Back in 2000 the York region in Ontario knew it was time to look at its key corridors and implement a rapid transit system. It knew it had to be done, but how should it be done? It was decided to introduce rapid transit with a three-phased approach. The first phase of Viva, the rapid transit system, opened in 2005 and involved constructing shelters on the curbed side lanes and operating a BRT system in mixed traffic.
"That was something that could be done very quickly and it could be done without modifying any existing environmental assessments," explains Dale Albers, chief communications officer, York Region Transit.
Phase one included adding a mixed traffic BRT system to the main north-south and east-west corridors. Phase two was we will take the vehicles out of mixed traffic and put them into a dedicated lane, an exclusive upgrade busway, Albers explains. Eventually, phase three will convert those exclusive rapid ways into light rail. There is no set timeline for phase three and it will be dictated by ridership demand.
"We're taking a very large region that is in a process of quickly urbanizing; our challenge is to change the social behavior of that region from being a largely car driven society to a transit friendly community. Again, bringing it forward in phases, introducing them to rapid transit and other rapid transit elements and basically winning their loyalty and emotional connection to the system was a large part of our strategy," explains Mary-Frances Turner, president of York Region Transit.
Currently YRT is in the process of transition for the curb side service to the dedicated rapid ways thanks to $1.4 billion in funding from the Ontario government, according to Albers.
Viva stations are being designed to light rail standards to help ease the transition, as well as lower the cost, of the eventual transition to a light rail rapid transit system.
The Viva system covers approximately 80 km, with 67 km of the system being in its own segregated rapid ways. "The rest will be operating in mixed traffic due to whatever physical restraints primarily or really low ridership in that quadrant without traffic demands that warrant it," Turner explains.
While the Viva buses are operating in mixed traffic currently, they do have signal priority. Stations have been placed on the far side of the intersection so the buses go through the lights first and then they stop to pick up passengers or drop off passengers, explains Albers. The curb side stations feature automated scheduling and real time traveler information, showing when the next three buses are coming.
"Also along the bottom is a variable message [we can send] to that particular station if we need to, such as bus delayed due to car accident, or it could be a marketing initiative," Albers says.
Viva was launched with Van Hool's rapid transit vehicles. However, YRT has also just placed a new order for Nova buses, having received four of them thus far. Both vehicle types run on biodiesel fuel.
Viva uses off board fare collection, allowing passengers to board on any door without needing to engage in dialogue with the operator.
"You buy your fare at the station on the curb side. If you already have a ticket and just need to validate it you do that as well off board at the station at the curb and you can just jump on and jump off," describes Albers. "The tickets are good for two hours, so if you need to just pick up flowers, run a quick errand or get a haircut, you don't need to pay a second fare and then it's also transferrable to the local service, the conventional service. You take that same ticket and board on a YRT bus and it will take you into the residential areas."
The rapid ways will make trips up to 40 percent faster, Albers says.
"Gridlock has been and continues to be our No. 1 issue here in the region. So the community need for alternative ways to get around the community has been a constant factor and continues to be a constant factor with respect for needing this service," Turner says. "The challenge has really been about meeting that demand and in a timely way with the funding we need to do it. It's never going to be enough soon enough."
Turner says Viva has exceeded expectations in overall ridership growth. Ridership has continuously and steadily grown across the system since Viva's launch. January 2011 saw a 10.8% increase over January 2010 with 803,903 total boardings.