Evolution of Travel Times on RapidTO Bus Routes 2020-2022 (Part 1)

This article and one to follow is an update of an earlier review of the effect of pandemic-induced changes in traffic levels on the running time of buses. The target routes are those that already have “red lanes”, exclusive lanes for buses at all hours, and on the first group where red lanes were proposed.

Originally, the list of possible routes was shorter, and it is those routes whose vehicle tracking data I have collected over the past years:

  • Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside (implemented fall 2020)
  • Lawrence East
  • Finch East
  • Steeles West
  • Dufferin
  • Jane

A City study is underway to prioritize routes for detailed study and implementation under the RapidTO program.

An important premise behind RapidTO and bus priority is that service can be improved both because travel times are shorter and because they are more reliable leading to more regularly spaced and predictable service. Indeed, on the King Street transit project, the benefit was far more that variation in travel was reduced and reliability was increased, as opposed to reducing the average speed of travel under day-to-day conditions.

Too often, “priority” has been sold on the basis that it would reduce operating costs when the real goal should be to improve service with resources already in place, and to ensure that any additional buses or streetcars do not simply disappear into a “black hole” of unreliable service.

With the pandemic, we have an unexpected chance to see how much time is saved when traffic is, for a period, reduced from normal levels. This gives an indication of what we might expect from red lanes, or putting it another way, the best we are likely to achieve.

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TTC Service Changes: May 8, 2022

Several of the service cuts implemented in November 2021 will be restored with the May 2022 schedules. This includes express service on several routes. Although planned service will be 6.2% lower than the original budget for this period, the TTC intends to resume restoration of full service through the fall to the end of the year.

Information in this article is taken from the May 8, 2022 Scheduled Service Summary and from a copy of the detailed memo on service changes which was provided by a source. Normally the TTC sends these to various people in advance, but for some unknown reason, the document has not officially been sent to the normal external recipients.

There are some conflicts between information in the two documents and I have tried to reconcile these with my own judgement about which is correct because it is not unusual for there to be discrepancies in descriptions of service changes.

Rapid Transit Services

There are no changes in rapid transit services.

Streetcar Services

  • The 501H/501L Queen replacement buses for service on the west end of the route will be shortened to turn back downtown via University Avenue, Adelaide Street and York Street rather than operating to Broadview & Gerrard or Broadview Station.
    • Eastbound buses will operate as 501U.
    • Bus service will be provided from Birchmount, Queensway and Eglinton divisions.
    • There is no change to the existing 501 Queen streetcar service between Neville Loop and Bathurst Street (Wolseley Loop), nor to the 301 Blue Night Bus operation.
  • Headways on 505 Dundas and 506 Carlton will be blended to allow for the shared terminal at High Park Loop.
    • The 505 Dundas routing change to High Park Loop will be officially recognized in the schedules.
    • Service will be reduced during most periods on both routes as a seasonal change.
  • 306 Carlton Blue Night will operate with buses to Dundas West Station.
  • 509 Harbourfront: Seasonal service increase evenings and weekends.
  • 512 St. Clair: Service increase on weekdays.

Bus Services

Routes With Express Service Changes/Restorations

  • 29/929 Dufferin:
    • Local service improved during most periods on weekdays.
    • Weekend service rescheduled for articulated buses.
    • Weekend express service restored using artics.
  • 939 Finch East Express:
    • Weekend service restored.
  • 41/941 Keele:
    • Local service changed from articulated to standard buses on weekdays with improved frequency of service.
    • Midday express service restored.
    • Express operation changed to articulated buses.
  • 43/943 Kennedy:
    • Minor service reallocation on weekday local service.
    • Peak period express service restored.
  • 52/952 Lawrence West:
    • Service reliability adjustments weekdays
    • Express peak period service improvements
  • 60/960 Steeles West:
    • Seasonal service reductions
    • Reliability changes
  • 68/968 Warden:
    • Reliability changes and some weekend service improvements.
    • Peak period express service restored.
  • 85/985 Sheppard East:
    • All 85 local service on weekends will now operate with standard sized buses rather than with artics.
    • Weekend 985 express service restored.

