November 9, 2020: I made several updates to the interactive map, including the addition of PC Connect in Perth County, which launches next Monday. I mapped Port Hope’s transit connection to Cobourg, as suggested by one of the readers, and corrected a few minor errors. The updated map can be found here.
October 15, 2020
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, several new inter-community transit services launched in Ontario during the last few months.
Last August, T:GO began service on four routes radiating from Tillsonburg, where there was already an in-town circulator service. Mondays through Fridays, twenty-seater vans operate between Tillsonburg, Norwich, Woodstock, Ingersoll, and other communities, offering connections to Woodstock Transit, the hospital, and the VIA Rail Station.
In September, the City of Owen Sound, Grey County, Middlesex County, the town of Strathroy-Caradoc, and Prince Edward County all launched their own services, connecting rural communities and small towns to larger centres such as London, Guelph, and Belleville. In addition, Simcoe County expanded its Linx bus service to serve Alliston and Beeton, and other services, suspended during the early days of the pandemic, resumed operations. Also this year, Niagara and Durham Regions expanded their rural on-demand transit services.
All these new services help to fill the gaps left behind by private coach companies; these have become especially vital as Greyhound Canada suspended all operations in Ontario and Quebec this year (after abandoning Western Canada in 2018), and Coach Canada (operating as Megabus) cut service on some of its routes.
While these new intercommunity routes help to serve local needs, there is a wide variety of service provided in rural and small town Ontario. But without provincial coordination, it is nearly impossible to keep track of them all, never mind plan a trip.
So I went ahead and mapped them all the best I could. Clicking on each route brings up a pop-up window containing further information, including a link to each agency’s website, where available.
Previously on this site, I expressed my skepticism about Durham Region’s commitment to improving transit service. But in the five years since, the region east of Toronto has done exactly that by creating a route grid along major corridors, fusing together a network from four separate municipal systems.
While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has seen transit ridership plummet across the province, followed by service cuts to match the reduced demand, Durham is doing two interesting things: firstly, it is adding additional service on its main corridors, and it is replacing twenty-five low ridership routes with on-demand transit.
In my latest article for TVO.org, I take a closer look at Durham Region Transit’s response to shifting ridership during a pandemic and the benefits and pitfalls of microtransit as a potential solution.
On Tuesday, August 25, I paid a visit to Kitchener.
Greyhound suspended all operations in Eastern Canada on May 13, 2020 due to low ridership during the COIVD-19 pandemic. Meanwhile VIA Rail reduced its operations, including Train 85, which departed Union Station at 10:55 AM for Guelph, Kitchener, Stratford, and London. Therefore, GO Transit became the only way to get between Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo for a day trip without a car.
From boarding the 11:53 Kitchener Line train from Union Station, it should have taken just under two hours to get to Downtown Kitchener. Instead, because of a minor train delay, and a failure of the connecting bus to hold for transferring passengers, it took me three and a half hours.
If we value transit users, passengers must not be left behind when making these transfers, especially when connecting between posted connections.
Though the front of Union Station looks slightly better, and the bottlenecks have been lessened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this is not a satisfactory solution, especially for Toronto’s busiest and most important transportation hub.
The Jersey barriers were hastily plopped down on Front Street after the April 23, 2018 van attack, where one man steered a rented cargo van onto busy sidewalks in North York, killing 10 and injuring 16 more before he was apprehended by police. As an iconic and crowded pedestrian area, it was felt that special protection was necessary. At the time, the assumption was that the van attack was an act of terrorism, requiring such drastic measures. (It was soon found the motives were not terrorist related.)
In 2018, city councillor John Campbell likened the front of Union Station to “a war zone” while a city spokesperson said that a broader security plan was “in the works,” including for protecting the station has been in the works for some time, including interim measures that would fit into the streetscape.
In March 2019, nearly a year after Jersey barriers were added, the Toronto Star’s Jack Lakey dismissed complaints about their awkwardness and appearance, calling them “effective in stopping a driver bent on another deadly attack.” However, Lakey noted that another city spokesperson said that “city is finalizing the design of permanent vehicle barriers around Union Station”, that would “be smaller, more aesthetically pleasing and easier to navigate for pedestrians.” Those barriers would be installed later in 2019.
It is now August 2020, and the concrete barriers are still there, creating a mess for anyone using a wheeled mobility device, or for anyone in a hurry.
The only thing that has changed are new artistic vinyl stickers covering the bare concrete, with messages saying that “artwork is donated by TD [Bank].”
