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Is York Region's new Viva bus half empty or half full?

Wednesday, September 7, 2005 Updated at 8:21 AM EDT

I waited eagerly for an answer at Viva’s new Richmond Hill Centre station yesterday afternoon, comforted by an electronic sign saying that the next Belgian-made super bus travelling south to the Finch subway station would arrive in six minutes.

A quarter-hour later, the count was down to three minutes. After another 10 minutes or so, the sign reluctantly conceded that the next bus was “Due.” When it finally arrived, its driver emptied all the passengers out because the bus’s air-conditioning system had broken down (and, being much more advanced than ordinary Canadian-made vehicles, its windows are sealed).

By the time we eventually left on a new bus, Viva was full. As the dozens of other ordinary York Region and TTC buses jostling along the route proved, the demand for public transit on Yonge Street is as hearty as ever. Whether Viva succeeds in revolutionizing rapid transit in the Toronto region, however, remains an open question.

The theory is a good one: Rather than sinking billions into a new rail system, York Region is using comparatively cheap buses running on three new express routes to lure drivers with standards of service and comfort that are said to rival conventional rapid-transit. It’s all very modern and spiffy: Satellites guide the buses while computers control signal lights and on-board electronic signs count down the minutes and seconds to each new stop.

Rather than an extension to sprawling York’s existing sad-sack bus service, Viva was conceived as a showpiece of suburban know-how. From its corporate structure — a convoluted public-private partnership — to its basic premise, rapid transit by bus — it contradicts all conventional thinking in Greater Toronto, as exemplified by the ancient verities that still hold sway at TTC headquarters.

And that’s a good thing. Although they are dense by North American standards, Toronto’s suburbs are still far too thinly populated to support any sort of rail system. And although Viva has raised eyebrows with its $180-million startup costs, and its use of foreign-made buses that cost 50 per cent more than local equivalents, it is properly modest: It will have succeeded when the buses have created enough demand on the new routes to justify an upgrade to light rail vehicles.

On the other hand, these are just more buses — and buses don’t remake cities the way subways do. Nor will Viva ever recover as much of its operating cost as the Toronto Transit Commission manages to do. As modern as it may be, public transit in car-dependent suburbia is always a financial loser. Even if Viva does succeed in its goal of removing 7,000 cars from the region’s overwhelmed roads, few drivers will ever notice.

Indeed, York’s current plight exemplifies the perils of unplanned urbanism: Although it may seem onerous and expensive to build rapid transit in brand-new suburbs, and to design the suburbs in a way that supports transit, retrofitting the service into communities designed exclusively for cars is many times more expensive and never as effective. Systems such as Viva may represent the leading contemporary response to that problem, but they will always be over-expensive and substandard.

Still, York deserves real credit for making the effort. Many modern suburbs still think they can get by without public transit, as if it was just another one of the old urban artifacts — like smokestack industries and tenement housing — they left behind in the past century. Even today, newspapers are filled with ideological tirades about the superiority of cars and the foolishness of transit.

Faced with traffic congestion that is already worse than anything experienced downtown, York couldn’t afford the luxury of such anti-urban thinking. The truth is that you can no more have a great city without proper public transit — or any city worth living in, for that matter — than you can have a great restaurant without waiters. As belated recognition of that basic, though often ignored fact, Viva is fully welcome.