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York Region's VIVA Network

Text by James Koole
Revised by James Bow
photos by Josh Anderchek, unless otherwise noted.

Public Transit on Yonge Street

See Also

York Embraces Rapid Transit

At the beginning of the 21st century, plagued by gridlocked arterial roads that are plugged with congestion much of the day, York Region set out an ambitious plan to increase transit usage and reduce commuter dependence on the car. The solution, planners said, was in improving transit, not only making it a viable alternative to driving but making it a desired mode of transportation. With this in mind, York Region planners devised a bus-based rapid transit network that they christened VIVA.

VIVA was a three-pronged approach to improve the profile of public transportation in the York Region, focusing on the network, the vehicle, and marketing. VIVA offered a comprehensive network of express buses crisscrossing York Region, which would eventually operate on their own private right-of-way and be backed by a computerized monitoring system that provided real-time information to passengers about where their buses were and when they’d arrive at their stop. The buses themselves would be of higher quality than the standard fare, offering more comfortable seats, climate control, and new features such as wi-fi to attract riders. Finally, this network would be launched with an aggressive marketing campaign, of which the VIVA brand featured heavily. Each line was colour coded and presented to the public as a rapid transit line akin to a subway or an LRT, even though initially buses would operate in mixed traffic.

To launch service with a high-quality transit vehicle, York Region Transit bypassed North American builders and headed for Europe. They purchased 85 buses from Belgian bus maker Van Hool. The sleek buses, or rapid transit vehicles (RTV’s) as they were referred to, had comfortable interiors that were more commonly seen on GO Transit commuter buses. There were proposals for tables and facing seats that could make it possible for passengers to carry on a conversation or even hold a business meeting on board. To emphasize how different these buses were from regular York Region Transit buses, some marketing campaigns referred to the Van Hools as “un-buses”

A Private-Public Partnership is Launched

Planning for the VIVA service began in earnest in June 2002, when the Region of York entered into a Private-Public Partnership (P3) agreement with a group of companies known as the York Consortium 2002. It was these seven companies who would design, build and operate a state of the art bus rapid transit system in York Region, and develop a long-term plan to bring a full-scale rapid transit network to York beginning in 2005. The stage had been set, and now it was up to the consortium to deliver.

The Transportation Master Plan (TMP) laid out the framework of road improvements and new highways and bypasses, with rapid transit in the form of VIVA providing the backbone to a fully integrated regional transit system. The plan focused on creating a rapid transit network made up of buses, light-rail and GO Trains, with supporting transit gateways, and interconnected feeder routes. Getting commuters to a core rapid-transit network was the ultimate goal, but they needed that network first. With a budget of between $5.6 billion and $7.3 billion over three decades, the plan laid out substantive ways to improve transportation in York Region.

A five-year action plan was created to quickly address some of the most pressing needs, and to alleviate pressure on the most congested routes. The initial areas that were to be targeted included:

  1. Yonge Street from Highway 7 south to the Finch subway station
  2. Jane Street from Highway 7 south to York University and the Downsview subway station
  3. Warden Avenue from Highway 7 south to the Sheppard subway line
  4. Highway 7 from Highway 27 east to Jane Street, and from Yonge Street to Kennedy Road

It was clear that the initial aims were to address the needs of commuters who were heading south to the City of Toronto, providing them with an alternative to driving through quicker, convenient connections to the Toronto subway system.

Armed with $50 million from the Government of Canada through the Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund (CSIF), a further $50 million from the Province of Ontario via a program to fund transit expansion, and $80 from York Region, the consortium has started working towards building a fully integrated, regional rapid transit network.

The System Launches

On September 4, 2005, the first stage of VIVA began carrying passengers. The first route was to be the backbone of the system: a north-south line running along Yonge Street from the regional terminal at Finch station (at the end of the TTC’s Yonge subway line) north to Bernard Street at the north of Richmond Hill. This route was called VIVA Blue. VIVA Purple provided the east-west spine, running from York University via Keele, Highway 7, Centre Street, Bathurst Street and Highway 7 to Town Centre Boulevard in Markham.

The two routes met at a new transfer facility at Highway 7 and Yonge Street called Richmond Hill Centre. This facility offered waiting rooms and connections with other YRT bus routes and GO Transit services as well as space for parking. Though the facility was right next to Langstaff GO Station, no connection was provided, initially, and a fence prevented people from crossing the tracks to the train platform.

On October 16, 2005, two new routes were added. In the east, VIVA Green connected Unionville residents to Don Mills station on the Sheppard subway line via Don Mills, Finch (stopping at Seneca College), Gordon Baker Road, Passmore, Pharmacy, Denison, Warden, Enterprise, Kennedy and Highway 7 to McCowan Road. In addition to this, VIVA Purple was extended east on Highway 7 to McCowan Road. In the west, Vaughan residents saw the launch of VIVA Orange, running from Martin Grove and Highway 7 to Downsview subway station via York University.

