In response to complaints about unreliable service and crowding, the TTC routinely talks about buses that are on standby ready to fill in for overcrowded routes and emergencies. It is common to hear statements such as:
… we have 120 -140 buses each day to adjust service where and when possible to increase ridership levels …
This statement is not true.
What the TTC does have is 120-140 crews for standby buses, but these are not all in service at the same time. They are spread broadly across three shifts as the chart below shows. (The actual counts for August 2021 are 128 crews on weekdays, 155 on Saturdays and 124 on Sundays.)
[Chart methodology: The source data are in the TTC’s run guides for the August schedule period. These show the start and end times for each bus. For charting, the day is divided into quarter-hours, and a crew is counted if it overlaps an interval, even if it is only just starting or ending. For example, a crew from 8:10 am to 4:10 pm counts in the quarter hours from 8:00 to 4:00. Most crews are 8 hours long, but some on weekends are 10 hours long, and there is one oddball that is 8.5 hours.]
The peaks in the chart are caused by overlaps between shifts so that there is no gap while one shift of buses returns to their garages and another enters service.
The first crews report just after 3 am, and the last ones come back after 6 am the following day (times after midnight are shows as hours 24 to 30 in the chart legend). The build-up is a bit slower on Sunday reflecting the later start of service on many routes.
Realistically, the maximum number of “Run As Directed” (aka “RAD”) buses, also known by their internal route number “600”, is represented by the horizontal segments of the chart. For the weekday AM peak period, this means that there are 44 buses waiting for the call to action, not 140.
This is an important distinction on a network where the peak number of buses in service is about 1,500. The RADs provide a buffer of about 3 per cent. This buffer is proportionately larger off peak and on weekends because there is less scheduled service (about 1,000 buses on Saturday and 900 on Sunday).
On weekends and some late evening periods, these buses fulfill the original mandate of “route 600” as subway shuttles. They were originally set up to ensure that there would be staff pre-assigned to work on those shuttles rather than depending entirely on voluntary overtime where operator availability is strongly influenced by the weather. However, if they are running as replacement service for the subway, they are not available to fill gaps on other routes.
The actual usage of the RAD buses is very difficult to determine. They are not tracked by apps such as NextBus and Rocketman because they do not appear in the TTC data feed. Even if they did, they might not be “signed on” to the route they are serving, and there is no schedule against which their operation can be predicted. (NextBus depends on a bus having a schedule in order to make its arrival predictions. The NextBus feed is used by many other apps.)
I have attempted to extract the RAD buses from “full dump” samples of TTC tracking data (rather than route-based extracts), and they are hard to find. Some of them spend much time not going anywhere as one might expect from a bus on standby.
The TTC does not report on the actual usage of the RAD buses, but routinely invokes their existence to explain it is “doing something” about crowding. Some riders might disagree.
Where’s My Bus?
A rider expecting to see a bus and wondering where it is will not see the RADs on bus arrival predictions either on their phone, or on a TTC display. What they will see predicted is a gap in service that could well send them looking elsewhere for a ride.
On August 14, I happened to be online browsing Twitter when a complaint appeared from a rider awaiting a 72 Pape bus at Freeland Street (east of Yonge) on Queens Quay. Intrigued at what might be happening, I started to poke around.
There are two sources I use for situations like this:
- NextBus which will provide a map-based representation of an entire route. The link here goes to 72 Pape. Change the URL as desired for another route.
- Transsee among many other functions can produce operating charts (examples below) for any route in real time or on an archival basis. The link goes to their main TTC page. Select a route and then scroll down to the turquoise box for the operating charts. Note that these are free for streetcar routes are free, but for buses you must have a premium account.
This sort of thing is best done on a computer with a good sized screen where maps and diagrams can be seen in some detail. Smartphones have their limitations.
