TTC Covid Service Recovery Plans

At its September 24, 2020 meeting, the TTC Board will consider a report from management on the current status of the “Restart and Recovery” program.

This report contains a variety of information including:

  • A review of the physical changes the TTC has been implementing and investigating to improve health and safety on its system.
  • Demand and service plans for the coming months.
  • Financial projections
  • A current survey of rider attitudes to travel on the TTC

This article deals only with the service plans. I will turn to the other components after the TTC meeting.

Conventional System Service

Ridership on the main part of the transit system (excluding Wheel-Trans which I will discuss later) has been growing slowly from the low point in April 2020.

The return of demand varies by mode and this is strongly influenced by the higher proportion of trips to downtown jobs and academic institutions that have been replaced by work-from-home arrangements.

The bus system is back at about half of its normal demand although the subway is at only about a third. The TTC does not plan to restore full service until the system as a whole reaches 50%, but is running extra unscheduled buses on routes where crowding is a problem. As I have previously reported, the TTC does not list where and when these extras are used, nor does it routinely publish crowding statistics.

A big problem with the 49% level for bus boardings compared to pre-covid conditions is that this is an average. It blends data from all routes, all times of day, and all parts of the city. There will be places and times of lower demand and places where routes are as crowded as pre-covid. This is borne out by photos posted on social media by riders.

Certain types of trips, indeed even the potential for some trips, will not return to the system until “normal” times especially for special events and entertainment. School travel at all levels will run below “normal” while classes are provided via distance learning for the safety of students.

This will dilute the returning numbers of workers who continue to use the TTC and bring down the overall percentages even though some routes will see demand well over the 50% level, but with less than 100% of the pre-covid service.

Overall crowding levels are shown in the chart below which is driven by Automatic Passenger Counter (APC) data. As ridership grows, the proportion of trips running above 30% or 50% of capacity (reference points for acceptable crowding in stages of the recovery plan) have also grown. Note that this includes the benefits of whatever unscheduled extra service the TTC has operated.

What is badly needed is a better public understanding of where crowding is a problem at the route and time of day level, not simply on an average basis across the system. Only in this context can the addition or redeployment of resources — drivers and buses, not to mention funding — make sense.

The TTC plans some service improvements in coming months:

  • Starting in September, the TTC is dispatching extra buses to deal with the rise in school trips as elementary and secondary schools re-open and some of their population returns as TTC riders.
  • In October, the TTC will make improvements on Eglinton East to take advantage of the recently installed bus lanes. This will include restoration of 905 Eglinton East and 986 Scarborough express services.
  • In November, more express services will return and local services will be improved by using some of the buses and drivers now operating on demand-based standby service.

The October changes will be accomplished by reallocating service from poor-performing routes, and it will be interesting to see which routes are on the chopping block. Indeed, it would be useful to see a full list of routes and service periods that are under threat of service cuts considering that full funding for 2021 is far from certain. For 2021, any new services will have to compete with existing routes for resources.

An important distinction in service design that will be with us for some time will be the spreading of the “peak” period, or more accurately a lower demand at the height of the peaks resulting in more uniform demand and service levels. This has been part of the schedule design for recent months when “trippers” that ordinarily would be in service for only a few hours in each peak operated for 6-7 hours/day with only a brief mid-day window between the “AM” and “PM” peak service levels.

Another issue related to core area demand will be the degree to which non-core oriented trips take a proportionately larger role on the TTC and how network and service designs react to this.

Travel between suburbs has always been more difficult than travel to and from downtown because so much service is oriented to feeding the subway network. Coming months provide a chance to address this problem with a stronger focus on the surface network and the areas it serves.

For 2021, various options are part of TTC planning:

  • Continuation of some demand-responsive service to allow quick adjustments as travel patterns evolve.
  • The potential effect of a “second wave” that could affect both ridership and the level of distancing required on transit vehicles.
  • Adjusting service patterns and network structure, as discussed above, to react to and support new patterns of demand.
  • Improve service reliability (a subject of several recent articles on this site).
  • Continue the RapidTO plan of creating more exclusive bus lanes.
  • Cross-border service and fare integration with systems in the 905.
  • Micro-transit and automated shuttle services (*).

(*) The last bullet is quite clearly a sop to the political forces at Queen’s Park where there are assumptions that large savings can be had by using self-driving mini-buses and/or some form of alternate transit to replace lightly used routes. The big problems on the TTC are on routes where these options are hopelessly inadequate, and yet there will be pressure to focus on them as some sort of magic bullet for transit budget problems.

Public consultation regarding the 2021 Service Plan is now in progress with the intent of reporting to the Board late in 2020. The big unknown for next year is the state of the TTC Budget and the possibility that the system will face arbitrary cutbacks to fit within a City and Provincial budget envelope.

