Toronto City Council recently approved two related projects that, in theory, will help to improve transit operations.
The most striking point about these reports is that almost all of the benefits are in the future, they are confined to only part of the network, and there is no discussion of other factors affecting service such as the underlying capacity and the chronic lack of management and headway discipline.
Nowhere in these reports is there any discussion of the quality and quantity of service the TTC operates today. No mention of irregular headways and missing-in-action line management. No mention of the considerable pool of surplus buses that sit in garages rather than providing service on the street.
Far too much attention is focused on the premise that fixing transit is only possible with some sort of road intervention, and that this magic this will solve all our problems. Alas, that is not true, but the plans provide two rather large fig leaves behind which Council can hide claiming to have “done something”.
It is as if red paint alone will cure chronic problems. Can adverts for a TTC Miracle Tonic be far behind?
If we want less crowded buses now we must have more buses and better spaced buses. This cannot occur without a combination of better attention by the TTC itself to managing what it already has and by Council to budget realities of funding better transit service. Red paint on twenty streets over ten years will be an incremental change over a long period on those streets. It will not make the transit network, as a whole, noticeably better.
For its part, the TTC must not look at priority simply as a mechanism to reduce costs, but also as a way to improve service. This must be accompanied by much better line management and an ethos that makes well-spaced and evenly loaded buses a centrepiece of improved service. This would bring benefits across the city without a long wait for the red paint brigade.
Surface Transit Network Plan
The Surface Transit Network Plan set out to reconcile corridors shown in TTC and City plans for improves priority, as well as new targets that were either missed in previous rounds. The top 20 candidates would be prioritized and scheduled on a preliminary basis. This sounds aggressive in a city like Toronto that is good with pro-transit talk but less inclined to substantial action.
The plan has a $62 million pricetag for its first five years. Although this will be included in future capital budgets, there is no guarantee that it will be funded beyond the level of preliminary studies and consultation, if even that.
Moreover, there will inevitably be pressure for the TTC to show “savings” that can offset the cost of implementation. This endangers the very purpose of the project – the provision of better transit – not just the same level of service running slightly faster. Nobody expects transit costs to go down when a new subway line opens, and both the capital and operating budget investments are seen as a tradeoff for greater mobility and a more attractive service.
Many streets appear in the list of candidates, far more than 20, and the first task was to identify which of them were the most deserving of better transit facilities.
The map below shows the scored result with the top group in red followed by lower-ranked groups in yellow, dark green and light green.
The scoring included five components:
- Existing (pre-covid) ridership
- Connectivity to Higher Order Transit (e.g. subway, LRT, BRT)
- Population and Employment Growth
- Ease of Implementation
Unfortunately for those who like to check the City’s work, the detailed scoring is not included in the report. The report contains a three-page description of the scoring methodology, but only a map summarizing its results [see Appendix 2, pp 17-20].
The King Street transit lanes are cited as the inspiration for this work, but there is a big difference between the core area of that street and most suburban roads in geometry, land use and, very importantly, all day level of transit and pedestrian activity.
“Ease of Implementation” is a particular concern because it will embrace all of the objections to lost parking, property access and congestion on whatever remains to motorists including nearby streets.
“Equity” refers to less well-off neighbourhoods that are more transit dependent, and these score higher for bus priority. There is an implicit assumption that transit dependent riders only use routes that pass through their home neighbourhoods.
An integral component of this plan is implementing transit priority measures that improve transit reliability, speed and reduce transit crowding in neighbourhoods with vulnerable populations, such as persons with low income, women, youth and racialized groups. An enhanced surface transit priority corridor can improve access to economic opportunities, City and other government services and spaces, food, health services and recreation.Surface Transit Network Plan Update, p. 3
Congestion that might interfere with better transit does not necessarily lie within or originate from low-income residential areas. This can pit motorists who drive through such neighbourhoods against residents who want to see better transit. Moreover, not everyone who is poor is exclusively a transit user if only because some trips are almost impossible to make via that mode. The need for better transit serving such trips is completely outside of this study’s scope.
