TTC Ponders New Fare Options

At its recent meeting, the TTC Board approved a report launching reviews of fare policy and technology. These will run on an overlapped timetable beginning in fall 2020 with a goal of reporting to the Board in October 2021. The topics are linked in that policy choices can be held hostage by technology options. Nowhere is that clearer than in the TTC’s experience with Presto:

  • The range of options and capabilities specified by the TTC was constrained, in part, by the policy and financial framework in which Toronto operates, especially the avoidance of proposals that would increase costs.
  • The provider, Metrolinx and its partner Accenture, failed to deliver to the requirement knowing that the iron fist of Queen’s Park and threats to subsidy funding would overrule any complaints about functional problems. Metrolinx is on record now as refusing to meet all of the contracted requirements for the simple reason that they will not invest more development funding in a system that they hope to replace.
  • Any modifications to Presto functionality are treated as billable change orders, even if the TTC could argue that the “change” is a contracted feature. Metrolinx enforces its billings by withholding fare revenue from the TTC.

This poisonous relationship colours any discussion of the future of fare structures, levels, technology and subsidies not just in Toronto but across the GTHA.

A further problem, and this is common to studies of the future of TTC service design, is the pre-emption of options by the catch-all “we can’t afford it” line that pushes aside consideration of options that require more than small adjustments within existing funding.

Years ago, in the Miller-era Ridership Growth Strategy of 2003, the starting point was not “what can we afford”, but “what can we do, and how much would it cost”. This left the policy decisions where they belonged in the political realm where the TTC Board, Council and the public could balance investment in better transit with costs and expected benefits. Options were not swept off of the table by management second guessing the politicians, or, worse, protecting politicians from options they might not want to know about.

With fare policy, there is an added layer of the rivalry with Metrolinx and its role as a regional agency. If Metrolinx were actually doing its job, there would be little need for a TTC study because Metrolinx would look at fare and technology policy:

  • including the needs of local transit, not just commuter service, and how this will grow into a wider network;
  • without prejudice for the preservation of its existing technology investment in Presto nor its existing partnership with a service provider;
  • without attempting a zero-sum “solution” where no new money is committed, especially by Queen’s Park; and
  • without the doctrinaire belief that the private sector will magically pay for everything, and by implication that change can only happen with private funding.

We have been around this bush before with a previous TTC Fare Policy Study in 2015 that was itself hobbled by Presto limitations, the then co-existence of legacy fare media and policies, and utter paranoia about changing fare structures. Toronto could have had a two hour transfer years sooner but for political foot-dragging and the assumption that the revenue loss would severely damage the TTC (and by extension the City). Eventually the Mayor needed some good news beyond free rides for kiddies, and the two-hour transfer became a reality.

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Toronto Takes A Financial Hit From Lost Transit Riding (Part II)

This article continues from Part I with additional information presented at the TTC Board meeting of March 13.

A widely reported number is the half-billion dollar shortfall in TTC revenues in the period up to Labour Day. Even with an offset of about $200 million in savings for a net deficit of $300 million, this is still not small change.

The TTC faces several challenges for service in the immediate future and then through any “recovery” period as restrictions are lifted on various types of activity and the need for travel grows.

The first problem is shown dramatically by this chart:

The TTC’s current service level accommodates the 20 per cent of normal demand they now have (although there exceptions, about which more below), but as long as riders must keep two metres apart, the system at full service could only handle about 30 percent of normal. That’s an average, and the situation varies by route and time-of-day.

With distancing in effect, the practical capacity of vehicles is much lower than the usual level. In the charts below, three capacity levels are shown: normal service standards, 50 per cent load, and the load with a two metre rule in place.

The ratio of normal to current (two metre) capacities shown are 3.4 for buses, 3.9 for streetcars and 4.5 for subways. One might reasonably quibble that the spacing shown for some cases, notably at the rear of buses, does not meet the rule, but in any event, this shows the extent of lost capacity. The replacement factor for all modes lies somewhere between three and four vehicles in the fully distanced, two metre environment.

The 50 per cent example was included in the presentation as an indication of what the situation would be with relaxes rules, but this version has riders sitting in closer quarters than anyone other than close friends and family would reasonably accept today. Even at this level, twice as much service is needed to handle whatever demand shows up.

