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Commuters wait to board the 54 Lawrence East route in May in Scarborough.

Better bus service could help solve Scarborough’s transit troubles

They’re slow, they’re late, they’re politically uncool — but they might be the best bet for this suburb, say commuters and urban planners.

On an overcast Thursday morning, Phylicia Davis stands on the light rail train (RT) platform at Scarborough’s McCowan Station, peering into the distance of its covered passageway, waiting for the next train that will take her to work.

It’s 8:15 a.m. and she’s right on schedule for her daily commute from the sprawling suburb east of Toronto to the city’s downtown core. Dressed in jeans, a light grey peacoat accessorized with a bright blue scarf and a brooch, Davis adjusts her knapsack, purse and lunch bag, hoping her connection comes soon.

“On a good day, it takes me an hour to get to work. On the way home, it could be an hour and a half,” she says.

To get downtown to her job as a project coordinator at Ryerson University’s Faculty of Arts, she must first catch a bus from her home near Bellamy and Ellesmere Roads to McCowan Station, where she’ll transfer to the RT line 3. She then gets off at Kennedy Station to catch the Bloor-Danforth subway line 2 up to Bloor-Yonge Station. There she transfers again, this time to the Yonge-University subway line 1, and ultimately gets off at Dundas Station.

“I’m in a rush. So I take this four-step process,” she explains.

Phylicia Davis waits at Scarborough’s McCowan Station for the second leg of her four-transfer commute to work.

Relying on transit can be frustrating, she says, pointing, in particular, to the infrequency with which some of the buses run. But, like many locals, she has resigned herself to this reality of commuting to and from Scarborough with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

Travelling on buses, especially during off-peak hours or on weekends, means having to make carefully timed plans, Davis notes. And missing just one bus can throw that whole schedule into disarray, adding to the aggravation.

Like Davis, many Scarborough residents rely on TTC buses for their daily commute, whether they’re headed downtown or across the sprawling suburb. The 30-or-so bus routes (plus express routes, sub-branches and night buses) that criss-cross the suburb and connect it to the city’s core are a lifeline, they say, especially for many lower-income people who don’t have access to a car or other forms of transportation.

But many residents say their lifeline is under-resourced.

In interview after interview, Scarborough residents told The Discourse about the poorly served bus routes they have to depend on to make a living, get groceries, access medical care and more. They told us about flawed bus scheduling that often results in slow service, delays, bus bunching and overcrowded buses that sometimes pass them by without stopping at all.

They also pointed to several pockets of the suburb that have to contend with limited or almost no bus service, especially in north and east Scarborough. And many expressed concern about the need for multiple transfers just to get around.

The Discourse analyzed publicly available data from the TTC for 40 bus routes that served Scarborough in 2018. We found a total 11,014 delays of greater than 10 minutes for all 40 buses combined. The average delay per bus was 15.25 minutes.

Some of the longest delays we found were on the 169 Huntingwood bus, which saw the highest average delay of 38.6 minutes per delay. The 144 Downtown/Don Valley Express saw the second highest average delay of 33.9 minutes per delay last year, according to our analysis.

Former bus driver shares commuters’ concerns

Back on the RT platform on the second leg of her journey to work, Phylicia Davis laughingly compares her commute to a marriage.

“It has its good days and bad days,” she says. “TTC sometimes makes or breaks your day — depending on whether you are in sync and you can catch bus after bus after bus. But if that can’t happen, then you miss your bus. You get off the bus and the other driver sees you but drives off. It’s frustrating.”

Former bus driver Melanie Wright understands Davis’s frustrations in more ways than one. In fact, frustration and stress related to her job were among the main reasons she quit driving buses, she says. She’s driven many of the bus routes that locals complain about, such as the 116 Morningside and the 54 Lawrence.

Wright (whose real name we are withholding because she fears consequences to future employment opportunities) is also a Scarborough native. She grew up near Washburn Way and Sheppard Avenue in Malvern, and went to school at Centennial College’s campus in East York, which borders Scarborough to the east. Her own regular commute was almost two hours long each way, transferring three times between the bus, the RT and the subway.

Simply put, there are too many people traveling from and within Scarborough everyday and not enough buses, she says.

She says it was frustrating to constantly get an earful from customers — especially since she understood exactly where they were coming from.

Bus drivers aren’t given enough time to cover routes that fill up quickly with passengers, she says, which results in overcrowded buses that are unable to keep up with their schedule.

