The following chart was included in my first article on the TTC’s Covid response. The red and green lines in this chart marks the number of trips that accumulated more than a 30% and 50% load respectively. The 30% load has been the target for service through the summer, but this is challenging to achieve for a few reasons.
Demand on the bus network has recovered more quickly than on the rest of the system and now stands at almost 50%. This is not evenly distributed by route or time of day, and there will be trips that routinely face higher demand than can be handled.
However, on some routes, notably those that formerly had express services, the revised all-local service is well below the average of 85% of pre-covid service the TTC commonly cites. In a few cases, routes have only half of their previous service unless unscheduled extras are added to compensate.
TTC management note that both the green and red curves turned downward slightly in early September, and attribute this to the operation of more unscheduled buses than in earlier months thanks to operators who have been recalled from layoff.
The more severe challenge, however, is that there simply are not enough buses and operators even at full service to provide generous spacing with demand at 50% of pre-covid levels, let alone higher proportions.
More operators will be recalled in October 2020 and this will add to on-demand service for school travel, particularly in the midday which now will have peaks that did not previously exist as half-day attendees switch over from the morning to the afternoon panel.
The success of using demand responsive service will be seen in how these stats behave in coming weeks.
According to staff, the TTC is attempting to manage service so that the busiest parts of the network can handle demand. From photos posted on social media, it is clear that they do not always succeed.
As I have discussed in a series of articles, some routes have built in bunching and gapping. This arises from at least four separate problems.
- In an attempt to quickly modify schedules in the spring without going through total rewrites across the system, many routes had selective cancellation of scheduled runs. This left gaps where the missing runs would have been.
- Supplementary service was scheduled as “trippers”, although these vehicles were in service usually for seven hour periods overlapping the two traditional peaks. Headways on these trippers was rarely the same as on the underlying service, and so the two sets of buses did not blend well.
- Some routes with branching service do not have compatible scheduled service on each branch causing headways to gyrate as the branches go in and out of sync with each other.
- Even when the scheduled headways are uniform, buses do not leave terminals regularly spaced on many routes, nor does there appear to be any attempt to regulate spacing as the move down their routes.
Scheduled service is supposed to be supplemented by buses that operate as needed where there is crowding. However the TTC’s vehicle tracking system does not report on these vehicles, nor is there is any report on how and how well these vehicles are used beyond the observation above that the number of crowded trips declined slightly in September.
A big problem with bunches and gaps is that they cause uneven vehicle loading. When one sees photos of crowded buses, or maps of “hot spots” on the system, it is impossible to tell if this is a problem of insufficient service, or of buses arriving in packs producing crowding on the lead vehicle.
School trips may or may not co-incide with parts of the network that are already crowded and, therefore, require extra service. The two maps below show the location of TCDSB and TDSB secondary schools relative to areas of high demand on the existing bus network at midday. Not all routes require more service, although there could well be peaking problems when many students attempt to leave or arrive in a short period. The TTC is working with school boards to optimize class schedules with bus network capacity.
School travel has a very different pattern from commuting both in terms of origin/destination patters and times of travel. The TTC network, pre-pandemic, had many scheduled trips to handle local school demands. These were typically hooked up with regular peak period buses but operated special routes. This demand remains, although the times and locations have shifted to reflect new school schedules.
The amount of special school service for fall 2021 is shown in the table below.
The goals for dealing with September demand patterns are summarized below:
Hot and Cold Spots on the Bus Network
Two other maps give an indication of where demand is strong and weak, although there are problems with the underlying methodology. These are the “hot” and “cold” maps showing where demand hits a level over 25 per bus or under 5 per bus.
The methodology problem is that these are all-day charts, unlike the ones shown for school midday travel above. A route may be “cool” at some point through the day, but this does not mean that it is automatically a candidate for service cuts. There is also the basic issue that routes form part of a network and they are not uniformly loaded by location, time of day and direction. Indeed, if they were busy all day at their outer ends, they would have no room for riders further along their route.
This is the classic “bean counter” fallacy of evaluating transit service by whether there is still room on the roof for more passengers. A related problem is that trip lengths vary from route to route, and more resources (e.g. bus seat minutes) are required to carry long trips than short ones although the fare is the same. This can cause cost-per-trip values to vary wildly as a function of route structure, not of inherent vehicle productivity.
The “hot” map is more of a concern because it shows locations where some buses are already over the 50% capacity line. There are a lot of routes and they are trunk lines. Candidates for service reductions are rarely busy and there is far less available there as an offset to provide resources for the busy routes.
