On January 17, 2022, a record snowfall hit the Toronto area. Yes, this is Canada, and it does snow here, although people who live in areas without the moderating effect of Lake Ontario rarely have much sympathy on that score.
A post mortem report on the event will be discussed on March 29, 2022, at the Infrastructure & Environment Committee. As the City’s report on the event summarizes:
On January 16-17, 2022, the City of Toronto experienced an extraordinary winter storm that involved extreme cold temperatures, very rapid snowfall, and an ultimate snow accumulation of 55 centimetres in just 15 hours. The below freezing temperatures that followed the storm and lasted for more than two weeks created a unique set of challenges for storm clean up.
The effects on transit routes were severe, and there was little or no service on parts of the network for an extended period.
Snow clearing took a very long time:
Ultimately, 179,442 tonnes of snow were removed from 3,471 km of roads, requiring almost 60,000 truckloads. Removal was conducted over a 30-day period; however, operations were suspended when additional snow events occurred, meaning snow was removed on a total of 23 non-consecutive days.
Toronto’s snow clearing practices tend to focus on major streets and often do not include physical removal of snow. This effectively narrows roads and limits their capacity until the snowbanks eventually melt. A history of warmer winters and fewer severe storms has contributed to a somewhat laissez-faire relationship to winter that failed Toronto in 2022.
The report speaks to several changes in approach to major storms that will be implemented in early 2023, and I will not go into these here beyond noting the effect on transit.
Two related problems do leap out.
First, the responsibility for various aspects of snow clearing fall to different groups. Roads and sidewalks were plowed by multiple contractors. Sidewalks were, until this year, the responsibility of property owners, but the city’s fleet of sidewalk plows was not yet at full strength, and subject to breakdowns. Bike lanes might or might not be plowed especially if they are simply painted and have no protective barriers.
The result is both a “who does what” clash and a war for space where snow can be dumped before it is carted away, if ever.
Second, the reduction in road capacity causes congestion both by taking lanes out of service, and by parked cars, to the extent motorists can navigate the snowbanks, encroaching beyond the curb lane. This is a particular problem on streetcar routes, but is not confined to them.
Plowing, when it does occur, may not be accompanied by aggressive towing, or at least by temporary relocation of parked cars so that the curb lane can be fully cleared.
Toronto has a network of designated snow routes for major snow events. Most of the territory it covers is in the old City of Toronto with some outlying areas. When a major storm condition is declared, parking is banned for 72 hours (or more if need be) on the streets shown in red below. Most of the suburban city is not included.
The map below is dated October 2013, and it is due for updating especially if Toronto plans to be serious about the quality of transit service and meaningful schemes for transit priority across the city.
The major snowfall on January 17 disrupted transit service, and the effects continued for a few weeks after the event. In some cases, buses had not returned to “typical” pre-storm travel times into February.
The location of congestion problems on routes reviewed here was not distributed along them a a general delay, but could be found at specific locations and times where the effect was “net new” after the storm. This suggests that a detailed study of storm delays will reveal key locations and conditions that should be avoided in the future.
On Dufferin, a major location for delays was northbound to Yorkdale Mall, and this persisted for some time after the storm. Normally, problems on routes like this are assumed to arise from their hilly nature, but that was not always the case in late January.
Service on 29 Dufferin
Service on Dufferin Street was badly delayed from mid-January onward. The charts below show the weekly average travel times between King Street and Wilson Avenue over the month.
The red and orange lines show the pre-storm values. Although there is some rise in PM peak travel times, it is fairly small. The green line includes the storm day and those immediately following. Blue and purple show that the problems with congestion dropped but were not eliminated as the month wore on.
This can be seen in more detail with daily breakdowns. Each dot represents one bus, and for January 17 there are few dots because few vehicles made the full trip between King and Wilson. Week 2 is shown as a pre-storm reference. Even by the end of Week 4, travel times were still running higher than in Week 2, albeit much more so for northbound than for southbound service.
These charts do not tell the entire story, however because the profile of where and when travel times were extended was not uniform across the route. The charts below summarize the hourly travel time values, by week, over segments of the route. Each set of columns contains one week’s data for a route segment with the hours of the day clustered to show the rise and fall from early morning to late evening.
- The jump in Week 3 is obvious in all segments of the route, but it is greatest between Lawrence and Wilson, not where one might expect in the hillier portions of the route further south.
- The aftereffect is seen in all segments, but it takes a long time to fade in the Lawrence-Wilson segment northbound.