The problem is further complicated by the unevenness of demand (leaving aside irregularity in service actually provided). The charts below show the 96 Wilson and 35 Jane bus route maximum loads pre-and post covid. Note that the vertical scales are not all the same making visual comparisons between the charts difficult.

Although demand is down from pre-covid levels, it still regularly crests the target of 15 passengers per bus with the “average” line sitting above that level in all cases. Although the TTC talks of additional “demand-responsive” service at 7 percent, this would not pull the averages down to 15. At least the TTC is monitoring loading at a detailed level, but they need to demonstrate that the service they actually operate achieves the target level. Leaving riders at a stop because a bus is “full” has more serious consequences now than the usual griping about overloaded buses in pre-covid days.

Demand is not uniformly distributed across the network. Although there is a cluster of hospitals downtown that is well-served by the subway, many health care and employment areas are scattered around the suburbs where bus service is essential for access. TTC reports that the bus network is the least affected by riding loss even though 4 in 5 bus riders have vanished.

Busy stops on the network are concentrated along the bus corridors. This shows two important factors in considering service levels:

  • Heavy demand is not concentrated downtown but is spread throughout the city.
  • Busy stops are not located just where there are health care or work locations, but along routes where riders travelling to those locations live. This is a variation of the “last mile problem” where so much planning and hand-wringing looks at station locations, but not at how riders get to and from transit.

These factors make any move to further trim transit service to fit available budgets extremely dangerous over the entire city.

(Note that the map below shows only bus routes and so demand on the streetcar routes is not charted below. The reason for this is that the streetcar fleet does not yet have the same technology that is installed on bus routes to track demand and crowding.)

The TTC claims that overcrowded trips have been reduced to about six per cent by focusing service where it is needed. That is laudable, but the statistic shares with so many others published by the TTC that it is a system-wide, all-day average. A rider on a packed Dufferin bus takes little comfort from having their conditions averaged with lightly loaded times of day and routes elsewhere.

Crowding levels, plotted as a heat map, show where the problems are concentrated.

At this point I cannot help making an observation about how the TTC reports on its service quality. Clearly, they have the ability to review demand/capacity levels at a fine grained basis, but getting real data out of the TTC is almost impossible. And yet here it is. This sort of chart should not vanish after the emergency, but should be a fundamental and regular report on service quality. There is no longer an excuse that “we don’t have the data”, or “it’s coming soon”.

An obvious question about crowding levels is the metric used to count riders. The TTC has been using two of them, at least on buses;

  • Presto taps. This measures the number of people who “tap on” when they board and hence reflects “boarding” or “unlinked trips” (where each transfer counts as a new trip). This does not measure:
    • Boardings at paid areas in subway stations.
    • Trips where a rider does not pay.
    • Passengers leaving vehicles.
  • Automatic passenger counters. This technology counts people getting on and off of buses and is independent of fare collection.

The Presto data are useful for comparison with historical data, but it is the passenger counters that tell the full story. They have not yet been installed on the streetcar fleet. The subway network has no mechanism for counting all passengers and this depends on visual counts by TTC staff that are conducted periodically at various locations.

The financial implications for the TTC and the City of Toronto in coming months are considerable. In Part I, I included a table showing the financial effects and savings for the TTC up to Labour Day. Here it is again.

The table does not tell the full story because it does not show the gross operating costs. For 2020, the total budget (including Wheel-Trans) is about $2 billion, or about $160 million per month. The TTC shows savings of $10.9 million/month from the reduced level of service. Note that this is not proportional to a 15 per cent cut in service because some costs do not vary with the amount of service. This is not just administrative overhead, but much ongoing infrastructure and fleet maintenance is required even if less service operates.

If the TTC returns to full service, that saving will disappear.

Moreover, the capital deferrals are booked here as $19.3 million/month. However, the $116 million over five months will not exist from September onward because it is a fixed amount, the capital portion of the provincial gas tax allocation to Toronto.

Between the two factors, the monthly deficit will go up by $30 million in September if the TTC resumes full service offset only to the degree that fare revenue returns.

