Better Transit Tomorrow, Maybe, But Not Today

Toronto City Council recently approved two related projects that, in theory, will help to improve transit operations.

The most striking point about these reports is that almost all of the benefits are in the future, they are confined to only part of the network, and there is no discussion of other factors affecting service such as the underlying capacity and the chronic lack of management and headway discipline.

Nowhere in these reports is there any discussion of the quality and quantity of service the TTC operates today. No mention of irregular headways and missing-in-action line management. No mention of the considerable pool of surplus buses that sit in garages rather than providing service on the street.

Far too much attention is focused on the premise that fixing transit is only possible with some sort of road intervention, and that this magic this will solve all our problems. Alas, that is not true, but the plans provide two rather large fig leaves behind which Council can hide claiming to have “done something”.

It is as if red paint alone will cure chronic problems. Can adverts for a TTC Miracle Tonic be far behind?

If we want less crowded buses now we must have more buses and better spaced buses. This cannot occur without a combination of better attention by the TTC itself to managing what it already has and by Council to budget realities of funding better transit service. Red paint on twenty streets over ten years will be an incremental change over a long period on those streets. It will not make the transit network, as a whole, noticeably better.

For its part, the TTC must not look at priority simply as a mechanism to reduce costs, but also as a way to improve service. This must be accompanied by much better line management and an ethos that makes well-spaced and evenly loaded buses a centrepiece of improved service. This would bring benefits across the city without a long wait for the red paint brigade.

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TTC Board Meeting November 16, 2020

The TTC Board met on Monday, November 16.

This meeting saw the return of Chair Jaye Robinson, albeit in a supporting role. She has been on medical leave for several months, but her treatments are almost complete and she plans to return fully to her position in December.

Items of interest on the agenda included:

The Financial update refers to new vehicle programs but there were additional details that I requested from the TTC.

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TTC Service Changes Effective Sunday, November 22, 2020

Updated November 20, 2020 at 11:00 am: The article has been updated with the usual detailed table of service changes and a comparison of pre/post service levels on routes where express bus operation will be restored.

The focus of changes in coming months is to gradually restore the system to a pre-Covid state allowing for differences in demand patterns. At this point, we do not know what the effects of 2021 Budget constraints will be. I will write about that in a separate article.

Restoration of Express Bus Services

The 900-series express bus services will be reinstated on several routes. These will replace the “trippers” that were added earlier in 2020 as a partial replacement for the express operations.

Weekend service formerly operated by these routes is not restored at this time, and this leaves some routes still with considerably less service than they had pre-covid because nothing replaced the weekend express operations during the cutbacks earlier in 2020.

The affected routes are:

  • 902 Markham Road
  • 929 Dufferin
  • 935 Jane
  • 941 Keele
  • 945 Kipling
  • 952 Lawrence West
  • 954 Lawrence East
  • 996 Wilson

The PDF linked below compares service on the affected routes showing the headway (time between buses), bus/hour values and the number of vehicles assigned in each corridor.

Construction Projects Affecting Streetcars

The service changes in place for the Dundas/College intersection reconstruction and for repair work on the Bathurst Street bridge will remain in effect until January.

Construction Projects Affecting Buses

Keele Station loop will reopen allowing 41 Keele, 80 Queensway and 89 Weston to use that loop. The interline between 30 High Park and 80 Queensway will end.

Construction at Scarborough Town Centre Station that required relocation of 38 Highland Creek will end, and that route will return to its normal location.

Subway Changes

Stand-by crews will be added to Lines 1 (YUS) and 2 (BD) to provide added “resiliency” for service. This will cover for situations when operators are not available when required to take over trains.

Many of the “Route 600” crews and buses (Run As Directed) will be dedicated to subway shuttles, notably for the shutdown between Finch and Sheppard from December 4th to 14th for asbestos removal. The shuttles will extend south to Eglinton during late evening closures.

Weekend closures between Broadview and Woodbine on Line 2 are also planned, but the dates have not yet been announced.

Bus Trippers

Additional service will be scheduled as trippers on many bus routes to reduce crowding:

  • 16 McCowan
  • 17 Birchmount
  • 24 Victoria Park
  • 25 Don Mills
  • 32 Eglinton West
  • 34 Eglinton East
  • 39 Finch East
  • 43 Kennedy
  • 47 Lansdowne
  • 68 Warden
  • 85 Sheppard East
  • 89 Weston
  • 95 York Mills
  • 100 Flemingdon Park
  • 129 McCowan North

New Service

A new 43C Kennedy service to Village Green Square will operate during peak periods every 30 minutes on a trial basis. This was part of the TTC’s 2020 Service Plan.