Wheel-Trans

Although Wheel-Trans is a much smaller operation than the “conventional” system, ridership has been returning to it roughly in line with the rest of the surface system. Demand is expected to be close to 50% of pre-covid levels by the end of 2020.

As demand rises, the ability to distance on WT services will begin to be difficult and some ride-sharing will have to occur starting in late September.

WT ridership is a particular challenge for the TTC on three counts:

  • The ratio of a fully-loaded vehicle to one operating at covid-based distancing and capacity is much higher for WT than for regular TTC vehicles. This means that distancing problems kick in much sooner as demand grows on the WT network compared with the “conventional” one.
  • The TTC has attempted to shift WT riders to its “family of services” model where trips are taken part by a WT ride and partly on the conventional system. However, crowding issues, already challenging for some WT users under “normal” circumstances, are more of a problem with limited capacity on buses.
  • The WT user community has a higher proportion of riders with risk factors for covid exposure and their concerns about behaviour by other riders are heightened.

Coming Soon …

I will update this article with additional information, if any, from the TTC Board meeting.

Ontario Line Draft Environmental Conditions Report Released

On September 17, 2020, Metrolinx released the Draft Environmental Conditions Report [Draft ECR] for the Ontario Line.

A huge volume of material is included, thousands of pages, but the vast majority of this only documents existing conditions and gives little indication of the actual “environmental impact” that building and operating the Ontario Line will have.

For convenience, here are links to source materials. The Draft ECR link leads to a page with many documents, some of which are very large PDFs.

It is self-evident that the actual impact of any project cannot be known without the details of what will be built. This information is not yet public and only sample area maps which are drafts “for illustrative purposes only” have been released for a portion of the route. More will follow in coming weeks, but one must ask why they are not all available now if Metrolinx expects informed comment on their proposal.

Even on the supplied maps, many key features are missing including:

  • Vertical and horizontal alignment including property requirements for construction
  • Station sites, access and circulation plans including redundant paths between platforms and the surface for fire safety
  • Emergency service buildings and access structures to tunnels
  • Utility buildings such as substations

During the public consultation process and as recently as the April 2020 report summarizing this work, the project timeline was illustrated as below. This clearly shows that only one set of “Environmental Reports” were to be published and this was expected in Fall 2020, that is to say, now.

Source: Engagement Summary Report, April 2020, p. 43

Ontario changed the legislation relating to Environmental Assessments with the effect that the item of most interest — the actual design and effect of the project — will not be known until later in the process than the public originally expected.

As required under O. Reg. 341/20, Metrolinx is preparing an environmental conditions report, which will be published for public review and input prior to finalization. The report will characterize the environmental setting in the vicinity of the Ontario Line, including existing noise and vibration levels, air quality, natural environment features, built heritage and archaeological resources, socio-economic and land use features, and traffic conditions.

Metrolinx is also planning to publish early works reports for components of the Ontario Line project that are planned to proceed to implementation ahead of completion of the Ontario Line assessment process.The early works reports will assess the environmental impacts of the early works and describe associated mitigation measures. The early works reports will be published for public review and input prior to finalization.

Following finalization of early works reports, Metrolinx will publish an environmental impact assessment report, which will assess the environmental impacts of the Ontario Line and describe associated mitigation measures. The environmental impact assessment report will be published for public review and input prior to finalization,as part of Metrolinx’s effort to meet the best practices and community consultation principles that are part of the Environmental Assessment Act with all projects. This will be followed by early works reports and the Environmental Impact Assessment Report environmental impact evaluation results, mitigation measures, monitoring activities, potentially required permits and approvals and other components.

Source: Metrolinx Update to City of Toronto, p. 13

There are now three streams of reports and consultation. First up is the ECR which has just been issued, but separately there are reports on “Early Works” (design and construction that can get underway to advance the project before the full design is locked down) and then the “Environmental Impact Assessment Report”. It is only in the last report that the details of design and effects on neighbourhoods will be revealed, and this is planned for winter-spring 2021.

Source: Ontario Line Environment Page

On a parallel track, the procurement process is already underway with teams short-listed to bid on two major contracts:

  • Rolling Stock, Systems, Operations and Maintenance (RSSOM)
  • Southern Civil, Stations and Tunnel (Exhibition to Don Yard Portal)

The Northern Civil, Stations and Tunnel package (Don Yard Portal to Eglinton) will be tendered separately in 2022.

The ECR contains material reviewing conditions in a wide study area shown in the map below.

The study area is relatively wide in some areas, but narrower in others implying that a range of options was reviewed for parts of the route. Notable by its absence is the original Eastern-Pape corridor for the Relief Line showing that there was never any intention of entertaining this as an option, if only for comparative purposes.

The study area in Thorncliffe/Flemingdon is fairly large in part because this includes the proposed maintenance yard, but also because alternative routes through this area were under consideration.

