2009 has proven to be a busy year for transit in the Greater Toronto Area. In Toronto alone, 2009 saw construction begin on the Spadina Subway Extension to York University and Vaughan Corporate Centre; as well as the grade separation of Sheppard Avenue, the first Transit City-related project, and the GO Transit Stouffville Line in Agincourt. The TTC also finally purchased new streetcars for the legacy street railway system, put forward a plan to improve the bus network, and opened up most of the new St. Clair streetcar right-of-way.
At the regional level, GO Transit has continued to plod along with upgrading its rail infrastructure, including the West Toronto diamond (a major irritant to nearby residents and businesses), the Union Station rail corridor, while extending its reach beyond the GTA into Peterborough, Niagara and Kitchener-Waterloo. And Queen Street in Brampton is all torn up for its own rapid bus system, rebranded from Acceleride to Züm.
But one major project flew under the radar in the midst of all these other projects and plans. On November 20, the York University busway opened, the GTA’s first major bus-only road. The new route passes through a hydro field between Dufferin and Keele and also includes bus-only lanes on Dufferin Street and a second internal bus-only road into the central campus north of Murray Ross Parkway. The cost borne by the three levels of government, according to a York University news article, was $37.8 million.
Construction began in April 2008 after several years of planning. A TTC Commission report dated April 27, 2009 anticipated a September opening in time for the new academic year, but typical of TTC projects, the road opened over two months late.
The busway is intended as a temporary measure of removing buses from regular traffic congestion that plagues the area near the York U campus. Route 196 York University Rocket uses the busway in its entirety; 117 Alness uses a small section of the busway as part of its loop, and the new 41E Keele Express uses part of the internal campus busway as well. The Viva Orange Line (Martingrove-Downsview) is expected to use the roadway as well, and GO Transit (where access to its main Steeprock Drive garage would reduce “deadhead” time) and Brampton Transit are welcome to use the roadway, according to the above mentioned report.
(Brampton Transit may use the busway starting in September 2010 as part of its Queen Street Züm route, possibly sharing or taking over the operations of Viva Orange).
Travel times of the 196 have improved significantly, at least on paper. Less buses are providing faster and more frequent service. A service summary from before the completion of the busway required 20 buses for the morning rush on the main 196A branch (Downsview station to York U), every 2 minutes, 15 seconds, with an average speed of 23.3 km/h. In November 2009, 16 buses, running every 2 minutes even, now have an average speed of 32.8 km/h.
Viva has yet to start using the roadway. When I visited, only TTC buses, Wheel-Trans vans and supervisory and transit enforcement cars were spotted on the route.
There are some issues with the new busway. At Alness and the internal busway and The Pond Road, sudden drops in grade force drivers to pass with care. Furthermore, some drivers claim that the timed saved with the new route is less than estimated, and that keeping up with the new schedule is tough. One driver felt the cost of the busway, particularly for the short period of time it will be used, was not worth the cost.
The bus-only lanes on Dufferin are former HOV lanes. The signs indicating their new status are not particularly large, and there appeared to be many drivers not abiding by the new law. Better signage and more enforcement would be useful here.
This is one case in which a bus-only road makes some sense, as the route provides rapid service between very limited points with very little in-between (the busway might qualify as Toronto’s ugliest road, running under hydro towers and between fuel tank farms). But busways are not very well suited to serving neighbourhoods. Systems like Viva have a different function, providing an attractive, higher-speed bus in mixed traffic or reserved lanes on a regular street. Indeed, the TTC should pursue this idea for its longer suburban and midtown corridors, particularly those not destined for light rail.