Perhaps TD was embarrassed by the Jersey barriers (after all, it has its headquarters just up Bay Street). Or perhaps the city decided that something needed to happen here., after two years of unfilled promises.
While examining the barriers, I noticed construction signage wedged within the gaps, creating a trip hazard. I also saw the original metal bollards installed when Front Street was rebuilt for a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape in 2014-2015.
Though the inconvenience caused by the lingering “temporary” concrete barriers has been lessened as there are fewer pedestrians entering and leaving Union Station right now, it also makes it a good time to finally make the necessary renovations by installing permanent sturdy bollards.
This week, I appeared on two podcasts, talking about municipal open data, crowdsourced mapping projects, and Brampton’s success in building suburban transit ridership.
For Spacing Radio’s Future Fix series, I spoke about a recent Walk Toronto initiative to map sidewalk pinch points during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. We used Google Maps to pinpoint specific locations where queues to enter grocery stores, pharmacies, and other essential businesses and services made physical distancing difficult or impossible.
Through Walk Toronto’s social media accounts, we asked Torontonians where these locations were, then submitted a list to city staff and public health officials. Not long afterwards, CurbTO was announced to address this specific problem, the first of several initiatives that recognized the need to get outside.
Also on the podcast are Shabnem Afzal, road safety manager for Surrey, British Columbia, speaking about that city’s Vision Zero plan, and Halifax City Councillor Waye Mason, who spoke about that city’s interactive map that allows its citizens identify spots where safe street interventions are needed.
Just before the pandemic hit, I spoke with Helen Lee and Vincent Puhakka of the new podcast The Next Stop about Brampton Transit’s success, and the implications for other suburban transit agencies. Also on the podcast are Brampton Transit General Manager Alex Milojevic and Mayor Patrick Brown.
I hope you have a listen to each of these podcasts, and consider subscribing.
Kingston Road is one of Toronto’s oldest and most important thoroughfares. Sections of the road were first laid out by Asa Danforth in 1799, though a straighter, more direct route was established by the early 1800s. By the 1830s, it was a busy stagecoach route, connecting Toronto with Cobourg, Belleville, and Kingston.
As Toronto grew into a major city, Kingston Road was an obvious route for a radial railway line serving Scarborough Township; by 1906, radial cars extended as far east as West Hill, near Morningside Avenue. The radial line’s stops were numbered from the beginning of the line, first at Queen Street and Kingston Road, then at Kingston and Victoria Park Avenue after the TTC took over city operations.
Stop 0 was at the city limits at Victoria Park (with connections to TTC streetcars). Stop 14 was Halfway House at Midland Avenue. Stop 26 was the Scarborough Post Office, near today’s Scarborough Golf Club Road, and Stop 35 was the end of the line, at West Hill.
With increasing automobile ownership and new intercity bus lines in the 1920s, Kingston Road was busier than ever, becoming part of the new provincial highway system, but ridership on the radials declined, especially after the TTC extended city streetcars east to Birchmount Avenue in 1928, leaving behind a mostly-rural service. Radial service was cut back to Stop 26 in 1931, and completely replaced by buses in 1936 (the 86 Scarborough bus route is the modern legacy).
Despite the switch to buses, the stop numbers carried on for many years, listed in TTC timetables through the 1950s. Locals would often refer to stop numbers instead of street intersections. Stop 17, at Kingston Road and St. Clair Avenue East, is one example that has lingered on. A mural on the side of Stop 17 variety depicts a green radial car in front of the Scarborough High School), with a cow blocking the way of a truck looking to pass.
Scarborough High School, on the opposite corner of the variety store, was built in 1922, expanded several times, and later renamed R. H. King Academy. The original building was torn down in 1976, but the entrance way, depicted in the mural, was retained.
Nearby, towards Brimley Road, several older motels date from the motoring era, when Highway 2 was the main route into the city. Though Highway 401 drew some of the traffic away in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the completion of the Don Valley Parkway (which provided a direct route downtown) and the rise of chain hotels saw a decline in independent motels along Kingston Road and Lake Shore Boulevard. Some have been repurposed as shelters, while others, like the Hav-A-Nap, diversified by offering paid parking for nearby Bluffers Park.
Last month, Metrolinx held a virtual open house to present information on the progress of the Hurontario LRT project, planned work, and details on some of the stops along the line. For now, roadwork is limited to median removal and utility relocation, but by next year, heavy construction will commence along the 18-kilometre long corridor.