The big challenge comes in that mid-range where ridership is building, but service has to run flat out to provide enough space even with only half of the demand. Whether the system can handle this will depend greatly on how concentrated this demand is by location and time of day.

The map of current hot spots shows how important the suburban bus routes are. We may have lots of room on the subway, but that won’t get people to work on the bus lines. If a return to 50 per cent demand is unevenly distributed, the pressure for even more service in parts of the network will be severe, and it is not clear how much extra service the TTC can field due to both fleet and staff constraints.

Looking down the road, the TTC is planning for three separate time periods:

  • The remainder of 2020
  • January to September 2021
  • September 2021 and beyond

Different options will be needed depending on the expected demand patterns and financial support available. Without a return to near-normal demand and crowding, the fare revenue that represents and the better fleet utilization, transit cannot return to its former role.

Better transit funding cannot be a quick, one time payment to tide over for the short term. If the tooth fairy comes up with $300 million today, that only gets the system and the city to labour day this year, but the problem will persist and grow well into 2021. That year’s budget cycle will be brutal at every level as the need to actually pay the bills rather than shipping money out the door will hang over every government.

Toronto Takes a Financial Hit From Lost Transit Riding

At its virtual meeting on May 13, the TTC Board will consider a report on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on TTC ridership and finances.

As an agency whose revenue depends heavily on fares paid by riders, any downturn in transit demand has a critical effect on TTC finances. This is compounded by the system’s reduced capacity to provide adequate distancing between riders, and so the amount of service required remains high even though there are far fewer riders. The report provides the simple explanation of the math:

  • Ridership has stabilized at about 20 per cent of normal demand.
  • Vehicle capacity is only 30 percent of normal conditions.
  • Operating 80 percent of normal service produces 24 percent of normal capacity.

The situation varies across the system with the subway and streetcar networks hardest hit because they serve the financial district downtown. Proportionately more people who would normally travel to this area are staying home or using other modes (walking, cycling, autos) to make their trips. The numbers below are based on Presto taps as a surrogate for demand. This is not the same as “ridership” because some trips do not involve a tap to enter a vehicle or station (pre-paid areas), and some taps represent transfers, not new trips. The proportional changes tell the story.

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TTC Service Changes Effective Sunday, May 10, 2020 (Updated)

This article continues the presentation of service changes effective May 10, 2020 with further details of the published levels of service on various routes. It should be read in conjunction with the original article which contains the originally announced changes.

Information here applies only to:

  • Weekday service
  • Routes where the service level was not specified in the original announcement, or where the published timetable varies from what was in the announcement.

There is a very important caveat about the level of service shown in the TTC’s timetables. Because of the volume of work to reschedule the system, several routes will actually operate on wider headways (the time between vehicles) than the timetables show. The reason for this is that although there may be new schedules in many cases, the TTC also pared down service by selective cancellation of some trips and crews so that fewer vehicles are needed than originally planned.

This shows up in the online timetable as gaps in what would otherwise be a regular headway. As an example, a route might be planned for a 6 minute headway with vehicles at:

9:00 9:06 9:12 9:18 9:24 9:30 9:36 9:42 9:48

However, careful examination of the timetables shows that some trips are missing and the timetable might actually read:

9:00 9:06 9:18 9:30 9:36 9:40 9:48

The plan is for Transit Control to manage service by running these lines on headways appropriate to the number of vehicles available.

Some routes may change from their scheduled service level as experience is gained with crowding levels, and the schedule change in late June will include adjustments for this.

Finally, some routes will have extra service allocated from a pool of spare buses and streetcars as needed. However, these vehicles will not appear on apps or TTC displays of predicted service because NextBus (the data source for all of the apps) does not track vehicles that are not in the schedule.

Updated May 11, 2020 at 11:00 pm:

Known problems with the May schedules:

  • The running time allocated for 501 Queen cars west of Humber Loop is too short to be operated until mid-evening. During the affected periods, there will be a bus shuttle on Lake Shore. The weekday and weekend services are affected, but not the Holiday schedule on Victoria day when separate streetcar services will operate on the Queen and Long Branch sections of the route.
  • With the removal of the 953 Steeles East Express, there is no scheduled peak period service to Staines Road because this was formerly provided by the 953. Unscheduled run-as-directed (RAD) buses are being operated to fill in.
  • With the removal of the 945 Kipling Express, the remaining scheduled 45A local service to Steeles during the peak period is very infrequent.