Source: Draft Environmental Conditions Report, page i

Alignment plans are shown only for the western segment between Exhibition and Queen/Spadina at this point. Metrolinx plans to unveil details of additional segments on a weekly basis for other parts of the line:

  • Osgoode Station to Don Yard
  • East Harbour to Pape South
  • Pape North to Science Centre (Eglinton)

They have published details for the first segment in a blog article as well as on the West Neighbourhood page (both linked above). I will update this article as information on these segments is revealed.

One burning issue in the third segment is the alignment through and effects on the South Riverdale and Leslieville area between East Harbour and Gerrard Stations. Although details on this have not been published, there is a note in a recent Metrolinx report to City Council (linked above) about the area just north of Queen Street where a recreation centre stood in the line’s path.

The Ontario Line team is working with City staff to ensure the project is delivered with minimal impacts to sensitive community areas and properties, such as parks and community centres. For example, following significant design and engineering effort, the station at Riverside/Leslieville has been positioned to avoid impacting Jimmie Simpson Community Centre. Efforts are underway to minimize impacts to other key community assets, including, Pape Avenue Middle School, Valley Park Middle School, Bruce Mackey Park, the future Ordnance Park, places of worship and other locations. Where an impact cannot be avoided the team will continue to work with City staff to address continuity of programming.

Source: Metrolinx Update to City of Toronto, p. 13
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TTC Recalls More Laid Off Workers

The TTC has announced that it will recall 132 more workers effective October 2, 2020. Of the 450 who were laid off in April, 150 were recalled in September. This leaves 168 still awaiting recall.

The TTC intends to use these drivers for “demand responsive service” with buses (and a few streetcars) that are dispatched as needed on routes where scheduled service cannot handle demand. The return of students to in-school classes adds to system load, and more service is needed.

The layoffs are a temporary measure with all operators to be recalled when the TTC reaches 50 per cent of pre-pandemic ridership levels on all vehicle modes (before the pandemic the TTC was carrying 1.7 million rides on a typical weekday day). At the lowest point of the lockdown, the TTC was moving roughly 15-20 per cent of pre-pandemic ridership. Currently, the TTC is seeing daily ridership in the 35-40 per cent range (or more than 630,000 customers each weekday).

TTC Press Release Sept. 17, 2020

This statement clarifies a confusing element in past announcements where it was unclear whether the 50% criterion would apply to selected portions of the network where demand was strong or to the network as a whole. Because demand into the core area, particularly on the subway, is much lighter than usual, the bus system will have to reach a level well over 50% of pre-covid riding before overall system demand will trigger full service restoration.

In previous articles, I have been tracking the level of scheduled service on many routes (the final article will appear soon) as well as the irregularity of headways (the time between buses) both in the schedules and in actual operation.

What is missing is any report of where the standby buses the TTC operates are used. With an increasing proportion of service provided by unscheduled vehicles, knowing how they are allocated is important as well as how this correlates to on-board crowding.

There is roughly a two month lead time for changes in the scheduled service, and the next two sets of schedules will come into effect at Thanksgiving and in late November. Details of proposed changes are not yet public, but at this point it is fair to assume that the October schedules are locked down and the November changes are well along in draft state. These lead times are required to give time for workforce and fleet planning, and to organize sign-ups for crews.

Using standby or “run as directed” service allows the TTC to have a pool of vehicles and drivers that are not pre-allocated to specific times and locations, and this gets around the lead time problem for scheduled service. The downside is that systems that depend on schedules including public information and vehicle tracking don’t “see” the extra buses.

One member of the TTC Board, Commissioner/Councillor Shelley Carroll, plans to move a motion at the September 24, 2020 Board Meeting that full service be restored. The earliest that is likely to happen would be year-end on a formal basis, and if all remaining drivers are recalled they would likely be used for standby buses until then.

The agenda for that meeting will be published soon, and we will see whether management has any specific proposals to address this.

Still at issue is the question of service standards both to deal with crowding levels and for “poor performing” routes where the Ontario Government wants transit systems to consider alternative means to provide service.

Crowding and Service on the TTC: September 2020

A regular feature of Twitter and other platforms are complaints about TTC crowding and photos of packed vehicles and stations. Far be it for me to quote BlogTO as a source, but Becky Robertson put together a collection of Tweets on this subject in an article published on September 9. I have included the top of it here to illustrate a few points.

This view is at St. Clair West Station on the northbound platform seen from the mezzanine level. The original post is timestamped 5:02 pm on September 8, 2020.

This stop is not usually this busy, and what has almost certainly happened is that a train short-turned into the pocket track north of the station and dumped its passengers.

Looking at the service alerts, there was a fire that resulted in suspended service north of this point. The original alert was issued at 4:30 pm, and an all clear went out at 4:56. However, there was a power failure in the same area for which the notice went out at 5:11 and the all clear at 5:20.

