Sunday, May 18, 2008

VIVA La Review Two

After two years of York Region's VIVA Rapid Transit system, it seemed appropriate to see what has gone right and wrong since my last review. Also, aspects of the last review should be revisited to see if anything has improved. So here is the good, the bad and the ugly about today's VIVA rapid transit system.

The Good

In the last review I had some questions in terms of garbage/recycling containers. The first issue was their availability at all stops. Since 2005 York Region Transit (YRT) has installed at most of their bus stops three binned containers with advertising billboards. Each of the three bins is for different types of waste and recycling. It took the transit agency about two months to label each bin for what could be put in them. The first was cans, bottles and other similar beverage containers. The second was for newspaper and other types of paper. The last, obviously, is the garbage container. The advertising on the side of the containers helps to offset what appears to be the once weekly garbage pick-up from these containers. These garbage containers, for the most part, do not seem to overflow with trash as they once used to. This is based on a sampling of the Golf Links, Bernard Terminal and 16th-Carrville stops.

The fare machines and schedules don't seem to be malfunctioning anymore. However, there are still confused passengers that are unsure of how to pay their fare (see below in "The Bad"). The GPS units that are hooked up the digital displays to show when the next bus will arrive work 99% of the time. This is a significant improvement over the last review when the 16th-Carrville stop seemed to not know when the next Northbound VIVA Blue bus would ever arrive.

Also, from the last review, the schedules for all the VIVA have been readded to the website. This is significant because passengers can now show up to the VIVA stop a couple of minutes before the bus is to arrive. This prevents passengers from getting to the stop just as the VIVA bus had just left. The schedules also assist passengers from planning their trips via VIVA and/or YRT routes a lot easier. It is easier to figure out if you can make the scheduled connection in time or not if an actual schedule is provided. Without a schedule posted, making connections between VIVA and other routes can be a frustrating experience. As a daily rider who connects between three VIVA routes I have extensive experience in this.

Back to the lack of scheduling causing missed buses for a minute. The realization that you have to wait ten to fifteen minutes because the VIVA bus just pulled away from your stop is aggravating! I've coined a phrase when the VIVA bus pulls out (either intentionally or unintennally) before you can get a chance to board. The word is: "VIVA'd". This term can be used like "You just got VIVA'd" or "That guy just got VIVA'd when the doors got shut in his face." There is quite a bit of other terminology that has developed with the advent of VIVA. But that is for another post entirely.

The Belgian made Vanhool buses have done pretty well since VIVA has started. The buses seem to handle the bad snowstorms pretty well. The only downfall is that the six foot buses (articulated) seem to get stuck at stops during snowstorms. This is especially noticeable in snowstorms where the bus has to make a stop at as stop located on a hill like the ones found at Major Mackenzie Drive and 19th-Gamble on the VIVA Blue line. But an experienced VIVA driver usually has no problem in getting the articulated bus unstuck from these predicaments. So far I haven't experienced or heard of any buses having to be towed because the bus couldn't get extract itself from snow. I'm more than willing to note that I was wrong to doubt that European made busses couldn't hack a Canadian winter in the last review.

The Bad

Little has changed at Richmond Hill Centre Terminal in terms of waste containers. While the rest of the sysytem has labelled what goes in which bin in terms of recycling products, this terminal only says "waste" and "recycling" on the bins. So the question, like the last review, is the same "recycle what exactly?" But at least these containers are emptied on a much more regular basis than before. The garbage containers at this stop used to be overflowing on a Monday morning. These containers were so bad on Mondays that if you added one more piece of garbage to them an avalanche of garbage would occur. However, it would be nice if these containers were clearly labelled as to what could be recycled and what is waste like at the other stops on the VIVA system.

Drivers requiring washroom breaks continue to be a problem. On Wednesday, August 22nd of 2007, I was transferring from the VIVA Purple to the VIVA Blue on my way home from work. The driver of the VIVA Purple bus exited his bus to use the driver only washroom at this terminal. I thought nothing of it until after the VIVA Blue bus pulled in five minutes later. I told the driver of the VIVA Blue bus that the driver of the Purple bus had left his bus five minutes earlier and still hadn't returned. Did something happen to him? Nevermind, after telling the VIVA Blue driver, the other driver quickly reappeared and pulled out. But the passengers on the VIVA Purple bus had to wait five minutes. The main question I still have from the last review is does VIVA give its drivers proper breaks to use washrooms? Apparently, from a practical view of the situation, VIVA does not. If VIVA did provide enough time for drivers to have breaks for washrooms, passengers would not be disrupted on a continually constant basis like on the VIVA Purple route at Richmond Hill Centre. This waiting for the driver to answer the call of nature needs to be fixed ASAP.

