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.

Continue reading

“Snowmaggedon” and the Dufferin Bus

On January 17, 2022, a record snowfall hit the Toronto area. Yes, this is Canada, and it does snow here, although people who live in areas without the moderating effect of Lake Ontario rarely have much sympathy on that score.

A post mortem report on the event will be discussed on March 29, 2022, at the Infrastructure & Environment Committee. As the City’s report on the event summarizes:

On January 16-17, 2022, the City of Toronto experienced an extraordinary winter storm that involved extreme cold temperatures, very rapid snowfall, and an ultimate snow accumulation of 55 centimetres in just 15 hours. The below freezing temperatures that followed the storm and lasted for more than two weeks created a unique set of challenges for storm clean up.

The effects on transit routes were severe, and there was little or no service on parts of the network for an extended period.

Snow clearing took a very long time:

Ultimately, 179,442 tonnes of snow were removed from 3,471 km of roads, requiring almost 60,000 truckloads. Removal was conducted over a 30-day period; however, operations were suspended when additional snow events occurred, meaning snow was removed on a total of 23 non-consecutive days.

Toronto’s snow clearing practices tend to focus on major streets and often do not include physical removal of snow. This effectively narrows roads and limits their capacity until the snowbanks eventually melt. A history of warmer winters and fewer severe storms has contributed to a somewhat laissez-faire relationship to winter that failed Toronto in 2022.

The report speaks to several changes in approach to major storms that will be implemented in early 2023, and I will not go into these here beyond noting the effect on transit.

Two related problems do leap out.

First, the responsibility for various aspects of snow clearing fall to different groups. Roads and sidewalks were plowed by multiple contractors. Sidewalks were, until this year, the responsibility of property owners, but the city’s fleet of sidewalk plows was not yet at full strength, and subject to breakdowns. Bike lanes might or might not be plowed especially if they are simply painted and have no protective barriers.

The result is both a “who does what” clash and a war for space where snow can be dumped before it is carted away, if ever.

Second, the reduction in road capacity causes congestion both by taking lanes out of service, and by parked cars, to the extent motorists can navigate the snowbanks, encroaching beyond the curb lane. This is a particular problem on streetcar routes, but is not confined to them.

Plowing, when it does occur, may not be accompanied by aggressive towing, or at least by temporary relocation of parked cars so that the curb lane can be fully cleared.

Toronto has a network of designated snow routes for major snow events. Most of the territory it covers is in the old City of Toronto with some outlying areas. When a major storm condition is declared, parking is banned for 72 hours (or more if need be) on the streets shown in red below. Most of the suburban city is not included.

The map below is dated October 2013, and it is due for updating especially if Toronto plans to be serious about the quality of transit service and meaningful schemes for transit priority across the city.

In Brief

The major snowfall on January 17 disrupted transit service, and the effects continued for a few weeks after the event. In some cases, buses had not returned to “typical” pre-storm travel times into February.

The location of congestion problems on routes reviewed here was not distributed along them a a general delay, but could be found at specific locations and times where the effect was “net new” after the storm. This suggests that a detailed study of storm delays will reveal key locations and conditions that should be avoided in the future.

On Dufferin, a major location for delays was northbound to Yorkdale Mall, and this persisted for some time after the storm. Normally, problems on routes like this are assumed to arise from their hilly nature, but that was not always the case in late January.

Continue reading

A Dashboard for Scarborough Red Lanes

Recently, I published an article about the evolution of travel times and service quality on the Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside corridor since the installation of the transit priority “red lanes”, a project which has been branded RapidTO by the City. See: Red Lanes, Express Buses and Service Reliability in Scarborough

For clarity, although I have done work for City Planning as part of the King Street Priority project, I was not involved in the City/TTC Scarborough project. Analysis presented in my previous articles is my own work separate from the official reports.

One of the challenges of presenting this material is that there is a lot of data between transit vehicle tracking, ride counting and general traffic monitoring. In my articles, I only deal with the transit tracking component and even that is a lot. The City and TTC have boiled down the data further to present the major issues.

