Measuring and Reporting on TTC Operations: Part I

The TTC reports on its overall performance through the monthly CEO’s Report. This document is rarely discussed in detail at Board meetings, and often is the underpinning for “good news” about how well the TTC is doing, not about how it could be even better.

Regular readers here know that I often despair over the quality of the metrics used in this report. A few months ago, during a Board meeting, CEO Rick Leary mentioned that the metrics in his report were to be updated. This article is the first in a series discussing of what might be done to improve things. Future articles will review practices in other major North American transit systems, as well as the state of TTC service seen through a more rigourous reporting standard.

The pandemic era fundamentally changed the environment where the TTC operates. Ridership is down, but demand for reliable service is as strong as ever because social distancing is a new requirement. In past years, riders might complain about crowding, but this could be fobbed of with the usual excuses that things were not too bad on average – in any event, we could not improve service because either we had too few vehicles or too little budget room to operate more.

Plans were always tailored to available subsidy funding and the on-and-off-again political desire to “improve” transit by freezing fares. In spite of repeated requests from some TTC Board members, staff would never produce an aspirtional budget showing how much it would cost to plan for overall service improvement beyond a minimal level. That was the approach in the Ridership Growth Strategy, now almost two decades old, and hard fought-for in its time.

Today, a crowded bus represents more than an inconvenience – riders see crowding as a safety issue in this pandemic era.

Looking ahead in 2021 and beyond, there is a potential for resurging transit demand at a time when government support for emergency funding could wane. This could force cutbacks just at a time when transit needs to at least hold its own, if not improve.

The TTC reports superficial measures of its service that do not tell us much about rider experiences even though that is the “shop window” of the transit business. Far too few data are reported at a granular level where the variation in experiences is evident. Little data is available online for review, and much of that is not up to date.

The Tyranny of Averages

Riders do not consume “average” service. Getting to work on time, on average, is not an option. Riders have to assume that the service will be bad and build padding to compensate into their plans.

Riders usually board the first vehicle that shows up after an indeterminate wait compounded by potential crowding. Even if they allow for irregular service, they have no control over whatever shows up day-by-day. Both the physical environment and the need to be somewhere on time can add anxiety to their journey.

Many routes and trips are not crowded, considered on an all route, all day basis, but some are. A major problem here is how we count things.

If we count crowded buses, we might find that, over the day, ten percent of vehicles are crowded. However, there are more passengers on those buses and so the experience of crowding affects proportionately more riders. The same applies to long waits before a trio of buses appears at a stop. The “average” service might match the scheduled buses/hour, but the true experience is of a long wait followed by a crowded journey.

This is the basic reason why management can claim that “on average” service is pretty good, even in these difficult times, while riders complain bitterly that it is not. Service metrics are needed to reveal the variations, how often and how badly the TTC misses its targets, as well as the number of affected riders.

Big Data vs Big Reports

Over the decades, the CEO’s Report (formerly the Chief General Manager’s Report reflecting the position’s earlier title) varied in volume and complexity. This depended on the interests of the then-sitting Board and the style of the then-current management. For a time, it included detailed project status reports on everything from major subway construction all the way down to routine system repairs, but with no interpretive summary to flag problem areas.

Only the most dedicated would read every page, and the report accomplished its objective of appearing to inform while overwhelming with raw detail. Much more information was available about capital project status than day-to-day operations.

At the other extreme, performance data are consolidated to a level where Board members can digest them, but with a loss of detail.

In our time of Big Data, there is a danger of information overload. Readers who follow my route performance analyses know of the volume of charts and data published here, and those are only the tip of a very large iceberg. Nobody would read a monthly description of every route.

The point should not be to read all of the detail, but to have a summary that flags problem areas with the detailed information as a backup. If the same problems show up every day, they are systemic issues, not ones caused by occasional disruptions. The Board should know about them and about what management is doing to correct and improve affected areas. This is Management 101.

From an accountability viewpoint, riders and politicians are interested in their route, in their wards, but those responsibile for the entire system should be able to verify that overall behaviour is not consolidated beyond recognition into a meaningless average. This requires two important changes in how performance data are presented:

  • The granularity of analyses in time and space (e.g. by route and location) must be sufficient that it can be related to the experience of a rider making a specific trip at a specific time.
  • Exception reporting of problem areas should flag these for action and be tracked in overviews like the CEO Report, but the detail should be available online on a timely basis.

Those points as written are aimed at service reliability, but can easily apply with modifications to areas such as equipment and infrastructure.

Why Do We Measure?

The reasons for measuring things are summed up in this quotation from an extensve report on the subject that is now close to two decades old:

Agencies collect … measures to help identify how well service is being provided to their customers, the areas where improvement may be needed, and the effects of actions previously taken to improve performance. In these cases, agencies use performance measures to help provide service as efficiently as possible, monitor whether agency and community goals are being met, and—over time—improve service so that it attracts new riders. Changes in policy, procedures, and planning can result from an understanding and appraisal of certain measures.