Scheduled School Trips

Many special trips operate to handle demands at various schools around the city. These have used buses from the “600” RAD pool which are not visible to riders using service tracking/prediction apps.

Effective November 23, these buses will be scheduled as part of regular service on the routes they serve making them visible for service tracking.

The list is very long, and I will consolidate this information in a future update.

Service Changes Effective December 20, 2020

Metrolinx Construction

Construction at Eglinton West Station for the Crosstown LRT will reach the point where 32 Eglinton West, 63 Ossington and 109 Ranee can return to their normal routes. The temporary 163 Oakwood route will be removed.

With part of the 32 Eglinton West service shifting back to Eglinton West Station, bus bays will be freed up at Eglinton Station. 56 Leaside and 51 Leslie will return to their usual location.

Scarborough RT Service

The project to rebuild the SRT fleet will end in 2020, but no change has been announced in the level of service once the full 7-train complement will be available.

Holiday Schedules

There will be no extra pre-Christmas shopping service nor extended late night service for New Year’s Eve this year.

As usual, all school trippers will cease operation for the winter break now planned as December 21 to January 1.

Crews for all 600 series buses associated with subway closures will be dropped as no shutdowns are planned through this period.

On Christmas Day, Friday December 25, a holiday service will operate with most routes beginning service at 8 am.

On Boxing Day, Saturday December 26, a holiday service will operate with most routes beginning service at 6 am.

From Monday to Wednesday December 28-30, a normal weekday service will operate except for school trippers and subway closure buses.

On New Year’s Eve, Thursday December 31, a normal weekday service will operate but some express buses might be changed to run as locals (TBA). Some of the RAD service for buses and streetcars will be switched to late evenings to supplement service as needed.

On New Year’s Day, Friday January 1, a holiday service will operate with most routes beginning service at 8 am.

From Saturday January 2 onward, operations will revert to normal schedules with subway standby and RAD buses. School trips will resume on Monday January 4.

Details of Service Changes

The PDF linked below details the service changes planned for November 22, 2020 and for December 20, 2020.

Can the TTC Report Meaningfully on Service Quality?

In many articles over several years, I have written about the quality of transit service in Toronto and the degree to which it varies from the sometimes sunny presentations by TTC management. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and heading into an extremely difficult budget year for 2021, understanding service from a rider’s perspective has become more important than ever to retain and rebuild demand on the transit system.

On the budget side, there are already harbingers of cuts to come. The TTC proposes to remove poor performing routes from the network and to trim hours of service on some routes. This includes the 14x Downtown Express services with their notoriously high cost/passenger and a few routes’ late evening operations. This is really small-scale stuff especially considering that the saving from cancelled express routes is already in place since Spring 2020.

The larger problem Toronto will face will be to decide what deeper trimming might look like, how candidates for cuts might be chosen, and how to evaluate the operation of what remains. There are already problems with erratic service that accentuates crowding problems coupled with an underutilized fleet of transit vehicles. Conversely, advocates for service retention and impovement, including, one hopes, TTC management, need solid ground to support calls for specific improvements and to measure them when they occur.

Management reports monthly on service quality and vehicle performance, but the metrics used fall far short of telling the whole story. Recently, CEO Rick Leary mentioned to the TTC Board that these metrics will be updated. This is worthwhile to the extent that new information is actually revealed, not simply a rehash of what we have already.

This article reviews the metrics now in the CEO Report and proposes updates both to the metrics and to the standards against which they report.

Broadly the areas covered here are:

  • Ridership and Trip Counts
  • Budget, Scheduled and Actual Service
  • On Time Performance and Service Reliability
  • Service Capacity
  • Vehicle Reliability and Utilization
  • Infrastructure Reliability

This is a long article because it covers many topics and I wanted to put the arguments together so that the way factors interact is clear. If you want to skip all the details, at least for your first read, there are consolidated recommendations at the end of the article.

Technical note: Many of the illustrations were taken from the October 2020 CEO’s Report. Although I have enlarged them for readability, their resolution is limited by the quality of the source document.

The Tyranny of Averages

Almost all TTC performance metrics consolidate data into monthly average values and, sometimes, into annual moving averages. While this approach simplifies presentation and shows long term trends, it hides a great deal of variation that is at least as important to quality measurement as the long term view.

As I have written many times:

Passengers do not ride average buses.

Telling riders that on average buses are not full and that their arrival is within standards is meaningless to someone who waits twice or more the scheduled headway (the time between vehicles) and finds a crowded bus when one shows up. This problem existed long before the pandemic, but crowding and the effect of service cuts combine to make it a greater concern than before.

