Headway Quality Measurement: A Proposal

For regular readers of this site, it will be no surprise that my opinion of the TTC’s reporting on service quality is that it is deeply flawed and bears little relationship to rider experiences. It is impossible to measure service quality, let alone to track management’s delivery of good service, with only rudimentary metrics.

Specifically:

  • The TTC reports “on time performance” measured only at terminals. This is calculated as departing no more than one minute early and up to five minutes late.
  • Data are averaged on an all-day, all-month basis by mode. We know, for example, that in February 2020, about 85 per cent of all bus trips left their terminals within that six minute target. That is all trips on all routes at all times of the day.
  • No information is published on mid-route points where most riders actually board the service.

Management’s attitude is that if service is on time at terminals, the rest of the line will look after itself. This is utter nonsense, but it provides a simplistic metric that is easy to understand, if meaningless.

Source: March 2021 CEO’s Report

There are basic problems with this approach including:

  • The six minute window is wide enough that all vehicles on many routes can run as pairs with wide gaps and still be “on time” because the allowed variation is comparable to or greater than the scheduled frequency.
  • Vehicles operate at different speeds due to operator skill, moment-to-moment demand and traffic conditions. Inevitably, some vehicles which drop behind or pull ahead making stats based on terminal departures meaningless.
  • Some drivers wish to reach the end of their trips early to ensure a long break, and will drive as fast as possible to achieve this.
  • Over recent years, schedules have been padded with extra time to ensure that short turns are rarely required. This creates a problem that if a vehicle were to stay strictly on its scheduled time it would have to dawdle along a route to burn up the excess. Alternately, vehicles accumulate at terminals because they arrive early.

Management might “look good” because the service is performing to “standard” overall, but the statistics mask wide variations in service quality. It is little wonder that rider complaints to not align with management claims.

In the pandemic era, concerns about crowding compound the long-standing issue of having service arrive reliably rather than in packs separated by wide gaps. The TTC rather arrogantly suggests that riders just wait for the next bus, a tactic that will make their wait even longer, rather than addressing problems with uneven service.

What alternative might be used to measure service quality? Tactics on other transit systems vary, and it is not unusual to find “on time performance” including an accepted deviation elsewhere. However, this is accompanied by a sense that “on time” matters at more than the terminal, and that data should be split up to reveal effects by route, by location and time of day.

Some systems, particularly those with frequent service, recognize that riders do not care about the timetable. After all, “frequent service” should mean that the timetable does not matter, only that the next bus or streetcar will be reliably along in a few minutes.

Given that much of the TTC system, certainly its major routes, operate as “frequent service” and most are part of the “10 minute network”, the scheme proposed here is based on headways (the intervals between vehicles), not on scheduled times.

In this article, I propose a scheme for reporting on headway reliability, and try it out on the 29 Dufferin, 35 Jane and 501 Queen routes to see how the results behave. The two bus routes use data from March 2021, while the Queen car uses data from December 2020 before the upheaval of the construction at King-Queen-Roncesvalles began.

This is presented as a “first cut” for comment by interested readers, and is open to suggestions for improvement. As time goes on, it would be useful for the TTC itself to adopt a more fine-grained method of reporting, but even without that, I hope to create a framework for consistent reporting on service quality in my analyses that is meaningful to riders.

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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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35 Jane Saturday Service in October 2020

About three weeks ago, I wrote about the appalling condition of service on 35 Jane on Saturday, October 17 in A Travesty of Transit Service.

The October tracking data from this route reveals just how bad the problem was, and shows that this is part of a constant problem on the route.

Buses run in convoys on 35 Jane on Saturdays, and to a lesser extent on Sundays, for hours on end producing extraordinarily irregular service. This would be bad enough in pre-covid times, but with crowding being such an issue in 2020, the TTC’s inattention to reliable service bears added responsibility.

This article reviews the route’s behaviour on October 17 in detail, and then turns to other weekends to see how common the situation might be.

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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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A Travesty of Transit Service: 35 Jane Saturdays

This post arises from a Twitter thread in the early evening on Saturday, October 17. Photos of crowded TTC buses are not rare these days, and one appeared from the 35 Jane bus. Intrigued, I took a look at NextBus to see whether bunched service might be the culprit.

The first snapshot at 5:09 pm was what I found. All of the buses on the route were clustered in three groups with wide gaps between them. Oh well, I thought, maybe the route supervisor will sort this out at the terminals by spacing the service, or possibly by short turning a few buses. This was not to be.

Half an hour later, at 5:41, the only change was that the three groups of vehicles had rotated positions on the route, and this continued for the next hour. It was not until 8:15 pm that I came back to see what was happening, and found that almost all of the service was running southbound with an enormous gap northbound.

Regular readers here will remember that I wrote about route 70 O’Connor which had a chronic problem with buses bunching late on Saturday afternoons.

At the TTC Board meeting of December 12, a motion by Commissioner Brad Bradford asked staff to report back in the first quarter of 2020 on my findings. The pandemic emergency intervened, and there has never been a report.

The situation on 35 Jane on October 17 prompted me to look at vehicle tracking data for past months. Because this is a route with a proposed reserved lane similar to the BRT red lanes recently installed in the Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside corridor, I have been collecting data for it for several months.

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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 II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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35 Jane Travel Times and Priority Lanes

On June 17, 2020, the TTC Board will consider a proposal to implement transit priority lanes on several corridors including Finch East, Steeles West, Dufferin, Jane and Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside. This article reviews travel times and speeds for the Jane Street corridor comparing November 2011 and May 2020 data with the underlying premise that the May data show the best case for congestion-free operation.

The proposal for Jane Street run north from Eglinton to Steeles. Roadway widths and adjacent land uses vary along the corridor, and the removal of traffic lanes will have different effects along the street. A related problem will be the provision for cyclists, if any.

Note: When this article was first posted, some charts erroneously had some data labelled as “April 2018” rather than “November 2019”. This has been corrected.

Travel Times Between Eglinton and Steeles

Northbound

As on Dufferin, but to a greater degree, Jane Street has a high PM peak travel time and an extended peak period. The difference between November 2019 and May 2020 is quite striking.

Looking at the weekly breakdowns, there is the same pattern here on Jane as on Dufferin – although May 2020 times are shorter than those for November 2011, they have been rising over the four weeks showing a growth in some combination of traffic congestion and stop service time.

Southbound

The southbound peaks are similar to northbound and the PM peak extends over a considerable period.

The weekly breakdown shows the same pattern with growth in travel times through May 2020.

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