RapidTO: Real Transit Improvement, Or Smoke and Mirrors?

The City and TTC have launched phase 1 of consultations on expansion of RapidTO Transit Priority to bus and streetcar lines. Both a video and a presentation deck are available on the City’s page for this project.

See also the TTC’s RapidTO project page.

The premise of this round is to determine priorities for the types of improvement people want to see and the locations where they might be implemented.

  • Phase 1: Understanding Your Priorities to commence in Fall 2021
  • Phase 2: Identifying Top Roadways throughout early 2022
  • Phase 3: Roadway-Specific Studies between 2022 and 2031.

There is not much new here, and regular followers of the TTC will know that they have been talking about this sort of thing for years.

The problem is well-known: slow and unreliable service, and the primary solution on offer is transit priority.

We have all known that traffic congestion is a problem for transit pretty much since the first time we rode a bus or a streetcar. Although there was some respite during the pandemic era because fewer cars were on the road, this trend quickly reversed, and on some corridors the travel times in mid-2021 are longer than they were before March 2020, and they are growing.

For details, please see the series of article on the behaviour of RapidTO candidate corridors:

A generic statement that “22% of buses and 34% of streetcars experienced delays” does not address the detailed picture including the time and location of delays. Most routes have problems in certain places, directions and times, even by day of the week, and priority treatments will have limited benefit if used where there are no delays today.

Conversely, if priority is given only where it is easy to implement, key problems may go unsolved. Even worse, if the “priority” actually slows transit (as has happened with signalling on some reserved lane implementations) then we are not giving transit its due.

With streetcars and buses carrying 70 per cent of TTC riders, they deserve priority treatment. The subway may carry a lot of people because it consolidates demand in a few corridors, but without the surface routes, the subway would be starved for passengers

… it is essential to make bus and streetcar service a practical and reliable travel option for the most people.

RapidTO Presentation, Slide 3

The argument continues by claiming that transit priority can:

… make bus and streetcar service more reliable, reduce delays and shorten travel times on congested roadways … [and] also provide relief on overcrowded bus and streetcar routes.

RapidTO Presentation, Slide 4

The presentation then wanders off through a set of slides about how better transit will assist the City to achieve various goals including environmental improvements. Eventually we get to the statement:

When buses and streetcars are given priority, they will operate more efficiently and reliably. Ultimately, the hope is that we can provide people with a practical travel option other than driving personal motor vehicles.

RapidTO Presentation, Slide 7

That “ultimately” is a key word. At the rate any road use changes are implemented in Toronto, most riders will not see much if any improvement to their routes. The idea that transit will improve is a mirage, something that happens elsewhere, if at all. Riders travel on a network and only with network-wide improvements will the majority of riders see progress.

This has political implications because only with widespread support will continued and increased spending be popular, not to mention any moves to shift road capacity in favour of transit riders. Benefits that always appear to go to someone else do not endear transit to voters.

What Do Riders Want?

Any rider has a natural question: what are you doing for my route, for my trip. A program that affects only a few corridors and/or has a long lead time for implementation does not make most buses and streetcars run faster. It primarily exists for the purpose of “doing something” and providing occasional photo ops while most riders wonder when, if ever, they will see improvement.

Past surveys have told the TTC that there are problems. Although five are listed here, the most common feedback was the need to improve service reliability of buses and streetcars.

An important distinction between various improvement schemes is that some of them are very specific to a route or corridor (the King Street transit lanes downtown, or the Red Lanes on Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside in Scarborough), while others can be applied across the network (traffic signals that favour transit over other road traffic). Some have more to do with system policies (connecting services and fares) at locations where transit systems meet, while others could improve creature comforts at busy stops.

Fare integration and better shelters at stops might soothe a rider’s journey, but they do not make buses run more frequently or reliably.

Intersection and Signal Improvements

The presentation includes a grab-bag of possible improvements, some worthwhile, others of dubious merit or limited application. These include:

  • Queue jump / bypass lanes: The basic idea is to allow transit vehicles to run around traffic backlogs at busy locations such as intersections with a lot of turning traffic. The fundamental problem is that adding such a lane requires space in the right-of-way for road widening, or alternately that a lane can be taken away from general traffic for the purpose.
  • Transit signal priority: This can mean different things depending on the implementation ranging all the way from absolute priority when a transit vehicle is present, to green time extensions, to priority phases for turns. In a worst case implementation, the “priority” signal makes transit vehicles wait their turn.
  • Traffic signal co-ordination: With real-time monitoring of traffic conditions and a knowledge of where transit vehicles are, signals can adapt to provide capacity when and where it is needed and advance transit vehicle movements. Short-sighted implementations might attempt to link priority with schedules and only give better treatment when transit is “late”. This defeats the entire purpose of moving transit vehicles as quickly as possible. It also is a hopeless tactic when service is disrupted and the schedule becomes meaningless.
  • Bus bulbs or bus bays: Lanes can be arranged so that there is a place for buses to pull out of traffic while serving passengers. This helps motorists but can be counterproductive for buses which must then fight their way back into the stream. Many years ago, there was actually a policy motion to stop building more bus bays because they were counterproductive for transit, but this was never implemented.
  • Near or far side stops: Where practical given intersection geometry, a far side stop can move transit vehicles through intersections faster because they do not have to wait for green signal to proceed. Typically, the act of stopping near side can put a bus or streetcar out of sync with planned traffic waves and a signal can turn red before they can leave a stop. Far side stops are common on bus routes and on streetcar lines with reserved or semi-reserved lanes.
  • Signs and pavement markings: Well, yes, I suppose that there are still some motorists who pay attention to these things, although the behaviour of traffic on King Street shows that even traffic signals can be little more than pretty decorations.
  • Pedestrian crossing facilities: On very wide streets, a one-stage crossing can be dangerous or impossible, but a two-stage crossing requires an island large enough to hold pedestrians. A small patch of concrete whose main purpose is to separate traffic lanes and hold up a traffic signal is nowhere near enough. This can be compounded if a road has a long stretch between locations where pedestrians can cross, and where motorists are used to driving at arterial speeds, if not faster, because they do not expect to encounter anything in their path.

Notable by its absence in this section is any discussion of enforcement.

Bus Lanes

Reserved transit lanes take many forms including curb-running (the diamond lanes implemented decades ago on a few streets, and the Red Lanes in Scarborough), centre lanes (as on a few streetcar routes, and the VIVA network in York Region), private roadways (as in Mississauga), HOV lanes (typically highway lanes shared with multi-occupant vehicles).

The common factor with all of them is that they generally take space away from other road users unless they is unused space available in the right-of-way. The Scarborough lanes were a special case because partly there were already transit lanes in peak periods, and parking was not allowed. The transit mall on King Street required much detailed block-by-bock planning and negotiation with businesses (some of who remained unhappy).

Two key points made the downtown portion of King Street a unique case:

  • Road and parking capacity is available on nearby streets to some extent.
  • King is a street with intensive pedestrian activity where the ratio of non-driving to driving populations was high on this street even before the transit mall. There is a strong mix of local residents and (pre-pandemic) downtown business workers, people attending sports and theatre events, and tourists.

Even as a “transit street”, King suffers from traffic signal delays and congestion backing up across key north-south intersections, notably University Avenue. The complete absence of traffic management and enforcement to keep intersections clear is the culprit.

Customer Comfort Improvements

The City/TTC propose various improvements at stops to make them more attractive to riders. Some of these already exist in places and need wider rollouts to the system.

  • Transit shelters: For the most part we have these already. The question is whether they actually “shelter” waiting riders and what other benefits, such as heating, they might have. The small size of shelters is of concern to some riders during the pandemic because of crowding when many people wait for a bus that has yet to arrive.
  • Accessible ramps for streetcar stops: This applies to stops at purpose-built curb lane platforms such as on King Street.
  • Real time information: Not everyone in Toronto has a cell phone and can call up next vehicle arrival predictions. There are signs at some, but far from all stops. The main benefit is to give riders an informed choice whether to wait, and which service they might use.
  • Lighting: Transit stops are lit by built-in advertising where these panels exist, but the effect can vary. Better lighting at the stops generally improves the safety of riders while waiting, boarding and upon leaving transit vehicles.
  • Ample, well-paved space for stops so that riders board and alight on safe ground. If the sidewalk is not part of the stop itself, riders must be able to get to and from the stop platform safely.
  • Street furniture at stops such as benches, litter boxes and bike stands. Sometimes these can be counterproductive thanks to bad placement in limited sidewalk space.

Making stops more attractive as places to be really does not address service quality. It only makes the wait for a bus slightly more tolerable.

Eglinton East Bus Lane Effects

The evolution of travel times thanks to the bus lane and other effects can be seen in the charts below. Each group of columns gives the average travel time for one hour within a month.

  • The leftmost values are pre-pandemic, and they stand out as high values.
  • May 2020 (the first pandemic-era month in which I collected data) is shown in bright red, and it illustrates the drop caused by a combination of lower traffic and fewer riders (less time spent at stops).
  • October 2020 was the month in which the Red Lanes went live, and it is shown in bright pink. The lanes have some effect, particularly eastbound, but travel times are creeping up again in recent months.

It is also important to remember that not only did the Red Lanes go into operation, but several stops were taken out of service by the TTC (although some were later restored). This added a saving that was not strictly due to the Red Lanes but to a concurrent expansion of stop spacing.

The effects are summarized on this slide from the City/TTC presentation. The decreases in travel times are in line with the data in the charts above, although some of that benefit is being lost as transit demand and road traffic build up again. In this case, “reliability” refers to travel times, not to the regularity of bus spacing (aka “headway”).