Most of the Top 20 come from the highest-scored tier although a few of those were omitted for obvious reasons: St. Clair already has a transit right-of-way, and Eglinton West will in time acquire an extension of the Crosstown Line 5. Bus routes into downtown are not part of this plan because there is a separate “Midtown Express Bus Study” covering this topic.
Although the Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside “RapidTO” lanes went into operation in record time, this was possible because much of the corridor is wide enough to take a lane in each direction, and on Eglinton there were already peak period bus lanes. It is also a corridor with few street-facing properties where access and on-street parking would be an issue.
The TTC came under much-deserved fire for the concurrent cutback in stops along the Eglinton corridor. As things turn out, stop removals are responsible for a good deal of the travel time saving. The TTC has wanted to reduce the number of stops on its routes for years, but after cuts on a few streetcar lines, never quite got around to the bus network and the political battles this might entail.
The report describes “transit stop consolidation” as a “feature” that complements transit priority measures. That is hogwash. If the TTC wanted to reduce the number of stops to speed up service, they could do that on any route today. Their usual argument is not transit priority, but safety through the shift of stops away from locations that generate mid-block pedestrian crossing activity. By bundling the stop changes with the BRT rollout, the TTC hoped to kill two birds with one stone. This did not go well.
Residents at affected stops raised serious questions about accessibility with the new wider spacing, especially during the winter when snow clearing on sidewalks is less than ideal. A more serious problem, however, is the lack of consultation because, in this socially distanced era, most of that was done online, a technique not necessarily available or accessible to many residents.
There has been enough pushback that some of the stop removals are on hold pending study of their usage patterns. One might reasonably ask why this information was not already available as part of the implementation study. An important distinction here is that all-day averages, a favourite TTC way to cite stats, could hide peak periods when some of these stops are quite busy. Stops in residential areas have different usage patterns than stops in commercial, educational or mixed-use areas.
In an hilarious “own goal”, the City held the on site media event to launch the project at Cedar Drive, one of the stops that was removed from service.
The implementation of future proposed BRT corridors will involve much more community consultation with two rounds – one to get initial concerns and feedback about each proposal, and one to review the detailed design. Those of us who went through the King Street project know that this can be a detailed, tedious business, but it pays off with better buy-in to the finished work.
Some of the target corridors have narrow stretches where a bus lane would represent half of the road’s capacity. There are issues with parking and access to houses and businesses on streets which are much more significant than on the Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside corridor. It is easy to dismiss critics as the equivalent of Nimbys in the cars-vs-transit debate, but a detailed review will shift the focus to real data about how roads operate and how they might be changed.
The map below, from the City’s Official Plan, shows the right-of-way widths for all major streets, although it does not show the access patterns. Some of these streets will be challenging as transit corridors especially where service does not operate frequently enough to dominate the road at all hours.
A three year rolling cycle of studies/consultation, design and implementation is proposed with three corridors entering the process each year. Jane Street is in progress already, and the City has already discovered that this is not a corridor where they can just throw down red paint and hold a media event.
At Council, some members raised legitimate concerns about other users of the road including motorists and businesses dependent on vehicle access. This takes us straight into discussions of whether the reserved lanes should be peak only (maybe with a lighter shade of red paint?).
However, some corridors see severe congestion in the off peak, especially on Saturdays when road use is building back to pre-covid levels as shopping traffic returns. Any review of a fully-reserved lane design must consider how the street operates at all hours, and not simply take peak period travel time and vehicle reductions as its goal.
Another design challenge will be support for the growing network of cycling lanes where the coarse arterial grid makes the creation of parallel transit, cycling and auto/truck corridors much more difficult.
MoveTO 2021-25: Congestion Management Interim Action Plan & Smart Signals
Under the rubric of pandemic recovery, the City plans several changes to its traffic management schemes. Part of this addresses road congestion generally, while part is aimed at improved pedestrian and cycling safety and better transit operations.
