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”.

12 thoughts on “What Is A “Low Performing” Transit Route?

  1. Thanks for trying to instail some logic with these ‘carservatives’ aka limited-view bean-counters who continually fail to see the subsidies to private vehicles, because the ‘votorists’ – who to be fair are everywhere in ‘Carontop, OntCARio’ – won’t want to pay anywhere near their fare share as transit riders do. (Yes, cars are quite amazing machines individually, very helpful sometimes and they already cost a lot, and transit doesn’t work for many of us, nor do bikes)

    But even the DVP, the Gardiner and 401 have times where they’re not well-used, right?

    Why won’t these dominant ‘carservatives’ focus on the value-for-billions of Suspect Subway Extensions and other budgetary blights? (Is the figure of the Sheppard stubway a $10M a year cost? Does every trip N of York U cost us $25?)) Why can’t we get honesty about actual costs and value for taxpayers billions; or have bad-value assessments respected?

    Steve: The cost for the Sheppard line has not been broken out since the days of Gary Webster. However, both the ridership and service levels are unchanged, and so, allowing for inflation, the number should still hold. As for trips to Vaughan, the only time the cost was broken out was in the budgets for the period when it came into service. The marginal cost was cited as $30 million annually net of fare revenue (although most riders from York Region were already using the TTC, and so they do not represent net new revenue). With 40% of the line north of Steeles Avenue, York Region’s share if they were paying it (which thanks to a deal imposed by Queen’s Park, they are not) would be $12 million/year.

    Daily usage of the York Region stations in 2018 was about 25,000 (I am generously allocating half of Pioneer Village’s count to York Region), or about 7.5 million/year (for a 300-day year counting weekends as one “day”). That works out to a cost/rider of about $1.60.

    The federal level must be ensuring that they don’t merely make matters even worse by blindly going along with bad projects merely because the politricks – including beating up Toronto/Council with a halving of reps in mid-election – have skewed the ‘planning’ towards scheming, and EAs only consider one type of subway in a general area, and omit options and assessing how much concrete is used.

    Steve: I have had a few Twitter conversations with Adam Vaughan about this. There is a political problem in that many provinces don’t like being told what to do, and the feds are unwilling to interfere in decisions such as the SSE project which have local political support, even though this might be misguided. We in Toronto don’t like Queen’s Park interfering in our affairs, and it would be strange for is to invite the feds to behave the same way. It’s a conundrum that is not easily solved without changing the focus of “local support”. That said, the feds are happy to impose conditions on their spending when it suits them.

    The federal level does have overall responsibility for climate issues; and it’s pretty bad now, both with impacts, and also Canadian contributions.

    Given how the internet should be making better transit practices of Europe etc. far more known and available, being so behind should be seen as a climate criminality, or ‘car-iminality’, and no, going to electric vehicles will still not be enough to bring us towards sustainability, given how much energy/materials go in to both vehicles and infrastructures.

    Steve: Yes, electrification is the big thing these days, if only because the auto industry sees it as a way to generate demand for a completely new fleet of vehicles that otherwise might not be replaced for years, and with generous subsidies to boot. The infrastructure too is a major investment, and the assumption of “surplus” overnight power for charging may not hold if the demand curve shifts substantially. The question then is just how “green” electrification is in the short and medium term. It will soak up a lot of capital for transit that might otherwise be spent on service, but the bus building lobbyists and their political friends will do well.

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  2. Ford is spending $6 billion on the Scarborough Subway Extension for 105,000 riders a day and $12 billion for the Ontario Line for 389,000 riders a day. There are no numbers for the Eglinton West extension nor Yonge extension.

    What does Metrolinx cost us for the junk they produce?

    Steve: The Eglinton West extension is projected to carry 37,000 riders/day at a capital cost of $4.7 billion (2019$). The Yonge extension was estimated to cost $3.1 billion (2011$) in the “Final Business Case” written in 2016, but this is being updated as Metrolinx contemplates changes to the line (dropping stations, shifting to a surface alignment at the north end of the corridor). The report does not include an all-day ridership number, projects that about 10,000 riders will board at Richmond Hill in the AM peak hour, and another 10k or at the stations south of there. However, fewer than 2,000 of these would be net net riders who previously drove to downtown. A related issue will be the degree to which some riding might be taken by GO Transit with improved service on the Richmond Hill corridor and a competitive fare.