The City’s project page contains an overview and links to various resources including the TTC’s RapidTO page. The heart of reporting on the project is in the Project Dashboard which summarizes data showing effects on transit and general road user travel times as well as service reliability.

The High Points

The RapidTO lanes in Scarborough were the low-hanging fruit of potential transit priority projects. Much of their length already had peak period diamond lanes. The streets were not dependent on parking to serve commercial properties along the route, and they were mostly wide enough to leave two traffic lanes in each direction even after dedication of the curb lanes for transit.

Travel time changes were modest, and the savings cannot all be ascribed to the red lanes because other changes were made concurrently or after implementation, notably the elimination or relocation of stops.

Traffic and ridership volumes have not yet returned to pre-pandemic conditions and so we are not yet seeing either the roads or transit service stressed to previously-normal levels. Whether the red lanes will limit transit times from rising back to or above 2019 levels will probably not be known until sometime in 2022.

Service reliability continues to be the bugbear of TTC operations, and we are finally seeing figures to support this in a report from the TTC. When only half of service can achieve a rather generous target range of headways (time between buses), the service is not very reliable.

Update: Of particular note is the high reliability factor shown for the express routes, particularly 905 Eglinton East. The metric is defined as ±50 percent of scheduled headway, and the express routes have much larger headways than the 86 and 116 local Scarborough and Morningside services. Therefore, service on the 905 can be much more erratic because there is a wider acceptable window of values using the 50 percent rule. This is not necessarily better service, only a side-effect of a poorly-chosen metric.

The City and TTC present this metric as an “improvement” relative to October 2019, but the change is only a slight improvement on appallingly bad service. If this were a report card, it would generously have changed from an “F” grade to “E”.

External, physical changes to the route environment such as reserved lanes and stop consolidation will not, by themselves, produce reliable service, and the TTC has yet to address headway reliability management as a core function.

Continue reading

Red Lanes, Express Buses and Service Reliability in Scarborough

Four routes in Scarborough benefit from the introduction of reserved lanes on Eglinton Avenue East, Kingston Road and Morningside Avenue.

  • 86 Scarborough
  • 186 Scarborough Express
  • 116 Morningside
  • 905 Eglinton East Express

In previous articles, I looked at the change in travel times with the onset of covid-era drops in traffic levels beginning in Spring 2020, and the effect of the “red lane” implementation in mid-October 2020. This is an update to bring the review to the end of June 2021.

On five other corridors (Jane, Dufferin, Finch East, Steeles West, Lawrence East), there are plans for reserved lanes, although the proposals have not met with universal acclaim. In future articles I will bring the review of their routes’ behaviour up to date. The map below shows the affected routes as proposed in the Service Plan. Lawrence Avenue East was added to this list by the TTC Board.

My underlying premise is that pre-pandemic conditions are a reference point for travel times. Across the entire transit network, traffic congestion and boarding delays fell with the onset of covid. This has been building back gradually, but the effect varies from route to route. There are also external events such as the LRT construction on Finch Avenue West that affect intersecting streets. Finally, the transit red lanes were introduced concurrently with two other changes: the removal of some local stops and the restoration of express service.

This makes identification of the actual cause of shorter travel times more difficult to isolate, and the answer is probably “all of the above”. Each street and route is different, and the benefits, such as they are, of the red lanes should not be assumed to apply on every route segment in the city.

A concurrent issue for transit riders is the dependability of service. It may well be that five minutes is shaved off of their journey with a reserved lane, but if the service is erratic and the wait time for a bus is unpredictable, this benefit can be sabotaged. The situation is further complicated by a mix of local and express buses. If an express can serve a rider’s planned trip, it might save time thanks both to the red lanes and to the fewer stops enroute. However, if the likely wait for an express bus exceeds the time saving (and desire for certainty), a local bus could prove “faster” if it shows up first.

The TTC forever talks about optimization of service and schedule adjustments to make things work better. Problems should be “solved” with schemes like reserved lanes and express buses, so they say. However, headways (the time between buses) continue to be irregular leading to rider frustration and complaints, some of which are due to overcrowding caused by irregular service.

The TTC is good at getting the City to make changes to roads to “improve” service, but not so good at managing the service it has.

