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.
Full or Empty Buses?
Responding to complaints about crowding, the TTC cites stats from the automatic passenger counters (APCs) on buses showing that over 90 per cent of trips are not overcrowded. As I noted above, this is relative to Level 2 crowding standards (75 per cent of a seated load), not to Level 1.
A common question one hears and reads is “why don’t they just move the empty buses around”. Things are not quite that simple.
First off, many routes are strongly directional by time of day and they will carry good loads in the peak direction but light demand counter-peak. It is not clear to what degree these structurally lesser-used trips dilute the stats shown above. In a worst case situation on a route where everyone rides east in the morning and west in the afternoon, there will always be lots of lightly-loaded counter-peak trips, but this does not mean that the service is not required.
A variation on this can occur when a route has multiple peak points and times, but only one “super peak” that defines maximum demand. It is tempting to schedule for something less than this level and hope for the best, but that is not as acceptable when distancing is a goal rather than minimizing service cost.
Second, without belabouring a point explored in great detail in previous articles, there is a huge variation in vehicle spacing (headway) so that buses may show up in packs of two or three separated by wide gaps. This inevitably leaves passengers crowding onto buses that might be more lightly loaded if they arrived at a regular interval.
In a masterstroke of insensitivity, the TTC tells riders who don’t want to crowd to just wait for the next bus. This is not always practical when that bus is nowhere in sight.
TTC management claims that the gaps are not as bad as the vehicle tracking data show thanks to the unscheduled extras. This might be true, but they offer no evidence of where and how these extras are deployed. Moreover, when two or more scheduled buses show up together, that has nothing to do with whatever extras might be on a route. It is a basic question of line management and/or irregular headways built into the schedules.
We have no way of knowing how much crowding is the result of irregularly spaced service and how much because there simply isn’t enough service on some very busy routes.
When loads are uneven, management can claim that the average load is within standards. The problem is that riders do not ride “average” buses. From a statistical point of view, only one in two or one in three buses might be crowded, but most passengers are on the crowded bus.
Providing a more reliable service is a goal in the TTC’s Service Plan, but this will not be achieved just by painting a few roads red nor by tinkering here and there with traffic signal timings. The TTC needs to understand and accept the factors that lead to irregular service, including their own practices, and deal with these.
How Many Drivers? How Many Buses?
The debate on route capacity also bumps headlong into two questions:
- What about the laid off drivers?
- How many buses does the TTC have?
The TTC has just announced that it will recall the remaining employees from layoff:
October 15, 2020
In order to meet service demands brought about by changing ridership patterns, a major planned capital project and a new cohort of high school students returning to class, the TTC will recall the remaining 179 furloughed front-line employees, including 97 bus operators, in the first week of November.
This is a relatively small number of drivers compared to the total staff, and they do not represent a large change in the service that can be operated.
At a press conference on October 14, there was a strange exchange with Mayor Tory which was paraphrased in a Twitter sequence by the Star’s David Rider.
I checked the video record of the meeting, and this is essentially correct. Aside from the fact this was one day before the recall was announced, the statement about not having enough buses for the drivers simply does not hold water. Let us say, to be parliamentary about it, that the Mayor was badly advised.
According to the TTC’s memo describing service changes effective October 11, the peak bus requirement, including construction extras but excluding “run as directed” or “RAD” buses is 1,403 in the PM peak.
In addition, the TTC is operating about 100 RADs at various times and locations to deal with crowding problems and with surge loads from school timetables. There is a new mid-day surge caused by the half-day schedule many schools are now using.
That brings us to about 1,500 buses, peak, compared to a scheduled peak requirement including construction extras of 1,626 at the end of March.
In other words, even with the RAD buses, the TTC has over 100 buses fewer in service than it did pre-pandemic, more than enough for 97 recalled drivers. Remember also that one bus can translate to more than one driver if the bus is in service for longer than 8 hours per day.
TTC Planning has already announced that it will restore the 900-series express services over several months, although it is unclear how much this will affect total service as some of the affected routes simply had their express operations converted to “trippers” that overlaid the regular service. Some services, notably the 140 Downtown Express routes, will not be restored.
The TTC’s fleet is much larger than its service requirements. As of June 2020, it numbered over 2,100 vehicles. Some of these are due for retirement, but there is a current lull in buying for two reasons:
- The TTC had expected to recover buses from the Eglinton corridor and from construction effects on intersecting routes in 2021, but opening of the 5 Crosstown line has been delayed well into 2022.
- The City/TTC policy is to move to an electric bus fleet, but testing of vehicles from three vendors is only in early days. It would be premature to commit to replacing hundreds of buses that are now over a decade old before knowing that the replacement technology will be sound. A related problem is that garages must be modified for charging capability and this must be co-ordinated with a change in fleet technology.
In any event, the TTC has about 500 extra buses compared to a peak requirement of 1,600, and that is a very generous spare ratio, about 30 per cent. The TTC has pushed up its spare factor in recent years to improve its preventative maintenance cycle, but also because increasing technical complexity of buses creates more maintenance work. Having lots of spares also ensures that all of the scheduled service actually gets out of the garage when it is required, but at a cost of a fleet that is much larger than day-to-day service requirements.
In urgent cases, the TTC can press maintenance spares into service, and it could be argued that with a comparatively young fleet, the number of spares could be reduced. However, this would mean hiring more drivers because the buses do not drive themselves.