    All of this information is publicly available on the Metrolinx website.

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  3. As you note, the frequency of the 121 was further reduced (non-covid related) and it now runs rather infrequently and extremely erratically but the worst part is that it does not really connect properly at Union Station where the nearest stops on the east side are east of Bay and those at the west are west of Simcoe. If you live along The Esplanade and want to connect to the subway it is often best to take the 65 or 75 to Line 2.

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  4. Steve: What is a low performing transit route?

    82 Rosedale

    Please shut this waste of money route with empty buses running all day.

    Steve: FWIW the 82 Rosedale bus carried 1,300 riders per day in pre-pandemic times and had a productivity, measured in riders per vehicle hour, of 65 which is higher than many trunk routes like Finch East and Kipling. You might want to actually read the tables linked from the article to see how the routes stack up against each other.

    Rosedale has the advantage of being a very short route, and even if the bus is not packed full, the resources used per rider are smaller because they are not travelling far. This is a basic issue with short routes especially when they only require one bus to serve them.

    If we cancel this route, we will save one bus all day, and I will be astounded if you can handle those riders in Ubers or whatever at the same cost. The argument might be made for evening service when demand is lighter, but remember that if the “big bus” is still needed for periods of heavier demand, there is no saving in fleet size.

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  5. With Jim’s swipe at the Rosedale bus, my impression is that many of its users are either going to the subway, or coming from it, so it’s part of the network, and there are other larger wa$tes to go after. Like the SSE – a Star editorial at some point opined that if built, as a one-stop I think it was then, and if numbers of new riders held, it would be at a cost of $1,500,000 each. These big subway-into-sprawl projects cost so much that we could give all adults in Caronto a decent bike, perhaps even an e-bike, as the outer areas have more distance and hills. Yes, we have issues with many bike riders, often the heavier e-bikes and I think in Europe, a license and insurance would be required.

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  6. People have this idea that, anytime they see a bus that isn’t full, the transit service is a “waste of money.” This thinking, which is quite simplistic, is pervasive among those who understand nothing about the business of public transit. Yet they see no parallels in empty subway trains, which I suspect is because subways are invisible to those who never take transit, which is just how they like it. This is why we have the same people complaining about empty buses and demanding cuts, while at the same time advocating and building multi-billion dollar subway lines that run mostly empty trains.

    Similarly, they see no parallels in their own use of private vehicles. Are private cars or Ubers for that matter constantly in use, every hour of the day, with every seat occupied? Of course not, and there is a lot of public and private money devoted to storing these vehicles around the city on a 24h basis, a parallel principle which remains invisible to most of those who complain about the cost of public services.

    While a certain amount of effort is well-spent to explain these things to those with open minds, the seemingly endless work to educate decision-makers and their hired consultants is tiresome, drains staff time and resources, and continually places the integrity of the transit network in peril from people who think they know more than they do. The most troublesome are those who refuse to listen, preferring to stick with their pre-conceived notions about transit, and I fear that there are more of these now than there ever used to be.

    Steve: If the subway were held to the same service standards as the surface network, parts of it would close during certain hours for lack of ridership even allowing for the cost of a replacement bus service. Having invested billions in subway lines, we face substantial costs just to keep the infrastructure available and reliable even if a train never runs, and this means that the marginal saving from running fewer trains is lower than a comparable cutback would be on the surface. There is a budgetary time-bomb lurking in all of the “subway” projects we will become responsible for over the next decade because more and more resources will go just to keeping them open and running (no matter what technology we call them) while the surface network is starved. Even worse, if there is an attempt to recoup capital costs through what is in effect a lease arrangement with the 3Ps, this will suck even more out of the transit budget.

