Bus Lanes Are Only A First Step To Better Transit

Today, July 21, Toronto’s Executive Committee will consider a report from Barbara Gray, the City’s General Manager, Transportation Services recommending that:

City Council authorize the implementation of Reserved Bus Lanes on the Eglinton East corridor, in the following sections:

a. Eglinton Avenue East from Brimley Road to Cedar Drive;

b. Kingston Road from Eglinton Avenue East to Morningside Avenue; and

c. Morningside Avenue from Kingston Road to Ellesmere Road.

Reports on other proposed bus corridors will come to Council later this year with Jane Street being the first out aiming at implementation in April 2021.

Advocates for better transit and for improved services to neighbourhoods dependent on bus service champion these proposals including an opinion piece in yesterday’s Star by Stephen Farber and Matthew Palm.

These moves are long overdue. For decades the transit debates swirled around who would get the next subway line and which technology was most appropriate. The many riders whose trips will not be served by the future subway network were lost in the shuffle.

The political temptation will be to approve today’s report, smile for the cameras and pat our collective selves on the back for a great transit victory. If only it were that easy.

Toronto needs a much more aggressive plan to improve bus service, and the City must recognize that there are several aspects to doing this, far more than throwing some red paint down on a few roads. For its part, the TTC must lose its timidity and advocate for much improved transit even in the face of calls to contain costs and limit budget growth.

Experience going back to the 2003 Ridership Growth Strategy shows that when a “shopping list” of potential improvements is available, there is better understanding of what might be done. Improvements might be fought for one-by-one, but as part of a sustained strategy. The simplistic “we can’t afford it” arguments fail when confronted with specific proposals, clear benefits and costs that might well be within the City’s capability.

What should a program for the City, the TTC and the many advocates for better transit look like?

  1. Treat reserved lanes primarily to improve service reliability with travel time savings as an add-on benefit.
  2. Exploit reduced travel times as a way to improve service capacity, not as a way to save money on transit budgets.
  3. Recognize that much of the benefit has already been achieved, post-covid, through temporarily lower overall traffic volumes, and that bus lanes can prevent a return of the worst of the traffic that ensnares transit riders.
  4. Accept that transit priority will mean a reduction in road capacity for other users, notably motorists, and be prepared to enforce priority schemes through a combination of policing and physical barriers.
  5. Integrate bus lanes plans with overall Vision Zero street redesign so that transit riders, who are also pedestrians, can safely and easily access transit service.
  6. Manage transit service to provide reliable vehicle spacing so that a “five minute service” really is a bus every five minutes, not two buses every ten, or three buses every fifteen.
  7. Set standards for crowding and service quality and report regularly, in public and in detail including cases where budgetary or other constraints prevent achieving these goals.
  8. Design a fleet plan that aims for service growth, including not just vehicles, but also maintenance facilities, and integrate this with Council’s desire to move to a “green” transit fleet.
  9. Treat the surface transit network with the same respect and attention lavished on rapid transit plans.

What Can Reserved Lanes Do?

Reserved bus lanes accomplish two goals. One is the obvious saving of travel time by speeding buses and riders along their journeys, but the other is a higher reliability in travel times. This was shown on King Street where the actual time saving over the transit priority area was small, on average, but the reliability of travel times greatly improved.

Knowing that transit vehicles will show up, that there will be space to board, and that a trip will take the expected interval most of the time is essential to an attractive service.

Reserved lanes are not a panacea, and they will never completely undo the problems of physically long journeys in our suburbs. But every improvement helps, and transit should encourage travel by being as convenient and reliable as possible.

Saving Money vs Improving Service

The TTC, to its shame, has talked of bus lanes as a way to save money, to reduce the number of vehicles in the Eglinton corridor, for starters, and elsewhere in the system as the network of lanes expands. This is exactly the approach they took on streetcar priority schemes, first on St. Clair and later downtown. When every debate comes down to “spend on this project to save on operating costs”, substantive improvements are doomed.

Riders must see better service, not just a slightly faster version of “more of the same”.

The TTC argues that buses saved from a street with bus lanes might be used to improve service elsewhere, but this is a false premise. First off, if other routes need better service, they do so in their own right, and the TTC should already be telling us where these are. Second, bus lanes are touted as a way to improve transit’s attractiveness and add ridership. This will not be possible if the level of service and route capacity are unchanged.