… [D]ecision-making bodies, such as transit boards and funding bodies, need to have access to accurate information to help them make decisions on where and when service should be provided and to support actions designed to improve performance. The public is also interested in knowing how well service is being provided and may need convincing that transit provides a valuable service, for them, for someone they know, or for the community as a whole.

Performance measurement data provide transit agency management with objective assessments of current circumstances, past trends, existing concerns, and unmet needs.

A Guidebook for Developing a Transit Performance-Measurement System, Transportation Research Board, 2003, p. 4

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I have not mentioned financial issues like fares, subsidies, cost control and “efficiency”. Too many transit discussions start with the question “how can we reduce costs” before asking “what quality do we want and are we providing it”. However, if the publicly reported data are spotty and do not address specifics rather than general averages, any political discussion of funding will be hobbled.

What might be “efficient” transit service depends on our goals, and use of that term typically implies that there is some way to do more with less, and that we should aim lower. “Good service” may not be viewed as a public good in some political circles except when the time comes to woo voters.

Finally, we must beware of metrics that allow management to “game the system” by hitting easy targets, or by measuring and reporting in a way that puts them in the best possible light.

Objectivity is another aspect of reliability. Those involved in developing measures, obtaining data, and analyzing performance should not permit their self-interests to affect the accuracy of the results. Performance measures should not be selected on the basis of which measures will make the agency look good and avoided where those performance measures make an agency look bad. Rather, selection of performance measures should be based on how accurately and fairly those measures assess agency performance and whether they can be used as a tool to measure goal achievement.

TRB, op. cit., p. 13
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GO / UP Express Off-Peak Service Cuts Effective January 23, 2021

In response to the steep decline in demand on their rail services, Metrolinx announced substantial changes to off-peak services on January 14.

Union-Pearson Express

Service now begins at 4:55 am every day and continues until 1:00 am every half-hour. This will change:

  • On weekends, the first train will leave Union at 6:00 am.
  • The last train will leave Union at 10:00 pm every day.
  • Half-hourly service will be provided only during these periods:
    • Weekdays 5:30 to 9:00 am, and 3:00 to 8:00 pm
    • Weekends 9:00 am to 7:00 pm
  • Hourly service will operate at other times.

GO Transit

All weekend and evening train service on the Kitchener, Barrie and Stouffville corridors will be replaced by buses operating from the new Union Station bus terminal. The changeover will begin on Friday, January 22 for Stouffville trains in the evening due to planned construction on the line that weekend.

The Effect of Covid-19 on GO/UPX Ridership

In recent years, Metrolinx has been proud to show strong growth on its network, and was starting to think in terms beyond peak-period, peak-direction commuting to downtown Toronto. With the work-from-home shift in the business core, this demand has collapsed.

The map below shows the growth in ridership for the period April-December 2019 compared with the 2018 figures. The size of the dot at each station is scaled to the change in demand. (Click on the images below for larger versions.)

Covid-19 changed everything, and ridership in April-September 2020 is only a fraction of former levels.

PDF versions of these files are available here:

The decline in demand has been severe, and no corridor is carrying even 10 per cent of its former demand. This is much worse than the situation on the TTC network where demand, although down from 2019, ranges up to 50 per cent of former levels thanks to continued strong ridership by essential workers and by those for whom car travel is not an option.

At a corridor level, the best performance is on Lakeshore East at 9.4 per cent of former demand, while Richmond Hill brings up the rear at 1.5 per cent, or 87 riders per day.

At a station level, the best performance is at Oshawa at 11.6 per cent of former demand, or 418 riders per day. Some stations are below 10 per day.

A tabular version of the station-by-station values is available here:

Weekday train service to Niagara Falls was suspended earlier in GO Transit’s covid-era schedules, and the weekend service was dropped on Saturday, January 9. GO hopes to resume weekend service in spring 2021.

Longer term, the challenge for Metrolinx will be the pace of demand recovery on its network given its strong commuter orientation. The program to expand GO capacity and, eventually, to electrify parts of the network now depends on assumptions about future levels of service and demand including when or if these will be achieved.

As on the TTC, it would be easy for budget hawks to claim that big spending on transit is a waste, but this is entirely the wrong time to make such a call. We do not know what the situation will be even a year from now, let alone further out, and what course the pandemic era will follow. This is not the moment to give up on transit much as road-building advocates might prefer to kick the competition while it is down.

There is a more subtle, but important point about GO Transit’s situation. If their service and policy focus shifted away from downtown commuting to all-day, everywhere service, this could bring a truly “regional” outlook.

Governments of both the Conservative and Liberal stripe at Queen’s Park have no interest in “local” transit service beyond funding provided to municipalities via the gas tax. The tax amounts just announced are for the fiscal year 2020-21 and are already baked into local budgets, and are separate from any covid-specific relief. They are not “new money”.