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  7. Steve said: There is a budgetary time-bomb lurking in all of the “subway” projects we will become responsible for over the next decade.

    Gee, that sounds like it’s a situation where those who are worried about public dollars have to be alarmed eh? Where are some financial conservatives when needed? Alas, not at Queen’s Pork, nor at the majority of Clowncil, though with a bit of luck, maybe they exist at the federal level, but that might have been old, pre-C-19 thinking/hopes. ‘Carservatives’ are very much in control in most of our governments; it’s a form of willful blindness, and as the ‘votorists’ are sizeable and organized, it’s uphill for transport equity. (vtpi.org could be helpful for costs of cars btw )

    Mary Ann noted: “the seemingly endless work to educate decision-makers and their hired consultants”

    – but that may be deliberately done.

    Maybe parts of the rest of the world harmed by climate extremes will get to be suing us; we have had the Toronto Target but like others, it’s been somewhat driven through/over, and since we are not fully honest about what’s in/out of the GHG accounts, we have false impressions of how ‘green’ we are. For instance, much of our mobilities come from other countries, and we don’t include those GHGs including shipping, in our profile, whether bikes, cars or transit.

    But it’s hard to interrupt a party or a joy ride isn’t it?

    Steve: I cannot help thinking that consultants who have to be educated may well be selected because of their ignorance (or at least their bias), not for their experience and knowledge.

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  8. Steve: if the “big bus” is still needed for periods of heavier demand, there is no saving in fleet size.

    There might be no savings in fleet size but there are savings in operational costs. You want to save dollars and not fleet sizes. The 82 Rosedale bus should run during rush hours only if even that. Also, I am not sure why the Rosedale station was even built if it were not for the fact that it is a very high heeled area.

    Steve: The primary cost of the bus is the driver. If you replace the 82 with a van, you don’t save that, unless of course your real goal is to cut drivers’ wages. You also have to buy and maintain the van (or pay a third party to do it for you, which amounts to the same thing), and you still have to buy and maintain the bus, not to mention the garage where it is housed. If the off-peak demand requires more than one van, you are net in the hole. Savings would mainly come from the difference between diesel and gasoline fuel costs for the two types of vehicle. Fuel costs account for less than 10 per cent of total operating costs, and so there’s not a lot of money on the table there for a one-bus route.

    As for Rosedale Station, yes, if we were building the subway today there would probably not be a station there, nor at many other locations because the typical spacing these days is 1km or more. However, the Rosedale Bus predates the subway by over 30 years. There was bus service into Rosedale starting in October 1922.

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  9. One of the comments to your article was the suggestion that the Rosedale 82 be canceled. Your response was cogent but omitted the political angle. How many nannies and cleaners would be late for work causing anguish for the well heeled?

    Another factor is that the TTC isn’t just in the people moving business. It is also in the barrier reducing business: they are asked to help residents of NIAs get to work and school and they are asked to help people with physical limitations be mobile. Cutting back on services can often disproportionately impact people who have few other choices.

    Steve: It does not matter whether these are nannies going to work in Rosedale homes, or care workers going to a hospital, or Bay Street Execs going to the stock exchange. Mobility is mobility and it has an economic benefit. There are underused parts of the TTC where the screams would be long and loud if we killed off the service (some outer parts of the subway might even qualify). It’s easy for someone to knock the Rosedale or Forest Hill buses (there are others that serve well off areas in the burbs, but they never are mentioned), but the biggest problem is that with those two routes operating on their own, they attract attention. If Rosedale were through-routed with Sherbourne as it has sometimes been, the stats for the combined route would “hide” the Rosedale bus from view.

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  10. Regarding 82 Rosedale, if you were looking for a “true savings” cutting the 140-series (Downtown Express) routes would cause 1250 customers to use the conventional system for the entirety of their trip, halve the fare revenue, and free up 18 buses. Seems oddly more substantial “savings” than cutting a route with one vehicle serving 1300 customers and only using one bus. A route which serves an area that cannot be easily accessed on foot (Crescent/South Dr from Yonge to Glen Rd is simple enough for a sufficiently healthy/”capable” pedestrian, and can also be done from Sherbourne Station on foot or via that bus), but crossing the Glen Road bridge into “lower Summerhill/upper Rosedale” is much more of a trek than should be expected (caveat: I acknowledge that there are areas of the city where an almost 1 km walk is required to access the nearest bus; but many of those areas were developed for the car and present challenges for transit service at an urban scale).

