Buses cannot serve downtown Toronto

Last week, Rob Ford released his transportation platform. It has already been torn apart many places – by Torontoist, Toronto Life, BikingToronto, even the Toronto Sun! – but it did open up a long-running debate about transit in Toronto, that is, whether we should replace Toronto’s streetcar fleet with bus service. A lot of numbers are being thrown around, and a lot of conjecture and rhetoric. Well, let’s look at the facts, shall we?

The TTC regularly publishes its Service Summary document, outlining the expected levels of service (including the number of vehicles operating) on all of its services. The Service Summary for September 5 – October 9, 2010 is available from the link, or if that is offline or you’re reading this after it’s been updated, it is available from the TTC website’s Transit Planning section.

Page 67 of that document shows the total number of vehicles the TTC expects to operate at any given time, broken down by weekday/Saturday/Sunday and the time of day. The highest service is provided during the Morning peak period, when the TTC operates 157 CLRVs sand 38 ALRVs, 195 streetcars in total. I’ll come back to these numbers.

According to the TTC’s service standards (available here from Transit Toronto) the desired maximum load for an Orion VII bus (currently the most common in Toronto) is 55 passengers. For a CLRV streetcar it is 74, for an ALRV 108. Note that this document is several years old, and I hear that the standard for the Orion VII has been reduced, but I’ll use these numbers since I don’t have anything more recent.

By these numbers, the 195-car streetcar fleet can carry 15,722 passengers. This load would require 286 Orion VII buses. That’s a lot of extra large vehicles on highly congested core streets.

Of course, anyone who’s ever tried to ride a streetcar in Toronto at peak time knows that vehicle loading standards are a myth at best. At busy stops, and for much of the routes in the core, streetcars are loaded until no more people can physically enter the vehicle. This is known as crush load, a fitting name if you’ve ever been in that situation. I can’t seem to find any published stats on crush load for the Orion VII buses (hybrid or otherwise) but some sources suggest the crush load of these vehicles is anywhere from 55-60 passengers. Having been on a bus loaded this way as recently as today, I figure that’s about right. However, stats for the aging C/ALRV streetcars are readily available, for example Transit Toronto reports the CLRV has a crush load of 132, the ALRV 205. With these numbers, it would take 476 buses to replace our 195 streetcars, just to maintain our already pathetic level of service in the core.

Now, this is just to replace the existing fleet. Rob Ford (and others) are proposing to scrap the purchase of badly-needed new Flexity streetcars, and replace the entire fleet with buses. There are 204 Flexity streetcars on order, intended to fully replace the C/ALRV fleet. Flexity has a crush load of 260 passengers, providing fleet-wide crush capacity for 53,040 riders once the already-ordered streetcars arrive. Replacing these 204 streetcars with hybrid buses would take 884 buses. That’s a huge number of extra vehicles in the core!

One more myth about streetcars that opponents keep trotting out is that they move slower than buses. While a bus operating in the suburbs can clearly move faster than a streetcar in thick downtown traffic, the comparison gets a little muddy when you talk about running in the same areas. To illustrate: during the morning peak, 501 Queen cars run at an average of 16.3 km/h, 504 King at 13.7 km/h, and 506 Carlton at 15.2 km/h. Some bus routes in the same area: 6 Bay buses average 12.5 km/h, 75 Sherbourne runs at 11.7 km/h, and the 72A Pape (Union Station branch) at 13.5 km/h. Even the 142 Avenue Road Express only averages 16.3 km/h, exactly the same as the Queen Street cars. It isn’t the capabilities of the vehicles that limits their speeds, it’s the volume of traffic around them. Adding 100 or 700 large vehicles (depending on which numbers you use) is not going to help the situation, and it is certainly not going to improve service OR congestion.

A fair bit of material in this entry was collected from the excellent archives at Transit Toronto. If you have any interest in the history of transit and/or Toronto, it’s worth a good look.

About Greg Burrell

Greg is an accountant, cyclist and political observer living in Toronto, Canada with too many cats.
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  • Is Flexity the real name for those streetcars? Because it’s awesome.

    Also, bikes in bike lanes can go faster than all those.

  • Your point about buses being faster than streetcars is likely true, however figure in your data about the number of passengers and it doesn’t sound as impressive. The ability to move 1000 passengers from one end of the city to the other is likely to be faster with 5 streetcars than 20 or so buses. Unless you have them spaced stupidly close to one another. So now we have four times as many slow-moving vehicles on a given route to move those 1,000 people at the same rate as they move with streetcars. Or do we just move fewer people and degrade transit further.

    And it gets worse: How many buses will we be able to afford after we pay all the penalties for cancelling our streetcar order?

    • I thought I was making the point that buses were not faster than streetcars. And the TTC is no better at spacing buses than streetcars. Just this week I was at Broadview station when no less than five route 100 buses arrived all at the same time. That rarely happens even on the most poorly managed streetcar routes.

  • Tyson vickers

    Coupla points.

    One thing I don’t like about this analysis is the mention of crush loads. Ban that concept from your mind, as it’s pure evil. Crush loads are part of the problem.

    Buses (or streetcars) get much, much, much slower as you approach the crush load. We’ve all experienced this first-hand. People can’t move past each other, more people try to squeeze in but people resist moving back, the driver gets in a shouting match and/or obstinately refuses to move, etc, etc. Each stop takes much longer. Not to mention, the number of bypassed stops reaches zero.