Ontario suffers from a combination of limited local transit and even less intercity service thanks to the disappearance of private sector carriers. A few new services have appeared, but there is no sense of a network approach let alone provincial funding to build ridership. With the core GO Transit network at historically low ridership, an expanded role for GO buses is the last thing on anyone’s mind. The problem is compounded by a political orthodoxy that somehow the private sector will fill the gap, ideally without any public funding.

Metrolinx and Queen’s Park are happy to focus on transit megaprojects, but the benefits are confined to specific corridors, some at great cost, and are years in the future. Meanwhile, we wait and hope for transit demand to recover and restore GO Transit’s relevance.

TTC Service Changes January 3, 2021: Part III Local Buses

Updated January 6, 2021 at 9:50 pm:

A revised version of the service change memo has been issued by the TTC. This article is updated to reflect new information.

Introduction

This article has been delayed from its usual publication a few weeks before changes go into effect. Schedule changes were still in flux, and information on what would actually operate was inconsistent.

There are many sources for service information:

  • An internal memo from Service Planning detailing the pending changes for a coming “board period” (usually a six-week interval). This exists in draft form a few months ahead of the implmentation date, but a final version is issued two-to-three weeks ahead of time. By this point, everything is more or less frozen in place because operators have picked their crews based on the new schedules. This is the memo on which I base my regular articles detailing pending changes.
  • At roughly the same time as the final version of the planning memo comes out, the TTC publishes electronic versions of schedules through the City of Toronto’s Open Data Portal. These are in an industry-standard format called GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification) used by agencies to publish their schedules for use by trip planning applications.
  • A separate version of the schedule data is created for NextBus which has its own format different from GTFS. On occasion the conversion process goes awry and NextBus does not have correct info.
  • The TTC’s own publicly posted schedules on its website appear to be generated from the GTFS data, although this conversion process can also run into problems.
  • Finally, there are the Scheduled Service Summaries. These come from Service Planning and they give an overview of service on all routes. Under normal circumstances, a new summary is published on the TTC’s Planning page just after new schedules go into effect. With so much service operating ad hoc through crew cancellations and RADs through 2020, these summaries did not fully reflect what was going on. In practice they could not because their structure is intended for simpler times. Some periods had no published summary.

Throughout the pandemic period, and especially at its outset, the TTC service planners had to make many last-minute changes including the conversion of express operations to “tripper” local runs, selective cancellation of crews, and creation of a pool of “run as directed” [RAD] buses and streetcars. The RADs were used both to fill schedule gaps and to supplement service where needed.

A useful factor in this was the automated passenger counting (APC) data that could be mined to locate routes with capacity issues. Many would argue that the TTC did not do enough to deal with crowding problems on some routes, but a related issue often discussed on this site was service regularity. On paper, a route might have enough service to handle demand at acceptable crowding levels, but in practice if service is badly bunched some vehicles will be badly crowded while others run with light loads.

In 2021, Service Planning hopes to get back to schedules that are properly constructed for reliable service rather than ad hoc responses to the pandemic.

The January 2021 schedule change encountered problems because of last minute-changes that caused the various sources of information to go out-of-sync.

  • As of January 3, the GTFS schedules reflect plans in mid-December (their posting date is December 21), and plans for some routes have changed.
  • The information on TTC schedule pages appears to reflect more recent changes to plans implying the existence of a refreshed set of GTFS data. This has not yet been published.
  • For reasons that are not yet clear, the NextBus versions of the January schedules were both incomplete and included outdated routing information. This caused NextBus to display little or no data for many routes until mid-afternoon on Sunday, January 3. Some late-breaking changes/corrections to TTC plans do not yet appear in the NextBus versions of the schedules [as of January 3].
  • The generic Service Change page does not list all of the changes because (a) it appears to be based on the original version of the service memo, and (b) because some changes, notably major restructuring of streetcar routes, have been missed. This is complicated by the TTC’s placing notice of one change, the restructuring of Queen services, in the Route Diversions page, not together with the list of service changes. There is no notice of changes on 504 King or 506 Carlton which now operate as split routes.

This situation reflects problems of last-minute decision-making, of multiple sources for data, and of fragmentation of responsibility for managing updates into (at least) three groups: Service Planning, IT and Communications. When a lot is changing on the fly, some things slip through the cracks. This is not to criticize staff, but rather to point out a structure where co-ordination problems can occur.

I will update this article as additional information becomes available.

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TTC Service Changes January 3, 2021: Part II Buses

Updated January 7, 2021: Comparative service level charts have been added for routes 53/953 and 60/960 showing changes between the November 2020 and January 2021 schedules.

Updated January 5, 2021: Information about express routes 953 Steeles East, 960 Steeles West and 984 Sheppard has been updated in the route summary. Comparative service charts will be added for weekday service on 953 and 960 in a separate update.

Updated December 26-28, 2020: This article has been extensively updated with charts to illustrate the change in service levels on corridors that have or had 9xx Express services. I will turn to other routes in a separate article.

Some of you have probably been wondering where my list of bus service changes for January 2021 has wandered off to.

