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TTC giving itself the green light

Joseph Hall

Tired of that grinding stop and start, stop and start, stop and start tedium of your rush-hour drives around Toronto?

Well, next time, you might consider slipping your vehicle in behind a streetcar or bus for some free-wheeling relief.

Yup. Long the target of Toronto motorists’ most pointed curses, the rear end of a TTC vehicle could increasingly become the most attractive sight on the city’s major arteries.

Under a rapidly emerging plan to make Toronto streets TTC-friendly, streetcars and buses on the commission’s busiest routes will, more often than not, be granted a green light at every signalled intersection.

Known as Traffic Priority Signalling, the system uses radio-triggered devices mounted on traffic light standards to detect oncoming streetcars and buses. TTC vehicles along the priority routes transmit special electronic signals that trigger these “traffic controller” boxes.

Once a transmitting bus or streetcar comes into its range, the controller will interrupt the traffic signal’s normal cycle to grant the vehicle a maximum 30 seconds of extra green-light time. If the signal is red when the vehicle is detected, the controller will switch the light to green sooner. Once through the intersection, the vehicle trips a cancelling device that returns the traffic signal to its normal cycle.

“What we are trying to do with this system is make the TTC more competitive with the automobile,” says Gary Carr, chief engineer in the commission’s operations planning department. “And on the routes we’ve installed the priority program on, it’s given us a major advantage.”

Deployed at 217 intersections, the priority system gives that advantage to TTC vehicles on five major streetcar lines and on the Dufferin St. and Bathurst St. bus routes. Another 44 intersections will be wired on Jane St. this year and the system has budgeted a major bus route annually over the next five years.

The TTC hopes to accelerate that deployment, however, under a transit plan released last week. That plan includes proposals for stiffer enforcement and fines for traffic violations on designated TTC “Red Routes” - all streetcar lines not physically separated from traffic and a host of busy bus routes - and the creation of “Transitways” on King St., St. Clair Ave. and Yonge St.

It’s the signal priority system, however, that has given the TTC its first major traffic advantage - an advantage that is counted in mere eight-second intervals at each of the prioritized signals.

“That’s a tough one for the public to wrap their heads around, but we are only saving an average of eight seconds at each intersection,” Carr says. “And people might think `What’s eight seconds?’ but believe me that gives us a tremendous amount of bang for the buck.”

Indeed, at a cost of about $25,000 per intersection, the system can save the TTC millions of dollars in capital costs and $200,000 annually in operating costs along each prioritized route.

“The bottom line is the seconds add up into minutes and the minutes add up into millions of dollars,” Carr says.

It works like this: If the TTC runs a surface route with a round-trip time of one hour per vehicle and a scheduled five-minute interval between each vehicle, it must deploy 12 buses or streetcars to serve the route. If the priority system can save eight seconds per intersection and there are, as on average, 40 lights along the route, each vehicle can shave more than 10 minutes off a round trip.

“And all we have to do is save five minutes and we’ve saved a bus or a streetcar off that route, so that’s two buses or streetcars,” Carr says.

“And with a bus service that equals $1 million in capital savings for buses we will not have to purchase, and with streetcars it’s probably $3 million.”

There is one obvious problem looming, Carr admits, and that’s what to do about major signalized routes that cross.

What he has no concern about is the car traffic that is forced to wait at red lights as his vehicles get their extended greens. “It comes down to a philosophy where we have a streetcar with 75 people on it and we’re delaying however many automobiles with an average 1.15 persons in each,” Carr says.

For the city and the TTC, the trade-off is fair, the math is easy.

Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at