Transit in a Time of Crisis

My latest piece for NOW Toronto looks at how the transit industry, and Toronto’s TTC and GO systems, are affected by and reacting to the Covid-19 crisis.

Not included in the NOW version are hyperlinks to the websites of many transit agencies I cited. Here they are. To the degree possible, given varying navigation paths of each website, the links go to the page with information about service and fare changes.

TTC Asks Riders to Time Shift (Updated)

Updated April 1, 2020 at 10:30 am:

This morning, the TTC announced extra service on several routes to address crowding. The list below is taken from the Twitter feed of Stuart Green, TTC Media Relations, who describes this as a work in progress.

The first set of numbers below were in Green’s original announcement, but they have changed over the course of the morning with a total of 71 buses added as of about 7:40 am. By 10:30, that number rose to 89. The second set is taken from TTC service alerts. These numbers have been changing hourly as vehicles are shifted from route to route as needed. For current details, follow @TTCHelps on Twitter.

Route 7:00 am 10:30 am
300 Bloor-Danforth Night 5
320 Yonge Night 4
29 Dufferin 4 5
35 Jane 6 13
37 Islington 3 3
39 Finch East 4 21
41 Keele 4 12
44 Kipling South 2 5
52 Lawrence West (Airport) 2 7
96 Wilson 4 8
102 Markham Road 4 8
117 Alness-Chesswood 2 2
119 Torbarrie 2 1
123 Sherway 2 2
165 Weston Road North 3 2

Supervisors will direct additional buses to where they are most needed.

The TTC now asks riders to shift any non-essential trips until after 8 am.

Original post:

The TTC asks early morning riders to shift their travel, if possible, due to congestion on several routes before 7 am. Riders are requested to shift non-essential trips after 7:30 if possible.

The affected routes are:

  • 29 Dufferin
  • 35 Jane
  • 41 Keele
  • 44 Kipling South
  • 96 Wilson
  • 102 Markham Road
  • 117 Alness-Chesswood
  • 119 Torbarrie
  • 123 Sherway
  • 165 Weston Road North

The location of these routes and the time period of the crunch says something about the drop in riding by classic commuters, but shows the need for transit in areas well away from the core.

Revised TTC Service Changes: Sunday, March 29, 2020 (Updated)

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, some changes planned for the schedule period beginning March 29 will not occur.

Notably, the planned resumption of streetcar service on 505 Dundas will not take place. The overhead conversion on this route is in a half-completed state from trolley pole to pan-friendly wiring.

  • Curves on Broadview from Gerrard north to Danforth have never been upgraded for pantograph operation even though the tangent wire was converted some time ago.
  • The section of the route between Parliament and McCaul has been converted completely for pans, and is not compatible with trolley pole operation.

The TTC has not announced what service level will be provided by the continued bus operation on 505 Dundas.

Updated March 27, 2020 at 5:15 pm:

According to TTC service change pages, the operation of streetcars on 511 Bathurst and buses on 505 Dundas will continue to late April.

Concurrent operation of streetcars on both Bathurst and Dundas would have stretched the streetcar fleet, but the real problem was the beginning of planned work at the south end of Bathurst including bridge construction that would have forced bus conversion of the 511 anyhow. This was to start in March, but has been deferred until May.

The TTC also plans a reduction in 504 King Saturday streetcar service, again due to fleet availability problems. This stems from a planned increase in service on 509 Harbourfront and 510 Spadina to deal with the Bathurst Street bridge work that would have pushed Saturday requirements above the AM peak level. With the bridge work shifted to May, the changes on 509/510 were deferred, but the change on 504 was left in place. All of this of course is subject to future schedule adjustments in reaction to reduced demand.

Other planned construction affecting the Bathurst route this year includes tangent track from south of Dundas to north of Wolseley Loop, and special track at Bathurst Station Loop.

The Scheduled Service Summary for March 29 to May 9, 2020, shows the service as originally designed. When any additional details of changes are announced, I will update this article.