The problem is that some of the information in the TTC’s service change memo is inconsistent, and a new version to be issued after Christmas. Some information about planned schedule changes is available through the City of Toronto’s Open Data Portal which has the electronic versions of all schedules for use by various trip planning apps.

Because the difference between some new and old schedules is not as straightforward as usual, I have added charts comparing service levels by time of day rather than the breakdown into peak, midday and off peak periods.

Information here should be considered “preliminary” in case the TTC makes further revisions before the new schedules take effect.

Scheduled Erratic Service

The schedules for many routes suffer from build-in irregular headways. If the route runs on time, the buses are not evenly spaced, and “on time” performance is the metric the TTC uses, for better or worse, to evaluate service. This irregularity arises from several factors that can also interact on the same schedule:

  • The route has branching services that are not on a compatible headway. For example, it is easy to blend two services running every 20′ to give a 10′ combined service on the common mileage. However, if it is a 25′ and a 10′ headway, this is impossible.
  • For pandemic-era schedules, some trips were cancelled without adjusting surrounding buses to even out the headways. This might have occurred unofficially, but it would take a lot of work to ensure that spacing stayed ideal even if the buses were not strictly “on time”.
  • For pandemic-era replacement of express services, “trippers” operated usually on schedules that did not blend with the basic service. These buses were typically in service from 5 am to noon, and from 3 to 10 pm.
  • Some “Run as Directed” (RAD) buses (aka Route 600 series) operated where needed to supplement scheduled service. These do not appear on any schedule nor in a route’s vehicle tracking logs.

My purpose in looking in detail at the January 2021 changes is to show how all of these factors interact.

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TTC Capital Budget and Plan 2021

Updated December 22, 2020 at 1:20 pm: Some illustrations from the Board meeting presentation have been added to this article, or have replaced previous versions with lower resolution from the budget report. Text has been added in some sections notably in comments about the timing of future projects and spending.

This is a companion article to my piece on the Operating Budget for 2021. This year operations will have a big challenge because subsidies are needed to backfill lost fare revenue, and yet politically, spending money on what we already have does not have the allure of announcing yet another subway plan. “Look! Another bus on Dufferin” does not stir the blood in quite the same way although one might argue that the long-suffering riders there are equally “deserving” of attention.

The Capital Budget has its own problems. For many years the true need for transit capital in Toronto was hidden so that the depth of the funding hole would not be obvious. Magically, there always seem to be enough capital to cover current costs, and somehow future years took care of themselves as they became the new present.

That scheme came unglued as TTC capital needs rose and available money went to the flashy new projects: a subway here, an LRT there, and of course an expressway rebuild lest those non-transit riders should be delayed on their vital journeys to and from downtown. A new class of project “below-the-line” was invented to accommodate work that was necessary, but for which money had yet to be found.

However, even getting on that unfunded list required acknowledgement that a project was necessary, and a long list of below-below-the-line work accumulated. In budgetary terms, this tactic was non “sustainable”. One cannot claim to be making a budget while ignoring over half of one’s future needs. Far from being ready to face the future, the TTC had a long queue of projects needed to refresh decades-old infrastructure, but no money to pay for them because they officially didn’t exist in the mind of fiscal planners.

This was not entirely the TTC’s fault. The City of Toronto preferred to have its transit system and appetite for capital look as if everything was in hand. The situation was not helped one bit by the prevailing attitude among some politicians that transit infrastructure, especially subways, is near-immortal while, in fact, lines dating back to the mid-20th century were showing signs of their age.

The situation was simply untenable as what once was “the future” banged loudly on Toronto’s door. In early 2019, a 15 year capital funding outlook was presented to the TTC Board including a $33.5 billion projection of capital needs to 2033.

The capital budget and ten-year plan before the Board on December 21 is not a full update of the 15-year plan, but it shows the transit funding crisis Toronto faces quite starkly. The 15 year plan’s status today is:

… the CIP has been updated and further refined in accordance with Board and Council direction, resulting in a 2021 to 2035 CIP that totals $37.7 billion, of which $10.349 billion is unfunded within the first 10 years and a total of $23.239 billion over the 15-year period. [p. 1]

The total does not in include major expansion projects beyond closeout of the Spadina extension project ($120 million), end-of-life support for the SRT ($47 million), and design work for the Waterfront LRT ($50 million). This is small change on the scale of the 15 year plan’s billions.

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TTC Operating Budget 2021

Updated December 21, 2020 at 5:50 pm: This article has been updated with additional and replacement illustrations from TTC management’s presentation to the Board at its meeting today. Explanatory text has been added or modified as needed. (The illustrations from this presentation are clearly identified by the date on them.)

Other issues were raised both by deputations and by Board members. I will deal with these in a separate article.

On Monday, December 21, the TTC Board will consider its Operating and Capital Budgets for 2021. This article deals with the Operating budget that pays for day-to-day service and maintenance. I will turn to the Capital budget that pays for major repairs and system expansion in a separate article.

