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A transportation blog.

From a 10-minute network to purple buses.

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December 9, 2023

Despite the STM offering 95% of pre-pandemic service, the service on Montreal's most heavily-ridden bus routes have dropped by an average of 13%, and on some routes the drop has been over 30%. This problem had only been amplified post-pandemic, as Montreal endured the largest ridership downfall of any bus system in Canada between 2012 and 2017, while diverting service away from poorer neighborhoods in favor of richer ones.

In an era where it is ever so much easier to hail a ride-sharing service or a taxi, transit systems and authorities must be at the upmost of their game in terms of ease-of-use. Good signage is one of the strongest weapons to combat these services. However, while the metro signage has gotten a renaissance with the redesigned signage, the bus stop signs, not so much. In fact, the STM bus stop signs had gotten worse over this period.

Many of the improvements that I have outlined in this article, can be done at almost no extra cost. However, the reason why transit agencies are not implementing these changes, is mainly due to a shift of priorities. In many Canadian and American cities, the bus carries the majority of public transport users (Harvard (CitiesX) via YouTube). But in Montreal, it is one of the only exceptions to this rule, by which the Métro system has 25 percent more ridership than it's sister bus network (APTA page 36). This is not a resounding success, but instead signifies a glaring issue in our bus transportation network in Montreal. Even before the pandemic, between 2012 and 2017, the Montreal bus network had already lost almost 14 percent of it's riders (McGill publication DeWeese et al. page 3). Aside from a needed bus network renaissance, the system needs badly a new wayfinding system to promote higher ridership and loyalty after they discover how easy it is to navigate through a metropolitan unified system of signage. In fact, this is already underway for many Métro, REM and train stations (ARTM). Now, it is needed for the metropolitan bus stop signs.

Related article

Pie-IX busway: From hope to deception

The Pie-IX integrated bus rapid transit (BRT) project had been in the works for more than a decade. It had finally opened in 2022, but it's sole success is the speed, but the user experience not so much. This articles dives deep into the history of the project, it's ups and downs. It describes many issues (and fixes!) that should be considered on this transit corridor and many others in the planning phase.

The birth of the 10 min max network.

Map of the 10 min max network (Catbus).

In 2010, the STM created the 10 min max network, in an aim to bridge a gap between the fast and frequent Métro network and the less fast and sometimes frequent but mostly infrequent bus network. The STM took 31 of it's most busiest routes and boosted frequencies to run at least 10 mins or less from 6 am to 9 pm on weekdays, both directions on 11 routes:

  • 18 Beaubien
  • 24 Sherbrooke
  • 51 Édouard-Montpetit
  • 67 Saint-Michel
  • 69 Gouin
  • 80 du Parc
  • 105 Sherbrooke
  • 121 Sauvé / Côte-Vertu
  • 139 Pie-IX
  • 141 Jean-Talon Est
  • 165 Côte-des-Neiges

In addition, 20 other routes had their frequencies boosted to run at least 10 minutes or less from 6 am to 2 pm in a certain direction and 2 pm to 9 pm in the opposite direction (those indicated in gray from the map above).

At the time of the launch of the system, the then Chairman of the STM claimed that the 10 minutes max buses acted as "almost a Métro extension" (STM). On top of that, 90 percent of Montrealers are a km or less away from a 10 min max bus and they represented about 60 percent of STM's bus ridership (STM).


On top of that, the STM launched a year after, the new families of buses, to help organize the bus network.

Post launch, the STM had observed a 40,000 ridership increase every weekday on these routes thanks to the service increases and healthy financing from the municipal and provincial governments. On one route, the 470 Pierrefonds, there was a 40 percent jump in ridership (Montreal Gazette).

High future anticipations.

After the success of the launch and ridership increases, the STM claimed that they will be adding more routes to the 10 min max brand (such as those that already run 10 min max during rush hours), and focusing on out-of-peak service frequencies (Montreal Gazette).

Speaking of out-of-peak frequencies, it is truly this what makes a bus network shine, not only service during peak, or when there is demand. This is because people usually take transit only during peak times, therefore for work, because it is the only portion of the day that transit comes frequently. However, there is a major opportunity in exploring out-of-peak travel, as it is largely dominated by car travel, and people are willing to do these trips by public transportation, if it came frequently. Of course, it does not need to be 20 buses per hour, but a simple increase from 3 buses per hour to 5 or 6 buses per hour makes a big difference, for little cost addition.