An important lesson from the King Street project is that the amount of time that can be saved can be small especially during periods of lighter road traffic such as the AM peak. On a busy route, stop service times can dominate the results. However, to the degree that there are congestion effects, these can be reduced or eliminated with reserved lanes. In turn this makes it easier for transit vehicles to behave more like their intended schedules.

A relatively small effect is the reduction of travel time, especially if reliability improves and wait times go down. The City/TTC do not measure changes in headway reliability as part of the overall evaluation.

The travel time reduction can be used in two ways:

  • Allowing buses to be scheduled more frequently without adding vehicles because the trip times are shorter.
  • Removing buses from a route so that it runs on the same headway as before, either reducing costs or allowing buses to be redeployed on other routes.

In either case, the change tends to be small. For example, on 86 Scarborough, the bus headway (interval) is about every 5 minutes. It takes a round-trip travel time saving of five minutes to allow a one-bus reduction. The situation is similar on 116 Morningside where buses run every 7 minutes.

If the buses remain on the route, the change in frequency is small because the saving is spread over a long distance. If buses run every 5 minutes on a route with a 100 minute trip time, reducing that time to 95 minutes only brings the headway down to 4’45”.

The route may be somewhat more “efficient”, but not on a scale that brings grand savings. Those who hope to justify transit priority schemes with a financial argument will be disappointed. The benefit comes in reliability which has no dollar value, but which is prized by riders.

Candidate Routes

There is a long list of candidate routes/streets among which readers can choose as their priority for improvements. This map has more than a few key problems.

  • There is no distinction of level or hours of service actually provided and, by implication the the volume of riders who might benefit from improvements. For example, there are far more buses operating on Victoria Park or Don Mills than on Leslie.
  • Some locations where transit priority already exists – Spadina, Harbourfront, The Queensway – are included, and yet St. Clair is not. A common issue on all of them is the absence of working signal priority at many locations and an enforced operating speed that can be slower than in pre-“priority” conditions.
  • Portions of the Line 1 and 2 subways are included in the map.
  • At least one location does not actually have transit service at all (I will leave these for the readers to hunt down).

RapidTO already has a set of corridors on its plate for Red Lane treatment with Jane and Dufferin Streets at the front of the queue. A study rate of one corridor per year will see little change in the map for a decade or more.

At an absolute minimum, this map needs to be pared back based on a recognition that all routes are not the same, that service level and demand simply do not warrant the upheaval of taking lanes for buses and streetcars.

A Glaring Omission

Riders want “service reliability and speed”. A big part of that reliability (or rather the lack of it) lies in TTC operating culture where a mixture of erratic headways, missing vehicles, and laissez-faire service management combine to give poor service. There is little point in travelling swiftly to save 10 minutes if there is an unexpected 20 minute wait for a crowded bus.

The study’s key failing is its implicit assumption that better service will come from external changes to the road network, or signals, or fare policy, or a warm bench to wait for a bus that might show up eventually. If there are operational problems, they are caused by forces beyond the TTC’s control.

The articles linked above include many examples of service reliability problems, and there are many more on this site.

A long-standing TTC response is to say “if only there were less congestion, we could run better service”. This is only partly true, and many problems with reliability can be seen on routes and at times when congestion is not an issue. This has particularly been the case during the covid era when traffic was well below historical levels.

Nowhere in the RapidTO work plan is there a systematic study of TTC service quality or line management practices, and how they could be improved across the entire network. Changes would not come easily given both their scope and the less-than-warm labour-management relationship in which new operating practices might be attempted.

All of this consultation on how transit might improve is meaningless if the TTC does not address its own operating procedures and the chronic problems in service on many lines.

12 thoughts on “RapidTO: Real Transit Improvement, Or Smoke and Mirrors?

  1. Far side stops are common on bus routes and on streetcar lines with reserved or semi-reserved lanes.

    Far side stops are the norm in Vancouver, on all routes. The logic is appealing: before the intersection, the curb lane is used for queuing for turns, and after the intersection, the curb lane is used for the bus stop.

    I’m not actually sure why this isn’t used in Toronto – is it an attempt to preserve curb lane space after the intersection for more street parking, by having the space before the intersection do double duty for turn queuing and transit loading? Many streets are in Vancouver are wider – 6 lanes with curb lanes being used for parking are common – but far-side stops are also used on 4 lane streets.

    Steve: I suspect it is left over from streetcar days when almost all stops were nearside, and the pattern continued with bus routes.

    Transit shelters: For the most part we have these already.

    Some are more of a transparent awning with an ad on one side than a shelter.

    Steve: I believe that no new shelters like that will be erected, but yes there are existing ones that are utterly useless.

    At least one location does not actually have transit service at all (I will leave these for the readers to hunt down).