Tracking the budget can be challenging even in normal times because there are so many moving parts. This year we have the collapse of demand thanks to the pandemic, together with an uncertain future for both economic and ridership recovery, not to mention government support to bridge the gap.

The table below shows how the budget has evolved over the past year. It begins, as all budgets do, with the prior year’s budget as a starting point. Normally, there would be much hand-wringing if the probable outcome were off by a tiny amount. Covid has blown such a hole in our finances that projections made a year ago bear no relation to the year as it evolved.

Along the way, there were many changes to operations through the year, but the TTC managed to keep service overall at about 85 per cent of the planned level. This percentage was not uniform across the system. Some bus routes, the very part of the network that suffered the least from ridership loss, saw substantial service cuts through the loss of their express services. As the TTC gradually restores the network, these problems will be reversed, but there is no guarantee that the system will have enough resources to deal with the combined effect of returning demand and a continued desire for social distancing.

The 2021 base budget includes various changes between 2020 and 2021. For 2021 there is a combination of new and enhanced services (a paltry amount compared to the overall budget) and a very large requirement (almost $800 million) to cover for Covid effects.

Fare and other miscellaneous revenue such as commuter parking and advertising will be down about 58 per cent over the 2021 year. This is not as deep as the losses at their worst in 2020, but ridership is projected to grow slowly through the year improving the TTC’s revenue picture, although it remains far from the pink of health.

Absent in the 2021 budget is any provision for a fare increase. Under normal circumstances this would generate about $30 million in added revenue, but fares now account for less than half of their former contribution. Mayor Tory has announced that there will be no fare increase, and this is a year in which that is a comparatively inexpensive decision. A longer-term problem will be a decision on the target level of fare revenue as operations and ridership return to normal in future years especially as covid-related subsidies disappear.

Expenses will rise by 2.4 per cent on the conventional system, although on a dollar basis, this is substantially offset by Wheel-Trans budget cuts in response to reduced demand.

The bottom line is that almost $800 million will be needed to supplement TTC’s normal revenue streams while maintaining service as planned. The arrival of such funding is far from certain, and detailed announcements probably await provincial and federal budgets for the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2021. Committed funding to date only gets the City and TTC to March 31, 2021.

Recent announcements might have sounded as if this were all new money, but in fact the status of transit funding is unknown for three quarters of 2021 starting, appropriately enough, on April 1st.

Unless otherwise noted, all tables and charts in this article come from the TTC’s Operating Budget report or from the Presentation at the Board Meeting of December 21, 2020.

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Can Toronto Still Be A Transit City?

As someone whose blog on transit affairs approaches its fifteenth birthday, I am often asked “so what would you do”. Usually the context is limited – how to improve bus service, which technology should be used for what line, and of course the perennial request to “draw a map”.

All of these are valid up to a point, but a common problem I and anyone else attempting to plan for the GTHA run into headlong is the accumulation of fixed plans that cannot be changed. They are like boulders on the landscape left by retreating glaciers, and they are almost immovable. It does not matter that many of them are invisible — they exist only as promises and dreams, not as actual built and operating systems.

With something tangible, we can at least debate how things might be improved, how they might be better used as part of a regional network. With dreams, we are dealing with egos, often large political ones held tightly, like security blankets, to the chests of politicians who would otherwise be intellectually naked.

A recent article by the Toronto Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro traces the history of the Scarborough LRT and subway projects through many political twists and turns. This is required reading both as a refresher for long-time followers of the debate and as an essential primer for newcomers on how we got to this sorry point. A summary of the article also appears as a Twitter thread with branches off to other work, notably John Lorinc’ series for Spacing Magazine.

In 2006, I wrote about A Grand Plan, my then-answer to what our network should look like, and I revisited that in various articles over the years. Metrolinx did not yet exist, and the context was the pending creation a regional transit plan that would set the stage for transit expansion in coming decades. We are now in the last days of 2020. The co-ordinated, prioritized, considered plans of Metrolinx’ early days have been replaced by the interventions for political, not planning, reasons. The only questions that matter now are “where are the votes” closely, but more surreptitiously by “where do my friends own property”.

A selection of comments from these articles appears at the end of this post. It is disheartening to think how long we have all been debating these issues and how little has been achieved.

Late in 2004, TTC staff prepared a plan to argue what could be done to improve Toronto’s transit. The then head of planning, Mitch Stambler, bounced ideas off me asking what they might call this plan. I wrote:

“Better Late Than Never” would be a good description for some TTC services, not to mention for a plan that we could actually achieve rather than endlessly debating.

As I said when we chatted last week, it is important that we somehow emphasize that this is something we really can do, and can do in a reasonable timeframe at a cost we might be able to afford. Also, we have to tie this in with the idea that Toronto is growing through transit to support the OP [Official Plan].

As a sidebar, somewhere the plan has to acknowledge that the TTC is NOT the only game in town, and that some of the growth will be handled by other systems, notably GO Transit. What is vital is that we do not repeat the errors of “Network 2001” which planned for lots of growth but ignored the potential contribution of commuter rail. That’s where the so-called justifications came from for the Sheppard Subway and for the scheme to massively expand Bloor-Yonge station.