Averaging in the performance of off-peak services such as evenings and weekends with overall route behaviour masks poor quality service. Conditions during busy periods are diluted by data from trips when demand on a route is lower.

Averaging performance across the network dilutes the behaviour on busy routes even further by including vehicles running with less crowding and better reliability.

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Measuring and Illustrating Headway Reliability

In recent articles, I have reviewed a pervasive problem on the TTC’s network with uneven headways (the time between vehicles). This is annoying enough in “normal” times, but with the concerns about crowding during the pandemic, anything that contributes to crowding is more than just an annoyance.

The CEO’s Report presents only a few measures of service quality:

  • the proportion of service that is “on time” leaving terminals,
  • the number of short turns, and
  • the amount of service fielded compared to what is scheduled.

These metrics are utterly inadequate to showing how the system is behaving at the level seen day-by-day, hour-by-hour by riders for several reasons:

  • Most riders do not board vehicles at or near terminals, and measures that look only at terminal performance do not reflect most of each route.
  • “On time” is a meaningless concept for most routes because service is (or should be) frequent enough that riders do not time their arrivals at stops to meet their bus.
  • A count of short turns only indicates that most vehicles reached their terminals, not whether the absence of short-turns contributed to poor service quality. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the number of short turns is under-reported.
  • Statistics are averaged on an all-day, all month basis and do not reflect route-by-route or hour-by-hour variations.

Riders to not ride “average” buses and streetcars – they take what shows up when they try to use the system. Indeed, if the TTC actually provided “average” service, a lot of problems would be solved because the service would be much more reliable.

At the recent TTC Board meeting, CEO Rick Leary noted that the metrics in his monthly report will be changed in the near future. This is long overdue, but it remains to be seen just how informative these will be.

This article includes displays of headway reliability in a new type of chart I have been working on recently. Reader feedback on this is welcome.

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The Problem of Scheduled Service Irregularity: Update

In a recent article, I reviewed the scheduled service for several routes and the potential problems associated with uneven headways and crowding. As noted in that article, several routes had their schedules modified in recent months to reduce or eliminate these problems.

In my review, I only looked at a subset of routes across the system. The TTC has provided a full list of the routes with new schedules and their plans for coming months.

We have been actively working to reduce uneven headways created by the cancellation of crews in the May 2020 board period. 

In most cases, we utilized the built-in recovery time at the end of the route, and by shifting departure times, we were able to minimize significant gaps in the schedule. This approach allowed us to improve on most of the last-minute changes implemented in the spring while continuing to develop multiple service level scenarios through the summer and fall. Unfortunately, due to time constraints (working well past normal deadlines), full schedule re-writes were not possible and we continued to provide suboptimal headways on some routes across the system.

The shifting of schedules was implemented on the following routes in the September board: 7, 11, 25, 29, 32, 34, 51, 61, 63, 68 (gaps remain), 72 (southbound only), 74, 75, 79, 86, 88, 89 , 90, 98, 102 (northbound only), 105, 116, 124, 160 and 163.

We are currently working on the January boards. Most routes will return to pre-pandemic levels and scheduling anomalies resulting from cancelled crews and extra trippers will be eliminated.

Mark Mis
Head, Service Planning & Scheduling

When the January updates are announced, I will publish the details as usual. Stay tuned.

TTC Proposes Massive Fleet Plan

At its meeting on October 22, the TTC Board will consider a report setting out plans to purchase new buses, streetcars, subway trains and Wheel-Trans vans in coming years.

TTC Fleet Procurement Strategy and Plan

In an important departure from typical practice, the City is setting out its position including what can be achieved with already-committed City funding without waiting for confirmation of contributions from other governments. Both the provincial and federal governments will face voters sometime in the next few years, and this, in effect says “come to the table”.

The plan has many strong points although some important details are missing. Key to this plan is that it is a system plan, not a scheme for one tiny chunk of the network nor a flavour-of-the-day announcement from one politician.

Overview

The TTC proposes acquisition of hundreds of new and replacement vehicles over the coming years:

  • From 13 to 60 new streetcars from Bombardier to be delivered between 2023 and 2025.
  • Approximately 300 hybrid-electric buses for one or both of the two qualified suppliers to be delivered between 2022 and 2023.
  • Pending outcome of technical evaluation and product comparison work now underway, approximately 300 all-electric long-range buses in 2023 to 2025.
  • 70 Wheel-Trans buses for delivery in 2022 and 2023.
  • 80 subway trains to replace the existing fleet now used on Line 2 and to provide for future service improvement with ATC (automatic train control).