Crowded platforms, not to mention crowded shuttle buses, are going to be a fact of life in this type of circumstance, but it would be too easy to let the TTC off the hook because this was an emergency. They happen every day, and not just on the subway. Alerts with unspecified “operational problems” or “mechanical difficulties” are common, but the details are not routinely available, especially for surface routes. (Archived delay logs are available through the City’s Open Data Portal, but the surface route logs do not contain the same extensive set of explanations for delays as those for rapid transit routes.)

Line 1 Yonge-University is operating at a level of of 17.1 trains/hour (210 seconds between trains) compared to the pre-covid PM peak level of of 23.1 trains/hour. The pre-covid AM peak service was 25.5 trains/hour between Glencairn and Finch with half of these running north to Vaughan.

Line 2 Bloor-Danforth operates at a level of 16 trains/hour (225 seconds between trains) compared to the pre-covid peak level of 23.5 and 23.8 trains/hour (AM and PM respectively).

A large chunk of the subway’s capacity (based on the TTC Service Standards) is the substantial room for standees on subway trains. Proportionately this is higher for the subway than for surface modes with peak:offpeak ratios of 2 for the subway, 1.76 for the new streetcars, and 1.46 for a standard low-floor 12-metre bus.

During the early covid days, the standards were much lower with the intent of providing social distancing, but as demand builds up, this is less and less likely. Seats that are marked off for spacing are routinely occupied by passengers when routes get busy.

A previous article on this site TTC Preps For Covid Recovery includes diagrams showing the various levels of crowding the TTC is aiming for, at least on paper.

The basic problem with target crowding levels is that they are averages, and reality can be quite different. This is not simply a question of emergencies when they occur, but of irregularities in service.

In previous articles (Intro, Parts I, II and III), I reviewed the operation of several routes in the east, north and west of the bus network. (Part IV is in preparation and will deal with a few major east-west routes missed earlier as well as some smaller routes in the central city.)

There are common threads across the system:

  • Service is erratic on all routes although the degree varies by time of day and location.
  • Service is scheduled to be erratic in many cases either because branching routes do not have headways that blend, or because extra “tripper” service operates at a different headway from the basic route.

The TTC is operating “run as directed” buses (and a few streetcars) to help out where routes are crowded, but these are not tracked because they are not part of the schedule, and they run under a different internal route number than the line they actually serve. There is no standing report of how these vehicles are used, or whether there are standing assignments to specific routes and times to make up for schedule problems.

Irregularities in the schedule could be dealt with on an ad hoc basis although this causes problems for the TTC’s own service reliability metric which is based on “on time performance”. The buses cannot be both evenly spaced and on time.

The Service Standards provide leeway both for being on time, and for operating at a reliable headway (the time between buses), but on many routes these combine to make bunched service fit within the acceptable range.

“On Time” is measured only at terminals, and a vehicle is expected to be no more than one minute early or five minutes late. The goal is for 90% of departures and 60% of arrivals to be “on time”.

Reliability has a different metric depending on the headway:

  • For service scheduled at more than 10 minute intervals, the on time rule applies because riders expect vehicles to show up when they are scheduled.
  • For headways between 5 and 10 minutes, the metric is that the deviation from scheduled spacing is no more than 50% and that this is achieved 60% of the time. On an 8 minute headway, a range from 4 to 12 minutes is acceptable.
  • For headways under 5 minutes, the metric is that the deviation from scheduled spacing is no more than 75% and that this is achieved 60% of the time. On a 4 minute headway, a range from 1 to 7 minutes is acceptable.

These are all-day averages, and they leave considerable leeway for service to “meet” the standards while in practice being a complete mess. For starters, 4 out of 10 trips can lie outside of the standards, and the leeway for trips within standards is wide enough that bunched service qualifies as “ok”.

To call these “standards” is something of a joke because they say, in effect, “we’re not going to try too hard to provide reliable service, and we will do that less than 2/3 of the time”.

These were approved by the TTC Board, but there was no detailed discussion of the implication of the standards for the actual quality of service on the street. Management produces only superficial rolled-up stats for service quality and complaints about crowding, even in pre-covid times, were more likely to meet with “we have no budget/buses/drivers” as a stock response.

During the covid era, even vehicle spacing, and hence even vehicle loading, is even more important than ever. We do not know what the vehicle-to-vehicle crowding situation is because the TTC does not publish any breakdown of this information, only averages.

A fundamental issue with uneven headways is that the bus carrying the largest gap will probably have the most passengers. Instead of having three buses each with 30 riders, one could see 50 on the first bus, 30 on the second and 10 on the third. Same riders. Same average load. But the “average rider” sees a crowded bus (over half of the 90 are on the first, full bus), while only 10 of the 90 lounge in the comfort of a nearly-empty vehicle.

