The Problem of Scheduled Service Irregularity

In a series of articles, I reviewed the quality of service on many bus routes during a period, the lull in traffic and demand during the pandemic, when it should have been relatively easy for the TTC to operate reliable service.

A consistent factor on almost every route was that buses are running in bunches with wide gaps between them. Those gaps translate to crowded buses followed by lightly-used ones, and riders rightly complain about long waits and an uncertain arrival of the next group of vehicles.

The TTC argues that service is not really that bad because they have a large number of unscheduled extras (aka “RAD” or “Run As Directed”) buses that do not show up in vehicle tracking records. Leaving aside the obvious need to track all service, not just the scheduled buses, this does not explain why buses run so close together so much of the time. These are tracked vehicles that have a schedule that should keep them apart.

Or so one might think.

TTC Service Standards include provisions for headway quality (the reliability of spacing between vehicles), but this is fairly generous, and it is never reported on as an official metric of service quality.

However, another problem is that on some routes, the service is actually scheduled to come at uneven headways. This arises from three issues:

  • Some routes with more than one branch have different frequencies on each branch. This makes it impossible to “blend” service with, for example, alternating “A” and “B” destinations.
  • In response to the pandemic, the TTC quickly adapted schedules by cancelling all express buses, and selectively cancelling individual runs as a “quick fix” to avoid complete schedule rewrites across the system. Where local trips were cancelled, this created gaps in the scheduled service.
  • On many routes, notably those that formerly had express service, the TTC scheduled “trippers” to supplement the basic service. However, these trippers were generally not scheduled on a blended basis leaving riders with scheduled, but erratic service.

In some cases, the September and October schedules corrected some of these problems, but many persist. This article looks at a number of routes where the summer (August) schedules had uneven headways to see what, if anything, has changed by mid-October. (The most recent set of schedules went into effect on October 11, 2020.)

All of the data presented here were taken from the TTC’s schedules as they are published in GTFS (General Transit File Specification) format for use by travel planning apps. This almost exactly matches information on the TTC’s online schedule pages.

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

This article continues a review of TTC bus route service that began with an introduction that included 54 Lawrence East as a sample.

Routes in this article:

Lest anyone think that these routes were “cherry picked” as particularly bad examples of service, no, they simply happen to be busy routes I chose to examine. The problems illustrated here are pervasive on the TTC’s system as future articles in the series will show.

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39 Finch East Travel Times (Updated)

Updated July 20, 2020 at 5:00 pm: A comparison of travel times for local 39 and express 939 service on Finch East has been added at the end of the article.

This article continues a series comparing travel times on proposed bus priority routes in the “pre-covid” era of what we once thought of as “normal” traffic with the conditions since mid-March 2020. The latter probably represent the best case for any future prioritized transit operations and a comparison can set some expectations on what might, or might not, be achieved.

It is easy to draw a line on a map and say “Put transit priority here!”, but this quickly runs into the fact that others, notably motorists, also use the road and one must be able to make a pro-transit case based on evidence that there actually will be an improvement, at least for transit riders.

Such a case must deal with several factors:

  • The benefit to running time is usually location and direction sensitive, not to mention varying by time of day.
  • Locations where congestion is a problem are also those where taking road space away from motorists will be most difficult.
  • The level of service on some routes during off peak periods coupled with low potential time savings makes permanent reservations hard to argue for especially where lost parking would be an issue.
  • Even in the less congested conditions of recent months, the reliability of TTC service leaves a lot to be desired. (I will turn to this aspect of service in a later article for all of the bus lane proposals.)

The offsetting benefits are:

  • Reduced and more reliable running times with the worst case delays “shaved off” in the manner seen on the King Street pilot.
  • A small reduction in the number of vehicles required to provide service, or conversely, the ability to improve service without adding vehicles.

Better service can result from a combination of more frequent scheduled vehicles and more reliable headways. Indeed, riders could see more benefit simply from buses showing up regularly than from actual in-vehicle travel time. Sadly, the TTC’s focus is on saving money first, not on improving service reliability and capacity, and this will potentially undermine the entire transit priority project.