The short version of this article is that the red lanes on Eglinton/Kingston/Morningside improved travel times somewhat although we have not yet seen the real test of whether they prevent a return to pre-pandemic, pre-red lane conditions. The benefit varies from route to route, time of day, and day of the week. In spite of the claims that transit priority would lead to more reliable service, gapping and bunching remains a problem on most of the route using the red lane corridor.

This is a key issue for expanding the program: transit priority on its own does not guarantee regularly spaced and, by extension, evenly loaded vehicles.

A Note About Data

Since the idea of the red lanes first appeared, I began to collect data on the proposed routes. This was complicated by a few factors:

  • The red lanes, aka RapidTO, were proposed in the Service Plan issued in December 2019, before the pandemic. In anticipation of studying their benefit, I began collecting vehicle tracking data for the affected routes in 2020.
  • In some cases, because I was already tracking major routes, I had data from April 2018, but there is a big gap until late 2019 because this was the conversion period from the old CIS tracking system to the new Vision system. Data extracts were not available from Vision until late 2019. Therefore, I have very little pre-2020 data that is recent enough to be used for comparison.
  • With the effects of the pandemic on traffic and riding levels in 2020, the travel times are no longer representative of worst case conditions. A silver lining is that for the period when traffic was very light, this gives a best case situation for transit travel, in effect setting a bound on the improvement we could expect if we could just make the traffic disappear.
  • Almost all 900-series Express routes were dropped in Spring 2020, and they have only slowly been returning (more are planned later in 2021 or early 2022 including a few new routes). Therefore an express-vs-local comparison is not available on all corridors.
  • Before the Express network existed, express trips (typically the “E” branch of a route) ran with the same route number and their data are mixed together with the local trips. It was not practical to attempt to fish the express trips out of the tracking data in part because local and express runs did not always make their trips as scheduled, and this varied from day to day. Some buses alternated between making express and local trips. Therefore, data from 2018 represent a mix of times for local and express trips. This understates the time needed for local trips and overstates the value for express trips.

I will not burden the reader with a discussion of the methodology for converting CIS and Vision data to the format used in my analyses. There are two articles on this:

Continue reading

86 Scarborough: The Effect of BRT Lite

Effective in mid-October the City of Toronto began implementation of reserved bus lanes on the Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside corridor between Brimley Road and University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC). This is intended to be the first of several transit priority measures that will be rolled out over coming years.

I will address the City report listing the various candidate routes in a separate article. This piece reviews the behaviour of the 86/986 Scarborough local and express services as the BRT lanes, dubbed RapidTO, came into effect.

Work to install them began at the outer end on Morningside, and then worked south and west. The full extent to Brimley on Eglinton is not yet in service and so the effect will continue into November. The data presented here show results to the end of October 2020.

Concurrently with the transit priority lanes, the TTC reinstated the 986 Express service that had been suspended in the spring. True to TTC form, the express buses are faster than the locals, but the headways are quite irregular making the saving from a faster trip a tradeoff against a potentially long wait for an express bus to appear at your stop.

This article reviews service on the 86/986 Scarborough routes. I will turn to 116 Morningside in a separate article.

Summary

The introduction of reserved lanes and the removal of stops in the Eglinton-Kingston corridor has resulted in a small reduction in travel times for 86 Scarborough buses over this portion of the route.

The effect increased slightly from week 3 to week 5 of October, and it somewhat offset the growth in travel times as road traffic returns to “normal” pre-Covid levels.

The travel time saving provided by the 986 express service is considerably greater than the saving provided by the reserved lanes.

The variability in travel times on this route did not show the same “before” level seen on King Street (often used as an example of what might be achieved) and the lanes did little or nothing to alter this.

Headway reliability is a severe problem on both the local and express services, and service gaps continue to bring more delay to rider journeys than the time saved by the reserved bus lanes.

Travel time savings, such as they are, are due in part to the removal of stops, not to transit priority per se. Claims made for the benefits of the BRT arrangement should be tempered by the fact that two major changes — reserved lanes and stop removals — were implemented at the same time.

