Values for March are in green, for May in purple. The solid line tracks average speed across the route over the interval where a bus lane would be implemented, and the dotted line shows the overall trend interpolated through the data.

Where the green line hangs below the purple one, this shows a location of slower operation in March than in May. This might be for a short distance ahead of a stop or intersection, or for a more extended distance showing congestion in March that had vanished by May.

If the dotted trend lines are close together, then overall the speeds are comparable. When they move apart, this flags the general areas along the route where speeds today are faster than in March. Where values run close together, there is likely little benefit from a reserved lane because nothing is getting in the way of buses even with traffic at pre-covid levels.

These charts cannot distinguish between delays at stops due to traffic (or traffic signals) vs stop service times, and both will show up as a downward spike in average speed. However, congestion near a stop would show up as an extended distance with lower speed as opposed to just at the stop itself.

Westbound charts read left to right, while eastbound charts read right to left.

Here are the AM peak hour profiles (8 to 9 am).

For westbound trips, there is a considerable difference in speeds between McCowan and Brimley and between Bayview and Yonge. There is also a lesser difference between Birchmount and Don Mills.

Eastbound trips in the AM show considerably lower speed approaching Bayview and again approaching Leslie, with lesser differences east of the DVP.

For the PM peak (5 to 6 pm) westbound, the same areas as in the AM show slower travel speeds, but not to the same degree.

Eastbound in the PM peak, there are problems from Yonge to Bayview as in the AM, and to a lesser extent at other locations along the way.

What is particularly striking about both sets of charts is that the TTC spent a lot of effort on getting a queue jump lane approaching Finch Station westbound, but there is also clearly a severe problem eastbound between Yonge and Bayview. The pervasive congestion there implies that this will be a segment where carving a reserved bus lane out of the available road space will be challenging physically and politically.

The all day charts in hourly increments are linked below. Stepping through them shows the evolution of conditions from 6 am to midnight. Peak hours in particular show faster times with the lower level of traffic congestion in May, but there is also a difference over much of the route in the midday. During the evening, the differences almost completely vanish.

Comparing Express and Local Travel Times

A comment from “Ed” raised the issue of the mixture of local and express trips on 39 Finch East. In my reply I talked about the difficulty of distinguishing between express and local trips because run numbers alone would not reliably distinguish them. The situation is actually slightly different from what I described.

In the 2011 and 2013 data charted above, there were express trips operating on route 39, but they did not go to McCowan and therefore do not contribute to the travel time charts comparing various months. In later months, the express services were under different route numbers, and so data for “39 Finch East” only includes local trips.

Before the 900-series routes were created, it was difficult on some routes to distinguish express and local trips because (a) run numbers were not consistently used for each group of trips and (b) running times were not sufficiently different to allow the “express” trips to be filtered out on that basis. Finch East was different in that its express service had a separate route number earlier than on many other routes.

After the 900-series routes came into existence, analysis of their behaviour was limited by the fact that the new VISION vehicle management system did not produce data extracts at the level of detail I have received from the older CIS system until fall 2019. I did not begin to address the express bus operations as separate routes until 2020, and then the pandemic arrived. The charts below compare the travel times between McCowan and Finch Station (the bounds of the proposed reserved lane) in March 2020. That month saw pre-covid traffic conditions for two weeks, and a fall-off thereafter.

In these charts, data for the local service uses a solid line, while the express service uses a dotted line. The same colour is used for each week. There is little data for week 4 for express buses and they are not included here.

The difference in westbound travel times during the first two weeks is notably larger during midday periods than during the peak. For riders whose trips are shorter than the full distance, the amount of time saved would be less than shown here.

For eastbound trips, the PM peak spike is much higher and this arises mainly from congestion in the relatively narrow stretch of Finch east of Yonge. Again, express buses make better time than locals, but not by much. Once the pandemic era brought lower traffic, the peaks subsided considerably, but as traffic starts to build, they will return.

This is a challenge for transit priority advocates and for the TTC. Today, the benefit of a reserved lane is small, but they will be more important as traffic builds up, and especially if more people attempt driving than did so before March 2020.

A related issue is the question of lanes that are only reserved with paint as against a physical barrier. The latter is a stronger ban on incursions into the lane, but could prevent buses from passing each other particularly given the very frequent service on both express and local services.

7 thoughts on “39 Finch East Travel Times (Updated)

  1. Are these plots specifically for local and not express buses? Finch East had a number of express branches that persisted well into the 2010s according to Transit-Toronto.

    Given the heavy ridership on the express branches, the analysis of just local routes is probably inadequate. In fact, this route is pretty hard to analyze, I think, because of the heavy use of express runs.

    I travelled every weekday to Seneca College fall-winter-spring of 2009/2010. I [em]always[/em] preferred the express buses (39C, 39E, 39F, 39G) over the locals, and many riders waiting for a bus at Finch would hesitate before getting on a local 39 branch.

    Also, there was a major Toronto Water project on Finch between about Bayview and Yonge that was underway in 2010. I’m not sure when it completed.

    Another quirk back in the day — and it may still be there — is that Bayview Ave seemed to be the recipient of transit priority over Finch. My bus would be sitting waiting to get across Bayview. The pedestrian light would go to Don’t Walk for Bayview, but the light would not change for vehicles for almost a minute. I have only seen this behaviour, in Toronto, in signals set up for transit priority in Toronto. I don’t think this is the only case of the directions being mixed up; I seem to recall the lights for Richmond getting an extra long green when a Bathurst car was sitting waiting to cross.

    Steve: Updated: My reply to this comment turned out to be incorrect. Please see the article for information about distinguishing express and local travel times.