The off board fare machines continue to plague the system. These machines malfunction, but not as much as before. So there is some improvement since the last review. However, those new to the system are thoroughly confused when they approach the machine. They try putting their money into the machine without using the touch screen. Since the machine won't let them put their money in, some get frustrated. Usually a bus pulls up and one of two things happens. The person gets on the bus requesting assistance and the driver gets off and helps. This ensures the thirty to forty other people on the bus must wait for the driver to climb out and assist the confused passenger just trying to pay their fare. The other situation that occurs is the driver points towards the machine and says to pay over there. Then sometimes the passenger figures out the touch screen or the bus leaves before the passenger can figure out whats going on. Another option, which I have yet to see but can easily occur, is the passenger just leaves their fare next to the driver at the front of the bus and takes a seat for the ride. The problems with the fare machines usually happen on the weekends when people go out for the day. Also, weekends is usually when people like to experiment with taking transit in order to find out if York Region's transit system will work for them.

From the last review: "The VIVA stop shelters are a little to be desired. Sure they look futuristically cool, but the open concept will not help when the Canadian winter winds start whistling." Well apparently people will put up the shelters and shiver the entire winter. These shelters have not changed one iota in terms of providing shelter during storms. Thus, the shelters still need to re-looked at. The main problem, or as I call it "Exhibit A" is the stainless steel inclined benches in the shelters. These benchs are great to sit on waiting for a bus in February!

Another issue with the shelters is when there is either a rain or snow storm. The rain and snow easily comes in through the nooks and crannies where the glass fails to reach the ground or through the extra wide door opening. On top of this, the fare machines, during storms, seem to be the wettest thing in there! If your shelters don't truly shelter passengers during inclement weather and your fare machines are soaked, how does VIVA continue to attract and retain longtime passengers?

The Customer Service centre continues to be an issue. Customer Service agents all have the same script "VIVA service doesn't run on a schedule but a frequency of every ten to fifteen minutes." Well this is fine to tell the first time rider, but if I'm calling in asking why the clock at Bernard Avenue says the next bus is over twenty minutes away, how does this help? Or the excuse I get is the bus is late "due to traffic." I can understand the bus being delayed by traffice every once in a while, but if it happens every day then obviously the VIVA run times need to be adjusted to include some delays for rush hours so they reflect "actual run times." Added to the frustration is the fact that I wait five minutes just to talk to the dingo (I refuse to call them "Customer Service Agents") who just reads from his customer servicve script. If I wanted to hear someone reading from a script, I would have bought tickets to a Broadway musical or be teaching high school drama. Here's an idea: How about putting me on hold and finding the answer from either a supervisor or calling transit control. After all the buses are all GPSd so their exact location is known. If you give customers real reasons for the bus being late, then the customer can be a little more easily accepting.

The fares to ride continue to be raised despite poor service being provided. As yorkregion.com reported, YRT/VIVA passengers are now paying some of the highest fares in the Greater Toronto Area. On top of this, as I pointed out previously, YRT/VIVA decided to hold a "Customer Appreciation Day" on the same day as Regional Council voted in favour of the fare increase. It was a slap in the face to all YRT/VIVA customers that on one hand the transit agency was handing you a shrink wrapped muffin and then saying later that night "thanks for riding here's a fare increase!".

THE UGLY!

The 60 foot articulated Vanhool VIVA Buses purchased in 2005 (VIVA buses starting with a "5") are starting to cause issues. Apparently Violia has failed to maintain these buses considering I alone have been on: two buses that have had the "turbo chargers" go, one bus where the breaks seized up in the middle of Yonge Street, and two buses where the doors stopped working. Add the fact that a lot of the articulated buses breaks are starting to produce an ear piercing shreak, it makes you wonder what high tech Belgian made buses.