In March of 2020, the City’s transportation system experienced the largest drop in transportation demand since traffic volumes have been recorded. As the COVID-19 pandemic was declared and the City as well as the Province moved into states of emergency, demand for travel on the City’s streets fell by more than half. Over the summer and through the various stages of the Provinces re-opening, traffic volumes have begun to increase again. These dramatic changes in demand disrupted decades-long patterns of growth and congestion, requiring a strategic review of operational capabilities to navigate the uncertainty and fluctuations in the number of vehicles on streets and the modal choices of travellers as demand recovers.MoveTO 2021-25 Interim Action Plan p. 1
A sizeable chunk of this will be a $24 million plan to implement “smart” signals to improve intersection operations and adapt to actual traffic conditions.
This is part of a larger plan, MoveTO. Transit signal priority is a large part of this plan, but not in the 2021 budget.
Recent Traffic Patterns
The decline in traffic across the city has been substantial. In various previous articles, I have tracked the change in bus travel times on various routes including the almost total disappearance of the “peak” periods.
In the two months immediately after COVID-19 pandemic response measures were introduced, delays for motor vehicles were eliminated across the City’s road network. Improvements in city-wide travel times were measured at 37% and 44% during the a.m. and p.m. peak hours, respectively. While travel time delays are still significantly lower relative to those prior to the pandemic, they have gradually increased in recent months as services have reopened and car traffic has partially returned.
By the second week of April, daily car and pedestrian traffic in the downtown core dropped precipitously to 40% and 20% of pre-pandemic volumes, respectively. Cyclist traffic, on the other hand, increased to 130% of pre-pandemic volumes during this same period, in part due to the warming weather, but also as residents turned to cycling as a safe and physically distant travel alternative. Volumes for all three modes of travel have since more than doubled at the time of this report, but car and pedestrian traffic both continue to be well below pre-pandemic levels. All modes of travel have also experienced drastic shifts in time-of-day patterns, including a substantial reduction in the traditional morning peak.MoveTO 2021-25 Interim Action Plan p. 6
The change in pedestrian patterns downtown was profound as entertainment venues closed and offices shifted to work-from-home.
Downtown pedestrian volumes decreased by an average of 80% by the second week of April, in large part due to the massive reduction of office employees working in the core. The largest percentage changes were observed at intersections within the Financial District (e.g. King and Bay), while those in close proximity to major residential areas (e.g. Richmond and Bathurst) were less affected. Volumes have since slowly recovered in recent months but continue to be significantly lower (an average decrease of 60% relative to pre-pandemic conditions) with large variances (decreases ranging from 40% to 80%) across intersections. It is expected that changes in pedestrian volumes elsewhere in the city are much less extreme given the unique concentration of dense service-based employment in the Financial District and surrounding areas. Reliable data on changes in pedestrian traffic outside of the downtown core is limited due the lack of multimodal monitoring infrastructure.MoveTO 2021-25 Interim Action Plan p. 7
The City calculated a travel time index for its road network to monitor the change in traffic speeds. This is a network-wide value and the effects will vary from one part of the city to another just as they have done on the transit system. Although the index has not grown back to pre-pandemic values, the upward trend through late summer is clear. Recent changes to lockdown rules have blunted this growth, but it is reasonable to expect the trend to resume as the City re-opens.
The Smart Signal plan envisages installation on many corridors, eventually, but the first two would be parallel to the expressway network where traffic patterns can change substantially depending on events on the expressways. Other streets would see Smart Signals, but not soon.
Based on experience on Sheppard East, the Smart Signals are expected to reduce travel times by 2.6% at peak, 2.5% on weekdays, and 1.0% on weekends. This is not a huge change, and moreover it is a one-time improvement. The real question here is whether Smart Signals will reduce or eliminate growth in travel times as we return to pre-pandemic conditions.
Intelligent Intersections are a variation on the theme in that they can recognize and provide for pedestrians and cyclists whose behaviour is very different from that of cars and trucks. The City plans to implement 100 locations over the next two years, but the report is silent on where.
By contrast to the Smart Signals program aimed at relief from expressway overflow, the Intelligent Intersections program collects detailed data on the types of activity on roads and paths. It will focus on three types of neighbourhood:
- Key gateways to/from the core area.
- Multimodal routes including cycling corridors.