TTC Changes Fare Collection, Trims Service – But What of the Future?

Updated March 28, 2020: The TTC has changed its policy for Wheel-Trans and now only accepts payment by Presto. See the March 27 update for Wheel-Trans.

The TTC implemented several changes to its fare policies and service in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Their focus is on protection of workers and passengers by physical distancing and eliminating most interaction between them.

Fares & Fare Collection

All bus passengers will board and leave via the rear door except for riders who require the access ramp at the front door. Operators will keep their protective barriers closed, and the fare boxes will not be available.

On buses except for Wheel-Trans, the TTC will not accept cash, tokens or tickets and will not issue paper transfers. Only Presto will be accepted. Streetcar and subway riders can use fare machines.

The TTC asks that riders pay with Presto “where available”, but it is unclear whether riders without cards will ride free. The Star’s Ben Spurr quotes TTC spokesperson Stuart Green:

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said riders who don’t have Presto will be asked to pay when they arrive at their destination if they’re headed to a subway station.

He declined to answer directly when asked whether riders who don’t have Presto and don’t pay will face a fine from transit officers, but said the “focus of fare inspectors right now is on customer service and education.”

Updated March 24 at 2:12 pm: An exchange on Twitter:

But how does one board a bus if cash is not being accepted?

@TTCHelps: You can just walk on. No one will stop you. We’d like you to pay your cash fare at a connecting station or streetcar if possible.

A well-known problem with Presto is that places where riders can obtain one and load money are much thinner on the ground that the old TTC ticket agent network, particularly in the suburbs where bus transportation dominates.

The deadline for cancelling the auto-renew on monthly or 12 month passes on Presto has been extended to 11:59 pm, Friday, March 27. The TTC will waive cancellation fees, although Presto might still issue an automated warning email.

Service Changes

Because weekday ridership has dropped by over 70 per cent, the TTC is reviewing its resource requirements. The following routes no longer operate, and their vehicles will be reallocated where needed.

  • All 900-series express bus routes, except for the 900 Airport, 903 Kennedy-Scarborough Town Centre, and 927 Highway 27.
  • All 140-series Downtown express routes.
  • The 176 Mimico GO bus and 508 Lake Shore streetcars.

The 503 Kingston Road route had been cut back to a shuttle between Queen & Kingston Road and Bingham Loop at Victoria Park. The extra service it provides on Queen and King Streets is not needed. An obvious future change would be to run the evening/weekend configuration of the 22A Coxwell Bus during all hours. This sort of tweak will no doubt be repeated in other parts of the system.

Regular service will continue every 10 minutes or better on most of the affected routes, for now.

Vehicle arrival predictions will be out of whack until the online schedules are updated to match the revised services.

A full list of changes is on the TTC’s website.

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The Importance of Transit in a Changing Travel Landscape

My latest for NOW Toronto.

As ridership drops on the TTC, just as on transit systems across the world, there will be a temptation to make big cuts, but then to fall behind in the recovery when the crisis passes.

This is also a time to rethink the design of public spaces, streets especially, and the balance between all users and types of travel: cars and transit, cyclists and pedestrians.

Best Laid Plans

My latest for NOW Toronto looks at the historical pattern of bold transit plans conceived when times are good that inevitably crash into the hard reality of economic upheaval every decade or so.

There will be less money sloshing around in the economy for many years, and the many expensive projects on our transit and other political menus are unlikely to proceed as planned.

The challenge for those who believe transit is an essential part of our future is to rethink priorities and focus on advocacy for meaningful, widespread transit improvements. This will be a difficult road.

 

Analysis of Route 505 Dundas Bus Operations

Route 505 Dundas has operated with buses since February 2018 thanks to various construction projects and the shortage of streetcars. March 29, 2020 will see Flexity streetcars on Dundas.

