Transit Service Reliability on Short Routes

A common theme in these pages is the TTC’s constant problem with providing reliable service. Many problematic routes lie outside of the core on long east-west routes that must deal with varying traffic conditions, the difficulties of blending branched services, and a faster return of demand and post-pandemic traffic levels than in the central area.

These are not excuses for poor service, but at least represent some of the challenges faced. This is not true for short routes primarily in the old City. For these routes, a trip between Eglinton and Lake Ontario is comparatively long, and some reach only a few kilometres from Line 2 Bloor-Danforth south.

They should be routes that run like a clock, but they suffer many problems seen on their longer cousins outside of the core. If the TTC cannot operate these reliably, how can we expect them to fare with behemoths like east-west routes on Lawrence or Finch, or routes from Line 2 north to Steeles and beyond?

This article is an introduction to a series that will examine service on:

A factor among many of these routes is that service is not particularly frequent. If there is a bus missing, or pack of buses running together (effectively the same thing), the gap is wide. The added waiting time (assuming a rider bothers) can be greater than the time they will spend riding from point “A” to “B” on the route. Waiting times hurt transit because riders see them as unproductive, and this can be compounded by uncertainty about the next bus’s arrival and capacity.

Here is an overview of service frequencies on these routes during selected periods. Some of these have 10 minute or better service during some periods, but many do not.

RouteAM PeakMiddayEveningSat AftSat EveSun AftSun Eve
22A Coxwell (Victoria Park)10′9’30”10′10′10′
22B Coxwell (Queen)8’20”8’20”
47A Lansdowne (South)4’45”9′6′8’30”10′9′10′
47B/C Lansdowne (North)9’30”18′12′17′20′18′20′
63A Ossington (Eglinton)9′7’30”8′7′10′8′10′
63B Ossington (S of St. Clair)4’30”
65 Parliament13′13′17′20′17′18′16′
70 O’Connor (South)10′11′13′13′11′11’30”15′
70 O’Connor (North)20′22′26′26′22′23′30′
72 Pape (on Pape)6′9’30”9′9′9′9′9′
72B Pape (to Union)19′19′18′18′18′18′18′
75 Sherbourne5’30”7’30”16′10′30′20′30′
94 Wellesley (East)7’30”7’30”8’30”6’30”9′6’15”9′
94 Wellesley (West)15′15′17′13′9′12’30”9′
Source: TTC Scheduled Service Summary for September 5, 2021

Common problems on these routes include:

  • Buses running in groups of two or more.
    • In some cases, pairs of buses run together over the course of two or more trips indicating that there is no effort made to evenly space service.
    • For branching services, buses on each branch do not blend evenly where the branches combine.
    • In the worst case situations, all of the vehicles on the route are running as a pack.
  • Buses missing from service, with the remaining buses not spaced to account for the gap. In some cases, a route is served by only one bus when there should be two or three.
    • Missing buses are most common during evening and weekend periods when spare operators are harder to come by, in part because many of the “run as directed” operators are used for subway replacement services. Because TTC has fewer operators than crews in some cases, there are open crews that are only filled if there is a spare operator available.

Although the TTC has standards defining what constitutes acceptable service, almost none of these address the problems listed above. That is because:

  • Buses can be running close together but still be “on time” according to the service standard.
  • There is no standard that addresses gaps and bunching explicitly.
  • There is a standard related to missed trips, but no statistics have ever been reported for it.
  • The standards accept a wide range of exceptions with a goal of achieving targets only 60% of the time. There is no reporting of the proportion of service lying outside the standard even if it would be within the target.
  • There is no co-relation of vehicle crowding with service reliability.

To put it quite bluntly, these so-called standards allow management to claim to operate the system to “Board approved” targets, even though the TTC Board members probably have no idea of just how lax these standards actually are.

In turn, when riders complain, they are often told that the service is operating within standards, and that where there are problems, “run as directed” buses are dispatched to fill the gaps. This is simply not possible because there are not enough RAD buses to fill all of the holes in the service. Moreover, the TTC does not track or report on the usage of these buses to establish that they really do provide the benefits claimed for them.