Back in December of 2007 I called and laid a complaint about the VIVA Orange never being on schedule from Downsview Station to York University on it's trip from 5:00 P.M. to 5:14 P.M. which causes me to miss the connection between the VIVA Orange and the VIVA Purple. The Transit Inspector, Colin Stevenson, was awesome. He drove the wrote in his car around 2 P.M. and noted that he couldn't even make it in the time given nevermind he was: a) using a little more agile car instead of forty foot VanHool bus; or b) not driving during rush hour. He also took note that it wasn't a driver issue either as I noted that I had at least five different drivers attempt it and had only made the connections twice. Colin promised to elevate it to his supervisor which he did considering I had heard from his supervisor once that he was looking into it. I have, since December 2007 to April 2008 called for updates only to hear nothing back. In early May I checked in again to be told by the VIVA Customer Service agent that the complaint had been maked "resolved". The complaint is still not resolved because: a) the schedule for VIVA Orange wasn't changed as posted on YRT Website was never changed and b) the VIVA Pink afternoon schedule, according to the YRT Website and Spring Edition of the My Transit was adjusted at the end of April proving VIVA is on a schedule despite what the YRT Customer Service Agents tell you on the phone in an attempt to obfusticate the issue. So even when a passenger tries to call YRT/VIVA to help to correct an issue, nothing happens.

Finally to end this review something hillarious. In May 2008 YRT/VIVA held a "bus rodeo" to have their drivers compete to see who is the best public transit driver in York Region. Newly Canadian built YRT buses were used to do the rodeo and the drivers were given five minutes to familarize themselves with their buses before starting the competiont. This was instead of a combination of Blue VanHool VIVA buses and YRT buses. This would put the VIVA drivers, who only drive Belgian made Van Hool buses since differences in turning radiuses, mirrors and other driving knowledge would put them at a disadvantage in comparison to YRT drivers who drive the buses everyday. Not so, according to yorkregion.com story and word from VIVA drivers is that the top three drivers of the rodeo were VIVA drivers! This makes one wonder, are the YRT drivers the best operators of these new buses if other bus drivers, who have little to no experience with these types of buses, win a competition? Talk about an embarassment, I hope the YRT drivers pull up their socks for next year.

There still is a lot of work that YRT needs to do in terms of maintainance on the still young buses, fare system and driver supervision. Please keep the above in mind as you ride the system and pay one the most expensive fares in the GTA for transit.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mixin it up at Mexi's

Tonight for dinner my girlfriend and I noticed, on our way to a shopping trip to Upper Canada Mall, that Mexicali Rosa's (340 Eagle Street West, Newmarket, Ontario) had finally opened.

Back in my time at the University of Ottawa, I enjoyed visiting the Mexicali Rosa's location on Rideau Street (long since closed) for nachos and drinks with friends.

My girlfriend and I arrived and was seated fairly quickly. The server brought complimentary nachos and salsa and then took our drink order. A few minutes passed of eating the nachos and salsa to allow us to peruse the menu then place an order. The food came within fifteen minutes of ordering it. So service was pretty good, but nothing "WOWSER!"

The Super Nachos were just as I remembered them from my days in Ottawa. My girlfriend had the Sautead Veggie Burrito was so well cooked it stuck to the plate! My girlfriend remarked she wouldn't have it again.

Overall the food was decent, except for the Sauteed Veggie Burrito. The service was exceptional considering even the restaurant manager was scene visiting the floor to see if the customers were satisfied. The manager even made sure a young three or four year old girl french fries because that was what she was she wanted.

We will definately be returning to this location, however, we will not be ordering the Sauteed Veggie Burrito thanks.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Day enjoying Nature

Today my girlfriend and I spent the day wandering around Aurora enjoying the spring beauty found at Sheppard's Bush and Merlin's Hollow Gardens.

Here is a sampling of what we saw:

A Trillium in Sheppard's Bush.


A lone Trillium growing in Sheppard's Bush.


Sheppard's Bush in Bloom.


Trilliums thriving at Sheppard's Bush


Trees of Sheppard's Bush


The Sugar Shacks of Sheppard's Bush


Shovel sculpture at Merlin's Hollow


A flowering tree at Merlin's Hollow

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