Future transit priority proposals should avoid concurrent changes where the “priority” component’s effect might be artificially enhanced. If the TTC’s desire is to remove stops, this can proceed without waiting years for detailed design and approval of the RapidTO scheme. There must be full public consultation, not a masquerade under the rubric of a “transit priority” scheme.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

BRT Lite Comes to Scarborough

Updated October 12, 2020 at 6:20 am: Travel time charts originally published with this article included data for April 2018 for Saturdays as well as weekdays causing a dip in values at the end of that month. The charts have been corrected.

With the gradual appearance of red pavement, a reserved lane for buses is appearing on Eglinton Avenue East, along Kingston Road to Morningside, and up Morningside to Ellesmere. This lane has no physical constraints on use by other vehicles and therefore is not really a full BRT implementation, but rather “BRT-Lite”.

Like so much recently in our town, it has acquired a moniker “RapidTO”. I will leave it to readers to concoct a name for the really rapid service provided by the subway.

For reference, here is a portion of the TTC route map showing the affected area (click to enlarge).

Four routes leave Kennedy Station:

  • 86 Scarborough local buses
  • 116 Morningside local buses
  • 905 Eglinton East express buses
  • 986 Scarborough express buses

The reserved lane begins at Brimley and then continues along Kingston Road. At Guildwood, the 116 Morningside route splits off, but the other services continue on reserved lanes.

At Morningside, the reserved lanes turn north along with the 905 Eglinton East Express buses and the 116 Morningside locals which have come up from Guildwood. The various 86 and 986 Scarborough service continue east and north to their destinations without a reserved lane.

The reserved lanes end at Ellesmere near the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC).

The lanes on Kingston Road and Morningside will also be used by the 12D service from Victoria Park Station to UTSC, but this is a peak-only operation that I have omitted from this discussion because it is so infrequent (roughly two buses per hour).

This has been announced with much fanfare, but it will be important to track what actually happens with service in this corridor. The TTC has an uncertain attitude to the benefits of reserved lanes, and this goes back years to (at least) the St. Clair right-of-way project.

Reserved lanes can reduce travel times by keeping motorists out of the way assuming, of course, that someone makes the effort to keep the bus lanes clear. The TTC uses this saving in two different ways:

  • Running the same number of buses on a shorter scheduled trip time means that more frequent service and capacity can be provided at no extra cost. This is the approach taken with route 116 Morningside.
  • Keeping headways (the time between buses) the same but reducing the trip time allows a route to be served with fewer vehicles while maintaining but not improving service. This is the tactic used for 86 Scarborough, offset by express service on the 986.

Over the years, there have been many service reductions on the TTC through the reverse of the second point above. Traffic congestion might become a problem, and TTC management wants to guarantee that fewer or no buses are short-turned. To achieve this, travel times are increased so almost all buses will arrive on time or early at terminals with a generous provision of recovery time before their next trip.

This has usually been implemented by running buses less often so that the trip time can be longer. The downside, however, is that scheduled service is reduced and this becomes a “new norm”. Service increases to deal with capacity problems are often held hostage to budget limitations.

Two other changes will happen on the Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside corridor concurrently with the new bus lanes (effective Sunday, October 11):

  • The 905 Eglinton East and 986 Scarborough express buses will resume to operation
  • Some stops will be moved or consolidated.

The service to be provided on the express routes is comparable to that provided in March 2020 before much of the express network shut down in response to the pandemic. This will substantially increase service for those who travel between express stops.

Express service stops:

  • Eastbound 905 buses stop only at Kennedy Station, Midland Avenue, Brimley Road, McCowan Road, Bellamy Road, Markham Road, Kingston Road and Eglinton Avenue East, Guildwood GO Station, Galloway Road, Lawrence Avenue, Morningside Avenue and Kingston Road, Ellesmere Road, Ellesmere Road and Military Trail, University of Toronto at Scarborough Loop.
  • Westbound 905 buses stop only at University of Toronto at Scarborough Loop, Military Trail and Pan Am Drive, Morningside Avenue and Ellesmere Road, Kingston Road, Kingston Road and Lawrence Avenue, Galloway Road, Guildwood GO Station, Eglinton Avenue, Eglinton Avenue East and Markham Road, Bellamy Road, McCowan Road, Brimley Road, Midland Avenue, Kennedy Station.
  • Eastbound 986 buses operate express from Kennedy Station to Celeste Drive (Guildwood GO Station), stopping only at Markham Road and Celeste Drive; 986 buses then operate local from Celeste Drive to Meadowvale Loop.
  • Westbound 986 buses operate local from Meadowvale Loop to Celeste Drive (Guildwood GO Station); 986 buses then operate express from Celeste Drive to Kennedy Station, stopping only at Markham Road and Kennedy Station.
Continue reading