That list is only part of a larger scheme shown in the table below.

The “ask” for funding on these projects is based on the full quantity of vehicles (column 2 above) as opposed to what the TTC can achieve with only the City’s contribution (column 3).

A political problem for the TTC is that they are seeking funding for the ten year plan within the next few years even though some of the spending is in the latter part of the decade.

For example, the buses are unlikely to be contracted on one big purchase that would lock in a single supplier, and a new contract would be tendered two or three times during the decade. Similarly, the quantity of Wheel-Trans buses represents far more than one fleet replacement (as of June 30 there were about 280 WT buses). Part of this funding would not be required until late in the decade when the next purchases would be at end-of-life.

Commitments that far off are unlikely to be made by either the provincial or federal governments both of which would face at least one if not more elections in the meantime.

A further issue is that there are many more projects in the TTC’s long-range capital plan than the ones listed here, and there is no sense of relative priority for things like ongoing infrastructure maintenance. If the vehicles program soaks up all available funding, other projects could find that the cupboard is bare.

Missing from this report is an overview of the cash flow requirements for each project and the point at which money for each component must be secured. Projects with long timelines such as ATC installation need early commitment even though they would not finish until late in this decade or possibly longer. The same does not apply to the cyclic renewal of the bus fleets and some of the associated infrastructure.

TTC footnote 1: Estimated vehicle procurement quantities are based on Class 4 cost estimates. Given the need exceeds the funding currently available, TTC will seek to maximize the final number of vehicles to be procured through negotiation of contract unit pricing.

To support the electric vehicle purchases, the TTC together with Toronto Hydro and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) are working on plans for the charging infrastructure that will be required to move to a zero emissions fleet by 2040 in regular buses, Wheel-Trans and non-revenue vehicles.

The subway train order will likely grow because Metrolinx would piggy-back the needs of the Yonge North extension to Richmond Hill and the Scarborough extension to Sheppard for economies of scale and consistency of fleets on the two major rapid transit lines. However, the cost will be on Metrolinx’ account because these are now provincial projects. There is a danger that if future provincial funding is constrained, the provincial projects could elbow aside requests for local projects.

The committed and required funding amounts are set out below.

TTC footnotes:
1: Number of Vehicles reflects the current fleet plan as described under the Comments section of the report.
2: Estimated Total Costs includes the following: (1) vendor contract payments for vehicle design, production, delivery and commissioning of vehicles; and (2) delivery costs including procurement, project management, engineering, quality assurance, and project contingency
3. Total Estimated Cost has been revised from $5.84 billion (Class 5) to $6.17 billion (Class 4).

The City’s share is provided by the City Building Fund, a supplementary property tax introduced in the 2020 budget, together with funding that had been allocated to a planned rejuvenation of the Line 2 subway fleet for an additional decade of service. Now that those trains will be replaced, the money set aside to refresh the old fleet is available for this project.

City Building Fund Project$ millions
Bloor-Yonge Station Expansion$500
Line 1 Capacity Enhancement$1,490
Line 2 Capacity Enhancement$817
Line 2 Automatic Train Control $623
Other Critical Subway State of Good Repair (Note 1)$160
New Vehicles and eBus Charging Systems$1,140
Total City Building Fund$4,730
Note 1: These values do not exactly match numbers cited in the TTC report due to rounding.

The vehicle procurements are funded on the City side by a combination of CBF monies (see above) and the previous allocation for renovation of the Line 2 fleet of T1 trains.

Project$ millions
80 New Subway Trains$ 623
T1 Overhaul and Maintenance to 2030$ 74
Procurement of Buses$ 686
eBus Charging Infrastructure$ 64
Wheel-Trans Buses$ 22
New Streetcars$ 140
Total$1,609
Existing Approved Funding (T1 Life Extension)$ 474
City Building Fund$1,140
Total$1,614

Combining the $1.61 billion above with the Line 2 ATC funding brings the City’s total to about $2.2 billion. The TTC and City invite their partners at the provincial and federal levels to make up the difference of just under $4 billion between City allocations and the total required for this portion of the overall capital plan.

The City’s strategy is to start spending its $2.2 billion and hope that the other governments will come in for their share. There are elections at both levels that could provide some leverage, but there are also problems with Toronto’s appetite for capital compared to other parts of Ontario and Canada.

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How Much Service Can The TTC Run?

A lot of ink (some real, but much virtual) has been spilled in past weeks on the topic of crowding on TTC buses. This was compounded by less-than sympathetic responses from various places, including the TTC inself, suggesting the speakers/writers have no sense of the real world that transit riders inhabit.