This problem is intimately linked with the question of whether there are enough buses on the road because if the TTC only looks at averages (and even worse if they do so over many hours), they will completely miss both spikes in demand and crowding problems from irregular headways. Indeed, we could well hear a familiar refrain of “we are monitoring service and everything is running within Board-approved standards”.

It is not enough for the TTC to say “we have standby buses we use to address problems”. They should report on where, when and how these vehicles are assigned with a view to integrating them into scheduled service.

A basic principle of transit operational planning is that the cheapest “new” capacity comes from properly managed and spaced service. Riders on many TTC routes suffer from unreliable service and have done so for years.

Fixing this is a job for everyone from the top to bottom of the organization: from a Board that approves standards without understanding how lax an operation these actually permit, through management who prefer easy metrics that make them look good, to supervisors who need to actively manage service. Finally, there are the drivers who are mainly very good, but some of them have only a passing sense of the importance of service reliability. Running “hot” to get a long recovery time at the terminal should not be an accepted practice.

If the TTC’s goal is to put off full service restoration as long as possible to reduce subsidy requirements, then it is their duty to make the best of the service they have on the street.

The scheme of holding off until ridership gets back to 50% of pre-covid levels sounds practical in theory, but it misses the basics about where the recovery is taking place. The subway will be the last to hit this target, but bus routes should not have to wait for better service.

As I write this, plans for fall 2020 and for the 2021 budget year have not been announced. The province is nibbling around the edges with talk of Microtransit even though this will not address the TTC’s fundamental problems because so little of the network is an applicable target for this type of operation.

Politicians love to avoid hard questions. We can expect to hear a lot of simplistic slogans about efficiency and belt-tightening. The net effect will not be a careful review, simply an edict to save some arbitrary amount. If anything, this will work counter to making transit more attractive especially if the problems of service reliability are not addressed.

The TTC is a good system, at least by North American standards, and it is getting more financial support than most. But the gap between its own view of service quality and what riders see is too wide, and this needs to be fixed as an integral part of restoring the TTC’s role in Toronto’s transportation network.

Postscript: A Message For People Documenting Crowding Problems

Take pictures and post them if you can. This is the only way we are going to hold the TTC’s feet to the fire. But be sure to include the date, time, route and location, and any info on service quality such as how long you waited for the bus.

King-Queen-Roncesvalles Update September 2020

The City of Toronto has issued an update for the project at the intersection of King, Queen, Roncesvalles and The Queensway.

This is a complex piece of work with many components that will stretch into 2022 including:

  • Reconstruction of the bridge over Parkside Drive on The Queensway
  • Extension of the streetcar right-of-way east from its current end east of Parkside to Roncesvalles together with provision for left turns across the right-of-way at Glendale and at Sunnyside
  • Reconfiguration of the KQQR intersection (see my article from April 2020 for diagrams of the planned changes)
  • Replacement of old water main and sewer infrastructure
  • Replacement of TTC overhead (this will make the wiring in this area pantograph compliant)
  • Reconstruction of streetcar track
  • Reconfiguration of Roncesvalles Avenue from Queen to Harvard (just north of the North Gate to the carhouse) with cycling lanes and transit platforms matching the section done several years ago from Harvard to Dundas
  • Revision to the existing loading islands on Roncesvalles for compatibility with the boarding ramps on the news streetcars

The construction will begin on September 8, 2020 on the underside of the Parkside Drive bridge. This will only have a minor effect on transit service, and the only change to the 501 Queen service is that it will not stop at Parkside during September and October.

2021 will see the main construction work on Queen and The Queensway beginning in February and extending to into 2022 as shown in the staging map below.

Stage 1 from February to July 2021 will affect the curb lanes of The Queensway as well as water main, track and overhead work extending east to Triller Ave.

Stage 2 from July 2021 to April 2022 will affect the middle lanes of The Queensway and King Street south of the intersection.

Stage 3 from April to August 2022 will affect Roncesvalles Avenue.

See the construction notice linked above for details.

There is no word yet on the TTC’s arrangements for service or what the interim configurations of routes will look like. Continued access to Roncesvalles Carhouse via the North Gate will remain available until the planned work in 2022 at which point all access will have to shift to the south gate during construction between Queen and Harvard.

However, there will be periods where the KQQR intersection is impassible in both directions while it is reconfigured and rebuilt. This will require Queen and King services to turn back somewhere further east TBA with bus replacements.

It is not clear whether there will be a period in fall-winter 2021-22 when streetcar service can be restored west of the carhouse. I will pursue details of the project staging with the City and TTC.

The City plans to have a project website available, but it is not up as I write this article on the evening of September 4.