Additionally, the STM wanted to order even more articulated buses to eventually convert the entire 10 min max network to articulated vehicles (Montreal Gazette). This would be a positive change to the network, especially if it happened today, as there would be faster boarding and alighting, increased comfort and capacity. However, this is at the expense of heightened maintenance costs and bus garages needing to be converted to be able to handle the longer articulated buses.

The 10 min max network in the 2010s.

Sadly, none of the anticipations did not become a reality. Instead, quite the opposite happened. The 211 route was removed from the 10 min max system, with a greater emphasis on a West Island Express bus network (Fagstein).

Along, there was no additions to the 10 min max network. Instead, service was redirected away from the 10 min max buses towards richer neighborhoods, such as West Island to curb car ownership (Diab E. et al. 2020). In fact, the STM lost almost 14 percent of it's bus ridership between 2012 and 2017, and an average of four percent drop of trips per route. On top of that, routes that served lower-income neighborhoods faced the largest losses, which is the contrary to the common belief that these routes are the most likely to increase ridership (Diab E. et al. 2020).

Ridership change between 2012 and 2017 (Diab E. et al. 2020).

"The study suggest a trend in the STM’s approach to service adjustments during the 2012-2017 period: cuts were targeted on its busiest routes while benefits were allocated to smaller routes elsewhere. In the context of shrinking numbers of available buses, the decision to reallocate buses away from high frequency routes and towards niche routes for wealthier areas may appear confusing. When considering service adjustments per capita for the ten most affected routes, this shift of resources appears increasingly regressive; each trip taken away affected 1.37 more riders than a trip given. The routes affected also have higher median incomes and ridership numbers than the average route, suggesting a tendency to ignore service adjustments for smaller routes frequented by lower-income riders."

Excerpt from the study examining STM's service and ridership changes between 2012 and 2017 (Nick C. et al. 2020).

BIXI, a bike-sharing service, was also a major reason for the drop of ridership, with a McGill study claiming that it caused around 30.12% of ridership losses (Nick C. et al. 2020).

The study concluded by claiming that: "While the STM focuses on external variables as the cause of ridership declines, the results of the analysis and model demonstrate that its decision to cut trips on routes, increase fares, and ignore other route design variables available to it had a large impact on overall ridership numbers. It should also be noted that the presence of challenging external variables does not excuse a lack of response on the part of the STM; in the context of increased median incomes and lower gas prices as well as new competition from Uber (though not found to be a significant cause of ridership loss) and BIXI, route design and service levels should be adjusted" (Nick C. et al. 2020).

At the end of the study period, towards 2017, service had eroded so much on these routes that some routes went from every 10 minutes to more like 11 minute headways. In fact, the 10 min max network had seen 2.5 times more cuts than the average STM route in that period. This had caused ridership to plummet by over 700,000 per route on average (Nick C. et al. 2020).

Articulated buses being disfavored.

On top of that, by 2020, the STM wanted to add articulated buses to all 10 min max routes. This did not become a reality, and the last articulated order was in 2013 (Montreal Gazette). This could partially be attributed to a funding shortfall that happened between 2013 and 2015 leading to no additional buses being ordered at all during this period. 2016 changed this, but only with a small order of 51 hybrid, standard length buses (CPTDB). However, since 2016 hundreds of hybrid buses have been ordered, but none are articulated. Instead, some articulated bus routes converted back to standard length buses, such as the 45 Papineau, 193 Jarry and 197 Rosemont. The 100 Crémazie also used to operate with articulated buses on some departures, but this had since been axed.

Along with the lack of new articulated buses, compounded with a maintenance backlog and buses being pushed out even if on the brink of a breakdown, lead to the deterioration of the articulated bus fleet (Montreal Gazette, Montreal Gazette, Montreal Gazette). On top of that the new hybrid buses are already less reliable compared to their diesel equivalents, which probably further reduced the likelihood of more articulated buses for the STM (Montreal Gazette).

The only possible order for articulated buses in planning right now, is 20 battery electric articulated buses for the Pie-IX BRT (read my article here, LaPresse). Although, without any news since 2020, this contract is likely in limbo, as Nova Bus does not produce any articulated version of it's LFSe+ bus, a long range, slow charging battery electric bus at depot.