Somewhere, we have to say that we should not try to handle all of the regional demand on the subway, and that this approach will leave resources (and subway capacity) free to handle comparatively-speaking local demand.

The LRT (or whatever) study needs to acknowledge this context — that it is NOT trying to be a mega solution to all transportation problems of the 416 and 905, but that it is trying to address the growth of population on The Avenues, and more generally in a built form that is not suitable for a network of subway lines.

“Toronto, A Transit City” is generic and it shows the focus we want for overall growth using transit (be it on the Avenues or elsewhere). It’s also broad enough to embrace a larger scheme of studies … “Toronto: Building a Transit City” … which would probably come to be shortened in general parlance as the “Transit City” plan or something like that.

Email to Mitch Stambler, December 29, 2004. Note that the Bloor-Yonge scheme mentioned here was much more heroic, complex and probably impossible to build than the recently-approved version that will add a new eastbound platform to Yonge Station.

That was 16 years ago.

The Short Version

I know perfectly well that some readers want a quick hit, a cut to the chase, and their eyes glaze over when they see that a long epistle awaits. Here are the high points:

  • The Scarborough debate has been entirely about new capital projects and spending, but not about state of good repair and service quality which leads directly to operating subsidies. We need not just one pot of gold to address new builds, but two more to keep and improve the existing systems especially where transit is less competitive and many trips are poorly served.
  • We need to decide what we should achieve with transit. Is it a fundamental investment in mobility for everyone and in the region’s economy, or is it a service for “them”, the people who cannot drive?
  • Are transit promises just to buy votes, and are proposed new lines only to serve well-connected landowners, or is their intent to make lasting, valuable changes for the region?
  • How much are we prepared to spend on transit building, operations and maintenance, and how will this fit with competing demands from other sectors such as health care?
  • Transit should not exist as a mechanism to underwrite an industrial strategy or to develop new technologies, beneficial though they might become. Even “green” technology should not be viewed as inherently good without a commitment to carrying more people by transit and diverting trips from autos. We should not let spending on green transit detract from spending for more and better transit.
  • There is much unmet need for transit in the region, and this should not be held hostage to redevelopment schemes as a pre-requisite to improving the network. People need to travel between many locations, and they should not have to wait for every point in between to sprout towers around new transit stations.
  • Transit construction is often touted for job creation, but could all that work could be distributed among more, less expensive projects rather than one or two megaprojects? Just because we spend billions of dollars and create many short-term jobs in the process, we have not necessarily spent well.
  • The 905/416 border is cited as an obstacle to “regional integration” when the problems it brings are largely questions of revenue allocation and jurisdiction for carrying passengers. These are not difficult problems by contrast to the very different service level found on routes in the 416 versus the 905. Much better funding of transit at the local level is needed to overcome this, especially with buses as the likely way that travel between areas outside of Toronto’s core will be handled for the foreseeable future.
  • Getting around the region is an everywhere-to-everywhere problem, but much transit (even within Toronto itself) is focused on the core to the detriment of travel between outer parts of the city and region. If we are serious about transit as a regional entity, then the ability to travel across the region and between its many parts is as vital as expanding the existing core-oriented rapid transit network.
  • Road space is shared to varying degrees between different groups of users – motorists, transit, freight, pedestrians, cyclists. The most difficult areas to change this balance are typically the most congested because space is at a premium. Improved transit priority is not achieved just by drawing lines on a map, but by detailed review of how streets work and how their use can be rebalanced. Access to transit is as important as service – if riders cannot easily access service, transit cannot serve its purpose.
  • “Governance” is touted as a solution to problems, but it is really code for centralization of power and decision-making. The agency that might have at least provided central coordination, Metrolinx, is a direct tool of government policy with little accountability, cherry picking which services it delivers and leaving local transit systems to muddle through.
  • The question must be asked: has the region already passed beyond a point where transit can become the choice of travel for many, if not most, journeys? Have we delayed or compromised transit improvements for so long that transit can never catch up as a competitive service? Stripped of all political posturing, what is really possible in our transit future? Without honest and transparent planning, we cannot answer any of these questions.
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TTC Service Changes January 3, 2021 Part I: Streetcars (Updated)

Updated January 7, 2021: Maps showing the revised operation of 501/301 Queen, 504/304 King and 506/306 Carlton have been added from the TTC’s Route Diversion pages.

Updated December 23, 2020: The operating schedules (in GTFS format used by various trip planning apps) for the January-February period have now been issued on the City of Toronto’s Open Data Portal. These confirm two outstanding issues with the service as it was described in the change memo:

  • The 304C King West night shuttle will operate on a 20′ headway, while the main part of the 304 King streetcar route between Dufferin and Broadview Station will operate on a 30′ headway. This means that timed connections between the two services will not be reliably possible for each trip.
  • The 310 Spadina night service appears to have escaped the cutback from a 15′ to a 30′ headway. The January schedules show service every 15′.