TTC Bus Service Frequency and Reliability in 2020 (Part III)

This article continues a series reviewing the quality of service scheduled and operated over the COVID-19 era in summer 2020 that began with an introduction and continued with Part I looking primarily at Scarborough and Part II moving further west looking at north-south trunk routes between Victoria Park and Jane.

In this article, I continue further west to review these routes:

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TTC Begins To Recall Laid-Off Drivers

On August 27, the TTC announced that it will begin to recall workers who were laid off in April due to a dramatic drop in demand on the transit system.

450 drivers were laid off, and of these 150 will be recalled to provide extra resources for the demand school opening will bring in September.

TTC ridership had dropped to between 15 and 20 per cent of normal levels in the spring, but now sits in the 35 to 40 per cent range across the system. From previous announcements, we know that growth is strongest on the bus system, and crowding problems there have been reported often by riders even before any school traffic returns.

The TTC has not yet announced where service will be added as this depends on plans by school boards that have not yet been finalized.

As ridership continues to grow, more drivers will be recalled and the intent is to have all employees back to work when the system reaches 50 per cent of its pre-pandemic demand.

The TTC has enough buses to operate full service, and with the change in peak demand to a flatter service design, the fleet can go further to provide capacity than it did before. For off-peak service, the question is less whether TTC has the vehicles, but whether they have the drivers and budget headroom to use them.

Many routes currently operate with “trippers” that under normal circumstances would only run a few hours a day in the peaks, but now operate roughly seven hours at a time roughly between 6 AM and 1 PM, and again from 3 PM to 10 PM. The marginal cost of running longer “peak” service is actually less than it might seem because drivers spend more of their day driving on routes rather than to and from garages, and premiums associated with longer split shifts do not apply.

The challenge for 2020 and especially 2021 will be whether the funding level from various governments will allow the TTC to stay ahead of growing demand, and for how long a comparatively uncrowded transit experience will be possible.

What Is A “Low Performing” Transit Route?

Recently, I wrote about the impetus to shift to “microtransit” as a fix for what ails the TTC and other transit systems (see Meddling with Microtransit).

The advocacy group TTCriders has posted a set of maps showing what happens if routes carrying fewer than 4,000 riders per day are deleted from the network (see Where’s My Bus).

Just counting riders does not tell the whole story, and yet this is precisely the kind of simplistic logic we can expect from politicians looking for a fast way to show change, or worse “innovation”, in the provision of transit service.

TTCriders lists only 24 possible routes for cuts based on the 4,000 rider criterion, but in fact there are 61 routes that meet this threshold, out of 169 in total, or over one third. If this were the starting point for TTC cuts, the results would be much more severe than TTCriders shows.

The most recent TTC riding counts are for 2018.

Here is the complete list sorted by route ridership.

Those who would bring a “businesslike approach” to public services always harp about “efficiency” and “cost effectiveness”. Just looking at raw ridership numbers is the wrong place to start.

The number of riders on a route is related to its length, and to the number of people and jobs along that route. Many of the under-4000 club are short routes, and if their demand were scaled up based on their length, they would not be included.

Some routes exist under separate names, but are really part of one corridor. For example, the 960 Steeles West and 954 Lawrence East Express buses carry 2,900 and 3,200 riders daily, but they are an integral part of local routes 60 and 54. Indeed, they were simply the “E” branch of the local service until the TTC rebranded these services as 900-series routes.

The 503 Kingston Road (as it was in 2018) is a rush hour branch of 502 Downtowner, and both of them supplement service on Queen and King Streets. They carried 2,100 and 6,000 riders respectively in 2018, but they are part of a much larger Queen/King corridor from the Beach to downtown.

Probably the strongest example of the problem of reporting ridership by route number is the 134C/913 Progress Bus which operates local in one direction and express the other, peak only. This is one bus route, but its results are reported as if it were two. The 913 carries only 2,000 riders/day, but the 134 carries 8,500 including its other branches.

A more realistic view of route performance is the productivity of the vehicles — how many riders are carried per hour of vehicle operation? When this approach is used, the pecking order of routes changes.

Here is the complete list sorted by riders per vehicle hour which I will refer to as “riding density”. This is preferable to the TTC’s term “productivity” which has implications of what is desired.

Many of the very lowest routes stay at the bottom, notably the premium fare Downtown Express 14x routes whose productivity will always be limited by various factors including the fare and infrequent service which discourage ridership, and a large amount of dead mileage (travel without carrying passengers) in the counterpeak direction.

However, some major routes lie in the bottom third of the list such as 53 Steeles East which carries 25,000 riders per day. (At the point these statistics were compiled, the 953 Express service had not been split off as a separate route, and it does not appear in the TTC’s table.)

The TTC Service Standards are based on the idea that routes deserve to be served when the riding density exceeds a standard threshold. The purpose of this is to rank route productivity on a comparable basis despite variations in length. Even that scale has problems, and I will return to this topic shortly.

