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York takes a flyer



Urban planners took some of the GTA’s best ideas to create a bus-based mass transit system.

The real test now begins as they wait to see if it will have mass appeal, writes Kevin McGran

Valerie Pospelova sits patiently at a York Region Transit stop on Yonge St. She’s waiting for a bus. And she can’t wait to buy a car.

The 17-year-old student and part-time waitress hates YRT buses. “They don’t run on time, and a lot of them don’t have air conditioning,” says Pospelova. “It’s okay. I’m getting a car soon.”

At a stop a few kilometres north, Niall McSwiggan echoes the same sentiment, telling stories of trips that take an hour and 20 minutes by bus but only 10 minutes by car. “After living in Richmond Hill for 20 years, I don’t think a great deal of the urban planning here,” says McSwiggan. “Highway 7 is a disgrace.”

Expectations have been very low for public transit in York Region. Poor, infrequent service on old buses in a sprawled community has forced people into their vehicles and forged a pro-car culture of big box outlets.

But expectations are going to be raised dramatically tomorrow with the debut of Viva, a bus-based rapid transit network that begins operating on Yonge St. and Highway 7. Viva � not an acronym, but the word York Region transit planners chose because it has a positive vibe � is the culmination of three years of planning.

“All systems are go,” says Mary-Frances Turner, vice-president of the York Region Rapid Transit Corporation. “Everything we’ve done with this system is about making things better. It’s about giving people better choices by being more frequent, more reliable, by being uniquely different.”

Start-up costs were $180 million and included $50 million each from Ottawa and Queen’s Park and $80 million from York Region taxpayers. But Turner thinks the payoff could be big and hopes the system will:

  • Encourage 7,000 drivers to leave their cars at home once the full 100-kilometre network is laid out.

  • Bolster smart growth, or urbanization, in the region’s employment centres of Markham, Richmond Hill, Vaughan, Aurora and Newmarket.

  • Link York Region with the City of Toronto and its subway system, to GO Transit and to the transit systems in Peel Region and eventually into Durham Region.

  • Open the door to future transit needs, including a light rail transit network that would be built over the next 15 to 20 years.

Viva won’t supplant regular transit. York Region Transit’s frequent-stop service will feed Viva’s express service the way TTC buses feed the subway. And Viva fares are the same as regional transit, for example a single ride ticket will cost $2.25. But once Viva’s Newmarket service comes on board Nov. 20, there’ll be a $1 “zone” surcharge for passengers going north of Bloomington Rd. or heading south of King Rd.

Buses will run every 15 minutes on weekends and other “off-peak” times and every 5 to 10 minutes during the rush hour. York Region hopes the 85 bright-blue Viva buses will win over a cynical, car-loving population.

Turner thinks Viva will convince people like Pospelova that they won’t need a car because it will combine many of the best elements of transit in the GTA with some innovations of its own, including:

  • Off-bus fare payment: Buy a monthly pass or a 10-ride ticket at a station, or buy a ticket at a kiosk at one of the bus stops with either cash or a credit card. The 10-ride ticket has to be “validated” by punching a machine, just like GO Transit.

  • A fare scheme based on the “honour” system, like GO Transit. Commuters won’t show their tickets to the bus driver, only security officers who will conduct random checks. (Your ticket acts as a transfer onto a regular York bus; your transfer from a regular bus acts as a validated ticket to get on Viva.)

  • A two-hour window for travel. Your validated ticket is good for all York Region transit for two hours. You could conceivably get on the bus to run errands and get home again on one ticket.

  • Bus stops have a monitor that shows the time and just how long you’ll be waiting for the bus. No more standing at the curb looking longingly up the street for a bus. Thanks to an on-board computer hooked up to a global positioning satellite, commuters will know whenever buses are delayed.

  • When buses are delayed, that same on-board computer will change red lights to green when buses approach intersections allowing vehicles to get back on schedule.

  • Bus-only “queue-jump” lanes at major intersections.

  • Buses equipped with displays that count down the minutes to the next stop. An electronic voice also calls out stops.

  • Buses equipped with television monitors, that will display news, ads, and public information from A-Channel Barrie (formerly the NewVR). A similar system from OneStop is coming to the TTC.