    The above shows another way of “calculating savings” by canceling a route/group of routes that while it will deliver “more bang for your cost-saving buck” it has impacts on the network (redistribution of customers impacting other routes, possible loss of customers, some loss of service area) as a whole. So even if they are components of a network that I never use (i.e. the Downtown Express group) they still have sufficient value to be retained. The TTC *actually* operates a cost-effective network; one that deserves to be [improved] not further cut.

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  11. The surest way NOT to achieve cost-savings is to provide the highest-cost services to low-demand areas. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is being done with the Sheppard Subway, the Spadina subway extension into York Region, the planned Yonge subway extension north, the Scarborough subway, and the undergrounding of the west extension to the Crosstown LRT. The fact that the bean counters continually focus on the Rosedale bus, or the entire Steeles East route for instance, (which was recommended for complete removal by Rob Ford’s “efficiency consultant” when he was mayor), rather than these big ticket items, just proves the point that these people have no idea what they are talking about. Pushing micro-transit as a cost-saving measure for Toronto is just another example.

    This is part and parcel of what I believe to be a dangerous change in transit governance that is taking place without any study, announcement, or consultation. While the TTC was far from perfect, it at least had the benefit of a single-minded mandate to provide transit to the people of Toronto, and it has some direct staff expertise in all areas of transit such as planning, financing, operations, maintenance, design, etc. Unhappy customers also knew who to complain to. With Metrolinx and City Planning taking over responsibility for transit, you now have people with no in-house knowledge of transit operations or finances making decisions that will significantly affect both over the long-term. Their consultants are no better.

    Both of these organizations have multiple mandates which dilute their focus on Toronto transit. For Metrolinx, it is their political masters at Queens Park who are thinking about what the 905 voters want or what those in North Bay will support. For City Planning, transit is primarily a means to achieve urban design and development objectives with little to no emphasis on system functionality. This shifts future operating problems and costs to the TTC-as-operator and is whittling away the solid foundation of our transit system. And the silence of TTC senior management, who should be raising hell with the mayor and councillors about this, speaks volumes about their priorities. I am sorry to say that people who truly care about and value transit in this city are being sold out by nearly everyone now in charge of it.

    Steve: This is compounded by a Board who, for the most part, are so busy with their Council duties, and so unwilling to challenge management, especially during a crisis, that the TTC just drifts. Meanwhile, Metrolinx has too many well-connected hangers-on, including consultants with friends in high places, and a Board that is at best a cardboard cutout for show, but with no real effect beyond giving Queen’s Park’s schemes a patina of “professional” validation.

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  12. I fully agree with Mary-Ann. I would add that Mayor Tory contributed greatly to the problem, prior to Premier Ford’s takeover, by pushing the Scarborough Subway Extension and an impractical implementation of SmartTrack. He used his power to bully enough City Councillors to obediently vote with him.

    City Council is responsible for the sad state of Toronto transit as there is no department or staff for strategic transit planning. The transit problems we currently suffer, crisis at Yonge/Bloor, overcrowded Younge subway, crowded Bloor/Danforth, no rapid transit grid for the whole city and long bus routes with no TTC management of bus spacing are City Council’s fault, past and present. It takes planning to address these issues. Councillors are too short-term focused to develop an “Official Plan” to address our problems as well as deal with the future, climate change, expanded transit capacity, alternatives to car, bike parking stations etc.

    Citizens are not communicating to politicians that sound transit planning is important. In my experience only Councillors Pasternak, Perks and Bradford care about public transit. As much as you may think your Councillor cares, they have not dedicated adequate time or resources. There are Councillors who are totally car-centric and have no interest in public transit.

    We get the government we deserve.

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