If Metrolinx goes ahead with their plans for a minimal station on the south side of the intersection, anyone connecting between modes will be forced to cross two sides of a busy, hazardous intersection at grade, impacting both accessibility and safety. We can thank politicians on the 2014-2018 Brampton City Council for this situation, which provide just one of many examples of how systemic racism manifests in transit decision making.
On Thursday, I took the subway for the first time since Ontario declared a state of emergency in March. I entered Queen Station at 9:45 that morning, and rode to Wilson Station. The subway ride north was noticeably quiet, and I had a good choice of seats, even though most were marked as restricted for physical distancing.
On my return home, at 4:00 PM, the subway was busier, but still quiet enough to take a seat in the middle of the train, while just about everyone had a non-restricted seat through the downtown core. That never happened prior to March 13.
As I am used to crowded subway trains — even on Sunday mornings — my first subway rides in months proved to be a surreal experience. Though as most passengers were wearing face coverings and keeping distance, it felt safer and more comfortable than many of my recent supermarket trips.
Though subways are mostly empty, and streetcars pass through downtown with only twenty percent of their normal ridership, things are very different on the buses. In Toronto, Brampton and Mississauga, vehicles regularly bypass crowds of waiting passengers while displaying a “sorry bus full” sign.
Back in March, I mapped the TTC’s most crowded early morning routes. These ten routes were generally located in Toronto’s suburbs, serving employment lands and neighbourhoods with lower incomes and higher proportions of racialized persons. Brampton and Mississauga, which also have large food production and warehousing industries and significant immigrant and racialized populations, are experiencing similar problems with crowding.
All buses only allow passengers to enter through the rear doors, with many seats marked restricted with paper signs similar to those on the subway. The area behind the driver is closed off as well. While the TTC expect riders to tap their Presto cards at the rear or pay by cash or ticket at a subway station, Brampton, Mississauga, and other systems are permitting free rides for now.
A typical TTC bus contains only 33-36 passenger seats; an articulated (“bendy”) bus has 46. The TTC operators’ union instructed its members to allow only 10 customers aboard a standard bus (though the operator has discretion), and 15 aboard an articulated bus. Transporting that few people on each bus is unsustainable, and with tens of thousands of essential workers relying on the TTC to get to work — many of those jobs difficult and poorly-paying — it’s yet another inequity laid bare by this pandemic.
With loosening restrictions, the demand for transit has already begun to increase. By early July, local transit agencies will require all passengers to wear masks or face coverings. At the same time, passengers will be directed to enter buses through the front doors, while reinstating mandatory fare payment.
Front-door boarding and mandatory mask use will help with some of the capacity issues on buses. Offering free masks is a welcome acknowledgement that many who have taken transit may not have money or time to purchase or make their own face coverings. (The TTC has instructions on how to make rudimentary masks posted in subway stations.)
Even then, bus capacity will continue to be limited to ensure physical distancing, and buses will likely still pass by crowds of waiting customers.
While central Toronto benefits from walkable neighbourhoods, existing and new cycling infrastructure, and subways and streetcars with more capacity to spare, suburban residents will still have to rely on buses. Though I see mandatory mask use as a necessary step towards mitigating the risk of viral transmission, I fear it may not be enough for those who work at hospitals and clinics, food plants and warehouses, and grocery stores, restaurants, nursing homes, and daycares.
The numbers used to determine transit ridership demand is based on usage of the Transit app. (While Transit is one of several apps that can be used to plan trips, including Metrolinx’s own Triplinx app, Transit is my favourite). Normal usage is defined by Transit as app sessions observed on the same day of the week one year ago, averaged over three weeks and corrected for yearly growth in the corresponding transit agency. Hence, a rapidly-growing system, such as Brampton’s, can be represented accurately by the app.
Data was available for every transit agency in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, apart from paratransit services (e.g. Wheel-Trans, Transhelp, DARTS, etc.) and Milton and Caledon Transit, the smallest fixed-route services. The graph below shows the how the usage of the Transit app fluctuated based upon the expected value, reflected as a percentage.
Note how the actual Transit app usage dropped by over 40% for every transit agency on Monday, February 17, which was Family Day, a provincial holiday in Ontario. Most transit services were operating on a weekend or holiday service, while students and many workers did not take transit. This was likely compared with normal Mondays, hence the one-day drop.