- Corridors with high crash volumes where data about intersection behaviour can drive redesign.
This has already been operating downtown as part of the King Street project, and the City hopes to extend detailed data collection to other areas.
Advanced Transit Signal Priority
The Advanced Transit Signal Priority program aims to increase the sophistication of traffic signal responses to transit vehicles. The existing system was implemented on the streetcar network using pavement loop-based vehicle detection. This is vulnerable to failure or removal during road and track repairs, and is expensive to fine tune by relocating fixed detection points.
Transit Signal Priority (TSP) is an Intelligent Transportation Systems solution whereby a bus or streetcar is detected approaching an intersection and the traffic signal adjusts the signal timing to improve the operation of the buses or streetcars. TSP has been implemented at approximately 400 intersections in Toronto since 1990, with the City of Toronto and TTC collaborating over the years to develop highly advanced TSP green extension and other features to provide significant benefits to transit vehicles, while allowing impacts to other road users to be mitigated. Based on past surveys in Toronto the typical travel time saving for transit vehicles is up to 16 seconds round-trip per TSP-equipped intersection, which equates to a 10-minute round trip savings on a typical route with 40 TSP-equipped intersections. TSP is generally designed such that the priority would only be given if it was reasonably expected that the transit vehicle would require between 16 and 20 seconds of extension which could increase to a maximum of 30 seconds to account for variability in passenger service time and travel time.MoveTO 2021-25 Interim Action Plan p. 13
It should be noted that a great deal of the time saving initially achieved on some routes, notably King, has been used to increase scheduled running and recovery times in recent years. One simply does not see transit schedule changes announced for faster service due to transit signal priority. It is important also to note that many of these changes are incremental especially when they target key intersections where transit vehicles are delayed.
The new system takes a different approach.
The new MoveTO Advanced Transit Signal Priority (ATSP) strategy proposes installation at additional intersections. This innovation will leverage the TTC’s new vehicle detection system known as computer-aided dispatch/automated vehicle location (CAD/AVL) to provide more service reliability and vehicle spacing. At the same time, ATSP will mitigate impacts on other traffic by providing priority to TTC vehicles on a conditional basis.MoveTO 2021-25 Interim Action Plan p. 13
The reference to “a conditional basis” is that ATSP is intended to apply only to vehicles that are running late compared to scheduled times. This is a common approach used in cities that have less frequent transit routes where on-time performance is a key part of line management. This is most definitely not the case in Toronto.
Schedules on many routes are padded for worst case situations so that most trips can be completed without short turns. However, for most vehicles to stay strictly on time, they would have to drive at the speed of the worst-case schedule design. The net effect is that transit will not get priority most of the time.
A further problem arises with off-route vehicles for which the concept of “on time” is meaningless. The current system gives priority to any transit vehicle that shows up.
It is quite clear that a traffic signal could chose to withhold priority from a bus that is running early, but there are limits to how much it could be held back given the need to let other road users get on their way.
Moreover, a separate aspect of transit priority looks to shift stops farside where possible. If buses do not stop nearside, they are less likely to be held by traffic signals and can depart whenever they are ready.
Using TTC vehicles’ real-time GPS location feeds will simplify tracking and decisions on when a transit vehicle is present at an intersection, not to mention fine-tuning and adjusting to changing conditions. However, attempting to keep vehicles “on time” with traffic signals will be counterproductive.
Transit priority will be rolled out on high-volume TTC routes where it can benefit the most riders.
Improvements are possible in Toronto’s management of traffic and transit, and particularly when the technology is used to change tactics in response to actual conditions as they develop. We see shortcomings of the existing system under stressed conditions such as major downtown events, expressway shutdowns and route diversions.
However, there is an underlying assumption that transit only “deserves” priority when it is running late.
This design smells badly of a fundamental misunderstanding of how TTC transit vehicles behave and the premise that if only they would stay “on time”, all would be wonderful. The larger problem is that they do not stay reliably spaced, and this is an abdication of management and an operating culture that tolerates bunching as a routine event.
Technology will not fix a bad corporate culture.