In November 2005, VIVA Blue was extended north to Newmarket (an additional fare was required to travel beyond Bernard Terminal). The service would replace the local GO bus service on Yonge Street that had grown from the old 59 NORTH YONGE TTC route and, before that, the North Yonge Railways. Peak service was also added to VIVA Purple, extending service west from York University along the route of VIVA Orange to Martin Grove.

Finally, on January 1, 2006, VIVA Pink launched, operating during rush hours only from Finch Station, following VIVA Blue via Yonge to the Richmond Hill Centre terminal, and then following VIVA Purple via Highway 7, Warden and Enterprise to terminate at Unionville GO station.

All services operated at intervals of fifteen minutes or better at all times of the day (save for VIVA Pink which operated only during rush hours). The combined services along certain routes allowed rush hour headways to drop as low as every four minutes.

VIVA Service in Toronto

From the start, VIVA’s network operated short sections into Toronto, linking to the outlying subway stations at Downsview, Finch and Don Mills. Additional stops are provided at Keele-Finch (which was later replaced by Dufferin-Finch and Murray Ross) on VIVA Orange and Seneca College and McNicoll on VIVA Green. These stops are not operated in competition with the TTC; they can only be boarded if riders intend to travel on into York Region, and are primarily used for York Region passengers to disembark. Free transfers were also not provided between VIVA and the TTC at Downsview, Finch or Don Mills stations. In the case of Finch, VIVA Blue and VIVA Pink buses operated out of the Finch regional terminal located immediately north of the TTC Finch Station bus terminal, outside the TTC’s fare paid zone. At Downsview and Don Mills, VIVA Orange and VIVA Green passengers boarded buses within the TTC bus terminals, but paid York Region Transit fares before getting on. These buses required passengers to disembark outside of the TTC fare areas at these stations.

Fancy Features

Although VIVA launched with buses operating in mixed traffic, it still launched with some features that were groundbreaking for transit systems in the Greater Toronto Area. VIVA buses were among the first to use GPS tracking and scheduling to inform riders in real-time when their bus would arrive at their stop. This information was displayed on signs at specially constructed VIVA stops, which also served as a shelter and a place to purchase VIVA tickets. The network operated on a Proof-of-Payment system, allowing passengers to board buses at both the front and rear doors, without stopping to pay the driver, improving loading times.

Passengers were also impressed by the quality of the buses’ interior. Both standard 40-foot length buses and articulated 60-foot length buses were purchased from Van Hool. The high-backed chairs offered a superior level of comfort, and the worktables offered a place for passengers to do some work during a long ride. The tables themselves weren’t as successful and were eventually removed. Plans for on-board wireless Internet never panned out.

Upgrading to True Rapid Transit

But the launch of VIVA service in late 2005 was just the beginning. York Region planners unveiled phase two, which was called “VIVANext”. This plan sought to improve the speed and reliability of the VIVA network by separating VIVA’s buses from competing car traffic through the use of dedicated bus lanes called “Rapidways”. More than just painted lines on asphalt, rapidways on Highway 7, or Yonge Street through Richmond Hill, Aurora and Newmarket, would operate in the centre of streets, with curbs to keep cars and trucks out. LRT-style stations with 27-metre-long sheltered platforms in the middle of the road would leave no doubt as to the bus network’s prominence. Each station was to include a 9-metre long enclosed, heating waiting area, be wheelchair accessible, and offer automatic ticket machines and displays highlighting when the next buses were to arrive. The platforms themselves were to be level with the floor of the arriving buses, enhancing accessibility.

In November 2008, Metrolinx approved a $7 billion, five-year capital plan that included $1 billion for the construction of several of VIVA’s rapidways. A new terminal was to be built in the new Cornell development in Markham (for $5.6 million), although this was delayed due to residents’ concerns. In December 2009, work began on a test rapidway along Enterprise Road in Markham, between Warden and Birchmount. The bus-only roadway opened to buses on March 6, 2011, and included a single station at Warden Avenue. This station was to be a showcase, and a prototype for York Region to test the design. Learning from Warden station, VIVA made design changes to stations planned on the other rapidways.

VIVA’s Rapidway plan was made in conjunction with the planned extension of the Spadina subway to Vaughan Centre. It called for rapidways to be built along the region’s busiest corridors: Highway 7, Yonge Street north of Highway 7, and Davis Drive in Newmarket. These would reduce travel times by up to 40% and connect regional growth centres. Yonge Street south of Highway 7 was not granted a rapidway, as York Region and Metrolinx approved a plan to extend the Yonge subway north from Finch Station to Richmond Hill Centre, although as the years went on, the initially mooted opening date of 2021 looked increasingly ambitious.