The growth on King Street came not just because of the transit lanes, but because newer, larger streetcars replaced old ones. This happened over the entire route, not just in the core area. Service was more attractive because it was more reliable, but also because there was a better chance of being able to board.

Some on the TTC board see bus lanes as a way to make more room for passengers during the pandemic. However, if management (with the Board’s tacit approval) just scoops buses and leaves the capacity unchanged, this will not be the effect they claim.

Head Off the Effect of Future Traffic Congestion

In the post-covid era, traffic has fallen quite substantially, and bus trips are faster than they were only months ago. In several articles, I have examined this effect on routes where bus lanes are proposed, and it is quite striking. In some cases, the “peak periods” for travel time have almost disappeared. However, there are signs that traffic is growing again, and with that, transit travel times are starting to grow. If predictions of a shift in transit/auto mode share come true, the challenge will be to avoid a return to pre-covid conditions or even worse at a time when transit service is less frequent than before.

This is not a time for sitting around doing a lane here, a lane there, over so long a schedule that none of us will live to see its completion. If Toronto is going to preserve the benefits of faster travel times, it should move quickly to identify corridors for transit improvement.

This might happen with the Surface Network Transit Improvement Study set to report later in 2020, but I fear that given the politics of road space in Toronto, this will be a timid plan.

Accept That More Priority for Transit Means Less Priority for Others

This will be the most difficult part of any bus lane debate. How much space can we take away from existing road users and how much should go to transit, not to mention other users such as cyclists and pedestrians?

Some locations are already notoriously congested (e.g. Finch east of Yonge to Bayview and beyond) with a limited availability of space to widen the road. Road widening should be avoided if possible lest, in the name of “transit improvements” we launch into a stealth project to build bigger roads that, oh, by the way, make some provision for better transit. One does not have to look far from Toronto to see this sort of project.

A cycling network is a particular challenge because painted lines do not make a bikeway. Only physical separation works to preserve safety especially on roads with faster traffic typical in suburban areas. The same can also be said of bus lanes which, if they are no more than paint, will invite other vehicles just as they have on streets where they already exist such as Bay.

Buses do something that cars and cyclists do not – they stop to pick up and drop off passengers. This is an essential part of transit that makes sharing space so difficult. Motorists would not mind buses and streetcars if only they did not stop.

Build Better Streets Not Just Faster Bus Routes

While a faster and more reliable trip by transit is a goal riders seek, they must first get to and from a bus stop. Some stops are poorly located remote from intersections where riders can safely cross, and some suburban neighbourhoods are very poorly arranged for easy access to transit. This creates a dual challenge.

The TTC plans to consolidate some of the stops on Eglinton (and by implication on other future bus lane corridors) so that they are located at least at pedestrian crosswalks, preferably at traffic signals. However, in the process, the walking distance to/from transit grows.

In some cases, the “solution” may lie not in eliminating stops, but in improving access to them. This will not please motorists who see new traffic signals as yet another impediment, but it could improve overall transit access.

Access time is an important part of an overall transit trip, and there is no point in making bus service better only to have it stop further away from riders.

Manage Transit Service for Reliability

In all the talk of bus lanes, we hear a lot about reliable service, but this is something the TTC neither manages nor measures.

There is a service “standard” that buses should leave terminals within a six minute window (1 minute early to 5 minutes late) to be considered “on time”. This is the only metric on which the TTC reports service quality. The assumption is that if buses leave on time, the rest of the route will take care of itself.

That is simply not true. Vehicles are often already bunched when they leave terminals (but within their allowed window) and this gets worse and worse as they move along a route. There is no reporting about this problem, and what little is reported is on a summary basis for all routes and all time periods.

The situation is compounded by schedules that have been designed to be generous so that short turns are rarely needed. The problem is that this means most trips have more time than they need. Operators will either dawdle to stay “on time”, or they will take long recoveries at terminals.

If we do not know where there are problems, we cannot begin to address them. Some of this is a long-standing “cultural” problem within the TTC that will be challenging to admit, and then to fix.

