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 III)

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 and Part II moving further west looking at north-south trunk routes between Victoria Park and Jane.

In this article, I continue further west to review these routes:

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Analysis of Services on Wilson Avenue (Part I)

Wilson Avenue is served by many bus routes and branches, and this arrangement has been through two major reorganizations since fall 2015. In these articles, I will review the changes and the quality of service provided at various locations along the route.

Until March 27, 2016, service on Wilson Avenue was provided by 96 Wilson and 165 Weston Road North with most trips originating at York Mills Station.

In October and November 2015, both routes became part of the 10-minute network, and their schedules were reorganized accordingly. Blended service is provided in off-peak periods on the common section of the routes on Wilson Avenue between Weston Road and Yonge Street.

In March, this was changed to split off routes 118 Thistle Down, 119 Torbarrie and 186 Wilson Rocket as separate entities but on the same routes as the original branches of 96.

  Before                                      After

  96A Wilson YMS to Carrier Drive             Unchanged
  96B Wilson YMS to Claireville               Unchanged
  96C Wilson YMS/WS to Thistle Down           118 Thistle Down from WS
  96E Wilson WS to Humber College Express     186 Wilson Rocket from YMS
  96G Wilson YMS to Sheppard & Torbarrie      119 Torbarrie from WS
  165A Weston Road N YMS to Steeles & Weston  Unchanged

  YMS: York Mills Station
  WS:  Wilson Station
  • The 186 Wilson Rocket operates weekday peak and midday periods from York Mills Station whereas its predecessor 96E was peak only from Wilson Station.
  • All Thistle Down trips are now to/from Wilson Station only.
  • Service to Torbarrie remains peak only and its eastern terminus is now Wilson Station, not York Mills Station.
  • Additional 165 services operate into York Region with various destinations including seasonal service to Canada’s Wonderland.
  • The 96A and 96B services are identical over most of the route branching primarily at their outer ends just beyond Humber College, terminal for the 96E/186. The 96C/118 service branches off at Albion Road, and the 96G/119 west of Jane Street.

An obvious question here is whether all of this shuffling made any difference in the service beyond giving the various sub-routes their own numbers.

For those who want the short version, the service is a bit better, but still not very good, and it certainly does not meet the TTC’s goal of providing reliable service at terminals, let alone along the way. Wilson provides a good example of inferior service for riders notably when there is an attempt to blend multiple routes and branches. There is no individual location or time to point at, but rather an overall lack of rigour in provision of service throughout all of the routes at all times and days of the week.

There is no sign through any of the data here of an attempt to manage headways (or equivalently, to keep buses “on time”). In some periods and locations, many overlapping services could usually guarantee a bus to somewhere a rider is going. Inbound on Wilson, any bus will take you at least to Wilson Station, and most will go beyond to York Mills. However, for individual branches, simply letting the service operate as it might produces a much less satisfactory result with unreliable service, wide gaps and bunching.

These are services that would benefit from explicit “time point” dispatching with vehicles expected to leave points enroute, notably those where services merge as well as points where an enroute layover to achieve an even headway could easily be handled. A range of +1 to -5 minutes relative to the schedule on this route gives far too much latitude.

In Part II of this article I will examine running times in comparison with schedules for these services if only to deal with the usual “if only we had more running time” argument that has become the standard response to unreliable service.

The schedule summaries for these routes and periods are at the end of this article for reference.

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