TTC management hopes to lure riders back to buses, but the single most common complaint is that more service is needed. Part of “more” service involves simply running what is already there better. There is no point in advertising frequent service if what is actually on the street is anything but.

When they were approved, there was a staff presentation that set out the standards but did not actually explain what they might allow. The Board nodded in approval of something technical that looked impressive, but was clearly beyond their ken. The old Razzle-Dazzle works every time.

11 thoughts on “Transit Service Reliability on Short Routes

  1. I would love an analysis of the 82 Rosedale bus. No traffic, no passengers, often no speed limit…and from what I can tell it was running full tilt through the pandemic….100s of runs with nobody on it.

    Steve: I have not been collecting data on the Rosedale bus.

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  2. You should do an analysis on the routes that are really short and with very few passenger ridership such as the 8 Broadview, 33 Forest Hill, 78 St Andrews, and 93 Parkview Hills.

    Steve: The point of the analysis is to look at service reliability, not ridership. I have tried without success to get the automatic passenger counter data from the TTC. Maybe next year, they say.

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  3. Bullseye. My 8 year old son and my 3 year old daughter now know what is bunching after seeing the 47 Lansdowne route do this almost daily. The problem as rightly said is setting wrong standards.

    Steve: The September data for 47 Lansdowne is even worse than the data for 22 Coxwell.

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  4. The 503 during today’s PM peak (October 19) was pretty appalling. I was watching the maps and at one point every streetcar on the route was sitting between Parliament/Broadview and Dundas/Victoria Park. There were no streetcars west of Parliament and no streetcars east of Broadview and west of Kingston/Dundas. Streetcars were running in packs of 2 or 3 which is not what the schedule is.

    Steve: I also plan to look at the 503, but there are only so many hours in the day. Also, the bus routes deserve a thorough review because, as we all know, the standard excuse for streetcars is that they are much less flexible.

    A quick look at the operation chart for October 19th’s peak period on TransSee shows something that has been a common problem for some time: extreme traffic congestion between Queen and Woodbine on Kingston Road. Coupled with uneven car spacings, this produced a few very large gaps which were compounded by cars short turning downtown. There was a 40 minute gap eastbound from Charlotte Loop starting at 4:24 and a 35 minute gap starting at 5:12.

    But short turns do not exist officially so that Rick Leary can boast about how he eliminated them. Judicious use of them earlier in the day might have prevented the gigantic gaps from forming in the first place.

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  5. Short turns – we have eliminated them and now offer improved unplanned route adjustments.

    Steve: I have reached the point where I regard claims that there are no short turns as an outright lie as there is far too much data to prove otherwise. Additionally, the supposed embargo on short turns means that corrective actions are not taken early enough to avoid really severe problems.

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  6. Regarding the chart of service frequencies, are those actual or standards?

    What would explain the differences on Lansdowne northbound vs southbound, and Wellesley eastbound vs westbound?

    Steve: Those values are not “xxbound”. Lansdowne service splits at St. Clair and only half of the buses go to Yorkdale, hence the “north” and “south” ends of the route. Wellesley splits at Yonge with only half of the service (during some periods) running west to Ossington Station, hence “east” and “west” headways.

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  7. In the article titled “TTC Service Changes: September 5, 2021”, Steve reported “124 Sunnybrook: Service reliability changes will bring more frequent service evenings and weekends, and slightly improved peak service.” Unfortunately, this info (presumably from the TTC) is not true.

    The 124 online route schedule currently shows a frequency of 15 to 16 minutes during low demand periods (week days 9AM-1PM, evenings, weekends and holidays). (Before September 5, such service was every 20 minutes using only one bus on the route.) And this 15-to-16-minute schedule appears to be used by the TTC trip planner. However, 124 bus drivers and the bus departure board at Lawrence Station do not use this schedule for low demand periods. Instead they use an unpublished 30-minute frequency (as per personal observation). So instead of running one bus 3 times per hour for 20-minute frequency, the TTC now runs the 124 bus 2 times per hour for a 30-minute frequency. There appears to be now a 10-minute rest break after each return trip, presumably to improve service reliability.