Clearly there is an issue in the Lawrence-Wilson segment of the route. This is quite obvious by breaking out the daily stats for this portion.
The top row of charts shows Weeks 2 through 4 of January.
- In Week 2, conditions are normal and there is little change through the day in travel times.
- In Week 3, the snow day, January 17 (purple) is fairly flat but very few buses make this journey. From Tuesday onward (yellow through blue), travel times range up to 40 minutes for what would normally be a 5-8 minute journey.
- In Week 4, the averages have fallen a bit, but they are still much above normal values.
The bottom row shows the beginning of February as well as weekend data for January.
- In February Week 1, the travel times settle down to the normal range, more or less.
- Saturdays show the effect of post-snow congestion on the 22nd and 29th (green and blue).
- Sundays show a slight increase, but nowhere near the same as on Saturdays implying that the Sunday traffic, such as it was, could operate fairly normally with whatever snow was still on the street.
What was going on at the north end of the route? For this, we turn to a detailed chart of operations for individual days.
Thursday, January 20, 2022
This chart shows the condition three days after the storm. Some congestion is visible at Lawrence, but more so between Lawrence and Yorkdale Road northbound in the PM peak. In spite of this, the service is not bunched most of the time with a few obvious exceptions.
Friday, January 21, 2022
On January 21, two major blockages affected operations on Dufferin southbound, and service diverted via Rogers, Oakwood and St. Clair.
- In the morning, snow removal required that buses divert. The effect on southbound travel times from about 8 to 10am is clear. This created some bunching that was not sorted out for many hours afterward.
- Another blockage trapped several buses just after 3pm. These show up as a block of horizontal lines ending after 5pm. Some of these buses turned back from Bloor, and some continued south to the Exhibition. By 8pm, service on the route was operating fairly normally.
On top of these problems, congestion northbound from Lawrence to Yorkdale s evident from about 3pm to 6:30pm.
Monday, January 24, 2022
These charts show the service as operated one week after the storm, and congestion is concentrated on one part of the route. During most of the day, buses travel freely and at consistent speeds (indicated by the slope of the lines).
As with many of these charts, some bunching of service is evident, notably when a parade of buses leaves the Princes Gate Loop together at about 4:30pm.
However, the interesting point is that most of the congestion (seen as lines that become more horizontal than vertical) occurs in the afternoon northbound between Lawrence Avenue and Yorkdale Road.
This is a typical congestion location on busy shopping days when traffic backs up to get into Yorkdale Mall’s parking lot, and it was at its worst on Boxing Day in pre-pandemic times. This pattern continues on other days showing that the congestion was mainly concentrated at one spot, not an effect along the route.
A Look At Other Routes
For various reasons including monitoring of potential “red lane” routes and to keep track of the changing state of the streetcar system, I have been collecting data on certain routes through the winter. This is normally not a representative period for service analysis except to see how well, or not, service fared under difficult weather conditions. The routes shown below were selected to give a sense of behaviour among the routes for which I have data.
As a comparison, I looked at the 35 Jane bus, a north-south route in similar territory and not far away. It shows the same bump in travel times in January Week 3, but the travel time averages stay higher through to the end of February.
January 10, 2022
Here is the 35 Jane local service one week before the storm. There is some bunching and a few short turns, but no obvious signs of congestion.
January 24, 2022
Here is the local service one week after the storm. There are several locations of congestion notably at Finch, Wilson and St. Clair in various periods.
January 31, 2022
After another week, congestion at Finch has worsened, and there is now also congestion on Steeles in the PM peak.
A quick look at 86 Scarborough local service shows that it was affected, mainly eastbound, in the two weeks after the storm, but that conditions returned more or less to normal afterward.
503 Kingston Road Car
Kingston Road is a busy route into southern Scarborough, and it is used by the Kingston Road streetcar. For the two weeks after the storm, travel times were higher than normal in both directions, but they recovered mostly to normal. Note that evening service here is provided by 22 Coxwell and so the data points only cover daytime hours.
506 Carlton Shuttle Bus
During January, the east end of the 506 Carlton streetcar route was operated with buses. The hill on Upper Gerrard east of Coxwell proved a challenge to traffic here with substantially higher travel times especially eastbound (uphill).
501 Queen Car
The Queen car had many problems with cars parked foul of the tracks in the east end of the route, particularly in The Beach. I will review that in more detail as part of a future article on the 501 and its many route changes and shuttle services for the past year.