    And it repeats like that for each and every stop until you reach a major intersection/transfer point like a subway, by which time you’ve got a train of 4 or 5 buses stacked up right behind each other and everyone is angry and late.

    One of the main things we need to accomplish is getting the TTC to drop the crush load yell at people to move back model. It doesn’t work.

    The solution is actually *less* passengers per bus, with the buses churning around a route in a predictable fashion, maintaining their spacing and timing at all costs. (Being early and waiting at a stop is also bad, but one problem at a time!)

    You ideally want maybe 25-30 people per bus, and streetcars to a similar capacity, but I haven’t counted heads lately. That’s an optimal carrying capacity without slowing down the bus. It runs many times faster around the route as a whole, maximum wait times drop, everyone’s happy. Average wait time may well go up, but consistency is far more important than speed, so people can plan their trip accordingly.

    As for streetcar/LRT vs. bus, I’m not sure you can simply compare them based on maximum capacity (even without using crush load figures), as that model essentially assumes all the people are present waiting at the stops to feed all the vehicles simultaneously and maximally. It’s a bit more complicated than that, and while I appreciate the simplicity it’s not entirely accurate to say “streetcars are faster than buses”.

    For example, suppose you’ve got a short route serviced by two buses spaced equally apart vs. one streetcar. (I’m envisioning the 40 Junction route, for reference.)

    If the streetcar is loaded to capacity that means the buses only perhaps 70% full apiece. There’s a favorable doors-to-passengers ratio for the buses, which might make a minor difference under load.

    But the nail in the coffin is the obvious — there’s two buses. They aren’t both at one end of the route, they’re at opposite ends, evenly spaced. Likewise, the passengers are not all at one end of the route, they’re more or less evenly spaced (with some excess at each end).

    Even if we assume the rail moves as fast as the bus somehow, by the time it gets to the far end of the route, the buses have covered a combined distance of twice that of the streetcar. They’ve cleared the entire first wave of passengers, while everyone headed southbound is tapping their foot.

    There are still passengers waiting for a bus, but they’re NEW and therefore still patient/non-enraged. The maximum wait time has dropped dramatically vs. the streetcar.

    At least, that’s how I see it.

    • Yes, I admit this is a very simplistic analysis of the situation, but that’s what you do when there’s an election. Too much detail and voters tune out. Toronto electing Rob Ford is proof of that.

      Crush loading is definitely a problem. It’s not a functional problem, it’s an issue of operators not knowing when to say no more, and of people refusing to wait for the next vehicle. If the TTC could educate its drivers and also change riders’ behaviour, the problem could be easily eliminated. When it’s time for a subway or GO train to leave the station, they close the doors and leave the station. It’s a very small step for buses or streetcars to do the same, but not our current designs – it’s too easy to hold the doors open. I don’t know what the doors look like on the new Flexity vehicles, but it would be a good idea for them to be shutter-type doors like on our subways and GO trains (and the Enterprise, for nerd points).

      I would like to see the TTC try short-turn routes in the core, that is, peak service routes that only run from, say, Roncesvalles to Broadview, or even shorter (I’m not sure where all the loops are). If the TTC could guarantee at Yonge Street that the vehicle is going where it says on the destination sign (a big pet peeve of mine living east of Kingston Road) then riders travelling beyond the turn points would wait for the appropriate car. This could significantly increase capacity in the core by sacrificing capacity where it isn’t needed at the ends of the lines away from downtown. Also, this should improve route management and prevent the random short-turns we all know & love.

      There are many ways that bus and streetcar service could be improved even with our current vehicles. But remember, we’re dealing with a Commission that just within the last two years figured out that it would be better to bring drivers to/from the streetcars instead of taking the cars out of service and sending them back to the yard at every shift change. There’s lots of room for improvement.

      • Tyson Vickers

        The other bit I forgot to add regarding crush loads is simple: the driver needs to understand his first responsibility is to those already on the vehicle. (Frankly, if the driver presses the “For customer convenience, please crush yourself into an anonymous cube and stack yourself neatly” button one more time, I might snap…) This is especially true when you consider those who have paid a cash fare, and thus cannot change their transit plans. Leaving passengers behind when you can’t properly serve them is precisely the correct thing to do. (Incidentally the reason I mentioned 25-30 people per bus is that’s roughly the number of seats in a basic U-arrangement. Standing on a moving bus isn’t really very safe and not crushing loading will minimize that problem, too.)

        You bring up some great points regarding the short-turn routes. (I assume you’re thinking of the 504 King/501 Queen here.) It wouldn’t be so hard to combine those and add a couple new routes that run along both King and Queen that overlap and loop back just east and west of Yonge. This would handle most traffic to downtown. Far less likely that a passenger is travelling via streetcar through downtown vs. to downtown, so few people would need to transfer between these loops. The current routes along the full length of King/Queen would be greatly freed up to run their lengths. Would it work? Well, I’m not positive, but it could be attempted for almost zero cost. Maybe give them a 6xx series route number to remove confusion.

        I hear and echo your frustration regarding the Commission; they seem to equate the number of stops/vehicles with service!