Updated May 13, 2020 at 6:15 am:

  • A reader reports that the TTC is supplementing the Kipling service to Steeles with extra buses running as 45A. They do not appear in NextBus predictions.

Route Level Details

Here is a route-by-route rundown of updated information about service frequencies. Note that this information may not correspond to service actually operated. If a route is not listed here, then the changes described in the original article still apply.

An updated version of the full chart of changes is here:

In this chart, the areas colour coded as “GTFS” (mauve) contain information taken from the electronic version of schedules initially as published by the TTC through the Toronto Open Data Portal, and later verified against timetables on the TTC’s site when they went “live” on May 10.

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TTC Service Changes Effective Sunday, May 10, 2020

This article is the longer, detailed version of my piece on NOW Toronto’s site looking at pending service cuts on the TTC. Note that some details on the changes has not yet been published by the TTC. I will update this article as more information becomes available.

With the steep decline in riding on the TTC’s system, service cuts are coming to many routes. The cuts are an attempt to preserve capacity for riders to travel safely with far fewer passengers per vehicle than in pre-covid service designs, while trimming TTC operating costs.

The predominant effect across the network is that peak periods are not as “peak” as they used to be, and off-peak periods see service reductions on many routes. The overall scale of the change is evident from the comparison of budgeted and scheduled vehicle hours per week.

The planned amount of service per week, measured in vehicle hours, will be reduced by 15.6% relative to the original service budget. Regular service hours go down 11.8% and the provision for construction goes down much more, 77.3%, reflecting the uncongested roads over which vehicles will travel.

By contrast, the normal summer service cuts amount to about two per cent of regular service, and this would be offset by a rise in construction-based hours (diversions, bus replacements, extra service for congestion). This is a much deeper cut than Toronto riders are used to.

Broken down by mode, the change in hours is greatest on the streetcar system at 20.7%, then the subway at 15.7%, then buses at 10.2%. There is no change in SRT service.

Another way to look at this, at least for peak periods, is the number of vehicles scheduled during the two peaks. Both the bus and streetcar fleets fielded for service will decline by about 20%.

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TTC Plans Service Cuts and Layoffs (Updated)

Updated April 27, 2020 at 11:10 am: A modified and expanded version of this article appears on the NOWToronto website.

In response to a steep fall in ridership, the TTC plans to implement service cuts and reduce its staff complement by layoffs.

Service capacity will be reduced to match demand, taking into account the need for physical distancing by riders. Many of the changes have already occurred as the TTC dealt with staff shortages from illness and quarantine, but this will make the changes official within the schedules. These include reduced service levels and the end of many peak period services. The 14x and 9xx series of express services have already been discontinued, along with the 508 Lake Shore Tripper. Other cuts are likely such as “school trippers” for which there are no students, and the rush hour bus extras on streetcar routes.

Full details of service changes to take effect on the Victoria Day weekend will be released by the TTC on May 4, according to TTC spokesperson Stuart Green. Service will be maintained “at roughly 70-80 per cent of regular levels” according to the TTC’s news release. “Particular focus remains on servicing priority routes within the bus network in a way that allows for good physical distancing.”

The May schedules are traditionally a point where the first wave of summer cuts are implemented (those related to post-secondary institutions), and the second wave normally comes at the end of June. The reduction in service allows for a greater proportion of vacations in the summer months, but with layoffs, the drop is clearly going to be more than Toronto normally sees during this season.

About 1,000 transit operators and 200 non-union staff positions will be affected by the layoff. According to a letter from CEO Rick Leary to all staff, “The TTC will be working to establish a compensation and benefits arrangement for employees to minimize negative impacts as a result of the layoffs.”

Other changes to address the budget crunch brought on by lost fare revenue include “pausing” all non-union salary increases, reducing overtime, reviewing all vacant positions, and going without the usual summer seasonal hiring.

On the capital side of the budget, all “non-essential” projects will be delayed, but the TTC has not published a list of what this entails.

Combined with other savings such as utilities and fuel thanks to the reduced level of operations, the TTC expects to reduce its ongoing losses by $25 million per month from the current level of $90 million.