Again, a better option would be to consider a trolleybus system, but this is not being considered as the provincial government is already committed towards purchasing thousands of battery electric buses, and Nova Bus, the manufacturer in Quebec for buses, does not produce them. If you want an excellent article about this, read more about it here.

Finally, some good news! (sort of)

After finishing this article, the STM had announced it's next decade of investments. Contained inside it, is the STM's intent to spend $5.3 million on extending the life of it's existing fleet in 2026-2027. On top of that, the STM also intends to spend nearly $810 million on purchasing new electric 60-foot buses (STM 63). However, it is under "Identification," which means it is not yet funded, yet it is a project that the STM has identified.

The pandemic was the last nail in the coffin.

With the pandemic, it had dealt the final blow to the 10 min max system. During September 2020, the number of 10 min max routes had dropped to six, which was later increased in 2021 to eight.

Six STM routes were 10 min max at the time of September 2020 (STM - Wayback Machine)

Eight STM routes were 10 min max at the time of April 2021 (STM - Wayback Machine)

Combined with the downsizing of the number of routes that the 10 min max network faced, along with the constant financial troubles of the STM, the STM had a powerful political tool at play. This is what lead to the discontinuation of the 10 min max network by January 2022 (LaPresse). The STM, faced with a 78 million dollar shortfall (LaPresse), had decided to send the message to the government of the lack of financing by ending the 10 min max system, which was widely publicized in the news.

This discontinuation, probably is what led to the government to finance public transit properly for the latter half of 2022 and 2023 (STM). This is what had led to the recent increase in service, and the purple buses (STM).

Introducing a spiritual successor to the 10 min max network: a 12 min max network.

Map of the new purple buses (STM).

Full resolution map

The introduction of the purple buses, dubbed the frequent buses was thought of the 10 min max successor. In fact, many newspaper outlets claimed it as such, and this made perfect press for the STM. They had to prove to the government that they were financially responsible, a brand to encourage people to take the bus again and to show that if the provincial government continues to invest, well the network will continue growing (Radio-Canada).

The purple buses filled perfectly their role to grab attention to the STM bus network, and show that if you finance them properly, well they will increase service. In fact, at launch the STM claimed that these routes have 50% of the ridership of all the bus network (remember the 10 min max routes at their launch, which are almost the same routes, was 60%).

Page of the press release that shows it was 33 frequent buses (STM).

On top of that, originally there was supposed to be 33 frequent buses, as outlined in the press release, and noted in the map above, the Île-des-Soeurs REM station has a large transfer blob, to no buses. I am guessing that the two buses that got axed was the new 172 and 176 buses that run on the island to serve the station, mainly because of the service kerfuffle cause by the bus network redesign (LaPresse).

12 minutes was also chosen, as being more flexible, and that 12 minutes was the threshold for someone perceiving the wait as short (La Presse).

A disappointing service delivery versus the previous 10 min max network.

Detailed data per route.

Data has been collected according to the current GTFS data (Effective October 30th 2023 until January 7th 2024) of the STM, and the pre-pandemic data of schedules between January 7th 2019 and March 24th 2019 from printed schedule archives of the Wayback Machine.

I had compiled data of all the 31 frequent routes of the STM, and compared them to the previous 10 min max network of 2019 (which we learned is already a skeleton compared to it's form in 2012). The average loss of service was 13 percent these routes. Some routes had larger losses, such as the 80, 97 and 106/406, which had lost around 30% of departures each. The 196 was the only route that had a major frequency boost, of about 62 percent. This is because the STM had seen large ridership increases in the industry area near the airport and the Lachine area. This had also led to further service increases on the 100 and 460 routes, which equally serve the same sector. But aside from that, the same paradigm remains, where the STM is cutting service to it's most heavily ridden routes.

"Begratto" shared this image in response to my message on the Forum Agora Montréal (Forum Agora MTL).

A user on the forums had shared this picture, displaying the service of the route 80. Back then, rush hour service was every 3 mins, off-peak service during the day was every 7 minutes and evenings was every 15 minutes until 11pm. Compared to today, the frequency is much less:

All of these service cuts are despite the STM self-advertised figure that they had returned to 95% of pre-pandemic service levels. This is probably true financially, but due to increased wages, which represent 70% of STM's expenses, worsening congestion, increased amount of detours due to more municipal work and useless bus lanes have all contributed to the deterioration of bus service and the inefficiencies that come along with it. Read Marco's article about how better bus lanes reduce operational costs (Marco Chitti, Marco Chitti Twitter).

