Transit Service Reliability on Short Routes

A common theme in these pages is the TTC’s constant problem with providing reliable service. Many problematic routes lie outside of the core on long east-west routes that must deal with varying traffic conditions, the difficulties of blending branched services, and a faster return of demand and post-pandemic traffic levels than in the central area.

These are not excuses for poor service, but at least represent some of the challenges faced. This is not true for short routes primarily in the old City. For these routes, a trip between Eglinton and Lake Ontario is comparatively long, and some reach only a few kilometres from Line 2 Bloor-Danforth south.

They should be routes that run like a clock, but they suffer many problems seen on their longer cousins outside of the core. If the TTC cannot operate these reliably, how can we expect them to fare with behemoths like east-west routes on Lawrence or Finch, or routes from Line 2 north to Steeles and beyond?

This article is an introduction to a series that will examine service on:

A factor among many of these routes is that service is not particularly frequent. If there is a bus missing, or pack of buses running together (effectively the same thing), the gap is wide. The added waiting time (assuming a rider bothers) can be greater than the time they will spend riding from point “A” to “B” on the route. Waiting times hurt transit because riders see them as unproductive, and this can be compounded by uncertainty about the next bus’s arrival and capacity.

Here is an overview of service frequencies on these routes during selected periods. Some of these have 10 minute or better service during some periods, but many do not.

RouteAM PeakMiddayEveningSat AftSat EveSun AftSun Eve
22A Coxwell (Victoria Park)10′9’30”10′10′10′
22B Coxwell (Queen)8’20”8’20”
47A Lansdowne (South)4’45”9′6′8’30”10′9′10′
47B/C Lansdowne (North)9’30”18′12′17′20′18′20′
63A Ossington (Eglinton)9′7’30”8′7′10′8′10′
63B Ossington (S of St. Clair)4’30”
65 Parliament13′13′17′20′17′18′16′
70 O’Connor (South)10′11′13′13′11′11’30”15′
70 O’Connor (North)20′22′26′26′22′23′30′
72 Pape (on Pape)6′9’30”9′9′9′9′9′
72B Pape (to Union)19′19′18′18′18′18′18′
75 Sherbourne5’30”7’30”16′10′30′20′30′
94 Wellesley (East)7’30”7’30”8’30”6’30”9′6’15”9′
94 Wellesley (West)15′15′17′13′9′12’30”9′
Source: TTC Scheduled Service Summary for September 5, 2021

Common problems on these routes include:

  • Buses running in groups of two or more.
    • In some cases, pairs of buses run together over the course of two or more trips indicating that there is no effort made to evenly space service.
    • For branching services, buses on each branch do not blend evenly where the branches combine.
    • In the worst case situations, all of the vehicles on the route are running as a pack.
  • Buses missing from service, with the remaining buses not spaced to account for the gap. In some cases, a route is served by only one bus when there should be two or three.
    • Missing buses are most common during evening and weekend periods when spare operators are harder to come by, in part because many of the “run as directed” operators are used for subway replacement services. Because TTC has fewer operators than crews in some cases, there are open crews that are only filled if there is a spare operator available.

Although the TTC has standards defining what constitutes acceptable service, almost none of these address the problems listed above. That is because:

  • Buses can be running close together but still be “on time” according to the service standard.
  • There is no standard that addresses gaps and bunching explicitly.
  • There is a standard related to missed trips, but no statistics have ever been reported for it.
  • The standards accept a wide range of exceptions with a goal of achieving targets only 60% of the time. There is no reporting of the proportion of service lying outside the standard even if it would be within the target.
  • There is no co-relation of vehicle crowding with service reliability.

To put it quite bluntly, these so-called standards allow management to claim to operate the system to “Board approved” targets, even though the TTC Board members probably have no idea of just how lax these standards actually are.

In turn, when riders complain, they are often told that the service is operating within standards, and that where there are problems, “run as directed” buses are dispatched to fill the gaps. This is simply not possible because there are not enough RAD buses to fill all of the holes in the service. Moreover, the TTC does not track or report on the usage of these buses to establish that they really do provide the benefits claimed for them.

TTC management hopes to lure riders back to buses, but the single most common complaint is that more service is needed. Part of “more” service involves simply running what is already there better. There is no point in advertising frequent service if what is actually on the street is anything but.