This article reviews data from 39 Finch East, and will be followed by reviews of 60 Steeles West and 54 Lawrence East in future articles.

Technical note: Finch East is a route whose behaviour I have been following on and off for several years, and I therefore have a sampling of data going back to 2011.

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The Reliable Unreliability of TTC Service

In a recent article, I reviewed the TTC’s Service Standards Update. These standards included targets for headway reliability which are extremely generous and allow the TTC to claim that services operate “to standard” when actual rider experience is less than ideal.

Reliability of service is a top concern for TTC riders, and it has also been identified by TTC staff. Where the problem lies is that the targets offer little incentive to improve or measurement of just how bad the situation really is.

When the TTC talks about reliability, they inevitably trot out excuses about traffic congestion and the difficulty of operating service in mixed traffic. This has been a standard response to issues with streetcar routes for as long as I can remember. However, the typical TTC rider is a bus passenger, and this group has flagged service reliability, frequency and crowding as issues just as important as for streetcar riders.

Regular readers will know that over the years I have published many analyses of route performance looking mainly at the streetcar system, but also at selected bus routes. Recently, I decided to expand this to a number of routes in Scarborough where the quality of bus service often comes up in debates about the Scarborough subway extension, and to revisit some of the routes affected by construction on the Spadina extension which has now pretty much wrapped up. Apologies to readers in Etobicoke because this gives a central/eastern slant to the routes reviewed here, but I have no doubt that route behaviour in our western suburb is similar to that on the rest of the network.

This post may give some readers that dreaded sense of “TL;DR” because of the amount of material it contains. It is intended partly as a reference (readers can look at their favourite routes, if present), and partly to establish beyond any doubt the pervasiveness of the problem with headway reliability facing the TTC. This problem exists across the network, and setting performance targets that simply normalize what is already happening is no way to (a) understand the severity of the problem or (b) provide any measurement of improvements, should they be attempted.

The data here are taken from January 2017. The analysis would have been published sooner but for a delay in receiving the data from the TTC, a problem that has now been rectified. As always, thanks to the TTC for providing the raw material for this work.

Although January is a winter month, the level of precipitation, and particularly of snow, was unusually low for Toronto, and so weather delays do not lead to anomalies in the data.

Toronto Precipitation and Temperatures for January 2017

The TTC’s current attitude to service reliability is to focus on conditions at terminals with the premise that if service leaves and arrives on time, then there is a good chance it will also be in good shape along the route. This is a misguided approach on two counts.

First and most important, there is little indication that service from terminals is actually managed to be reliable, and the “targets” in the standards provide a wide margin by which unreliability is considered acceptable. In particular, it is possible for services to leave termini running as bunches of two or more vehicles and still be considered “on target”.

Second, any variability in headway from a terminal will be magnified as buses travel along a route. Buses carrying larger headways (gaps) will have heavier loads and run late while buses closely following will catch up. The result can be pairs of buses operating at twice the advertised headway, and with uneven loads. Without active management of service at points along a route, the problems become worse and worse the further one progresses away from a trip’s origin. Again, the generous standards allow much of this service to be considered acceptable, and so there is no need, on paper, to actually manage what is happening.

TTC operators are a great bunch of people, overall, but the laissez faire attitude to headways allows those who prefer a leisurely trip across their route to run “hot” with impunity. The worst of them are, fortunately for riders, only a small group. The larger problem is the degree to which irregular headways are a normal situation across the system.

The balance of this article looks at several routes primarily for their behaviour near terminals as this matches the point where the TTC sets its targets, such as they are. To recap the Service Standards:

The TTC standards vary for very frequent (less than 5′), frequent (5′ to 10′) and infrequent (above 10′) services.

  • Very frequent services target a band of ±75% of the scheduled headway.
  • Frequent services target a band of ±50% of the scheduled headway.
  • Infrequent service aims for a range of 1 minute early to 5 minutes late.

The charts which follow look at actual headways, not scheduled values, and it is clear throughout that the typical range of values exceeds these standards.

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