How Much Service Can The TTC Run?

A lot of ink (some real, but much virtual) has been spilled in past weeks on the topic of crowding on TTC buses. This was compounded by less-than sympathetic responses from various places, including the TTC inself, suggesting the speakers/writers have no sense of the real world that transit riders inhabit.

Although there has been a recent plateau, ridership has been building through the summer and photos of crowded buses now appear commonly on social media. This co-incides with a second wave of infections and a selective move back to “stage 2” protocols. Just when concerns about personal safety are rising, the TTC gives the impression of shrugging its shoulders. This is not a recipe for confidence in rebuilding transit ridership.

That said, I must confess that I fall midway between camps that cry out for vast increases in transit (possibly with lower fares) and those who wring their hands wondering how we will even pay for what operates today. Trying to take the middle road is not easy.

Here I will attempt to put various issues and options on the table. Whether those responsible for the TTC act on them is out of my hands.

How Full is Full?

During the early days of the Covid recovery period (remember only a few months ago when we thought this was all going away soon?), the TTC produced charts showing demand levels and crowding configurations for its vehicles.

The degree to which they might achieve these levels depended on the overall level of ridership. This chart shows what happens if the TTC attempted to provide distanced service even though demand was low. At a 30% level, the service would have to match pre-pandemic levels to leave enough room for passengers to spread out.

This is not feasible from either a budgetary or operational point of view. The cost is very high, and there is no headroom for growth beyond that 30 per cent line.

Another variation of this chart foresaw a combination of increased crowding and service as ridership grew. On a system-wide basis, we are now at Level 2 with overall ridership at around 40 per cent and this translates to a crowding standard of 25 per bus, about three quarters of a seated load (see chart above).

The problem, of course, is that there is a big difference between system-wide averages and the conditions from route to route, location to location and time of day.

The TTC reported that as of early September demand on the bus system had reached almost half of pre-covid levels. About one quarter of all trips were running at or above the Level 1 standard of 30 per cent capacity, and almost a tenth were running at or above the Level 2 standard of 50 per cent.

The oft-cited figure that 92 per cent of TTC trips are not crowded comes from this chart. What it really means is that only 8 per cent are over the Level 2 standard, but it does not mean that the balance fall at or below Level 1. This distinction has been lost in translation by those who seek to put the best possible spin on the situation.

A major source of confusion has been the question of what would trigger resumption of full service. The chart above shows that 50 per cent demand would require 100 per cent service to provide some degree of distancing, albeit at Level 2, not Level 1 standards.

This was taken by TTC management to mean 50 per cent overall, but as we well know the recovery on many bus routes outpaces the system average. Many bus routes are likely to be well beyond this level before the system as a whole hits that target.

At the September 24 TTC Board Meeting, management made this point, that bus ridership was growing faster and would have to be dealt with but there is little real progress on this so far. The TTC does run some unscheduled extra service (about which more later) and claims that its effect shows up in the slight downturn in early September in the proportion of trips cresting the 50 per cent capacity line.

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