When they were approved, there was a staff presentation that set out the standards but did not actually explain what they might allow. The Board nodded in approval of something technical that looked impressive, but was clearly beyond their ken. The old Razzle-Dazzle works every time.

Service Reliability on 22 Coxwell: Part I August 2021

This is the first of a series of articles reviewing service quality on short routes. A fundamental problem across the TTC network is that service is unreliable with bunching, gaps, missing vehicles and crowding all contributing to making transit less attractive than it could be.

Many routes that get a lot of attention are quite long, and there is a raft of standard explanations for their problems. Traffic congestion and construction are chief among these, along with road accidents, ill passengers and “security” incidents. However, there are severe problems with service reliability on short routes where most of the standard explanations simply do not apply, and where the TTC should be able to maintain service like clockwork.

These routes are short enough that the source of problems is easily spotted in the tracking data for TTC buses. The two most common problems are:

  • Buses are missing from service probably because no operator is available to drive the vehicle, and a near-embargo on overtime leaves scheduled work unfilled.
    • Where buses are missing, service is not always adjusted on the fly by Transit Control to space out the remaining vehicles and the result is large gaps where missing vehicles should be.
  • Some operators simply prefer to drive in packs even though they are reasonably close to their schedules. At times, pairs (or worse) of vehicles will make multiple trips close together showing that there was no attempt to space service.

There is a distinctive difference between missing and bunched buses in the data.

Where a bus is missing, headways will widen either where that bus should have been, or overall if the remaining service is spaced out. Where buses are bunched, there will be corresponding short and long headways where two or three buses arrive together followed by gap much wider than the average headway.

In worst-case situations, which happen too often for comfort, most or all of the route’s buses run together in a convoy. These are eventually broken apart, but the convoy should not have been allowed to develop in the first place.

In brief, there are times when nobody is minding the store and riders suffer. In the two months of data reviewed here and in Part II to follow, these problems are not one-off instances, but repeated events.

On 22 Coxwell, the service on the weekday shuttle between Danforth and Queen is usually well-behaved, but come evenings and weekends when the route extends east via Kingston Road to Bingham Loop at Victoria Park, the service can be very erratic.

In this article, service will be shown at three locations:

  • Coxwell south of Danforth, southbound. This is the service shortly after it departs from Coxwell Station.
  • Coxwell north of Queen, northbound. This is the daytime service shortly after it departs Eastern Avenue for the trip north. On weekends and evenings, this is a mid-point of the route.
  • Kingston Road west of Bingham, westbound. This is the evening and weekend service after it leaves the eastern terminal.

To save space, the charts are presented as galleries which readers can open at any page and scroll back-and-forth to make comparisons. Full sets of charts, including illustrations not included in the body of the article, are linked as PDFs after each gallery.

In the text describing the charts tracking vehicle movements, I refer to buses by the colour of the line rather than the run number because this saves readers from having to translate via a legend. Each day’s colour allocations are independent of the others, and they occur in order of vehicle numbers in the underlying data. For example, the “pink” bus is a different run number each day depending on the vehicles assigned to the route.

For those who have not encountered these charts before, there is an introductory primer. For those who want to know how the underlying machinery to produce these analyses works, there is a detailed article about methodology.

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A Small Gap on the Bathurst Bus

From time to time, someone will tweet a complaint to @TTCHelps about a very long wait for a bus and copy me into the thread. This can set off an exchange which, to be diplomatic, can involve varying claims about what is actually happening.

For as long as anyone can remember, the TTC has a standard response to such complaints: that traffic congestion or some other transient event beyond their control is responsible. More recently a few new lines have been added to their repertoire including:

  • Due to inadequacies in the schedule, buses cannot stay on time, but this will all be fixed in a coming revision.
  • There are “run as directed” buses which are used to fill gaps in service and respond to problems of overcrowding. These buses are far less numerous than some at the TTC have claimed, and they are completely invisible to service tracking apps.
  • Riders concerned about crowding can refer to transit monitoring apps to see if an uncrowded bus is coming down the route. Of course if you’re on a streetcar, they don’t have passenger counters and there is no online crowding info for them, in spite of ads for this service up and down Spadina Avenue.

On top of this, the TTC produces monthly on time performance stats that purport to show that, overall, things are not too bad. They have “service standards” about what constitutes an appropriate quality of service, and they hit them to some degree some of the time, on average.