Although there has been a recent plateau, ridership has been building through the summer and photos of crowded buses now appear commonly on social media. This co-incides with a second wave of infections and a selective move back to “stage 2” protocols. Just when concerns about personal safety are rising, the TTC gives the impression of shrugging its shoulders. This is not a recipe for confidence in rebuilding transit ridership.

That said, I must confess that I fall midway between camps that cry out for vast increases in transit (possibly with lower fares) and those who wring their hands wondering how we will even pay for what operates today. Trying to take the middle road is not easy.

Here I will attempt to put various issues and options on the table. Whether those responsible for the TTC act on them is out of my hands.

How Full is Full?

During the early days of the Covid recovery period (remember only a few months ago when we thought this was all going away soon?), the TTC produced charts showing demand levels and crowding configurations for its vehicles.

The degree to which they might achieve these levels depended on the overall level of ridership. This chart shows what happens if the TTC attempted to provide distanced service even though demand was low. At a 30% level, the service would have to match pre-pandemic levels to leave enough room for passengers to spread out.

This is not feasible from either a budgetary or operational point of view. The cost is very high, and there is no headroom for growth beyond that 30 per cent line.

Another variation of this chart foresaw a combination of increased crowding and service as ridership grew. On a system-wide basis, we are now at Level 2 with overall ridership at around 40 per cent and this translates to a crowding standard of 25 per bus, about three quarters of a seated load (see chart above).

The problem, of course, is that there is a big difference between system-wide averages and the conditions from route to route, location to location and time of day.

The TTC reported that as of early September demand on the bus system had reached almost half of pre-covid levels. About one quarter of all trips were running at or above the Level 1 standard of 30 per cent capacity, and almost a tenth were running at or above the Level 2 standard of 50 per cent.

The oft-cited figure that 92 per cent of TTC trips are not crowded comes from this chart. What it really means is that only 8 per cent are over the Level 2 standard, but it does not mean that the balance fall at or below Level 1. This distinction has been lost in translation by those who seek to put the best possible spin on the situation.

A major source of confusion has been the question of what would trigger resumption of full service. The chart above shows that 50 per cent demand would require 100 per cent service to provide some degree of distancing, albeit at Level 2, not Level 1 standards.

This was taken by TTC management to mean 50 per cent overall, but as we well know the recovery on many bus routes outpaces the system average. Many bus routes are likely to be well beyond this level before the system as a whole hits that target.

At the September 24 TTC Board Meeting, management made this point, that bus ridership was growing faster and would have to be dealt with but there is little real progress on this so far. The TTC does run some unscheduled extra service (about which more later) and claims that its effect shows up in the slight downturn in early September in the proportion of trips cresting the 50 per cent capacity line.

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The TTC 2021 Service Plan

The TTC Service Plan for 2021 is still in draft, but the TTC wants public feedback on their proposals. The deadline for comments is October 9, 2020.

See:

In earlier stages of public participation, the focus was on implementation of the RapidTO bus lanes, notably the one on Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside that has just been installed.

Now the TTC has added material about other proposals and there is a 24-minute video overview on the presentation page linked above.

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TTC Covid Service Recovery Plans: Part II

This article continues comments written before the TTC Board meeting of September 24, 2020. The staff presentation had more information than in the report linked from the agenda.

The following chart was included in my first article on the TTC’s Covid response. The red and green lines in this chart marks the number of trips that accumulated more than a 30% and 50% load respectively. The 30% load has been the target for service through the summer, but this is challenging to achieve for a few reasons.

Demand on the bus network has recovered more quickly than on the rest of the system and now stands at almost 50%. This is not evenly distributed by route or time of day, and there will be trips that routinely face higher demand than can be handled.

However, on some routes, notably those that formerly had express services, the revised all-local service is well below the average of 85% of pre-covid service the TTC commonly cites. In a few cases, routes have only half of their previous service unless unscheduled extras are added to compensate.

TTC management note that both the green and red curves turned downward slightly in early September, and attribute this to the operation of more unscheduled buses than in earlier months thanks to operators who have been recalled from layoff.

The more severe challenge, however, is that there simply are not enough buses and operators even at full service to provide generous spacing with demand at 50% of pre-covid levels, let alone higher proportions.

More operators will be recalled in October 2020 and this will add to on-demand service for school travel, particularly in the midday which now will have peaks that did not previously exist as half-day attendees switch over from the morning to the afternoon panel.

The success of using demand responsive service will be seen in how these stats behave in coming weeks.

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