    I have already sent a complaint to the TTC saying that if they can’t run service reliably every 15 minutes, they should go back to every 20 minutes. However, it appears the TTC has made an unannounced service reduction, and seem to be hiding it. I am thinking of sending a second complaint with wording similar to the preceding paragraph asking them to post the schedule the 124 driver uses. I am not sure whether the TTC will answer my complaint even though I requested a reply.

    Steve: The September changes on 124 Sunnybrook brought a very large reduction in round trip times:

    • AM Peak: From 30 to 21 minutes
    • Midday: From 30 to 16
    • PM Peak: From 32 to 21

    Looking at the time buses actually take to make the trip, that 16 minute RTT is not achievable, and I am surprised that the TTC scheduled the route that way. There are budget pressures to trim buses off of routes, but it is clear that they overshot. The actual headway varies from day to day and operators are probably making up the schedule as they go along. Sometimes they manage three trips/hour, other times only two. Ten minute layovers at Lawrence Station do not occur on most trips.

    During the peak periods when the service has three buses, even on this short route they manage to bunch probably because of the shortened running time.

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  8. Hey Steve, are you aware if TTC transit planning is starting to shift from scheduling overly generous run times to much tighter run times. I am curious as you mention above the 124’s run times are extremely tight and the drivers are making up the schedule. The TTC recently changed the schedules for the 113 and tightened the run times. This has led to drivers basically making up the schedule during Sunday evenings. Every Sunday evening now the route is a mess as drivers are unable to maintain the 40 min round trip times and are just doing whatever they like. I feel like during some periods TTC planning is just making the trip times with no regard to actual operating conditions and ignoring the fact that drivers cannot simply keep their foot to the pedal for the whole trip with no breaks.

    Steve: Yes, I have noticed that scheduled times are being trimmed. In some cases, the existing times were excessive and were based on just about the worst case scenario of a junior operator on a busy route with the intent that nothing would ever have to short turn. The result was (and remains in many cases) that vehicles get very long terminal layovers. It is possible that they have now started to swing the other way and overshot. It’s rather odd because they have the same sort of info that I do for route travel time analysis and should be able to figure out what a “reasonable” scheduled time would look like. That said, if there were a route that had a 30 minute time and operators were regularly doing it in 20 to get a nice siesta, then actually making it 20 would leave no padding at all. The percentage changes on 124 Sunnybrook were quite surprising.

    After saying all this, the routes that really need work are the streetcar lines, not to mention the 501 replacement bus where very long layovers are common.

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  9. I see the same thing on 84 Sheppard West every weekend, 2 to 4 buses within a 6 minute span, with a 28 minute projected wait for the following. This was noticed at 12 noon, and 3 of the 4 were still chasing each other’s rear bumpers at 6 p.m. I have asked supervisors at the station – answer is not my responsibility – call customer service. Guess no one at Arrow Road Division can read a screen (or cares).

    Steve: “Supervisors” who claim that spacing service is “not my responsibility” might well choose to find another job. There is no point in having on-street supervision (or even online supervision) if they don’t actually manage the service.

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  10. Re: Stephen Bennett’s comment:

    The round trip time for the 84, among other routes, is not enough on weekends. It also seems like a forgotten route among the larger/busier east-west routes. I’ve once witnessed 4 of the 6 Sunday evening buses traveling together for the last hour or two of service at 12am/1am in the morning.

    Also, bus routes are no longer supervised by supervisors at their home divisions. They are all watched over by supervisors at Hillcrest.

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  11. Steve: A common theme in these pages is the TTC’s constant problem with providing reliable service.

    The most reliable transit services in the world employ private sector players. It is time to try this as a pilot project here in Toronto. This issue needs to be studied.

    Steve: It’s a favourite trick to say that the private sector will do better and dismantle the public sector’s ability to provide a service. There are enough examples of privatized services that did not deliver what was promised to act as counterexamples. A related problem is that the quality we get from either a private or public service depends on what we demand, and the responsibility we place on organizations to provide good service without a litany of tired excuses.

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