Set Transit Service Standards and Report on Them Frequently and Publicly

The TTC’s current Service Standards effectively encode what was “business as usual” for system management and planning when they were rubber stamped by the TTC Board. What these standards do not tell us is what the system could be or the options to improve riders’ experience. Even the approved standards include an escape clause that the realities of budget limits trump the need for service improvements.

In the covid era, the TTC has produced maps showing where transit demand is a problem on the network, and this is essential to understanding where more resources are needed. This should not be a short-lived “covid special”, but an integral part of regular reports to the TTC Board. Where and when are transit services overloaded? Where and when are traffic conditions evolving to slow service? How much capacity has been lost to stretching buses and streetcars over longer trips either for traffic congestion or to drive down short turn counts?

We hear routinely about the cost-benefit of various rapid transit projects, of how a faster journey will save thousands of hours and increase capacity between major centres. What we do not hear about is the steady whittling away of surface transit routes in an attempt to respond to changing conditions, not to mention hitting management targets such as a zero short turn count.

Some years ago, the TTC published a list of routes that were running at above standard crowding levels, but this did not last long. Service changes used to include a calculation of the change in crowding they would bring but these too have disappeared.

Discussions at the TTC Board, pandemic aside, rarely turn to service quality except when this is forced on them by outside speakers as at last week’s meeting where many deputations in favour of the bus lane plan spoke bitterly about what they endure while trying to travel by bus. Even then, the focus has been on the comparatively “quick fix” of a few bus lanes, while the larger question of bus service across the network is untouched.

A Bus Fleet Plan for Future Growth

For many years, any discussion of better bus service has slammed straight into the “but we have no buses” argument, closely followed by “but we have no garage space”. The situation is poorly understood by those on the TTC Board, let alone by Council members wrestling with complaints from their constituents. It is the product of several factors.

  • When the Transit City Plan came out, the TTC adjusted its bus fleet and garage plans to take into account a gradual migration of major bus services to LRT, a process that by now would have been almost complete. Transit City was cancelled, but little was done to rethink future bus needs. Indeed, Mayor Rob Ford tried to delay construction of a new bus garage (now almost complete) in Scarborough as a cost saving move.
  • The bus fleet has grown, but not always to provide more service.
    • The TTC now keeps more buses off the road for maintenance than it once did on the grounds that new vehicles are more complex and need more garage time.
    • A related shift has been to fix-before-fail, a tactic that requires buses to be inspected more often so that parts that are known to fail periodically can be replaced before they do so in service. This reduces in-service failures, but at the cost of a larger fleet and more-frequent inspections.
    • When scheduled running times are increased to deal either with traffic or with the desire to reduce short turns, this can involve putting more vehicles on the road.
    • All of these contribute to fleet growth without adding capacity to routes.
  • McNicoll Garage will open at the end of 2020, but the TTC has no concrete plans for another garage to hold even more buses. McNicoll will mainly relieve the overcrowding at other garages. The TTC does not have another garage “in the works” beyond a site search for potential property. Large blocks of industrial land are hard to come by.
  • The City and TTC intend to move to an all-electric fleet starting in the mid-2020s with a target of being all zero-emission by the mid to late 2030s. This will require retrofitting of all existing garages for electric vehicles in a rolling migration through the system. There is no published plan for this work, nor a budget for the complex process of shifting to a new bus technology system-wide. Plans for any new bus garage built after McNicoll must consider which technology they will aim at. Should Toronto stop building garages for diesel or diesel/hybrid buses? Is the new technology solid enough that we can bet future growth on electric vehicles?

Today, the TTC is using less than 1,300 buses at peak out of a fleet of over 2,000 thanks to covid-related service cuts and a generous spare ratio. There is a lot of room for growth back to at least the pre-covid level, but what happens afterward is a question unanswered in TTC plans.

Surface Transit Matters Too

Toronto has been through decades of subway and LRT debates, of wrangles over funding, of incessant map-drawing and of very little building. Recent moves at Queen’s Park to speed up the process and set projects in motion may give the impression of “action”, but whether we are spending wisely is a matter we will all debate for many years. There is a very good chance that the bold plans both for Toronto’s rapid transit network and for GO Transit expansion could run aground on fiscal reality and a reticence by hoped-for private sector partners to take on as much as the province hopes.

Meanwhile, the big issue for transit today is the operating budget and how to survive for at least a few years of lower demand and revenue while we wait for riders to return to the system, let alone deal with future growth.

