In 2005, York Region (a suburb of Toronto) launched VIVA, a rapid transit system serving passengers throughout the York Region. Unlike other Canadian cities that have chosen to build rapid transit lines as rail systems, York Region decided to deploy VIVA throughout its region as a bus rapid transit or BRT service.

VIVA bus and rapidway station (“Vivastation”)

Although it is a bus-based system, VIVA does take the “rapid transit” aspect of this system very seriously. Most routes run on “rapidways”: dedicated transit lanes in the centre of the street on their own rights-of-way. Passengers board buses using all doors, by way of highly equipped and decorated “Vivastations”. All stations feature a covered waiting canopy, real time next-bus displays, and other high-end BRT features. All buses can be tracked online by real-time GPS, and fare payment is collected at the station before you board.

Viva’s system map as of Sept. 2017, showing all routes in operation. Click/tap to open full-size map

Choosing buses rather than trains for this system allowed York Region to deploy a rapid transit service far more quickly across a wider service area. The system is served by a fleet of over 123 dedicated rapid buses and currently has 6 lines, an extent that is necessary to fight off sprawl and congestion in Toronto’s growing outer cities.

To maintain such an extensive and growing system, York Region Transit has found a need to build new depots to store and maintain the many rapid buses dedicated to VIVA. One such facility was opened just two years ago in Richmond Hill, Ontario. The Richmond Hill bus depot is a 528,000 sq ft facility with 20 bus lanes designed to accommodate up to 250 articulated buses.

By comparison, our Burnaby Transit Centre, which supplies the articulated bus fleet for the busy 99 B-Line and other routes, accommodates just 218 standard and articulated buses.

On its own, Richmond Hill depot is an impressively huge facility. But, what really excites me about this facility is this line on the architect’s web site that caught my attention:

The facility is designed to serve a fleet large enough to service the growing needs of the Region to year 2031. It will accommodate 40ft long buses in the current Region’s fleet as well as 80ft long double articulated buses in the future.

Bi-articulated bus in Groningen, The Netherlands. Photo: Jan Oosterhuis

Double articulated buses, or bi-articulated buses, are exactly what you think they are: longer “bendy buses” with not one, but two articulations. Bi-articulated buses typically extend to a length of 80 feet (or 24 metres) – 33% longer than standard 60 foot articulated buses – and carry more people. At these lengths, bi-articulated buses can resemble light rail trams, but with rubber tires.

Bi-articulated buses have seen a lot of use in several cities in Europe, South America and recently in China. However, up until now I was not aware of any transit system in North America – let alone Canada – that is actually equipped to handle bi-articulated buses. With this confirmation, York Region Transit and Viva could become Canada’s first transit system to operate the extra-long bi-articulated buses.

Van Hool could supply York Region’s bi-articulated buses

A substantial portion of Viva’s bus fleet is built by Van Hool, a Belgium-based bus company with a North American branch. Currently, VIVA operates 101 standard and articulated Van Hool buses.

Van Hool has offered the ExquiCity line of buses, which includes a 24-metre bi-articulated bus option, for several years. The ExquiCity is offered with a variety of clean propulsion technologies, including CNG, hybrid diesel-electric, and – more recently – battery electric. The bi-articulated model is now being used in several cities in Europe including Metz, Barcelona, Parma, Luxembourg, Malmö, Martinique and Bergen.

With Van Hool buses being so commonplace throughout Viva’s fleet, it’s no surprise that Viva’s facilities were built with the possibility of accommodating bi-articulated buses.

Above: A Van-hool Exquicity 24 bus in Metz, France. These could be the same buses that one day run on York’s Viva rapid transit lines.

An important precedent for Vancouver and other cities

Five years ago, in the face of ever-increasing ridership on the 99 B-Line (North America’s busiest bus route), the City of Vancouver sought to introduce bi-articulated buses for the route spanning our Broadway corridor.

See: Council pushes for longer Broadway buses – BIV

However, an “outdated transportation rule” set by the province specifies that the maximum length of any transit bus is 20 metres. Most bi-articulated buses are 24 metres long, and some models are longer.

Although the province has said the City of Vancouver can override the province’s regulation with its own city regulations, any regulation that permits the use of 24 metre long bi-articulated buses will most likely have to apply region-wide in order for TransLink and Coast Mountain Bus Company to employ the vehicles.

In addition, it is no longer likely that bi-articulated buses will ever become a reality on the Broadway Corridor. Progress is now being made on the SkyTrain Millennium Line’s Broadway Extension to Arbutus, which will replace a segment of the 99 B-Line and eventually also the entire route extending to UBC.

However, these buses could eventually have a place on other busy rapid bus corridors in our region. And, if York Region decides to implement them, it could set an incredible precedent for having them here.

Concept rendering of a bi-articulated bus in TransLink bus livery. Original by: UpLift Vancouver on CPTDB

TransLink plans to introduce 4 new B-Line routes in the year 2019, and further B-Line bus routes are proposed as part of the Regional Mayor Council’s 10 Year Vision. These B-Line routes have the potential to become very busy, especially with the expansion of other local and frequent bus routes as well as the region’s rail rapid transit network. Bi-articulated buses could become an inexpensive way to increase capacity on our B-Line routes, instead of turning to more expensive rail infrastructure.

I have also long suggested that TransLink and Surrey abandon plans for the Surrey-Newton-Guildford Light Rail Line in favour of a Bus Rapid Transit service along the same corridor.

A Bus Rapid Transit line on King George Boulevard and 104th Avenue could employ these bi-articulated buses as a means of providing passenger capacity that can approach that of a Light Rail system.

With the ultimate design capacity of the Surrey-Newton-Guildford Line recently revealed to be just 4,080 people per hour per direction (pphpd), a well-designed bus rapid transit system using bi-articulated buses could easily match or even exceed the capacity of the Light Rail system proposed on the King George Blvd. and 104 Ave. corridors, at a far lower cost.

Concept rendering of a 24m bi-articulated bus at a BRT station on King George Blvd. From: SkyTrain for Surrey

York Region’s use of bi-articulated buses could also set precedents in other cities across Canada.

Winnipeg, London, Hamilton, Brampton, and Durham Region are among numerous cities that have chosen Bus Rapid transit systems over rail. These cities could eventually use bi-articulated buses to boost capacity on busy routes, without requiring new investments in rail infrastructure.

This would also maximize any existing infrastructure that’s been built for buses, such as transitway corridors, which could be disrupted and closed to passengers if there is a push for conversion to rail.

London, Ontario endorsed Bus Rapid Transit over an LRT system last year in a 10-5 vote. Bi-articulated buses would enable additional capacity expansion for this BRT system in the future.

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

York Region’s Viva could be Canada’s first transit system with bi-articulated buses