The past two years have not been kind to riders on this route. Flocks of buses travel back and forth, often in packs, and large gaps in service have been common. An easy answer to any complaints is that congestion induced by construction prevents the TTC from providing reliable service.

Actually tracking the route’s behaviour has been difficult because most of the vehicles on Dundas were using the new Vision tracking system, and the data extracts from Vision were, until recently, at a much simpler and less illuminating level than the data from the old CIS system that Vision replaced. This changed in October 2019 when detailed tracking data for Vision vehicles became available, and I have been collecting this for the past five months.

The High Points

This is a long read, and many will not do go through the whole presentation. The following points are of special interest:

  • Over the period of bus operation, schedules were changed a few times in response to conditions on the route, or at least that was the idea.
  • Some of these schedules had inadequate running time, but TTC management did not react, in general, with short turns which are a very bad thing from a point of view of reporting on service quality to the TTC Board.
  • Instead, they adopted the tactic of either running buses express across a parallel route (Dundas is “U” shaped) to make up time, or having buses lay over at terminals to get back on time for their next trip. This reduced the actual bus/hour count along the route below the scheduled level causing crowding and increased dwell time.
  • The schedules that added travel time back onto the route in mid-February had the unexpected effect of lowering travel times during some periods, and of improving line capacity because very few buses now run express to get back on time.
  • A problem with irregularly spaced service and gaps remains even with the new schedule, but the situation has improved considerably.

These observations should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of longer scheduled travel times. There will always be a trade-off between having enough scheduled time so that almost no service short-turns and having so much padding in schedules that buses and streetcars congregate in packs at terminals. Conditions vary from day-to-day and no schedule can be “perfect” for all situations.

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Starving the Bus Network for Service

My recent article for NOW Toronto, TTC Bus Service Losing Ground, reviewed the problem of passenger congestion on TTC bus routes and the long-standing failure of service to keep up with the rising population and employment in Toronto. This article presents the details and the wider context.

When Transit City was proposed back in 2007, the TTC expected that over the course of its implementation a large number of buses would be replaced by an LRT network that would, by today, be substantially complete. In turn, this would reduce the need for new bus storage and maintenance facilities because the growth would occur in suburban LRT barns at the Mount Dennis yard on the Eglinton line, on Finch near Highway 400, and on Sheppard East at Conlins Road.

One new garage was planned in Scarborough, although the project was delayed by Mayor Rob Ford. The garage on McNicoll will finally open late in 2020. However, the demand for storage space at existing overcrowded garages simply means that McNicoll will be full the day it opens and the TTC will be back in a situation where fleet expansion requires garages to have more buses than they were designed for. A ninth bus garage sits in the long term plans with a 2031 opening date, but there is no funding for it and the TTC has yet to identify a potential property. They will remain short of garage space for the coming decade.

This creates an odd sort of response to requests for more service: we have no place to store the buses. That, of course, is a chicken-and-egg situation where the TTC (and the City) can avoid the cost of providing more service by claiming that they couldn’t run more buses if they wanted to. Unfortunately, this does not accelerate the provision of more garage space, and the service vs storage deadlock remains.

The amount of service the TTC fields every day is affected by several factors:

  • the size of the fleet
  • the average capacity of a bus
  • the average age and reliability of the fleet
  • the proportion of the fleet needed for maintenance spares
  • the number of buses required to supplement the streetcar network
  • the number of buses reserved for extra service, especially to handle subway emergencies
  • the budget for service

As the TTC migrated from a fleet of high-floor to low-floor buses, the capacity of vehicles dropped by about ten percent. This meant that more buses were required to provide the same level of service, a process that occurred gradually until late 2015 when the last of the high-floor buses were retired. Conversely, low-floor two-section articulated buses can carry about 50% more passengers than a standard bus. These vehicles began to appear in the TTC’s fleet in 2014, but they make up less than 10% of the fleet today. The only planned expansion is for the TTC to buy 68 more in 2021.

