What Is A “Low Performing” Transit Route?

Recently, I wrote about the impetus to shift to “microtransit” as a fix for what ails the TTC and other transit systems (see Meddling with Microtransit).

The advocacy group TTCriders has posted a set of maps showing what happens if routes carrying fewer than 4,000 riders per day are deleted from the network (see Where’s My Bus).

Just counting riders does not tell the whole story, and yet this is precisely the kind of simplistic logic we can expect from politicians looking for a fast way to show change, or worse “innovation”, in the provision of transit service.

TTCriders lists only 24 possible routes for cuts based on the 4,000 rider criterion, but in fact there are 61 routes that meet this threshold, out of 169 in total, or over one third. If this were the starting point for TTC cuts, the results would be much more severe than TTCriders shows.

The most recent TTC riding counts are for 2018.

Here is the complete list sorted by route ridership.

Those who would bring a “businesslike approach” to public services always harp about “efficiency” and “cost effectiveness”. Just looking at raw ridership numbers is the wrong place to start.

The number of riders on a route is related to its length, and to the number of people and jobs along that route. Many of the under-4000 club are short routes, and if their demand were scaled up based on their length, they would not be included.

Some routes exist under separate names, but are really part of one corridor. For example, the 960 Steeles West and 954 Lawrence East Express buses carry 2,900 and 3,200 riders daily, but they are an integral part of local routes 60 and 54. Indeed, they were simply the “E” branch of the local service until the TTC rebranded these services as 900-series routes.

The 503 Kingston Road (as it was in 2018) is a rush hour branch of 502 Downtowner, and both of them supplement service on Queen and King Streets. They carried 2,100 and 6,000 riders respectively in 2018, but they are part of a much larger Queen/King corridor from the Beach to downtown.

Probably the strongest example of the problem of reporting ridership by route number is the 134C/913 Progress Bus which operates local in one direction and express the other, peak only. This is one bus route, but its results are reported as if it were two. The 913 carries only 2,000 riders/day, but the 134 carries 8,500 including its other branches.

A more realistic view of route performance is the productivity of the vehicles — how many riders are carried per hour of vehicle operation? When this approach is used, the pecking order of routes changes.

Here is the complete list sorted by riders per vehicle hour which I will refer to as “riding density”. This is preferable to the TTC’s term “productivity” which has implications of what is desired.

Many of the very lowest routes stay at the bottom, notably the premium fare Downtown Express 14x routes whose productivity will always be limited by various factors including the fare and infrequent service which discourage ridership, and a large amount of dead mileage (travel without carrying passengers) in the counterpeak direction.

However, some major routes lie in the bottom third of the list such as 53 Steeles East which carries 25,000 riders per day. (At the point these statistics were compiled, the 953 Express service had not been split off as a separate route, and it does not appear in the TTC’s table.)

The TTC Service Standards are based on the idea that routes deserve to be served when the riding density exceeds a standard threshold. The purpose of this is to rank route productivity on a comparable basis despite variations in length. Even that scale has problems, and I will return to this topic shortly.

The table below shows the range of values used by the TTC.

Bus routes are expected to carry at least 20 riders/vehicle hour in peak periods, and 10 in off peak. Note that this is not the same as having a peak load of 20 or 10 riders respectively, but of serving this number of riders over the course of an hour. On a short route, a bus might make two or even three round trips per hour and the minimum rider count would be distributed over those trips.

An important distinction here is that the standard applies not to all day averages, but to each period of service, or even to an individual branch or portion of a route. A route could have good riding density on an all day basis, but actually run with very light loads in the evenings or on Sundays. The TTC does not publish breakdowns at that level of granularity for its services.

A related issue is the “span of service”, in other words, how many hours/day and days/week does a route receive at least minimal service. Some routes with low riding density survive because they are part of the larger network that operates roughly 19 hours/day as a matter of policy.

These standards were the subject of much debate during the Rob Ford era in Toronto and they were less generous (more riders were needed to justify service) than they are today. The change is directly attributable to the reaction to service cuts imposed by Ford, but then mostly restored by Mayor Tory. (That is a political story in its own right, but not for this article.)