The TTC 2021 Service Plan

The TTC Service Plan for 2021 is still in draft, but the TTC wants public feedback on their proposals. The deadline for comments is October 9, 2020.

See:

In earlier stages of public participation, the focus was on implementation of the RapidTO bus lanes, notably the one on Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside that has just been installed.

Now the TTC has added material about other proposals and there is a 24-minute video overview on the presentation page linked above.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Reserved Bus Lanes: Eglinton East in Fall 2020, More to Follow (Updated)

Updated July 9, 2020 at 8:10 am: A table comparing existing and proposed stops has been added adjacent to the service plan map in this article.

Updated July 9, 2020 at 12:30 am: A section has been added at the end of the article examining headway reliability for 86 Scarborough and 116 Morningside just east of Kennedy Station, and at Guildwood. This section complements an observation by the City of Toronto about unreliable headways, and hence uneven loading, on buses running on Eglinton.

Headway management is at least as important as improved travel time for these routes. There is not much point in saving a few minutes riding a bus if the waiting time is unpredictable and the bus may be full when it arrives in a gap. This aspect of TTC service management has been a chronic problem that is always put down to “traffic congestion”. In fact the post-covid data show that even with the much less congested conditions, headways are still spread over a wide range of values. This is a problem that will not be fixed by painting the pavement red.

The TTC Board will consider a report on reserved lanes for BRT-lite operation on several corridors at its July 14, 2020 meeting. Although there was a political desire to get all of them up and running as quickly as possible at the June board meeting, the proposed schedule strings this out over a longer time.

  • Fall 2020: Eglinton East from Kennedy Station, Kingston Road, Morningside to UTSC
  • 2021: Jane from Eglinton to Steeles
  • 2022 and beyond:
    • Steeles West from Yonge to Pioneer Village Station
    • Finch East from Finch Station to McCowan
    • Dufferin from Wilson to Dufferin Gate
    • Lawrence from east of Victoria Park to Rouge Hill

A key point is that TTC expects to save money on reduced travel times. Whether this would be reinvested in service on the affected streets or elsewhere in the system is hard to know. Some of the reduction will come from the reserve lanes, but some will also come from the consolidation of closely-spaced stops.

Experience on King Street showed that the travel time savings, such as they were, were eaten up by operational changes that added more running and recovery time to schedules in an attempt to eliminate short turns.

Bus lanes on the Eglinton East corridor are anticipated to increase transit reliability and reduce transit travel time on average between two-to-five minutes per trip. These time and reliability savings present an opportunity to achieve operating budget savings of 500 fewer service hours per week, equivalent to about $2.5 million per year and a capital cost avoidance of seven fewer peak buses equivalent to approximately $6.3 million. [p. 4]

The problem here is that any kind of “savings” has an allure that is much stronger than service improvements. Buses will not run more frequently, although service might be more reliable if the worst of periodic “bad days” can be avoided with the reserved lanes. This is similar to the results on King where the reliability effect was much more important than the actual change in average travel time. Better reliability means shorter waits for vehicles and a better chance that loads will be evenly distributed.

However, King Street had the added advantage that the actual capacity of the route was increased by running larger vehicles as the new Flexitys replaced the smaller CLRVs, ALRVs and bus trippers on the route. A similar opportunity is not available, at least in the short term, on Eglinton. The TTC has no spare articulated buses, and only modest plans to acquire more in future years. (Note that changes in the overall fleet mix have effects on bus garages which must be modified to service the longer vehicles, or purpose-built with this in mind just as Leslie Barns was for the new streetcar fleet.)

Continue reading