  • Buses have tables set up in the back for commuters who want to operate a laptop, students to do homework or for friends to play cards on long journeys.

  • And coming soon, Wi-Fi for Internet access on the bus.

“It’s all about getting riders,” says Turner. “At the end of the day, success has always been about getting riders on to the system because we are really trying to deal with a huge issue for ourselves, which is gridlock.

“We’ve worked hard at making sure all the elements of the system are all about creating those experiences so that people will go `Oh, I think I should try it.’” “It’s all about whatever it takes to get passengers on our vehicles.”

But the system’s Belgium-built buses were a source of controversy.

Firstly, they cost more than standard buses. At $742,000 each for 25 18-metre articulated buses, some people said it would have been better to buy more standard 12-metre buses at about $500,000 each to provide even more new service.

Secondly, they were purchased from European manufacturer VanHool, meaning Canadian tax dollars went overseas and weren’t spent on Canadian-based manufacturers, angering unions.

Transit expert Richard Soberman thinks York Region made the right decision in bringing bus rapid transit to the 905.

“They basically made a decision to go for something lower cost and more flexible than rail,” says Soberman, professor emeritus in the department of civil engineering in the University of Toronto’s Joint Program in Transportation. “Given the densities up there, it certainly seems like a sensible thing, putting a big emphasis on customer service, the level of passenger service, using GPS technology to give them priority at intersections and a pretty nice comfortable bus. It seems sensible to me.”

Other critics felt the $100 million from Ottawa and Queen’s Park would have been better spent on the TTC and GO Transit where ridership is higher and bursting at the seams. But traffic congestion is a major issue in a region that has 850,000 people and is adding 40,000 residents and 20,000 jobs a year. So the project enjoyed the backing of local politicians, including regional chair Bill Fisch and mayors such as Markham’s Don Cousens and Richmond Hill’s Bill Bell, who saw transit as the only solution to gridlock.

“Congestion is going to kill us otherwise. I mean literally and figuratively from a health point of view and from an economic point of view. We really had no choice but to figure out a better way to get people around York Region,” Turner says.

Already, York Region Transit ridership has hit 13 million annually, one of the fastest growing urban transit systems in North America. Viva, which is a separate entity but includes free transferability with regional buses, is expected to boost the region’s transit numbers to 30 million passengers a year within the next few years.

But getting the system up and running has not been without its problems. Community groups were worried about the look of station stops and feared road widening could ruin historic neighbourhoods. To ease concerns planners designed station stops that reflected the neighbourhood. And some work in Markham is behind schedule because the environmental assessment delayed road building, and the planned location of the eastern-most station has met with opposition.

Planners wanted the system’s eastern station near the Markham-Stouffville hospital in Cornell village but residents were concerned about the effect a 12- or 14- bus station would have in their neighbourhood. York Region is now onto its fourth proposed location for the station.

While Viva service is due to expand further west into Vaughan, further east into Markham and north into Newmarket by Jan. 1, the extension to Cornell is on hold until a suitable site can be found.

There was also controversy when York Region hired a consortium of nine companies in a unique public-private partnership. People were worried transit money would be diverted to private interests. The consortium’s job was to get the project running faster than the region could have done on its own. It did so and stayed within budget.

Meanwhile the region owns Viva, although it has contracted out the maintenance and operation to Connex, a transportation company that is not part of the partnership.

The hiccups, overall, have been minor and York Region has added an entirely new public transit service in roughly three years.

A feat its neighbours struggle to match.

Brampton announced a similar service, called Acceleride, at about the same time. It’s still on the drawing board. Mississauga has plans for a bus rapid transit road down Highway 403 and Eglinton Ave., but the project doesn’t yet have funding.

Perhaps taking their cue, the transit systems in Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax and Pickering are merging into Durham Region transit, amalgamating much like York Region’s did five years ago.

In York, the next step calls for building bus-only lanes on Highway 7 and Yonge St. to get the vehicles out of traffic, part of a $1.5 billion second phase. The first bus-only lanes won’t be built until 2006, and only if York Region gets funding from Ottawa and Queen’s Park.

And while the buses are moving today, it will all be for naught if they’re empty. “Ridership, at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that counts,” says Soberman. “If you build it and they don’t come, you’ve made a mistake.”