The October schedule changes include a few cuts, but these are on the order of a bus here, a bus there generally in off-peak periods. Further cuts to poor-performing routes are proposed in the 2021 Service Plan which I will review in a separate article, but even these are not extensive measured against the system overall.
Cost Per Ride
The cost per ride on the TTC skyrocketed in April when riding was at its lowest point, and it is still running at over four times the normal level ($5.49 vs $1.20). This presents a huge budget challenge for the City and TTC in planning service for 2021.
“On Time” Performance
One TTC metric of service quality is “on time performance” [OTP]. I will not belabour an argument made in previous articles beyond saying that “on time” has a very flexible definition for the TTC that can give poor service to riders while still hitting the standard. It is a dart board with a very large bullseye.
Three charts show the OTP values for subway, bus and streetcars.
For the subway, OTP is actually supposed to be measured against scheduled headway. In other words, did trains arrive at the spacing riders expected? Riders do not care if the train is on time, only that it is not arriving after an extended gap and has no room to board.
The values shown here are for 2014, 2019 and 2020. Six years ago there were a lot of problems with headway maintenance in part due to delays at terminals and in part due to scheduling. This had been improved substantially by 2019.
There was a big drop early in the pandemic era because of staff shortages and cancelled trains. The metric improves once schedules were changed to reflect the available workforce. It is important to note that this is a measure of headway reliability relative to scheduled values, not of the amount of service provided.
For streetcars and buses, the charts show 2015 values and the improvement, if any, to 2019. In both cases there is a drop in OTP due to changes in service actually operated versus scheduled, followed by a recovery when schedules had been adjusted. Again, as on the subway, these charts do not reflect the amount of service operated, only the degree to which it met TTC standards for being “on time”.
Returning to Full Service
In response to all of this there was an attempt by Commissioner Shelley Carroll to accelerate the return of laid off operators with the following motion:
1. Direct the Chief Executive Officer to recall the remaining 300 laid off staff and increase service to pre-COVID levels.
2.Direct the Chief Executive Officer to expedite the implementation of any other operational measures that might maximize passenger capacity with consideration to safety and public health guidelines.Motion by Commissioner Carroll seconded by Commissioner Bradford
This was watered down to effectively say to staff “do whatever you planned to do whenever you feel it is needed” by a motion by Vice-Chair Joanne De Laurentiis:
1. Direct the Chief Executive Officer to continue to monitor ridership levels and recall the remaining laid-off staff as needed to increase service in line with the demand responsive service plan, on high-ridership routes.
The second version passed.
What is troubling about this is that there was no discussion of possibilities. Staffing up and running more service has lead times, and at this point it would be difficult to see much change before November or December at best. Even that would only be for run-as-directed buses, not for scheduled service as the mid-November changes are already in draft and the next chance for major change is in January.
“Full service” will not mean the same thing in 2021 as in past years because the demand pattern will have changed. Peaks will not be in the same locations, and if provision is to be made for distancing onboard, the very definition of “peak demand” will also change.
That runs headlong into budget questions about the level of subsidy that will be available and the amount of revenue the TTC will actually get from fares over 2021.
If there is a desire to change the loading standards so that 50 riders is no longer considered a “full” bus, but rather some lower number, this has very large implications for fleet planning not to mention the need to recruit more drivers to pilot the many new buses that would be required. Buses do not appear out of thin air, and even when they arrive, they need a garage for storage and maintenance.
The TTC Board has not undertaken a detailed review of the implication of more generous loading standards and the implications for budgets and fleets for a very long time going back to the era of Mayor Miller’s “Ridership Growth Strategy” (not to be confused with the more recent TTC version).
These basic questions would be at the heart of any change in service standards:
- What are the implications of new standards?
- What resources do we have and what can we accomplish with them?
- Are we making the best use of our resources now?
- Were we even hitting the existing standards before the pandemic, i.e., are we starting “in the hole”?
- What additional costs would be required to improve standards?
These questions are not asked because they inevitably mean spending more money on transit, not just talking about how pro-transit Toronto is because it manages to pain curb lanes on a few streets red.
The standard line is always “we have no buses, and even if we did, we cannot afford to operate them”. That is a recipe for management gridlock but a convenient political out for those who do not want to spend any more on transit except for a few pet subway lines.
In my next article, I will turn to proposals for the 2021 Service Plan which were posted just recently by the TTC.