Former bus driver “Melanie Wright” (whose real name we are withholding because she fears consequences to future employment opportunities) points to one of her old routes in Scarborough.

She recalls driving the 54 Lawrence East route to Rouge Hill Station: the heavy morning rush hour was followed by groups of children plus their parents dropping them off at school. And during the midday or on a weekend, the bus would fill up with baby strollers and personal shopping carts.

“That 54 bus, any time you get to Markham Road, you were packed — so heavy from the back to the front. You can’t hold any more people. And that’s one of the longest routes we have in the city,” she says.

“Then there can be people with mobility devices,” she adds. “That also takes time on a route.”

And during off-peak hours after 11:30 p.m., Wright says, time would often be cut down to 40 to 42 minutes to get from Yonge and Eglinton to Starspray and Lawrence. “You’re booking it. And I mean booking it, just to get there. Worse if you want to have a little break. Then you are flying to get there.”

These concerns have been expressed to TTC schedulers and traffic checkers who oversee the system, but management doesn’t listen to feedback, Wright alleges. They are out of touch with on-the-ground realities, she claims.

The TTC takes feedback from its frontline workers seriously, says Stuart Green, a spokesperson for the TTC.

If the bus operator notices a repeating pattern on a particular route, they are encouraged to report their observations to the TTC’s service-planning unit. Some adjustments to accommodate issues along a particular route can be made “on the fly,” he says. Schedule changes, when needed, are made every six weeks, he adds.

TTC service planning is constantly under review, he explains. Besides regular schedule adjustments after a six-week review, the TTC constantly looks at reliability of service and other factors that influence ridership. “This is true whether it’s the 54, whether it’s the 36, whether it’s the 99, the 102 — whatever it is. It doesn’t matter,” he says.

The 54 Lawrence, seen here in a calm mid-afternoon moment in May, was often overcrowded when she drove it, former bus driver “Melanie Wright” says.

Whether it’s in Scarborough or Etobicoke, he says, bus routes across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are planned and scheduled based on demand and ridership.

A February 2019 briefing note from the TTC to Toronto’s city budget committee says the TTC increased regular service in its network by approximately 10 per cent between 2015 and 2018, resulting in “service improvements on all subway lines, all streetcar routes and approximately 150 of 180 bus routes.” The report says the improvements addressed overcrowding on buses and reduced travel times “by expanding and enhancing the express bus network.” 

As for concerns around the time allotted to drive a specific route — these decisions are made by members of the service-planning unit driving the routes; they use historical information, track the movement of buses, and average out the required time, Green says. Out of safety concerns, bus operators are not allowed to drive fast to compensate for lost time.

“If feedback from operators is that, ‘Look you’ve given us 40 minutes to complete a route, and on a good day, a perfect day, it’s taking 50 minutes,’ then we need to take that into consideration when we plan the schedules for the next board period,” says Green.

It’s hard to anticipate the number of people with strollers and mobility devices on a particular route, he adds. “Those are the kinds of variables we can plan for based only on experience and guess work.”

Travelling within Scarborough can often require two or three transfers to get to the final destination.

Why suburbs like Scarborough are hard to serve

Originally called the Toronto Transportation Commission when it started running in 1921, the TTC says it’s now the third-largest transit system in North America based on ridership, after New York City and Mexico City.

Today, the TTC owns and operates a transit grid that includes four subway lines, 11 streetcar routes and more than 140 bus routes, all plotted according to the City of Toronto’s statistical data.

But one of the main challenges of trying to provide adequate bus service to suburbs such as Scarborough, is that these often vast areas were primarily built for cars, says transit activist Steve Munro.

A retired IT professional, Munro remembers the farmlands that once dotted the landscape northeast of Toronto —  “I remember seeing strawberry fields when we used to go up to the Toronto Zoo,” he recalls. Between the 1950s and 1980s, residential towers were added to the emerging suburban landscape to accommodate a growing population. Now, these towers function as a landing spot for many new immigrants, or as affordable housing for low-income populations.

Professor Murtaza Haider says buses are an essential part of a suburban transit system, feeding commuters into subway and light rail.

For a transit system to work in Scarborough, it has to deliver an alternative to the car, says Murtaza Haider, a professor at Ryerson University, who has extensively studied urban systems, transport engineering and planning.

And that requires ongoing improvements to bus service, he says, since buses are an essential piece of the transit puzzle, feeding passengers into the higher-capacity subway and light rail systems.