Diversions

Note: These diversions are described in the service memo, but are not reflected in the scheduled service summary.

  • 31 Greenwood:
    • Effective approximately May 18, service will be diverted to Coxwell Station while the loop at Greenwood Station is closed for Easier Access construction. This work will last about one year.
  • 57 Midland
    • Service reliability adjustments.
    • Northern terminus shifted to the Redlea cul-de-sac via Steeles and Redlea.

Other Changes

  • 365 Parliament Blue Night Bus:
    • Weekend service that was removed in error in fall 2021 will be restored.
  • 73 Royal York and 76 Royal York South:
    • Service reliability improvements
    • During some periods, the 73B Eglinton service will interline with the 76B Queensway service.
  • 83 Jones
    • Recovery time reallocated to the south end of the route to reduce conflicts near Donlands Station.
  • 95 York Mills:
    • Stops added on Durnford Road and Rylander Blvd for the 95A Port Union extension. These will be reviewed in advance of the September 2022 schedule changes.
  • Service reallocation affecting some periods on the following routes:
    • 16 McCowan (peak periods)
    • 17 Birchmount (peak periods)
    • 36B Finch West (am peak and early evening)
    • 81 Thorncliffe Park (peak periods)
  • Service reliability changes which generally widen headways during most or all periods:
    • 30 High Park
    • 31 Greenwood
    • 57 Midland
    • 62 Mortimer
    • 77 Swansea
    • 93 Parkview Hills
  • Service reliability changes rebalancing driving/recovery time with no change in service level:
    • 33 Forest Hill
    • 101 Downsview
  • Service improvements:
    • 31 Greenwood (peak periods)
    • 33 Forest Hill (peak and weekday midday)
    • 83 Jones PM (peak periods)
    • 86 Scarborough early evening Zoo shuttle (restored, seasonal)
    • 92 Woodbine South (weekends, seasonal)
    • 996 Wilson Express (weekday midday and pm peak)
    • 175 Bluffer’s Park (restored, seasonal)
  • Service reductions:
    • 75 Sherbourne: AM peak and midday (seasonal)
    • 600 Run As Directed: The number of crews/buses assigned to RAD service will be reduced by about one third as full scheduled service returns.

With the restructuring of bus service in the waterfront and the creation of the 121 Esplanade-River route, there is no existing route to provide seasonal service to Cherry Beach or Ontario Place. Two new routes, 172 Cherry Beach and 174 Ontario Place-Exhibition will operate instead.

172 Cherry links Union Station to Cherry Beach. It will operate from Eglinton Division.

174 Ontario Place links Exhibition Loop to Ontario Place. It will operate from Mount Dennis Division.

Details of the changes are in the spreadsheet linked below.

Service Analysis of 39/939 Finch East, October-December 2021

This article continues a series reviewing major east-west routes in Scarborough that began with:

Service on Finch East is provided by two routes.

Route 39 Finch East operates from Finch Station with three branches:

  • 39A to Neilson Road
  • 39B to Morningview Trail
  • 39C to Victoria Park & Gordon Baker Road (peak only)

The schedule was unchanged through the October-December 2021 period.

Route 939 Finch Express operates between Finch West Station and Staines Road with three variations. Service east of McCowan serves all stops, while for the section west to Yonge the 939s run express.

  • 939B operates from Finch West Station to Scarborough Town Centre Station weekdays until mid evening, when it becomes the 939A and terminates at Finch Station.
  • 939C operates only during peak periods between Finch Station and Morningside Heights.
  • On weekends until November 20, the service was split between the A and B branches as shown below. This operation was suspended on November 21 as part of the fall 2021 cutbacks. There was no compensating change in the local service, and the weekend service has not yet been restored.
  • Weekday early evening service was improved by the addition of 939A service on November 22.

The Finch corridor is among those proposed for “red lane” treatment in the RapidTO program between Yonge and McCowan.