Lack of service during off-peak periods.

On top of that, the service out-of-peak had been the most impacted under the new purple buses. While, the previous 10 min max buses offered frequent service from 6am to 2pm, and 2pm to 9pm on the major corridors; the new purple buses is only during rush hours, which is from 6am to 9am and 3:30pm to 6:30pm. This means that service out of peaks has been heavily cut, with only few routes from those that previously ran 10 min max between 6am to 2pm and 2pm to 9pm in the other direction maintain a high frequency, while most drop to 15, 20 or even 30 minutes. In certain cases, a bus that used to come every 10 minutes or less, now comes every 30 minutes out of peak times.

This is catastrophic for ridership. If the STM cannot convince people to use public transit for occasional trips, it is very unlikely that they will adopt public transport in their day-to-day routine. As mentioned in a previous article, this change is key, and could potentially save the taxpayer large burdens from constantly needing to refresh roads. This is on top of the other evident benefits from public transport, such as increased population health, reduced pollution, increased happiness, increased quality of life, etc.

High-resolution picture of departures per hour.

Data has been collected according to the current GTFS data (Effective October 30th 2023 until January 7th 2024) of the STM.

This leads to buses operating super frequently during peak hours, while operating at every 30 minutes at another hour during the day. Examples of this, could be the 90 Saint-Jacques, 97 Mont-Royal, 187 René-Lévesque, etc.

On top of that, the number of frequent 6am to 9pm routes went down from 11 routes to 9. The 69 Gouin and the 80 du Parc were the ones dropped, and changed to rush-hour only frequency routes, in peak direction only.

All-day frequent routes, the only true frequent routes that someone can rely on, have also been cut from 6am to 9pm, to now finishing at 8pm. However, in my research, I found that the STM continues this frequency of every 12 minutes at least until 9pm, except on the 67 Saint-Michel, which is at every 15 minutes.

Weekend service is also completely neglected in this branding. Weekends is where the STM has been gaining the highest post-pandemic recovery, as many of these trips are not replaced by work from home (La Presse).

"Charles-Édouard Morel" shared this picture on a Facebook group named "Bilingual Memes pour Azur-Oriented Teens." They outcry the fact that the STM markets this as a frequent bus, yet it appears to be arriving every twenty minutes (Facebook).

Yet another political card.

One of the reasons why the STM did not relive the 10 min max system, was that it deemed the 10 min frequency too strict, and therefore took a lot of resources to maintain it. Therefore, they decided to settle for a 12 minute frequency, and add the word typically. They also branded it around the word frequent, not the actual frequency of the routes. The STM, therefore, could still rebrand it, and claim that 15 minutes is still frequent like the rest of the transit systems.

With the introduction of these frequent buses, the STM is trying to send a message to the government that if they invest, service will improve, and if they don't, well service will get worse (La Presse). It very much feels, that the purple frequent buses are not really to increase service, but mostly an interim measure until more funding is found and the launch of their complete network redesign. Hopefully, that redesign brings a better way to class bus services.

Hopefully by then we would have a frequent bus system that finally runs 7 days a week, from 5 am to 1 am, at least every 10 to 12 minutes, much akin to the Boston bus network redesign, or the Winnipeg network redesign. Additionally, with an identity that's better than a clunky 10 min max name / badge, or a color. That's why I talked about naming different families of buses by a first letter, so that when you say it out loud, written by text, in a news story, etc. it is instantly known it is a frequent route, or not. Read more about rebranding the bus network in a previous post here.

STM's proposed identification for frequent buses (top left), STM's final identification for frequent (purple) buses (bottom left) and my proposition for a strong identification of frequent buses without heavy priority measures (right).

Upcoming project: A Montreal region fast & frequent transit diagram.

Subscribe to my blog to be notified when I release the PDF of the diagram in the upcoming post.

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Related article

Making better signage for when things go haywire.

This article discusses the critical need for clear and effective signage in public transportation, especially during service disruptions such as network shutdowns. Highlighting the importance of signage as a primary communication tool for transit users, a solution would be to improve service change communications and wayfinding, focusing on planned service closures where transit authorities have direct control. The article also discusses issues with current lackluster signs which fail to direct users effectively, leading to rider frustration. To combat this, I had provided detailed solutions including high-quality signage and visual wayfinding tools.

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