    Spadina Road between Davenport and St. Clair is one.


  2. Traffic congestion is the result of single-occupant motor vehicles. As long as the government and bureaucrats give priority to the single-occupant motor vehicles over the 40+ people on the buses or the 100+ on the streetcars, it results in slow service for mixed traffic public transit. We keep suggesting improvements, only to be vetoed or altered for the betterment of single-occupant motor vehicles.


  3. As you say: THIS should be the FIRST thing the TTC should do.

    “All of this consultation on how transit might improve is meaningless if the TTC does not address its own operating procedures and the chronic problems in service on many lines.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Your last three paragraphs say it all.

    In my own dealings with TTC in attempting to bring problems to awareness or getting some small suggestion implemented I have long ago determined that if the TTC made half as much effort in solving a problem as they do coming up with BS reasons why they can’t do something the service would be much better.


  5. Ah yes! The Jarvis bus just gets so plagued in traffic.

    Oh, I thought they were studying it for when the 141 returns with its 5 runs a day?

    Steve: Don’t forget that if we make it a regular fare service it might get all the way up to 10 a day! There is a positively naive outlook on how parallel bus routes could relieve subway demand.


  6. This is an excellent piece. I just hope people will make it through to the end, as the last section is the most important.

    Steve: Originally that section was buried up in the middle, and I moved it for better flow and prominence as a conclusion. At the top doesn’t work as well because my thesis is that the City and TTC tinker around the edges and do not address a fundamental problem. I had to set that up to justify the tone of the ending.


  7. I’m not a fan of far side stops. There is overhead for the vehicle to slow down to stop and then accelerate again. With a far side stop vehicles often have to stop before and after every intersection. Theoretically the time when the vehicle is ready to go through the light will be at a random point in the light cycle whether it is when it first arrives or when it is finished loading passengers and on average the waiting time for the light to turn green would be the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I know that you’re a streetcar fanboy so my comment is a waste of time, but I recently took the streetcar for the first time in 18 months and forgot how agonizingly slow it is. Dwell time at each stop has to be around 45 seconds, plus there are endless slowing down and stopping (stop/slow orders?) for switches, crossing intersections etc. Not to mention drivers keeping to their schedule so they drive at 20km/h. it’s like they’re purposely trying to make it the slowest form of transit possible.

    Steve: I agree that there are serious problems with the way that the TTC hobbles service with slow orders at all intersections, whether they are needed or not, and with padded schedules leading to slowpoke operation. Bus schedules are padded too, but drivers tend to go as fast as possible and take long layovers at terminals.

    This has been a problem for several years, but has been accentuated by the lower level of traffic in the pandemic era.


  9. Two notes regarding (sort of) transit priority.

    First, near-side / far side. It really does not matter. What matters is what happens when the passengers get off of the first vehicle. I have seen many times that the vehicle on the opposite route waits for the passengers to be able to cross the lights and board; that is the right thing to do.

    Second, spacing between stops. Obviously, the stops on high-cost underground infrastructure will be further apart than on surface routes. Question is, if the underground is replacing street-level transit, will there be on-street vehicles also? If so, how well will street and underground co-exist? This is a good question regarding the Eglinton LRT, both currently being built and for Eglinton West, and sections of the OL, Sheppard subway & proposed extensions, and Yonge Street relief.


  10. Nick said: “I recently took the streetcar for the first time in 18 months and forgot how agonizingly slow it is.”

    Do you want to catch a neat streetcar trick? If you need to transfer between the subway on the Spadina route and the Yonge route (both Line 1) and you are north of Bloor, take the St. Clair streetcar between St. Clair and St. Clair West stations. Not only is it faster & more comfortable, but there is less stair climbing & transferring than taking the Bloor subway. Works either direction.

    Steve: Another variation: I am always amazed at people who change at Spadina/Spadina station to transfer between Bloor West and the Spadina line when they could ride one stop and just go up/down one level.


  11. Just a week ago I had the (in)opportunity to take the York Region bus on Jane Street southbound. No complaints about the bus service at all. The bus shelter advised me correctly about arrival times (10 minutes range), but it said that the bus is terminating at Pioneer Village TTC subway station (Jane & Steeles). Actually, the bus dropped us all off at Vaughan Centre Station (Hwy. 7). OK, that in itself is no problem. Again, no complaints about York Transit. However, this is where I ran into trouble. The York bus loop must have been somewhere near Langstaff Road, because there was first a half-kilometre hike to a doorway indoors and a set of stairs, and then another half-kilometer hike, and then the Presto gates and another quarter-kilometer hike to the stairs to the trains. Me, I really cannot walk that much. Brand new subway station totally unfriendly to disabled persons.

    Steve: But it’s the “Vaughan Metropolitan Centre” in the “City Above Toronto”. How could you possibly complain?


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