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A dedicated lane along bustling Highway 7 is aimed at speeding up travel times.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Can the bus change its image?

The first segment of an improved bus service opening in York Region this weekend is trying to bury the "loser-cruiser" reputation, hoping to persuade more suburbanites to opt for public transit by promising better reliability and faster service.

On Sunday, a 2.5-kilometre section of bus rapid transit (BRT) will begin on Highway 7, the first part of an ambitious plan to serve this key artery above Toronto. BRTs are a relatively low-cost way to speed transit by separating buses from regular traffic. Common in many foreign cities, they are essentially non-existent in Toronto.

"We've said it will be good and [the construction is] going to be worth the outcome, so judgment day is here for people to decide," Mary-Frances Turner, president of Viva, which runs buses for York Region Transit, said this week.

The new BRT section will run from Bayview to Highway 404. It is meant to be the start, bringing improved service to one part of an existing route. The remainder of the route will continue as a normal bus line, but will be brought up to the new standard, section by section.

The key is removing the buses from traffic. The busy highway was widened lane by lane, creating a red-shaded area up the centre that is reserved for buses and emergency vehicles.

"It was a full reconstruction of the right-of-way to make room for the buses in the middle," said Viva chief engineer Paul May.

Motorists are not losing road space and will benefit by not having to contend with buses. Getting the transit vehicles out of traffic, meanwhile, along with the benefit of traffic signal priority, should reduce their travel time by up to 25 per cent.

"It does have to be competitive," Ms. Turner said, while taking a reporter on a test-ride of the new stretch. "There's no question, people need a reason to get out of their cars, because they're attached to their cars."

The system also incorporates a host of features designed to appeal to would-be passengers.

Buses will be GPS-tracked and arrival times will be relayed to forthcoming stops. Platforms are shielded from the rain and there will be enclosed and heated areas for truly inclement weather. Riders will pay on the platform, eliminating the bottleneck as boarding passengers linger at the fare-booth and shortening the time buses are stopped. The articulated buses hold close to 100 people and can run with headways – the time between vehicles – of less than five minutes at peak times.

The project is part of a bigger package of spending in York Region by Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency. The Highway 7 project is budgeted at $287-million, about $123-million of which was earmarked for the section opening Sunday.

This is not the most lovely part of the GTA. At times Highway 7 lives up to its designation, home to speeding cars and not much else. In other sections, there is a surfeit of low-rise commercial buildings and chain restaurants. But the area is changing, with development crowding closer to the road. Ms. Turner points to buildings that weren't there a decade ago and new sidewalks in areas where pedestrians had traditionally been left high and dry.

"The people out here are not anti-transit. … You have to make the service time-competitive and reliable, and people will use it," said Peter Miasek, president of Transport Action Ontario and vice-president of the Unionville Ratepayers Association. "The key thing is we're trying to get 'choice riders' out here; almost everybody has a car or access to a car."

He applauds BRTs for this sort of area, saying that they are fairly cheap and can be converted to light-rail later, an option that the Highway 7 project is designed to allow if future ridership demands.

When finished next year, the project will speed buses from Unionville GO station to Warden, up to 7 and as far west at Yonge Street, where they will enter the Richmond Hill Centre station. The GO train already stops at this station and future BRTs are planned to run west and north of the station. A planned TTC subway expansion up from Finch would terminate here.

"This is the Union Station of the North," Ms. Turner said.

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