Older buses tend not to work as reliably as young ones, and if a fleet is not regularly replaced, a higher proportion of it can fall into those “twilight years” when maintenance needs are higher and buses are more likely to fail in service. The TTC used to keep its buses for about 18 years and overhauled them twice during their lifespan. The argument for this was that the overhauls were cheaper than simply buying a new bus.

However, the bus building industry no longer produces vehicles with a long intended lifespan, and 12 years is a more common retirement age. This also avoids the need for that second overhaul to keep an older bus on the street.

The TTC has shifted to a 12 year replacement cycle for buses, and took advantage of federal “stimulus” funding to replace many older vehicles that otherwise would have remained in service. This gets over the one time “hump” of changing to a shorter life-cycle, but it also accelerates the need for ongoing spending because the annual replacement rate is now 50% higher – about 180 buses per year, rather than 120. This budget effect is compounded by the shift to more expensive hybrid or all-electric vehicles.

The newer generation of buses is also more technically complex, and a larger proportion of the fleet is required for spares to ensure that maintenance is preventative, fix-before-break work rather than gambling that a bus will continue to run even after it should have come into the shop for a check-up. A few years ago, the TTC changed its maintenance practices so that buses cycled through routine inspection and repair more frequently with the aim of reducing in-service failures. This had the desired effect, but at a cost of taking a larger maintenance pool from the fleet than in past years.

Finally, new buses often go through retrofit programs during their warranty period, and this further increases spare requirements if there is a sudden influx of new buses in a short time period.

That’s just the story on the maintenance side, but there is also the dreaded line whenever service is discussed: “subject to budget availability”. In other words, even if there are enough buses to improve service, there may not be the operating budget dollars (and the drivers this would pay) to actually field more vehicles.

Both the streetcar and subway networks make demands on the bus fleet.

It is no secret that the TTC has had problems with both its old and new streetcar fleets, but the biggest problem now is that growing demand on the streetcar routes exceeds the capacity of the new streetcar fleet.

  • When there were too few streetcars to operate that network, buses substituted to make up the difference.
  • Traffic congestion continues to worsen leading to slower service.
  • Construction projects shut down parts of the streetcar network from time to time.

At various times over recent years, there have been buses running on portions of Carlton, Dundas, Queen, King, Kingston Road and Bathurst. Some of these cases have been complete replacements while others are on portions of lines affected by construction.

With the streetcar shortage, construction work provided a rationale to bus a route and free up vehicles, but this grew beyond beyond construction season to semi-permanent replacements.

During the summer, the TTC has surplus vehicles and streetcar substitutions do not affect the availability of buses on bus routes.

Long-running projects (such as the water main reconstruction on Dundas) and route conversions due to a shortage of streetcars (such as on Kingston Road) are another matter. These take buses away from the bus network during the peak season. That said, the number of buses involved has been overplayed in some circles primarily as a way of carping about the Bombardier cars or about streetcars in general.

Subway shuttles place their greatest demand on the bus fleet when emergencies occur during the peak period. There are some vehicles at each garage that are “run as directed” buses, but these are nowhere near enough to make up for losing a busy part of the subway system. If there is a peak period shuttle, it requires not just the spare buses but vehicles and operators “borrowed” from other routes.

There is always a balancing act between having enough spare buses and staff to drive them for most emergencies, and the cost of having unused resources that are always a target for the budget hawks looking for “waste” in the TTC.

All of these factors affected and constrained the growth in bus service over the past decade, and will continue to do so without a significant change in TTC planning and funding policy.

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TTC Streetcar Network Changes in 2020 (Updated)

Construction projects and the ongoing shuffling of streetcars and buses between the 500-series routes will bring some changes over coming months.

Updated March 30, 2020

The planned switch to streetcars on 505 Dundas has been deferred to late April, and buses will continue to operate on this route.

In turn, streetcars will remain on Bathurst until Dundas switches to streetcars.

New overhead poles have begun to appear on Broadview at locations where the curves must be rebuilt for pantograph operation.

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