The table below shows the range of values used by the TTC.

Bus routes are expected to carry at least 20 riders/vehicle hour in peak periods, and 10 in off peak. Note that this is not the same as having a peak load of 20 or 10 riders respectively, but of serving this number of riders over the course of an hour. On a short route, a bus might make two or even three round trips per hour and the minimum rider count would be distributed over those trips.

An important distinction here is that the standard applies not to all day averages, but to each period of service, or even to an individual branch or portion of a route. A route could have good riding density on an all day basis, but actually run with very light loads in the evenings or on Sundays. The TTC does not publish breakdowns at that level of granularity for its services.

A related issue is the “span of service”, in other words, how many hours/day and days/week does a route receive at least minimal service. Some routes with low riding density survive because they are part of the larger network that operates roughly 19 hours/day as a matter of policy.

These standards were the subject of much debate during the Rob Ford era in Toronto and they were less generous (more riders were needed to justify service) than they are today. The change is directly attributable to the reaction to service cuts imposed by Ford, but then mostly restored by Mayor Tory. (That is a political story in its own right, but not for this article.)

There are only a few routes that do not meet the applicable standard for their 2018 performance, and some of these such as 121 Fort York-Esplanade have seen service cuts since these counts were published. That route, by the way is a good example of how the numbers for a combined route (the eastern and western branches) can be dragged down by performance of the weaker half, notably the western leg which is subject to severe traffic congestion.

Another factor that affects riding density is the length of an average trip. On a short route, by definition, a trip cannot be long, and the capacity of the vehicle is recycled frequently. For example, the 22 Coxwell bus shuttles back and forth from Danforth to Queen, a distance of 2km, carrying 5,600 riders/day at a density of 80/vehicle hour. It is self-evident that those 80 riders are not all on the bus at the same time, and Coxwell benefits from high turnover and strong demand in both directions.

The 54 Lawrence East bus carries 33,300 riders/day, but only 56.9 riders/vehicle hour because this is a long route and riders travel further on it. More resources are required per rider (or “boarding” in TTC parlance) to serve that demand.

The 504 King streetcar carries 84,300 riders/day at a density of 130.7 riders/vehicle hour. This is a route that has very strong demand over its length and a lot of turnover. Indeed, it is almost like three or four routes strung together as one with overlapping travel patterns. From a transit utilization standpoint, this is about as good as it gets.

Another favourite metric often heard from defenders of “taxpayer dollars” is the cost per passenger. This is a meaningless number because people buy rides at a fixed cost, and the longer their trip, the more resources are used to carry them. (For the purpose of this discussion, I will not even begin to talk about the high cost of subway trips to and from distant corners of the network.)

The cost/rider to bring someone from the suburbs to downtown, or to travel across the city, is very high, but we never hear transit discussed in those terms. Conversely, the cost to carry someone a short distance is low relative to the fare. Apportioning fare revenue to individual trip segments is a difficult task, and no matter how one approaches it, there will be inconsistencies and inequities built into the assumptions.

The TTC has not published estimated operating costs on a route basis since 2011, but when they did, the cost/rider varied from a low of $1.18 (2011$) to a high of $5.50. Unsurprisingly, the lowest costs were on routes that serve short trips with the 64 Main bus at the bottom of the list. The streetcar routes were cheaper on a per ride basis than the bus routes because they carry more passengers per vehicle and have good turnover along their length.

Many routes have portions that do not carry well, especially in the off peak, or which are highly directional and therefore show poor productivity because vehicles travel nearly empty in the counterpeak direction.

In the evening it is not unusual for a bus to leave a subway terminal well loaded, but make its return trip nearly empty. That is a fact of life in the transit business.

However, the transit system is a network, and those less productive parts contribute to the usefulness of the whole. From an economic standpoint, a trip might start on a lightly used feeder route, but continue on the subway which would not have that rider if the feeder did not exist to bring the rider to the station, and to take them home again on the return.

There are fundamental questions:

  • What level of demand should we serve with the “standard” transit system and where is the cutoff point beyond which travellers are expected to fend for themselves?
  • Is there a less costly way to provide comparable service for riders in areas with lower demand?
  • Should an alternative service be demand responsive rather than route based, and should it offer door-to-door service or operate only along major streets like a regular bus route?

The question of “less costly” is tricky and it depends on several assumptions:

  • Will the service be provided by transit staff at the same wage rates as the standard service or by lower-paid taxi or Uber-style providers? Is the underlying strategy to attack wages under the guise of improving transit?
  • Will a new fleet be required for the service that adds to the overall cost base either directly to the transit system, or indirectly through fares paid to providers?
  • Will a supplementary fare be charged for riders to use a “last mile” service into low density areas, or will free transfers to and from the standard routes be allowed?
  • Will service provision continue to be done on a city-wide basis regardless of the density of demand, and will it be provided 7×24 at least to the standard now used for the regular transit service?
  • Will the full economic cost in terms of added user fees, inconvenience, or the ability to travel to work/school/shopping be included in the equation?