The scheduled headways on the 39 and 939 routes would not blend even if they kept to their schedules, and so this analysis looks at each route on its own.

As with the previous article on the York Mills service, there is data missing from the period immediately after the cyber attack on the TTC in late October and into early November. However, this does not prevent analysis of the overall pattern of service.

In Brief

  • Erratic headways are common on both the local and express services. These generally result from bunching in terminal departures or at route merge points, not from pervasive traffic congestion.
  • During the period reviewed here, missing buses appeared to be rare, and they fell generally in the latter weeks of the year. There does not appear to be an effort to space service to allow for the missing bus, and rather a double-headway travels across the route where the absent bus should be.
  • Average travel times over the proposed “red lane” section of the route between Finch Station and McCowan differ by about five minutes for local and express services.
  • Where there are congestion effects, they tend to last for a few days or weeks at a location, and then disappear. This implies that they are caused by short-term factors such as construction projects rather than being inherent to traffic patterns on the street. This has implications for red lane operations because there is no single location where transit priority will “fix” a long-standing problem.

For a detailed description of how to read these charts, please see Understanding TTC Service Analysis Charts: A Primer.

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Service Reliability of 39/939 Finch East

This article continues my analysis of corridors where RapidTO “red lanes” have been installed or proposed to speed bus operations. Previous articles in the series are:

This article reviews travel times and headway reliability (the intervals between buses) primarily through the pandemic era to July 2021 with April 2018 data as a pre-pandemic reference.

The High Points

Finch Avenue East is a corridor with a considerable amount of service through the combination of several express and local branches. Service will improve on weekends starting in September with the reintroduction of express service, but that is beyond the scope of this analysis.

As on many routes, travel times fell in March 2020 with the onset of the pandemic shutdown, the drop in road traffic and a big drop in transit demand. Through March, the travel time pattern changed from a pre-pandemic character with traditional peaks to an almost flat travel time value all day long. This drop, corresponding to a condition with little interference from traffic, probably represents a “best case” of the improvement that a transit priority lane can bring to Finch Avenue East.

This effect was primarily on weekdays on Finch with a smaller drop on weekends. The AM peak completely disappeared, and the PM peak has only re-emerged in recent months.

Travel times are climbing through 2021 and are in some cases back to pre-pandemic values, although not during peak periods.

Speed profiles for the local and express services based on the second and third weeks of July 2021 differ somewhat, but not as much as on other routes. However, a speed profile indicates how fast buses are moving when they are moving, and a stopped bus only counts as a “zero” once regardless of how long it sits serving passengers or waiting for a traffic signal.

Average speeds for buses at some times and locations on Finch exceed the posted 50 kph speed limit. This is no surprise to anyone familiar with suburban traffic patterns. Whether this will persist as traffic volumes build remains to be seen.

As in many of these route analyses, the weak point is headway reliability. All the speed in the world is of little benefit if a bus does not show up reliably and regularly. This can be compounded by vehicle crowding when buses are running in packs rather than on an even spacing.

The article includes charts of headways (the time between buses) in the first week of July 2021, a period when conditions were about as favourable as we will see for weather and the level of demand. At several points on the route, both the local and express service headways can vary quite widely with large gaps and groups of buses travelling together.

The average headways are close to the scheduled values indicating that all of the scheduled trips were operated. The problem simply was that they were not reliably spaced. This problem exists during all operating periods and on weekends, not just weekdays.

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TTC Service Changes: September 5, 2021

September 2021 will see expansion of TTC service in anticipation of returning demand including in-person learning at schools and universities. Many express bus routes will be improved or enhanced.

In a reversal of past practice, schedule adjustments for “on time performance” will actually reduce rather than add to travel times in recognition that buses do not need so long to get from “A” to “B”, and that they can provide better service running more often on their routes than sitting at terminals.

Full details of the schedule changes are in the spreadsheet linked below.

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TTC Service Changes January 3, 2021: Part II Buses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scheduled Erratic Service

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

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

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

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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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