Bus Priority Routes

by Markus O'Brien Fehr, Chief of Staff

The TTC believes buses should be given dedicated space on busy routes to speed up service and improve transit. But giving buses priority will likely impact other types of travel. As these impacts are still unclear, we should all approach this proposal with some caution. This important debate is heating up, and it’s time for you to have your say.

In 2019, the TTC board made a recommendation to advance the plan now known as RapidTO to improve transit speed and reliability. Solutions may include queue jumping lanes at intersections, transit signal prioritization, dedicated bus lanes, HOV lanes or comfort improvements at stops (real-time transit arrival panels, better connections to sidewalks etc.) As a means of getting us to where we need to be, transit priority tools are generally faster and cheaper to build than subways or light rail.

Unsurprisingly, busy bus routes running through Willowdale including Steeles West, Finch East, Finch West and Sheppard West were all identified as high priorities moving large numbers of people on streets that are slowed by traffic congestion.

City Council called for public consultation on the proposal. The first phase kicks off next week with a virtual meeting focussing on North York routes on Monday, October 18 from 6:30 to 8:00 PM. You can register for that event here.

There are several good reasons why TTC and City Transportation staff are enthusiastic about this proposal.

First, buses and streetcars remain the "heavy lifters" of our transit system and are involved with 70% of all trips taken on transit. Making these routes faster and more reliable are only likely to increase their use, and reduce personal use of motor vehicles all at the same time.

As Toronto continues to grow, this reliance on transit will become ever more critical. The City's Growth Plan forecasts 3.65 million people living here by 2051. With opportunities to build new roads scarce, more residents will need to rely on transit as a primary transit option.

This is also the right direction to help reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Buses move people much more efficiently than personal motor vehicles, and the TTC has a plan to convert 40-50% of its buses to electric by 2030.

Finally, there are opportunities to move people far more equitably and ensure that those earning lower wages who can't afford to live in the city's core, still have reliable transportation options so they can access employment and educational opportunities.

But regardless of these priorities, there is still good reason to be cautious. Neither transportation staff, nor the TTC, have yet provided any data on overall traffic impacts if prioritizing bus and streetcar movements. Pre-pandemic studies showed 65% of travel in North York happened by car, with 26% involving transit.

With TTC ridership still struggling and running at 44% pre-pandemic use, it's a particularly tough time to have this conversation. Dramatically emphasizing bus movement at the expense of other vehicles is likely to create a significant backlash where even moderates dive into trenches for the latest battle in the "war on the car."

My thinking is that over time, it's inevitable that Toronto needs to move in the direction of emphasizing transit. There are several options in the RapidTO proposal that would take this transition in a positive direction. Staff need to be mindful of the inevitable trade-offs and use data to find an optimal balance between road uses to ensure that most people stay comfortable with the transition.

Whether you agree or disagree, I hope you will consider getting online next week for the consultation, or spend a few minutes completing the City's online survey here.

photo by Ilan Kelman