The TTC memo detailing service changes for January is a long one, and in the interest of breaking this up into more digestible chunks, I will deal with the streetcar and bus networks separately.

The usual summary of schedule changes (for the streetcars only) is linked here:

Some routes will see major changes beginning in January and continuing, with modifications as the year goes on.

In addition to various construction projects, the TTC plans to accelerate the retrofit of its Flexity fleet with various fixes and the major repairs to the early cars with frame integrity problems. The intent is to substantially complete this work by September 2021 by which time ridership recovery in the territory served by streetcars will be recovering from the pandemic ‘s effects.

The total scheduled cars in peak periods will be 145 out of a total fleet of 204. As I reported in a recent article about the 2021 Service Plan, the TTC aims to field 168 cars in peak once they have the fleet back at a normal 20 per cent maintenance ratio.

Queen Street will take the brunt of construction work for the early part of 2021 with a shutdown of streetcar service west of McCaul Loop. This will allow conversion of the overhead system for pantograph operation and, when construction weather allows, the complete replacement of the King-Queen-Queensway-Roncesvalles intersection. See:

That project will also affect the King service west of Dufferin Street.

Streetcars will return to Bathurst and to part of the Carlton route.

Blue Night Service (Updated)

The overnight service on four routes (501 Queen, 504 King, 506 Carlton and 510 Spadina) was increased due to congestion at the carhouses when most of the fleet, including many still-active CLRVs, was “in for the night”. Service on all but Carlton operated every 15 minutes, while Carlton ran every 20, even when it was a bus operation.

The night service reverts to half-hourly headways in January, except for 310 Spadina which remains at quarter-hourly. Also, the 304C King bus between Dundas West and Shaw will operate every 20′ while the main 304 streetcar route will operate half-hourly.

501 Queen

The 501 Queen route will be split with streetcars running between Neville Loop and McCaul Loop, and buses between Long Branch Loop and Jarvis Street. The 301 Blue Night service will also be split, but the streetcar portion will loop via Church, Richmond and York to avoid causing noise from wheel squeal at McCaul Loop.

The western portion of the route will include a short turn with half of the buses terminating at Park Lawn during most periods of service. Buses will loop downtown via Jarvis, Richmond and Church Streets. The buses will be supplied by Mount Dennis and Birchmount garages.

Routings in the area of Humber Loop will vary depending on the branch:

  • Westbound 501L and 301L: From the Queensway, south on Windermere Avenue, west on Lake Shore Boulevard West to Long Branch Loop.
  • Eastbound 501L and 301L: East on Lake Shore Boulevard west, north on Windermere Avenue, east on the Queensway.
  • Westbound 501P: From the Queensway, south on Park Lawn Road, south on Marine Parade Drive to Park Lawn Loop.
  • Eastbound 501P: From Park Lawn Loop via north on Marine Parade Drive, north on Park Lawn Road, east on the Queensway.

501 Queen will operate from Russell Carhouse and will continue to use trolley poles as the east end of the route has not yet been converted for pantographs (that project is planned for fall 2021).

502 Downtowner

This route is still suspended and all streetcar service on Kingston Road is provided by route 503.

503 Kingston Road

The 503 Kingston Road streetcar will continue to operate to Charlotte Loop at Spadina. The City has just awarded the contract for reconstruction of Wellington and Church Streets from Yonge to King, and that will occur in the spring. This will complete the Wellington Street project which has been delayed by other utility projects in the same area.

503 Kingston Road will operate from Leslie Barns and, like 501 Queen, will continue to use trolley poles.

504 King

The 504 King route will be split with streetcars running east of Dufferin Street and a bus service operating from Shaw to Dundas West Station. Both the 504A Distillery and 504B Broadview Station services will terminate at Dufferin Loop.

To reduce congestion at Dufferin Loop, all service on 29/929 Dufferin will be extended to the Princes’ Gate Loop.

The 504A Distillery service will operate from Russell Carhouse, and the 504B Broadview Station service will operate from Leslie Barns. The route will continue to operate with trolley poles.

The west end bus service 504C and 304C Blue Night will loop via south and east on Douro Street, north on Shaw Street to King Street West. Buses will be provided by Mount Dennis Garage. Because service on the 304 streetcar and the 304C bus will operate at different headways, regular connections between them will not be possible.

The operator relief point for the 504B service will be shifted from Queen & Broadview to Broadview Station to avoid service delays on other routes caused by late arrivals of operators for shift changes.

505 Dundas

The cutback of 505 Dundas service to Lansdowne has already ended (on Dec 9) and all cars now run through to Dundas West Station. This change becomes part of the scheduled service in January. Headways will be widened slightly during most periods to operate the same number of cars over a longer journey.

Operation of this route will be split between Leslie Barns and Roncesvalles Carhouse, and that will continue until spring 2022. Cars running to and from Roncesvalles will operate with trolley poles and will change to pantographs at Dundas West Station. Cars from Leslie already run on pantograph on their dead head trips.