This is a long-standing response of “not our problem”, backed up by “we will fix the schedule eventually”, “we are meeting our standards most of the time”, and “riders can find uncrowded buses, so what’s the problem anyhow”.

This is cold comfort to riders waiting for service.

Problems of irregular service and crowding on the TTC predate the pandemic, and were starting to attract attention by the politicians who claim to set policy and could not square complaints from riders and constituents with management reports. Then the world changed.

But the world is trying to change back, and with it the desire for transit service to actually attract riders. The time is overdue for attention to quality of service as a basic marketing tool. A shop window does not attract customers with a photos of products that might arrive soon, maybe.

Bathurst Bus Scheduled Service

In January 2021, weekday service on 7 Bathurst changed from regular-sized to articulated buses (12m to 18m), and the January 2019 schedule was restored. As we will see later, there are still several 12m buses running on Bathurst, but on schedules that assume 18m capacity.

In May 2021, peak period service was trimmed in response to actual demand, and the service in effect until Friday, September 3, was to operate every 10 minutes throughout the day (see table below). Note that the schedule includes an allowance for construction of Forest Hill Station on Line 5, but actual operating data charted later in this article shows that this is no longer a source of delay.

The January schedule with slightly more frequent service will return on Tuesday, September 7 as part of the TTC’s overall restoration of service.

On Friday afternoon, September 3, 2021, a tweet popped up asking the perennial question “where’s my bus” from a rider waiting at Glencairn and Bathurst. The 7 Bathurst is a notoriously unreliable service even though, irony of ironies, it serves the TTC’s Hillcrest complex.

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Service Reliability of 54/954 Lawrence East

This article completes 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

The reduction in travel times on Lawrence East from mid-March onward was smaller than on some other routes, and this was confined to certain areas and directions. This implies that red lanes would not offer much change during many periods over the route from Don Mills to Starspray as proposed.

A further problem lies in the infrequent service particularly east of the 54B Orton Park scheduled turnback beyond which only half of the scheduled service (plus peak-only express buses) operates. A fully reserved lane is hard to justify if it will not substantially affect travel times and if only a few buses per hour actually use it.

The segment west of Victoria Park includes the DVP interchange where integration of red lanes would be difficult. The time saving from March 2020 onward is small or nil for most of the day.

By far the worst problem on the 54/954 Lawrence East service is headway reliability, and unpredictable gaps in service can contribute far more to journey times than any saving that might arise from reserved lanes. Service leaving Lawrence East Station both ways is very erratic even though this would be a logical place to space service.

The route is subject to congestion and construction delays along Eglinton from Leslie to Yonge, although the schedule is supposed to include extra time to compensate.

Headways inbound from eastern Scarborough are disorganized both at the very outer end, and west of the point where the 54B service merges in. The express service operates on wide-ranging headways to the extent that waiting for the next one to show up could add more to a trip than the time saved by “express” operation.

Average headways on a daily and weekly basis generally follow scheduled values indicating that most or all service is present, and the wide gaps cannot be explained by missing or untracked vehicles.

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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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Have Your Say on the TTC’s Plan for Lawrence and Leslie Bus Services

Updated Aug 21/21 at 5:00 am: Link to survey corrected.

Updated Aug 22/21 at 12:05 pm: For some unknown technical reason, the survey closed sooner than it should have done. The TTC is working with their vendor to get this fixed.

Updated Aug 22/21 at 10:00 pm: The survey is available once again.

The TTC plans to restructure the 54 Lawrence East, 954 Lawrence East Express and 51 Leslie routes as part of the changes for introduction of Line 5 Crosstown late in 2022. They are conducting a survey of rider opinions on their proposals that is open until August 30.

Route 54 now operates between Eglinton Station and Orton Park / Starspray via Eglinton, Leslie and Lawrence. The proposed new route will begin at Science Centre Station (Don Mills & Eglinton) and will run north on Don Mills, then east on Lawrence. Note that there is a separate proposal as part of a Scarborough route reorganization to split off the Orton Park service as a separate route.

Route 954 now operates during peak periods express between Starspray Loop and Lawrence East Station. The proposed route will be extended to Science Centre Station over the same route as the local 54 Lawrence East service. There is no word on whether hours of service will be expanded beyond the peak period. Note also that after mid-2023 when the SRT shuts down, there will not be an RT service from Lawrence East Station to Kennedy Station, although plans are now underway in a separate study for reconfiguration of routes after the RT closes.