In December 2010, work began to relocate utilities and add extra lanes along Highway 7 for a new rapidway to be built in the middle of the street. Construction on the Highway 7 Rapidway began in earnest in the Spring of 2011. The stretch between Bayview Avenue and Highway 404 opened for buses on August 18, 2013, four months ahead of schedule. The section linking Highway 404 to Warden station was completed in December 2014. The remainder of the Highway 7 East Rapidway from Enterprise to Kennedy was expected to start construction in 2016 and see buses by 2020, but this part of the project was delayed because it is dependent on work going on for the new Downtown Markham.

On December 19, 2020, buses started rolling on a 6.5 kilometre stretch of rapidway along Yonge Street, from Highway 7 to 19th Avenue, with a short break between Major Mackenzie and Crosby for the “Heritage Area” of Richmond Hill.

Some Retrenchments

While VIVA service was popular with riders on Yonge Street and Highway 7 through Markham, parts of the network did not receive the ridership expected, and service had to be cut back. In September 2007, VIVA Green service was cut back to rush hours only due to low ridership. In 2013, the annual YRT/VIVA service plan called for VIVA Orange service between York University and Downsview station to end outside of rush hours due to low ridership. This was followed by the elimination of evening and weekend service on Highway 7 between Pine Valley and Martin Grove.

Changes in Toronto and Brampton also forced VIVA to amend parts of its network. In September 2007, the VIVA Purple rush hour extension to Martin Grove was cut back to York University. There weren’t enough riders riding through York University to Richmond Hill to justify the service. VIVA also found it a challenge to operate such a long route through the congested Highway 7 corridor. At the same time, the City of Brampton had launched its Zum bus rapid transit service, operating into York University along Highway 7 and following the VIVA Orange route to York University. This service was interlined with VIVA Orange, with transfers between Zum and York Region Transit connections allowed, effectively doubling frequencies west of York University.

In May 2011, VIVA Orange service between York University and Downsview subway station was rerouted off its old route of Keele, St. Regis and Sheppard to a new bus-only roadway built by the City of Toronto for TTC buses between York University and Dufferin along the Hydro right-of-way corridor north of Finch Avenue. The change in VIVA Orange service could have begun months earlier, but VIVA buses could not use this roadway until insurance issues were worked out. This route change eliminated the Keele-Finch VIVAstation and added two more: Murray Ross and Dufferin-Finch.

Service has also grown elsewhere. In January 2008, VIVA Purple was extended east to Markham-Stouffville hospital, ahead of the still-planned extension to Cornell. On June 28, 2010, service began on VIVA Blue A, a special rush-hour route operating from Newmarket to Finch bypassing the Richmond Hill Centre Terminal and saving riders travel time. Passengers had been lobbying for this route since GO Transit cancelled Yonge Street express service between Newmarket and Finch subway station. The service proved popular, and more runs were added on September 5, 2010.

Rapidway Expansion and Service Realignment

In 2010, work began on a three-kilometre rapidway along Davis Drive in Newmarket from Yonge Street to Huron Heights Drive. Construction included archeological assessment, relocation of utilities, preparing twenty-one buildings for removal, and rebuilding the Keith Bridge. The Newmarket Rapidway opened in November 2015, adding a new colour to the mix: VIVA Yellow, operating from the Newmarket terminal from Yonge Street to South Lake Hospital via the Davis Drive Rapidway, and then in mixed traffic to Highway 404.

In 2011, work also launched on the Highway 7 West Rapidway, with the first segment from Vaughan Centre to Highway 400 expected to open in 2016. This was initially to be done in conjunction with the opening of the Spadina subway from York University to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, but delays to that project pushed the opening date back to December 17, 2017. The full rapidway from Woodbridge, east of Islington Avenue, to Richmond Hill Centre, opened for use in November 2019.

The Vaughan subway extension replaced VIVA Orange service from Vaughan Centre to York University and Downsview. Concurrent with this, VIVA Purple service was to be cut back to Richmond Hill Centre, with VIVA Orange extended east along Highway 7 and Centre Street, past Promenade Mall, before branching, with one branch operating via Bathurst and Highway 7 to Richmond Hill Centre, and another via Clark and Yonge to Finch subway station. When the extension opened, however, VIVA Orange was extended to Richmond Hill Centre, but VIVA Purple continued to serve York University by operating west on Highway 7 from Yonge, via south on Bathurst, west on Centre, west on Highway 7, south on Keele and through York University to terminate at the York Region bus terminal at Pioneer Village station. This arrangement continued until September 2, 2018, when all VIVA Purple service was terminated at Richmond Hill Service.