The eight AM peak bus trippers will be interlined with buses from other routes. In the west, four trips will originate at Lansdowne from trippers on the 47 Lansdowne route. In the east, four trips will originate at Broadview Station from trippers on the 100 Flemingdon Park route.

506 Carlton

The 506 Carlton route will be split with streetcars returning between Broadview and High Park Loop, and buses operating between Parliament and Main Station. Overhead conversion for pantographs is not completed yet on the east end of the route, and reconstruction of the bus roadway at Main Station is planned to start in March.

506 streetcars will loop in the east via Broadview, Dundas and Parliament. 506C Buses will loop via River, Dundas and Sherbourne Streets.

For the overnight service, the 306 streetcars will run to Broadview Station and will use the bay normally occupied by 505 Dundas which has no overnight service.

The looping shown for the 506B/306B buses is different from the version show in the service change memo. The TTC has confirmed that the map is the correct version.

All 506 Carlton cars will operate from Roncesvalles Carhouse. They will enter and leave service using trolley poles, but once on Howard Park Avenue will switch to pantographs as the west and central portions of the route have been converted. The 506 buses will operate from Eglinton and Malvern garages.

508 Lake Shore

This route remains suspended pending recovery of demand to the business district downtown.

509 Harbourfront

This route reverts to the February 2020 schedules. Extra service that was added to compensate for the absence of 511 Bathurst cars will be removed.

510 Spadina

This route reverts to the February 2020 schedules with minor changes in service levels.

511 Bathurst

Streetcars return to 511 Bathurst using the February 2020 schedules. If construction work on the Bathurst Street Bridge is not completed by January 3, streetcars will divert via King, Spadina and Queens Quay until the bridge reopens.

512 St. Clair

The 512 St. Clair route continues with the November 2020 schedules and a covid-era reduction in service.

Routes 509 through 512 will all operate from Leslie Barns and will enter service using pantographs from the barns to route via Queen and King Streets.

The allocation of streetcars to carhouses by route is shown in the table below.

Eglinton East & Waterfront LRT Updates

Toronto’s Executive Committee considered a report on the current status of the Eglinton East LRT and Waterfront East LRT projects at its meeting on December 10, 2020.

The primary function of this report is to authorize continued study, not to set priorities nor to discuss funding schemes. As such, its recommendations passed easily because it preserves the convenient fiction of progress without actual commitment. The real battles come when there are $30 billion worth of transit projects and less than $10 billion to pay for them.

In a beautifully ironic touch, the same morning brought news from the Toronto Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro that the Scarborough RT would not last long enough to avoid a shutdown well before the Scarborough Subway could be completed. That announcement raises a raft of questions about Toronto’s transit future that go well beyond Scarborough itself, and I will turn to those issues in a separate article.

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TTC 2021 Service Plan

The TTC’s proposed 2021 Service Plan will go before the TTC Board at its meeting on Tuesday, December 15, 2021.

In September 2020, I wrote about the draft Service Plan as it was presented for public consultation. The final version has been amended in parts and contains more detail than the draft version.

The effects of the pandemic will run through service plans for many years, but the TTC’s approach is to maintain a relatively high level of service in support both of social distancing and of the large number of essential trips that are taken by transit. The Service Plan is silent on how this will funded, and that will no doubt be a topic of the 2021 Budget to be discussed at a special meeting on December 21.

Although the TTC plans to operate at close to 100 per cent of its pre-pandemic service level, the actual distribution of service may not be the same. Service will not return to its former state with recognizable peak periods and heavy demand to the core area as long as business and educational travel is replaced by work/study from home arrangements. Until the effect of the just-announced availability of a vaccine works its way through society, we will not know when and how various activities will return to “normal”.

Demand on the system had been growing through 2020 after a trough in the spring, but that growth was blunted recently by the renewed lockdown in Toronto. The strongest return of demand has been on the bus network which serves more areas where trips are taken by transit to jobs where work-at-home is not practical. In some locations demand is already over 50 per cent of former levels and, coupled with a desire for less-crowded vehicles, service at pre-pandemic levels is required.

The TTC anticipates that system-wide demand will return to 50 per cent of former levels by the end of 2021, and this implies higher values particularly on the bus network. It will not be possible to provide social distancing beyond whatever can be achieved by fielding as many of the buses the TTC already owns. One advantage of the flattened demand curve is that the fleet can achieve better utilization with demand spread out over more service hours.

The Service Plan notes that a common complaint during the consultation process was uneven vehicle spacing and bunching problems. This is extensively documented in many articles on this site and the problem continues to this day. The only “solution” proposed by the Plan is changes to schedules so that they reflect actual operating conditions, and there is no mention of the need for much better service management.

There is a lot to cover in the overall plan, and the remainder of this article will address major topics. Some items, notably those related to customer service issues at stops, are not covered here but I will turn to them as and when specific proposals appear. Interested readers should refer to the full document.

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