Here is what I saw when I asked NextBus to show me the Pape Bus at 5:42 pm on Saturday, August 14. Only two of the five buses scheduled for this service appeared, and neither of them was anywhere near Union Station. Buses can disappear from mapping and prediction apps for a few reasons:
- Most commonly, the operator “signs off” the bus and it stops appearing in the TTC’s data feed as a tracked vehicle.
- A bus has gone off route. NextBus does not always display these vehicles.
- An operator has signed on with the wrong route number, or with a run number that does not exist in the schedule. NextBus only tracks scheduled service. This prevents extras, however they might be identified, from appearing on displays or in predictions.
- A bus is missing.
I also looked at Transsee to find out what the recent route history looked like. In this chart, Union Station is at the top of the image and Pape Station is at the bottom. Each line tracks the movement of one vehicle back and forth along the route. Some of the Pape service is scheduled to turn back at Eastern Avenue and this shows up as the smaller peaks in the lower part of the chart.
What became immediately obvious here was that only three buses were reporting a location late in the afternoon, and one of those was sitting at Pape Station. Two other buses had gone out of service earlier in the day (9219 just before 2 pm, 8450 at about 5:20 pm). The line’s operation was severely disrupted by construction and a diversion near Union Station which can be seen in the extended periods where buses begin their return journeys (for example 9227 at about 4 pm).
The combination of severe delays and missing buses led to over half of the 72 Pape service being unavailable to riders. There might be a RAD bus in there somewhere, but it’s impossible to tell. A rider complaint about a long wait suggests that the RADs were elsewhere.
It took a few hours for some semblance of regular service to return. One scheduled bus did appear at about 8 pm bringing the total up to 3 buses with 2 still missing.
I looked at a few other routes to see what was going on.
75 Sherbourne was a complete mess. There are supposed to be 4 buses on the route, but there were only two, and they were operating nose-to-tail over the course of three round trips from 1 to 4 pm. The chart shows one bus disappearing just after 10:30 (8948) and another just after noon (8871). A third bus (1096) enters service at about 4:00 pm.
65 Parliament, nominally a route with 2 buses, did not fare well either and operated with a single bus from 1 pm onward.
87 Cosburn was also having its problems. It is supposed to have 5 buses, but is effectively running with only 3 from about 3 pm onward. Moreover, there is severe bunching at times making the service gaps even bigger than they might otherwise be. Fairly regular service was restored in the early evening.
22 Coxwell suffered from a missing bus between roughly 2:00 and 3:30 pm, and considerable bunching into the early evening.
My apologies to readers who do not live in the east end of Toronto and East York. I picked a few routes nearby me to start, and it did not take long to find problems. The severity of bunching and missing vehicles is quite stark on short routes where the absence of one or two buses makes a big difference. The longer suburban routes did not look too pretty either. Here is 43 Kennedy as an example.
Two effects are quite evident here:
- Congestion northbound south of Ellesmere
- Severe bunching through much of the afternoon
Three buses were running as a pack for a considerable period: 3222 (green), 3237 (red) and 3112 (blue) putting large gaps in the service. On a route with a scheduled service of 10 minutes (Steeles branch), a 30+ minute gap due to bunching is appallingly bad service.
One might be tempted to say “oh, but there’s a RAD bus filling those gaps”. One might reply that if anyone was actually dispatching the RAD buses, they could just as easily manage the service that was already on each route and space buses appropriately.
In any event, August 14 was a subway shutdown day on Line 1, and many of the RAD buses that might otherwise have been used were actually in subway shuttle service.
The time is long overdue for TTC management to produce meaningful reports on service quality, not the drivel that appears in the CEO’s report. Real riders know that service can be undependable, and simplistic claims that the RAD buses will fix everything ignore fundamental problems with headway management, vehicle and operator availability.
Initially, reports that reflect reality will be very troubling reading. Sad, but necessary. The challenge is to show that service is really improving, and not by making problems vanish with creative reporting.
Will the TTC Board actually address this problem? If past experience is any indication, I doubt this very much.