    A few points about this. First, until the express runs were split off into a separate route, it was impossible to separate them from the locals because (a) the run numbers for expresses were not consistently assigned and (b) some runs did a mixture of local and express trips. Therefore the data shown for April 2018, for example, includes both express and local buses, whereas the data in 2020 includes only locals. This is further complicated by the fact that for part of March, the expresses were cancelled and operated as extras on the local service.

    In any event, I was interested in the speeds attained when there was little congestion (i.e. post-covid) and these are all local runs. The “before” data contains express and local trips mixed together and if anything, this would make the travel times look better than just for locals.

    Looking at the details of travel times between Yonge and McCowan for April 2018, I do not see two distinct groups of trips, that is, if the expresses were really much faster, they should stand out separate from the locals as a subgroup of shorter travel times, but they do not. Some of the longest of the trips are probably locals, but even so they don’t stand out in a separate block.

    The only data I have for the 939 is for March 2020, and it shows the same change starting in week 3 with shorter trip times. However, the difference between the 39 and 939 over the distance from Finch Station to McCowan during weeks 1 and 2 of March is visible but not huge. I will update the article with comparisons of the local and express trip times and speeds in the next day or so.

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  2. Having ridden the 39 et al. nearly the total length to and from work for some time, I can confirm the locals beat the expresses often enough. However, my experience the likelihood of that depends on the time of day. Late night, I don’t take the express because they end up waiting at stops to not get ahead of their schedules.

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  3. During any construction or very heavy traffic (peak hours), between Yonge and Bayview expresses (or even some westbound locals) often take alternative streets like Bishop Ave or even Cummer sometimes.

    (Also worth mentioning, any bus lanes between Bayview and Yonge would also be used westbound by 953 Steeles express buses.)

    Steve: Yes, there are a lot of ways buses try to avoid that nasty stretch. The challenge for anyone trying for bus lanes on Finch itself is that this area simply does not have room. It is an area that Mel Lastman protected while development exploded on Sheppard, and North York is stuck with a small local street trying to be an arterial.

    The difference in travel speeds between current times and pre-covid shows just how bad this area gets, and will get when auto traffic returns to “normal” levels.

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  4. Thanks for the clarification on local/express runs.

    I only generally travelled between Finch station and Seneca College, although in 2014 I hit the route fairly often as the 7000 series Orion Vs were retiring (miss those buses).

    A lot of the local stops between the major streets had few if any boardings/alightings, at least west of the 404. But if there was someone using an intermediate stop, that’s where the express buses zipped by the locals. Otherwise, they were all going flat out.

    You may also want to note that some time recently, the speed limit on Finch was dropped from 60 to 50. I’m not sure exactly when, but it’s not more than a year; likely in the late fall of 2019. Assuming that buses run to the speed limits (!), on uncongested stretches they would still run slower today than they would have a year ago. I’m pretty sure express buses easily hit 60 km/h on the Bayview-Leslie stretch.

    From a conversation with an operator, it sounds like taking a detour via Bishop, freelance and not directed by an inspector, is grounds for a disciplinary talk. And I image homeowners along the smaller streets are reluctant to have a dozen or two buses passing by their front yards every hour in the morning and evening peaks — resulting in complaints and disciplining.

    The other funny thing I forgot to mention in my previous comment, westbound Steeles East expresses, for a time, used Bayview and Finch to bypass the congestion at Steeles and Yonge. Not sure if that’s being done any more.

    Steve: Yes, although the 953 is not operating currently, the route description on the TTC website notes that some express services run via Bayview and Finch.

    Updated: It turns out that I was wrong about the mix of express and local trips. Please see the update in the article.

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  5. Hi Steve, I’ve taken the 39A to end of the route from Neilson to Finch Stn and alternated the 939C or did a mix of 39A & 939 during peak times and out of peak times. I noticed that at night, and during the day, the express buses would stop at certain stops and wait for multiple lights to change before they continue (as they were ahead of schedule). It was annoying because the 39 local (that I got off of earlier on the route) would pass by so the Express wasn’t really express. Also, I noticed that the 939 doesn’t really save you much time. It wasn’t worth it losing my seat on the 39 just to get on the 939 (the stop by McDonalds at Woodside mall is always crowded). In the end, I only save 2-3 minutes or something nothing as the local always catches up. It’s like playing tag between the local that I just got off and the 939 express.

    On a side note, I remember the 139E Finch Don Mills and rarely anyone would get on despite it stopping at local stops haha. I can see service on Finch worsening if TTC decides to convert 939 to articulated buses in the future (I think I read that somewhere a while ago???) It’s interesting they never used artics on Finch but due to Covid they are an everyday normal.

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  6. I was wondering about ridership on these Finch routes. City planning staff have said that Finch is the most heavily used bus route in North America. The travel times for east bound buses during evening rush hour are the longest. Could it be that this also the time of peak ridership? If so, how much time are we taking out of the lives of these commuters because of poor transit performance? Neither Tory nor Ford care about these people by insisting on the Scarborough Subway Extension which is estimated at 105,000 boardings a day for $5.5 billion. Aren’t there bus routes with close to 105,000 riders?

    One of the major pinch points is been Bayview and Yonge. In the interest of both vehicle and public transit, city government, through road design, traffic control and TTC should provide a solution. We pay for staff who are supposed to identify and solve such problems. I have written them and never received a single response! The local Councillor is well aware of the issue. Tory and Ford are the problem.

    I do not reside in this area. In studying the big picture transit needs of Toronto, one option is a Finch crosstown LRT. I emphasize big picture because Sheppard Subway/LRT supports would object, but their concerns, while valid are local.

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  7. One solution for the congestion on Finch is to build a transitway in the hydro corridor from Finch Station to Don Mills, similar to the one used to get to York University on the same hydro corridor. It could also be used by Steeles East Express and some YRT routes.

    As one of the busiest bus routes in North America, it seems justified.

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