Route 51 Leslie now operates between Eglinton Station and Leslie/Steeles via Eglinton and Leslie. Route 56 Leaside now operates between Eglinton and Donlands Stations via Eglinton, Laird, Millwood and Donlands. The proposed route would combine 51 Leslie with 56 Leaside to provide one route from Donlands Station to Leslie/Steeles. (A peak period short turn would duplicate the existing Leaside via Brentcliffe service, and only about half of the 51 Leslie buses would run north of Eglinton.)

The combined effect of these changes would remove routes 51, 54 and 56 from Eglinton between Yonge Street and Don Mills (except for the short jog between Leslie and Laird by the combined 51 route). Only the 34 Eglinton bus would remain.

Also, service on Lawrence between Leslie and Don Mills would be provided only by the infrequent 162 Lawrence-Donway bus which does not directly serve the intersection at Don Mills.

For further info on the 2022 service plan, please see TTC 2022 Service Plan Consultation.

Metrolinx Announces Construction Plans for Queen Station

Construction of a new lower level station at Queen and Yonge will close roads in the area for an extended period according to a new blog article from Metrolinx. Between early 2023 for about four and a half years, Queen street will be completely closed from Victoria to James Street.

Source: Metrolinx

James Street will also be closed as well as a portion of the west side of Victoria Street.

Streetcars will divert both ways around the construction site via Church, the Richmond/Adelaide pair, and York. This will require York to become two-way at least south to Adelaide Street (it is two-way only from Queen to Richmond), and new track will have to be installed. Although the map above shows partial occupancy of Victoria Street, it is not clear whether the tracks, long out of use thanks to construction at St. Michael’s Hospital and at Massey Hall, will finally be reactivated.

Source: Metrolinx

Reconstruction of Adelaide Street is already in the City’s plans for 2022. Originally, when I asked about the scope of work, the feedback I received from the TTC was that this would only involve track removal from Charlotte Street (east of Spadina) to Victoria. However, with these diversion plans it is clear that new track will be required at least to York Street.

An obvious question here is what plans Metrolinx has for Osgoode Station, and whether a Queen diversion west of York will be required. It is conceivable that the Adelaide trackage may yet live again further west. There will also be construction effects at Queen/Spadina and King/Bathurst. I have written to Metrolinx asking when details of these projects will be available so that the entire plan for downtown construction will be clear.

Source: City of Toronto, TOInview

A further issue is that there is a major reconstruction of King Street planned in 2023. This would have to be well out of the way before Queen Street could be closed. If there will be track on Adelaide to which a connection could be provided at York, a new east-to-north curve would be an obvious addition at King.

More generally, there should be a plan for the future use of downtown streetcar track to support the various diversions needed for construction and to restore some of the flexibility in streetcar operations that has been lost over the years as less-used bits of track fall victim to various construction projects. A list of potential locations includes:

  • Adelaide Street from Charlotte eastward, not just from York, including connecting curves at York.
  • An east-to-north curve at King and York.
  • Reactivation of track on Victoria between Queen and Dundas.
  • Addition of curves in the SE quadrant at Church and Carlton (reconstruction is planned there in 2022).

I have written to the TTC asking what their plans are.

Too often, chances to improve the network have been missed when track is rebuilt “as is”. This is an excellent chance to rectify past oversights.

A further issue in all of this will be the effect of redirected streetcar (and other) traffic on the cycling network downtown. I will seek info about this from the City of Toronto.

I will update this article when I receive additional information from Metrolinx and the TTC.

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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Travel Times on 512 St. Clair

This article is a follow-on to How Slow Is The 510 Spadina Car? and an update of The Gradual Slowing of 512 St. Clair (Parts 1, 2 and 3).

Like the Spadina route, St. Clair operates in a reserved lane with many farside stops. The route has also been through the transition from CLRVs to Flexitys, and is subject to many of the same operational rules as the Spadina car. However, there are a few significant differences: St. Clair has fewer intersections (special track work) where slow orders apply, and the transit priority signalling is supposed to be active except at major intersections where cross-street capacity takes precedence.

The charts here are in the same format as those shown in the previous Spadina article for ease of comparison.

Looking west on St. Clair from Caledonia, June 30, 2010. Photo by Steve Munro.
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