Buses on Streetcar Routes
There is a related problem on the streetcar system where only about 130 cars out of a fleet of 204 are scheduled at peak. Part of this is due to retrofit work by Bombardier and TTC, and part is due to bus replacements on major routes.
In 2020, 506 Carlton is operating with buses over its entire length because of track work from Lansdowne to High Park, replacement of overhead wiring for pantograph operation, and for structural repairs at Main Street Station. This will continue into 2021 for at least part of the route.
511 Bathurst is running with buses until late 2020 due to work on the bridge over the rail corridor at Front Street.
As of October 2020, there are 48 AM peak buses on streetcar routes: 30 on 506 Carlton, 19 on 511 Bathurst and 1 on 505 Dundas.
In 2021, there will be major construction projects affecting both 501 Queen and 504 King triggering the need for partial bus replacement. A major reconstruction of King Street is planned for a following year (tba).
The challenge in all of these cases will be to minimize the amount of each route that is bused and maximize use of the streetcar fleet. This would keep as many vehicles as possible available for the bus network
A vital discussion needed in the 2021 Budget planning will be a thorough review of vehicle availability and the cost associated with running as much of the fleet as possible. This may not be an option due to funding problems and the rate of return of riders and fares to the system, but the public and politicians should know what would be possible if only we would pay for it.
The TTC regularly replaces subway service with shuttle bus operations. However, this does not require spare buses except when an emergency occurs during the peak period. Evening and weekend shuttles operate when there are hundreds of spare vehicles, and indeed the TTC has special crews that exist to drive these buses, as needed, wherever work requires a subway shutdown.
In the current environment, the TTC already has its pool of “run as directed” (RAD) buses and these can be pressed into subway service when needed. It has never been the TTC’s policy to maintain the capacity to replace the subway, especially at peak, without affecting other services.
To say that buses must be kept spare in case of peak period emergencies misses a basic point: there are rarely drivers available at short notice to provide extra peak service. These buses more commonly are “borrowed” from other routes.
Buying More Buses
In the post-pandemic planning, there are calls to spend on infrastructure, but this has a basic problem that it will not solve capacity problems today.
The lead time for a new bus is at least one year, but even if Toronto bought more, we are tight for garage space. McNicoll Garage is supposed to open “by the end of 2020” according to the TTC’s website, but this will simply allow overcrowded existing garages to get some breathing room.
Technology change will require retrofits to existing garages for charging capability and any new garage should be build for an electric fleet. The lead time is easily a few years assuming property can be found. Bus garages are not popular neighbours, although one full of electric buses might be less unwelcome.
A particular problem for bus service could arise if there is political pressure to spend subsidy money only on net replacement vehicles with one new battery bus replacing one old diesel or diesel-hybrid. This may make the program look very “green” but it will do little to improve service. Toronto has been through this before with hybrid buses that were funded by the Federal government, but only if they replaced existing diesel buses rather than expanding the fleet and transit’s capacity to divert trips from cars.
A co-ordinated plan to increase garage capacity and to electrify an expanding fleet is essential if Toronto is to break out of the endless cycle of “there are no buses for more service, and no room for more buses”. That situation conveniently masks the budget effect that filling another garage with a few hundred net-new buses might have on the capital and operating budgets.
The Changing Nature of Peak Periods
With many office workers and students being forced to work and study at home rather than in office towers or school campuses, the nature of travel demand is changing. This has a few effects:
- The narrow peak in demand associated with a standard start time for office workers has disappeared.
- Student travel, to the extent it remains, is smeared out over a longer period with considerable off-peak and counter-peak components.
- The underlying demand for travel by workers in health care and manufacturing has its own patterns which are now more evident because the “traditional” commuting traffic has been reduced.
As each type of demand builds up, there is a need to recognize the character of each group of riders, and design transit to suit all of them. For too long, service has been strangled by budgets and limitations on fleet size. This is a big issue for the TTC, but it also affects systems in the 905 where transit service is considerably worse and far more resources would be needed to bring service up to the same level as in Toronto.
“Regional integration” is a catch-phrase these days and it often turns on questions of fare integration and “governance” (who gets to call the shots), but it rarely addresses funding. More service costs money and more is needed than simply building more tracks and running more GO trains to address the web of travel demands in the Toronto area.
With the peak period smoothed out, at least until pandemic restrictions truly disappear, there is an opportunity for transit to carry more people comfortably provided that service operates outside of narrow peak windows. That is how the TTC is operating today, and the need for this type of all-day capacity will be important to address current and future demand.
Will We Actually See Improvement?
All of this, even just running the service we have today, will cost a lot of money and that is precisely what nobody wants to talk about these days.
Any discussion must take place on an informed basis. What are our options? What could be done to provide better service now, not in a few years when “stimulus” projects finally work their way down to buses on the street? What role does transit play as part of economic revival?
Conversely, if the budget hawks get their way, what options do we have for trimming the cost of transit service? Will we simply bludgeon our way through service cuts in the manner of Rob Ford, or will we try to understand the options?
TTC management, their Board and City Council have a duty to explore these issues and clearly present options to citizens and to partner governments from whom they will seek funding. Muddling by with limited information, or worse a failure to look at options because some politicians might not like what they see, would be dereliction of duty at a time when the city needs clear-eyed, well-informed advice.