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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Blue Night Service Expansion: Fall 2015

The overnight “Blue Night” network will see many changes and additions this fall. These will be rolled out in two waves: first with the September/October schedules on Labour Day weekend, and the remainder with the October/November schedules at Thanksgiving.

This is part of a more extensive expansion of service beginning in September that relates to the Ten Minute Network, All Day Every Day service, and improved crowding standards on routes with frequent service. Those and other changes will be described in a separate article.

Here are maps of the network as it exists now, and with the two stages of additions:




Several of the routes will be renumbered so that the night services match the daytime routes except for the using “300” series. In the case of the King and Spadina night services, they will run, at least initially, with the daytime route numbers because there are no roll signs for “304 King” or “317 Spadina” in the CLRV/ALRV fleet. This problem will vanish as the routes convert to Flexity cars with programmable signs.

All services will operate on 30 minute headways.

This implementation is a work-in-progress, and Service Planning does not expect to turn to the question of timing points until the routes are in place. This is a vital piece of work for a network with wide headways where TTC performance stats show that headway (and, by implication, schedule) adherence is very weak. Riders of these routes should be able to depend on vehicles appearing at expected times and connections to work in a predictable way. This is as important a part of the new service as simply putting the buses and streetcars on the road. If service is not predictable in the middle of the night, riders cannot be expected to use it especially for trips that are time-sensitive such as early morning work shifts.

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Analysis of Route 54 Lawrence East (Part II)

In the previous article of this series, I examined headways on the Lawrence East 54 bus route for the months of November 2011, March 2012 and May 2013.  The data revealed a route where staying close to the scheduled headway is a matter of chance, and happens far less commonly than “reliable” service demands.

If running times are fairly consistent, then the time taken from point “A” to “B” is predictable and headway maintenance should simply be a matter of short holds for the faster operators and encouragement to speed up to the slow ones.  However, the headways are uneven right from the termini of the route and from an intermediate point (Lawrence East Station) where re-spacing service to a regular headway could easily be done.

A related issue with schedule adherence is the question of running times.  Is the underlying problem that operators cannot make the assigned times in the schedules and therefore have no choice but to run at whatever chance headway occurs?  I have looked at this previously on Queen and on Dufferin where schedules are a problem for some, but not all, specific time periods.

Finally, there is always the issue of traffic congestion, the bane of surface operations and a mantra to which the TTC often resorts when people complain about service.

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Analysis of Route 54 Lawrence East (Part I)

This is the first of a series of articles to review service on a number of routes both in the suburbs and downtown.  There are three sets of data for November 2011, March 2012 and May 2013.  The first two were selected to show the effect, if any, of service cuts implemented in February 2012.  All three months had fairly benign weather and this would not have much effect on service.  (The winter of 2011-12 was particularly balmy in Toronto.)

Our old friend the Queen car comes in for lots of abuse on this site and elsewhere that transit riders and critics (not necessarily the same group) congregate.  For a change, I thought it would be interesting to review a very long bus route, 54 Lawrence East, to see what its service looked like.

Lawrence East is actually longer than Queen (Long Branch), although it operates at a higher speed overall. The express service has a substantially higher scheduled speed, but does not run on the congested inner section of the route.

54 Lawrence East operates three services:

  • 54 Eglinton Station to Orton Park (between Markham Road and Morningside)
  • 54A Eglinton Station to Starspray
  • 54E Lawrence East Station to Starspray Express (peak only, express west of Markham Road)

Peak hour headways are shorter on Lawrence East than on Queen due in part to the size of the vehicles.  Although Lawrence East has a 3’00” combined AM peak service, this is only actually available at the few stops between Lawrence East Station and Orton Park served by all three branches.  Each of these operates on a 9’00” headway providing an average 4’30” headway over much of the route where only two of them are available.

During off-peak periods, half of the service operates to Orton Park and half to Starspray.

If we are to believe the common wisdom about transit routes, Lawrence East should have more reliable service because it operates in a relatively less constrained environment than the Queen car.  In fact, actual service on Lawrence East suffers many of the same problems of bunching and uneven headways differing substantially from the advertised schedule.

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