There are only a few routes that do not meet the applicable standard for their 2018 performance, and some of these such as 121 Fort York-Esplanade have seen service cuts since these counts were published. That route, by the way is a good example of how the numbers for a combined route (the eastern and western branches) can be dragged down by performance of the weaker half, notably the western leg which is subject to severe traffic congestion.

Another factor that affects riding density is the length of an average trip. On a short route, by definition, a trip cannot be long, and the capacity of the vehicle is recycled frequently. For example, the 22 Coxwell bus shuttles back and forth from Danforth to Queen, a distance of 2km, carrying 5,600 riders/day at a density of 80/vehicle hour. It is self-evident that those 80 riders are not all on the bus at the same time, and Coxwell benefits from high turnover and strong demand in both directions.

The 54 Lawrence East bus carries 33,300 riders/day, but only 56.9 riders/vehicle hour because this is a long route and riders travel further on it. More resources are required per rider (or “boarding” in TTC parlance) to serve that demand.

The 504 King streetcar carries 84,300 riders/day at a density of 130.7 riders/vehicle hour. This is a route that has very strong demand over its length and a lot of turnover. Indeed, it is almost like three or four routes strung together as one with overlapping travel patterns. From a transit utilization standpoint, this is about as good as it gets.

Another favourite metric often heard from defenders of “taxpayer dollars” is the cost per passenger. This is a meaningless number because people buy rides at a fixed cost, and the longer their trip, the more resources are used to carry them. (For the purpose of this discussion, I will not even begin to talk about the high cost of subway trips to and from distant corners of the network.)

The cost/rider to bring someone from the suburbs to downtown, or to travel across the city, is very high, but we never hear transit discussed in those terms. Conversely, the cost to carry someone a short distance is low relative to the fare. Apportioning fare revenue to individual trip segments is a difficult task, and no matter how one approaches it, there will be inconsistencies and inequities built into the assumptions.

The TTC has not published estimated operating costs on a route basis since 2011, but when they did, the cost/rider varied from a low of $1.18 (2011$) to a high of $5.50. Unsurprisingly, the lowest costs were on routes that serve short trips with the 64 Main bus at the bottom of the list. The streetcar routes were cheaper on a per ride basis than the bus routes because they carry more passengers per vehicle and have good turnover along their length.

Many routes have portions that do not carry well, especially in the off peak, or which are highly directional and therefore show poor productivity because vehicles travel nearly empty in the counterpeak direction.

In the evening it is not unusual for a bus to leave a subway terminal well loaded, but make its return trip nearly empty. That is a fact of life in the transit business.

However, the transit system is a network, and those less productive parts contribute to the usefulness of the whole. From an economic standpoint, a trip might start on a lightly used feeder route, but continue on the subway which would not have that rider if the feeder did not exist to bring the rider to the station, and to take them home again on the return.

There are fundamental questions:

  • What level of demand should we serve with the “standard” transit system and where is the cutoff point beyond which travellers are expected to fend for themselves?
  • Is there a less costly way to provide comparable service for riders in areas with lower demand?
  • Should an alternative service be demand responsive rather than route based, and should it offer door-to-door service or operate only along major streets like a regular bus route?

The question of “less costly” is tricky and it depends on several assumptions:

  • Will the service be provided by transit staff at the same wage rates as the standard service or by lower-paid taxi or Uber-style providers? Is the underlying strategy to attack wages under the guise of improving transit?
  • Will a new fleet be required for the service that adds to the overall cost base either directly to the transit system, or indirectly through fares paid to providers?
  • Will a supplementary fare be charged for riders to use a “last mile” service into low density areas, or will free transfers to and from the standard routes be allowed?
  • Will service provision continue to be done on a city-wide basis regardless of the density of demand, and will it be provided 7×24 at least to the standard now used for the regular transit service?
  • Will the full economic cost in terms of added user fees, inconvenience, or the ability to travel to work/school/shopping be included in the equation?

Any bean counter can bring savings simply by throwing away the half empty jars of beans and saying “oh what a good boy am I” when the result could run counter to what we believe a transit system should be.

The last place to start this discussion is a simplistic review that says anyone on a route carrying fewer than X thousand a day can fend for themselves. Members of the TTC Board and of City Council need to understand how transit works as a whole and as part of the city’s economy before they start slashing in the name of “efficiency”.