It is no surprise that the Amalgamated Transit Local 113 is not happy with this situation. Carlos Santos, president of Local 113, wrote to his members:

This is the “thank you” our members get for sacrificing themselves day in and day out for putting their families and themselves at risk. No doubt, this feels like a punch to the gut after all the hard work our members are doing to keep Toronto moving throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Almost 30 of you have tested positive for COVID-19. You deserve better than today’s announcement. The federal and provincial governments need to step in and provide emergency relief funding for the TTC.

This speaks to the heart of the issue: the level at which governments other than the City of Toronto itself will act to support transit through this difficult time. Even with the decline in economic activity and travel, the need for physical distancing by riders dramatically lowers the capacity of transit service, and this drives up the cost per ride substantially. The question is what is the appropriate balance between keeping a transit at a level that actually serves the many who still require it, and reining in costs. Even at only 20 percent of its normal demand, the TTC carries hundreds of thousands of trips per day and these cannot be replaced easily or economically by other modes. For many, many Torontonians, travel is built on transit.

One substantial problem for the TTC in reviewing potential service cuts is that the subway network has a considerable, fixed cost regardless of how many riders it carries. Infrastructure must be maintained and kept safe, and standby technical staff must be available to handle a wide variety of problems. Operators driving the trains are only part of the total needed for all aspects of subway operations.

That has implications for surface routes which are always the poor cousins of transit service. Whether the cuts will fall disproportionately there as they did in past recessions remains to be seen.

TTC Repeats Penalty-Free Offer for Monthly Pass Cancellation

The TTC is repeating its offer, first made in mid-March, for monthly pass subscribers on Presto to cancel their subscriptions without penalty. This must be done by April 22 when the automatic renewals for May will kick in.

A still-outstanding question is whether the TTC will offer partial refunds for the March passes which most riders were unable to use after many businesses and other activities were curtailed or closed. According to TTC spokesperson Stuart Green, this matter has not been decided yet.

TTC Service in the 1950s

My collection of Scheduled Service Summaries has been updated with scans of three versions from 1954, 1956 and 1959.

Of interest among these is the expansion of the suburban bus network, and the very high level of service on routes in the “old” City of Toronto. The Yonge Subway existed between Eglinton and Union, but all other transit was surface routes with streetcars and buses.

Open the page linked above, and scroll down to the bottom. Note that this page is included under the “Reference Material” navigation tab if you are looking for it in the future.

King Street Update: March 2020 Part I

This is the first of three articles updating information in my series of posts last fall [Part I, Part II, and Part III] with data to March 31, 2020.

In the first part of this series, I will review service reliability from the point of view of travel times across the “pilot” area between Bathurst and Jarvis Streets. In the second part, I will turn to reliability from the point of view of headways consistency and service gapping. Finally, I will turn to service capacity.

As I have worked through the data, I cannot help having the sense of looking back at a very different city, one that had busy streets full of transit riders. This will return, eventually, but it will be a long climb that has much more to do with scientific advances in disease control than transportation planning.

The effect of the city’s shutdown is evident in data for March 2020 as traffic and riding disappeared, and so, to some extent, did service.

Service changes during this period affecting the King Street corridor included:

  • November 25, 2019:
    • The 14x Express routes were shifted to King Street from Richmond and Adelaide Streets to use a less-congested path through the core area.
    • Two Christmas extras were added on 504 King between Charlotte Loop (Spadina) and the Distillery.
    • Service on 503 Kingston Road was improved by the consolidation of 502 Downtowner and 503 Kingston Road as one route.
  • January 2020:
    • 508 Lake Shore operated, for a time, with buses in place of streetcars due to a shortage of vehicles.
  • Mid-March 2020 (reduced riding and staff availability):
    • 504 King service declined.
    • 503 Kingston Road service was cut back to a shuttle between Bingham Loop (Victoria Park) and Woodbine Loop (at Queen).
    • 508 Lake Shore and 14x Express routes ceased operating because they are peak period trippers.

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TTC Asks Riders to Time Shift (Updated)

Updated April 1, 2020 at 10:30 am:

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

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

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

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

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

Original post:

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

The affected routes are:

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

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