Any bean counter can bring savings simply by throwing away the half empty jars of beans and saying “oh what a good boy am I” when the result could run counter to what we believe a transit system should be.

The last place to start this discussion is a simplistic review that says anyone on a route carrying fewer than X thousand a day can fend for themselves. Members of the TTC Board and of City Council need to understand how transit works as a whole and as part of the city’s economy before they start slashing in the name of “efficiency”.

TTC Bus Service Frequency and Reliability in 2020 (Part II)

This article continues a series reviewing the quality of service scheduled and operated over the COVID-19 era in summer 2020 that began with an introduction and continued with Part I looking primarily at Scarborough. Part II moves further west looking at north-south trunk routes between Victoria Park and Jane.

There is a pervasive problem across the network shown in these data. Because of the need to quickly implement new schedules in May and June, two actions were taken:

  • Selectively crews were cancelled to reduce the number of vehicles and drivers. This produced gaps in the scheduled service.
  • Trippers were scheduled on many routes starting on June 22 to replace the ad hoc operation of standby buses. These trippers are in service in two seven-hour long waves with a break from midday to the start of the PM peak. In most cases, the headways of the trippers do not blend with those of the regular service causing scheduled bunching and gaps.

The TTC could manage its service to smooth out the schedule problems on the fly, but the actual vehicle tracking data suggests that little of this happens. The result is that vehicles on many routes operate at erratic headways and therefore with uneven wait times and vehicle loads.

Moreover, the schedules have not been adjusted to smooth out their problems, possibly because the TTC expects to go to revised schedules sometime in the fall based on resumption of some demand such as school trips.

In two cases, Dufferin and Keele, articulated buses are supposed to be operating, but in practice the trippers, which might account for half of the service, use standard sized buses thereby reducing capacity and adding to crowding.

Continue reading

TTC Service Changes Effective September 6, 2020

The TTC is making official changes to few routes in September 2020, and the lion’s share of additions will use standby vehicles to supplement scheduled services where needed. The effect of the reopening of schools on transit demand is not yet known, and the TTC will respond as ridership builds up. Further details will be announced in late August once the plans and requirements of the two major school boards are known.

The following routes remain suspended until further notice:

  • 140 series Downtown Premium Express routes
  • 900 series Express routes except for 900 Airport, 913 Progress and 927 Highway 27
  • 176 Mimico GO and 508 Lake Shore
  • Weekday daytime service on Kingston Road will continue to be provided by the consolidated 502/503 as streetcar route 503 Kingston Road to Spadina and King.

Construction at Runnymede Station has progressed to the point where the interline between 71 Runnymede and 77 Swansea is no longer required, and both routes will loop into the station.

Construction at Keele Station continues, but the 41 Keele service will now loop at the recently rebuilt High Park Loop.

Construction at Eglinton West Station for the Crosstown LRT was originally expected to finish by September, but this date has been pushed back to early October due to COVID-related delays to the project.

Track construction on Bathurst from south of Dundas to Wolseley Loop (north of Queen) will require buses to divert via Dundas, Spadina and Queen for about three weeks starting in late September.

Track and road construction on Dundas Street West will require the following changes:

  • 506/306 Carlton buses will divert to Dundas West Station via Lansdowne and Bloor.
  • 505 Dundas streetcars will turn back at College Loop (Lansdowne, College, Dundas) during the first part of construction work at Howard Park and Dundas.
  • When construction begins on the track and intersection of College and Dundas, the 505 Dundas streetcars will turn back via Lansdowne, College and Ossington.

The 505 and 506 services will return to their normal routings to Dundas West Station and High Park Loop respectively late in 2020.

The 506/306 Carlton service will resume partial streetcar operation in January 2021 when track and overhead upgrades in the west end are completed. Bus service on the east end of the route will continue until May 2021, tentatively, pending overhead upgrades and completion of construction at Main Station. Where, exactly, the “east end” will begin has not yet been decided.

The bus loop routing at Centennial College for 102 Markham Road and 134 Progress will be changed as shown in the map below. A similar change will occur on 902 Markham Road Express when that route resumes operation (date TBA).

Keele Yard will re-open following track repairs and Line 2 trains will be dispatched from that yard. There is no change in service levels on the subway/RT network.

Seasonal services to Bluffer’s Park (175), Ontario Place and Cherry Beach (121) will continue until Thanksgiving weekend.

These and other changes are detailed in the table linked below.

The memo detailing these changes also includes a table of actual vs budgeted operations, and this shows the overall degree to which service has been reduced due to COVID-19. The percentage drop in the summer months is lower because the budget already included provision for the usual reductions over that period.