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
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.
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.