Recent years have seen overall demand plateau or even fall slightly, and there has been a long-term decline that actually started several years ago when the growth rate slowed. The real attention came only when that rate went negative, but the pattern had been in place for some time before.

Running “just enough” service keeps the budget hawks happy, but eventually there is no room for more riders. Even worse, service can become something people resent and avoid.

Subway extensions, on the rare occasion that they actually open, make life better for people in the corridor they serve. Students who lobbied for a subway to York U were old and grey before it actually entered service in December 2017, and that extension did nothing for riders on the rest of the network. In fact, opening the line produced a one-time jump in subsidy needs that might otherwise have been spent on service improvements.

TTC Budget debates never begin with the question “what could we do to make it better”, but rather start from a hole from current “pressures” and try to dig out. This is a formidable block to debates about transit strategy, about where the system might be going beyond keeping the lights on.

At a time when bus ridership sits at 40% of pre-covid levels, and streetcars at 26%, talk of more service is almost surreal, a look not forward, but back to an era when transit was bursting at the seams. The problem lies with the future. How much demand will return, and how much crowding will riders tolerate? Will the TTC’s service be frozen at current levels, or worse, as a new base from which we must fight for improvements?

In all of this, the subway will sail along unscathed because it is a large fixed cost where trimming service makes little difference in the grand scheme of things. The axe will fall disproportionately on the surface network, the very part of the system that is most critical to the city’s recovery. The subways would starve for riders without the bus network feeding them, but equally important are the many trips to locations served only by buses that will never see a subway train and, frankly, cannot afford to wait for the planned ones to appear.

The Future of Transit

To say “these are difficult times” is to be trite on an epic scale. Transit and many other public services will vie for funding while the economy will not have the “boom” of past years to generate revenue. There will be hard choices as we consider how transit fits in the city, and how it can be sustained.

If the TTC and the politicians who control transit policy simply bumble along with a bus lane here and there, they will miss that much larger picture of Toronto’s future.

5 thoughts on “Bus Lanes Are Only A First Step To Better Transit

  1. Haven’t there already been bus lanes for decades on Bay, Eglinton and many other streets? As with practically every other law in Toronto I don’t think there was ever any enforcement.

    Steve: Shhh! It’s a secret!


  2. TTC needs to stop being in the mindset of route v. route to provide service. On top of that I think they should use more articulated buses on the weekends instead of being idle. Service needs to be improved otherwise gridlock which already is a major concern will get worse.


  3. Yes, buses are needing far more priority, politically and practically. We’ve tended to be stupid in our major expenditures, an ongoing problem, so we’re not really upgrading or providing the needed service in high-usage corridors eg. Sufferin’ Dufferin, though to do this quickly, and on-surface, will be challenging. I don’t know many of the routes/areas at all well, so this is far more theoretical: could we adapt the Jarvis reversible lane model for other roads? And maybe provide bike lanes as well? And if no, won’t work because demand is both ways, can we think of doing a reversible lane on another parallel road not too far away, so that both directions are given priority/speed? (And yes, maybe with bike lanes, or at least wider curb lanes, if the curb conditions are actually not rubble).

    This may not be in library system, but I’m reading Better Buses, Better Cities by Steven Higashide, which is detailing some challenges and successes in improving American bus transit, and it seems excellent. And speaking of excellent, we may be very lucky as it is up here already, though it would still help a LOT to have the car costs to all levels of taxpayers made as clear a set of costs as the transit cost us, including the healthcare/climate costs. Record heat in July, and trees are kinda dying from heat/drought, so sure hope it rains soon/well.


  4. My dear friend Hamish wrote: “…it would still help a LOT to have the car costs to all levels of taxpayers made as clear a set of costs as the transit cost us, including the healthcare/climate costs.”

    We do know the healthcare costs. The costs of people being dead and injured due to the fine particles and other lethal poisons with which motor vehicle operators poison people. The Medical Officers of Health of the GTHA unanimously produced a report stating that in the GTHA every year:

    1. Motor vehicle operators poison and kill at least 712 people.
    2. Motor vehicle operators poison and injure at least 2,812 people so seriously that they have to be hospitalized.
    3. The cost of all this death and injury is approximately $4.6 billion.

    Source is page 20 of this report.


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