It wasn’t until the second week of March that ridership began to decline as the number of COVID-19 cases began to surge in Canada and the United States, and governments began announcing new measures to reduce the rate of infection. On Thursday March 12, Ontario announced that public schools, scheduled to close for March Break, would stay closed for two additional weeks (the shutdown has since been extended). That day, the National Basketball League suspended the season, followed quickly by all other sports leagues. Employers began to implement contingency measures, such as work-from-home arrangements. By Monday the 16th, all restaurants were closed to sit-down clientele, and most entertainment venues closed.
By the week of March 29, transit demand was down by 75 to 82 percent across the Greater Toronto Area. Although many workers were either laid off or were sent home to work, employees in the healthcare, personal care, logistics, essential retail service (i.e. grocery workers), and food manufacturing industries remained on the job. This is evident in the difference between the demand for the subway (-81%) and the surface network (buses and streetcars, -76%) as they serve very different employment centres. Transit’s numbers are comparable to the TTC’s own ridership estimates.
Brampton Transit had the lowest estimated reduction in demand, at -75%. This could be for the same reasons that several bus routes in Toronto saw crowding despite a system-wide drop in ridership. Brampton’s population is relatively lower-income than many other suburban municipalities in Halton, Peel, and York Regions. Brampton also has many large food processing employers, such as Maple Lodge Farms, and many warehouses and distribution centres, including two major Amazon Fulfillment Centres. Brampton Transit connects to other major manufacturing and logistics employment areas in Mississauga, Vaughan and Toronto, including Pearson Airport.
Oakville Transit had the greatest drop, which can be explained by two factors. The first is that Oakville, is a relatively more affluent municipality, with fewer logistics and food industry employers. Secondly, its bus network is designed entirely to connect with GO Transit’s Lakeshore Line, which feeds Downtown Toronto. Therefore, the ridership dependent on Oakville Transit is more likely to be working from home than Brampton’s.
With the sudden drop in ridership, there’s also a sudden drop in revenue. While many systems, including Brampton Transit and GO Transit have made service reductions, they have been careful to ensure enough capacity remains to safely meet demand. Every system has also increased vehicle and station cleaning, and most have stopped collecting fares to protect both passengers and operators. Just like laid-off employees, students, and freelance workers, transit too will need a bailout of some kind to rebuild lost ridership and maintain safe and healthy services.
Transit projects such as the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT, the new relief transit service for central Toronto (be it the Relief Line or Ontario Line), and GO Transit expansion must go on, as does the progress made in building ridership at suburban systems such as Brampton and Durham Region.
While most people are urged to stay home as much as possible during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there are those who must carry on. These include health care workers, staff at grocery stores, pharmacies, and other essential businesses, and others who can not work from home. There are also those who continue to require transit to undertake essential errands, such as medical appointments.
Thankfully, most transit systems have carried on. Through GO Transit has experienced an 80% drop in ridership since the beginning of March, it continues to operate all rail lines and most bus routes, providing fewer trips, but maintaining the same span of service hours. The TTC discontinued most express routes, but it maintains a grid of frequent bus and streetcar services.
However, the TTC and Brampton Transit continue to struggle with crowding on certain routes. Brampton Transit — which has resorted to an “enhanced Saturday service” level –will only carry half a bus’s seated capacity to enforce social distancing, which has resulted in “closed-door” situations where buses won’t stop for waiting passengers. As a result, several routes are now discontinued during peak periods so that buses are sent to address crowding elsewhere. Brampton Transit serves many shipping warehouses, including two Amazon fulfillment centres, which remain busy during this time.
Routes 117 and 119 are industrial services, connecting warehouses and food service plants. These industries — like the infamous Fiera Foods plants served by Route 119 — rely on low-paid, often temporary workers, with early morning starts. Certain warehouses and many food-service plants also have very early starts to the day. It would be tough for workers to accommodate the TTC’s request to travel at later times. Routes 96, 102, and 165 also extend into major industrial areas. Route 123 serves the Metro supermarket chain’s distribution centres on Dundas Street and The West Mall.
Many of these routes run through Toronto’s neighbourhood improvement areas, which are identified by the city as those requiring additional investment due to issues such as poor access to services and higher concentrations of low-income families. In addition, routes 41, 96, 119, and 165 serve the Humber River Regional Hospital, one of Toronto’s largest health care facilities, while the 96 Wilson also directly serves Etobicoke General Hospital.
Though it would be best for private essential employers to stagger shifts during this unprecedented time, there may be a need for the TTC to redirect some resources towards these parts of the city.