Buses make suburban transit work, Haider explains, citing the work of noted economist John F. Kain as outlined in his 1965 book The Urban Transportation Problem. Kain argued in a 1988 journal article that it isn’t possible to build a dense network of rail in the suburbs — where a lower-density population living further apart results in “substantially higher costs per passenger trip than bus rapid transit in all but a few situations.” But a dense network of buses can serve the needs of North American cities, Kain wrote.

“The idea is that public transit should be within 400 metres of a resident’s destination or origin,” Haider says. “If you have to walk for a kilometre or more, you are not riding the transit system.”

“That accessibility is only possible in North America by buses,” he adds.

Better bus service needed?

People in Scarborough rely on buses to conduct their daily activities, and that’s a challenge if the buses serve them poorly, according to Steven Farber, assistant professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s department of human geography.

“Turns out that many people are not trying to go very far, but they are going far enough. So when you need to take one or two — sometimes three buses — to accomplish that trip, the frustration is valid,” he says.

Toronto has one of the best bus systems possible in urban North America, given the low population density and long distances in suburbs, such as Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke, he says. But as the city has grown, so has traffic. Congestion on the roads affects bus service along those routes.

The bus network in Scarborough is actually quite fantastic, Farber says — if the traffic is flowing and the buses operate according to schedule. Most major routes are supposed to operate buses with a frequency of 10 minutes or less, he notes.

“The problem is that because of traffic conditions, people are waiting for much longer than 10 minutes for a bus. They see four buses come, and then wait 30 minutes for the next bus,” he says.

“[Buses] get stuck behind turners, they get stuck behind lights. And very little — very little — is done in Toronto to provide conditions for transit to operate at its peak capabilities. That is extremely frustrating for transit users,” he continues.

Farber points to express buses as part of the solution, as well as giving buses traffic-light priority to keep them moving. Haider, from Ryerson University, echoes the call for more express buses, and suggests giving buses the right of way on big, busy arterial roads.

Other suggestions by transit planners include introducing bus rapid transit from Malvern Town Centre to Scarborough Town Centre or Yonge station, as well as an express service from Scarborough Town Centre to York University.

The bus system in Scarborough is actually well designed, says assistant professor Steven Farber, but delays and bus bunching can be very frustrating for commuters.

Asked why buses do not feature in the transit debates over subway extensions versus new surface routes that have been raging for years in Toronto and Scarborough, all the transit experts we interviewed had the same response: Buses aren’t sexy.

Politicians looking to get elected, keep their constituency happy or leave a legacy behind would much rather talk about building a subway, they say.

Besides, concepts such as bus rapid transit and bus-priority traffic lanes wouldn’t find favour with the car-dependent population of Scarborough, Farber notes.

“To put it simply, if we do that for transit, we will probably negatively impact speeds for drivers in private automobiles. And the entire suburban project — its economy, its form, the way people live their lives, the way businesses think that they thrive and what they depend on — all of the forces at play in a place like Scarborough is to support, promulgate and perpetuate a dependence on the automobile,” he says. “It’s very difficult to fight that force.”  

Better bus service is not that complicated or expensive, he adds. “But it’s politically extremely difficult.”

Decisions around bus rapid transit are made by the City of Toronto’s planning department, says the TTC’s Green. There is already a bus rapid transit route along the hydro corridor on Finch Avenue West, and bus priority lanes on Eglinton Avenue between Victoria Park Avenue and Markham Road, he points out. “We can’t do that alone. We need the city to dedicate the lanes to our specific use or create bus transitway,” he says. “We would have input and involvement, but the planning work is done by the city.”

The city is looking at opportunities to increase reliability of bus services across the GTA, says Mike Logan, program manager at the City of Toronto transit implementation unit.

Lessons learned from the King Street streetcar pilot project in downtown Toronto will be looked at to consider priority bus corridors, he adds. “We’re also working with Metrolinx [the Ontario government’s regional transportation agency], who is advancing a specific plan for what is called the Durham-Scarborough BRT,” he says, referring to a bus rapid transit proposal being developed by the province.

“And that would link Scarborough Centre — and the future subway station of Scarborough Centre — to downtown Pickering as a bus rapid transit,” he says. “In Toronto, that would primarily be along Ellesmere Avenue.”

At the end of the day, says former bus driver Wright, it’s the community that needs to advocate for whatever combination of services it thinks would most improve the Scarborough transit system.

“If you don’t say something, if you don’t stand up, how are you going to be heard?”

This story is part of our community-driven coverage of Scarborough. It was edited by Robin Perelle and fact-checked by Francesca Fionda.

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