Service Quality on 41 Keele: Fall 2019 Update

At the TTC Board Meeting of September 24, 2019, a motion was introduced by Commissioners Shelley Carroll and Brad Bradford on behalf of Councillor James Pasternak in response to a citizens’ group, Action Keele, who have many requests regarding changes to the service on the 41/941 Keele bus routes. Two deputations from Action Keele, Matt Davis and Paul Grey, spoke to the request:

  • a. Include the #41 Keele bus route on the 10 Minute Network.
  • b. Increase the intervals for the green light facing west, at St. Clair Ave. and Old Weston Rd for easier turning maneuvers.
  • c. Move the Sir William Hearst bus stop further north to avoid extra congestion with vehicles accessing and exiting Highway 401.
  • d. Restrict the right-hand lanes, both northbound and southbound, at the Keele St. and Wilson Ave. intersection, to right turn only lanes, for better access of buses to the stops.
  • e. Add more vehicles to the local (not express) #41 Keele route to facilitate access to the network for individuals facing accessibility and mobility constraints.
  • f. Limit the main #41 Keele bus route to operate between Keele Station and Finch West Station and consider adding a #41B Keele bus route to operate less frequently from Keele Station to Pioneer Station.

Matt Davis noted that these proposals come from riders and staff, and that Action Keele had spent much of the year on surveys. He said that TTC data ranks Keele low on reliability, and riders complain about crowding and long waits.

Grey continued this theme stating that one of the main recommendations is the first, that Keele have 10 minute or better service all of the time. A consistent issue from riders at all stops was the frequency of service. One night of a survey during the coldest part of last winter, they canvassed at Keele and Lawrence where 10 people were huddled inside a shelter anticipating 20-30 minute waits for a bus.

That is not service that attracts riders, but rather drives away any who can afford to avoid it by moving or by getting a car.

Commissioner Carroll, although she presented the motion, was somewhat hostile to the deputants saying that their list of changes may or may not be implemented, and hoping that they understood there were financial impacts to this. Grey replied that there is a certain expertise gained in daily riding and operating on a route, and Action Keele thinks they have done their due diligence to produce helpful recommendations.

Vice Chair Alan Heisey asked staff if items b through d fell under the city’s Transportation Department. They do, and this part of the request would have to be dealt with there, although the TTC could provide an advocacy role as they claim to be interested in transit priority.

As for the service design, staff replied that they would review this route as part of their service plan, that there had been a service reliability improvement in September, and that they would report back. Furthermore, Keele and Lawrence has been identified as a “super stop” in the new plan now under development.

This sounds good, but it is a misleading response.

The service change in September consisted of stretching the running time allegedly so that buses could stay on schedule, but without adding vehicles so that headways actually became noticeably wider (see service history below). The reliability of service remains spotty as a review of vehicle monitoring data shows.

The TTC has a cultural inability to recognize that service does not operate on a reliable headway, and that bunching and gaps will not be fixed simply by padding running times. On routes like Keele where the scheduled service is infrequent, bunching can cause very wide gaps in service even though all of the scheduled trips are operated and few or no buses are short turned.

Commissioner Jennifer McKelvie asked when the five year service review coming back to the board. Staff replied that this will be in December 2019, and will be a “big picture” review to set up the plan for implementation. Changes will come in following years as the multi-year plan is updated. McKelvie was concerned that ad hoc requests from the community for service would be lost in this process.

Commissioner Carroll observed that requests from a local community to the TTC Board are not precedent setting giving the example of the Dufferin bus. Councillors who do not sit on the board historically bring forward concerns this way. Keele has been a problem every term of Council for a long time. Carroll mentioned demand at York University, although she missed the point that there is much demand on the Keele route that is completely separate from the university which now has two subway stations. Carroll emphasized that the Board wants engagement at this level saying “I don’t want to crap over that level of engagement”.

The request was referred to staff for consideration as part of the Service Plan on December 19.

Prologue

This is a long article with a lot of detail intended for those advocating for better service on Keele Street, and to balance TTC claims that it has “improved” service with new schedules in September 2019. Some readers don’t want all this detail, and you can bail out when it gets tedious. I won’t mind.

Several issues common to Keele and other routes are evident here:

  • Service does not leave terminals within the TTC’s 6-minute target, and irregular headways are common even where buses are supposed to be “on time”.
  • Service gets even worse as vehicles move along the route and closely spaced buses catch up to each other leaving wide gaps behind them.
  • TTC only measures service quality at terminals and, therefore, reports only on the best case situation along a route.
  • Service quality varies enormously by time of day and day of the week, but TTC reports only average values thereby burying the poor performance of the worst periods.
  • Express service runs on erratic headways which counter the supposed benefit of a faster trip.
  • Padding schedules with extra running and recovery time does not guarantee reliable service.

Some of 41 Keele’s problems are worsened by the use of articulated buses on wide headways. These vehicles were purchased for frequent routes like Finch West and they are out of place on Keele where they contribute to the very wide headways and the fact that this major route is not part of the Ten Minute Network. Unofficially, I have learned that there are plans to move the artics back to 7 Bathurst and change the 41 Keele local service to use standard sized buses with a concurrent reduction in headways. However, without an attention to service reliability, riders on Keele will still suffer.

To this I must add that TTC’s portrayal of service “improvements” work counter to the goal of both better service and a higher regard for the TTC. Schedule changes that make service worse for riders, not to mention “new” express services that are nothing more than a rebranding exercise, might play well with TTC Board members who do not look at the details. However, real improvements require better management of service on the street, an end to laissez-faire attitudes about bunching and the band-aid “fix” of extended running times, and a recognition that Toronto needs more service, not just tinkering for the sake of appearances.

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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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