In December 2017, VIVA Purple also was split in Markham, with new stops added on Highway 7 between Town Centre Boulevard and Kennedy, and buses alternating between the old Enterprise and new Highway 7 routing outside of rush hour. During rush hours, all VIVA Purple buses used the direct Highway 7 route, while VIVA Pink operated via Enterprise.

Future Plans for the VIVA Network

The 2015 annual service plan for York Region Transit and VIVA provided an opportunity to assess the state of the VIVA network and contemplate changes ahead of continuing rapidway construction and subway expansion. York Region planners proposed several changes to the network that would take effect between 2015 and 2020. In addition to the previously mentioned VIVA Yellow route, the report called for VIVA Green to be realigned to operate in mixed traffic from Don Mills station via Don Mills and Leslie Street to Major Mackenzie, and then west on Major Mackenzie, past Richmond Hill GO Station and Yonge Street to Harding. This service would operate all day.

A new VIVA Silver line would also launch, operating from Vaughan Metropolitan Centre subway station via north on Jane and east on Major Mackenzie, past Yonge, to terminate at Richmond Hill GO Station. As of 2020, however, these service changes have not been brought about, but are still planned for possibly 2022, with a further extension along Major Mackenzie east to Markham Road and Mount Joy GO Station. Plans also called for the extension of VIVA Purple east to Cornell, where a terminal was planned as far back as 2006, but scrubbed due to complaints from residents. Plans for a revised terminal are still underway.

Additional rapidway construction is planned for Yonge Street from Richmond Hill Centre to 19th Street north of Richmond Hill, with construction taking place between 2014 and 2017. Following that, work to connect the Highway 7 East and Highway 7 West rapidways and extend the Highway 7 West rapidway to Islington Avenue will proceed from 2015 to 2018. VIVA Purple is proposed to branch in Markham, with half of the buses following the original route and rapidway via Enterprise, while the other half continues along a new rapidway on Highway 7 from Warden east, rejoining the old route at Kennedy. Plans also call for the construction of two “structured parking garages” in 2017, so more passengers can leave their cars at VIVA stations and take buses the rest of the way to their destination.

Eventually, except for Yonge Street south of Richmond Hill Centre, which York Region still hopes will see an extension of the Yonge subway someday, the rest of the VIVA network is planned to receive rapid ways. However, as of the time of this writing (December 2020), no firm dates have been set for construction.

VIVA’s Current Fleet

With the expansion of VIVA service, new buses joined the fleet in 2010. These were produced by Nova Bus from its factory in Quebec rather than the European bus maker, Van Hool.

  • 5101, 5103-5108, 5110-5111, 5113, 5115-5116, 5118, 5120, 5122-5135, 5137-5138, 5140, 5142, 5144-5145, 5147-5149, 5152-5153, 5155, 5157 - Made by Van Hool (2005-6), 40’ fixed buses, Seats 36
  • 5224-5225 - Made by Van Hool (2005-6), 40’ fixed buses, Seats 36
  • 7201-7205 - Made by Van Hool (2007), 60’ articulated buses, Seats 54
  • 8201-8211 - Made by Van Hool (2008), 60’ articulated buses, Seats 54
  • 1080-1094 - Made by Nova Bus (2011), 60’ articulated buses, Seats 55
  • 1370-1396 - Made by Nova Bus (2013), 60’ articulated buses, Seats 56
  • 1770-1774 - Made by Nova Bus (2017), 60’ articulated buses, Seats 56
  • 1971-1980 - Made by Nova Bus (2019), 60’ articulated buses, Seats 56

VIVA’s Retired Fleet

  • 5102, 5109, 5112, 5114, 5117, 5119, 5121, 5136, 5139, 5141, 5143, 5146, 5149-5151, 5154, 5156, 5158-5160 - Made by Van Hool (2005-6), 40’ fixed buses, refurbished and transferred to YRT.
  • 5201-5223 - Made by Van Hool (2005-6), 60’ articulated buses, refurbished and transferred to YRT.

The Future

The investments York Region has made to VIVA has already paid off. In 2013, VIVA buses carried 34,137 passengers per average weekday (19,597 Blue, 8,501 Purple, 3,044 Orange, 2,251 Pink, 744 Green)

Since its inauguration in 2005, VIVA has grown from a network of express buses to the beginnings of a bus rapid transit system. The opening of the first rapidway along Highway 7 provides York Region with a visible public transit service that competes well against the private automobile. Once linked with subway extensions stretching into York Region, VIVA will prove a useful network that both feeds the subway trunks, and gets people around York Region quickly, significantly lessening the area’s dependence on the automobile.

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