How New Technology is Redefining Buses
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How New Technology is Redefining Buses

Mexico City and York Region have more in common than you might think.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Bus-only lanes and heated stations in York Region. Photo courtesy of vivaNext.

Bus-only lanes and heated stations in York Region. Photo courtesy of vivaNext.

Imagine speeding down the centre of a busy street in a bus that’s moving faster than the surrounding lanes of cars. Imagine boarding instantly thanks to an integrated fare system, and a raised platform that enables everyone to get on the bus at grade rather than manoeuvring strollers, shopping carts, and mobility devices up and down steps.

Welcome to Mexico City’s Metrobús.

Like other bus rapid transit systems throughout Latin America and around the world, Metrobús is defined by bus-only lanes that allow public transit to cut through traffic and high-tech stations that invite passengers to pay their fare before boarding, then enter the bus at the same level as the platform without having to navigate the gap between the sidewalk and vehicle.

Mexico City’s first bus rapid transit line opened in 2005 along Avenida de los Insurgentes, previously one of the most congested thoroughfares in the city. Thirty kilometres of segregated bus lanes were constructed to launch the system and 97 articulated vehicles replaced more than 350 public and private buses that used to crowd the street.

The results were immediate and impressive: travel time dropped by 50 per cent for public transit riders while congestion decreased in the surrounding streets as locals chose to commute by Metrobús instead of driving.

In addition to improving the daily journeys of more than 250,000 people, Mexico City’s first foray into bus rapid transit also contributes to a reduction of 35,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

All of the stations on the first five lines of Mexico City’s Metrobús are fully accessible. Map courtesy of Metrobús.

All of the stations on the first five lines of Mexico City’s Metrobús are fully accessible. Map courtesy of Metrobús.

Metrobús has expanded over the past decade and, today, consists of six lines connecting 208 stations along 125 kilometres of segregated bus lanes. The success of bus rapid transit is striking but not confined to Mexico City. Closer to home, a similar system is off to a strong start north of Steeles.

York Region is home to a local bus rapid transit solution, branded Viva rapidways. The project has been in the works for more than a decade and has secured funding from all levels of government. Ground broke in 2009 and the first station opened in 2011. Eventually, the system will encompass four lines and 34.5 kilometres of bus-only lanes.

To date, two of the four lines are complete. The Highway 7 East rapidway includes 12 stations that connect Bayview and Warden Avenues. The Davis Drive rapidway runs 2.6 kilometres from Yonge Street east to Southlake Regional Health Centre and beyond.

Experiences from York Region show that there is a strong business case for this form of transit technology in emerging urban areas.

“BRT delivers many of the benefits of LRT but gives you more flexibility,” says Mary-Frances Turner, president of York Region Rapid Transit Corporation.

The rapidways are also contributing to a shift in commuting habits. According to Turner, rapidways “drove ridership up by introducing a community to higher order transit.”

A big part of the success of York Region’s approach is that it challenges many assumptions about what it means to take the bus.

First and foremost, Turner emphasizes that “we didn’t buy buses, we bought rapid transit vehicles.” The vehicles are specially designed to offer a smooth ride and boarding experience.

Each stop boasts an iconic canopy, heated area, pre-boarding technology, and real-time travel updates.

“These are not stations in the ordinary sense of the word,” Turner says.

The impact of bus rapid transit in York Region is already apparent. Travel time has decreased by 30 per cent along the Highway 7 East rapidway while ridership is up 10 per cent.

But for Turner, rapid transit is about much more than getting people from A to B.

“There’s a direct relationship between infrastructure investment well done and the density that is emerging along the [rapid transit] corridors,” she says.

The growth of bus rapid transit in Mexico City and York Region shows that urban mobility isn’t just about subways or streetcars or even bike lanes. Transportation systems must integrate different solutions that respond to a variety of environments and meet local needs while anticipating future trends.

Reflecting on the evolution of bus rapid transit in York Region, Turner says: “It’s not just a transit story, it’s a transformation story.”