Text by James Koole
Revised by James Bow
photos by Josh Anderchek, unless otherwise noted.
Public Transit on Yonge Street
- 1796 - Yonge Street opens between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe
- 1800 - 1880s - Stagecoach operations along Yonge Street
- 1849 - Burt Williams' horse-drawn omnibus service begins between St. Lawrence Hall and Yorkville Town Hall.
- 1861 - Yonge streetcar service within Toronto city limits (and Town of Yorkville) begins
- 1862 - Burt Williams' sells/shuts down omnibus service
- 1885 - The Metropolitan Railway (later Toronto & York) begins service on Yonge north of Toronto's City Limits, eventually reaching Lake Simcoe
- 1930 - North Yonge Railways replaces Lake Simcoe line, operates between Toronto's city limits and Richmond Hill
- 1948 - North Yonge Railways "temporarily" switches to bus operation due to power shortages.
- 1949 - North Yonge's "temporary" switch to buses becomes permanent.
- 1954 - Yonge Subway Opens between Eglinton and Union
- 1954 - DOWNTOWN bus, YONGE NIGHT bus and YONGE trolley bus start operations
- 1973 - Yonge subway extends to York Mills
- 1974 - Yonge subway extends to Finch
- 1977 - GO Transit takes over 59 NORTH YONGE bus
- 1989 - 27 DOWNTOWN and 97 YONGE merged into single route.
- 2003 - York Region Transit takes over GO Transit's Yonge 'C' Bus operations
- 2005 - York Region Transit establishes VIVA Bus Rapid Transit Service Between Finch Station and Newmarket
- 2012 - Bus rapid transit construction begins on Yonge in York Region
- 2021 - Possible opening of Yonge subway extension to Langstaff?
The map above shows the routes and system frequencies expected as of January 1, 2006. Additional extensions are planned to Cornell, followed eventually by dedicated lanes and possible LRT conversion.
Plagued by gridlocked arterial roads that are plugged with congestion much of the day, York Region set out on an ambitious plan to increase transit usage and reduce commuter dependence on the car. The solution, planners said, was in improving transit by making it desirable while giving car commuters a viable alternative to driving. They called their new system Viva, and embarked on a campaign to change the way people in York Region think about transit.
Starting with the transit vehicle, they 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 Viva refers to them, have comfortable interiors that will look familiar to GO Transit commuters. Tables and facing seats make it possible to carry on a conversation or even hold a business meeting on board.
The un-bus, as some called them, was designed to remove some of the stigma of public transit. With air-conditioning, high-back seats, and plush fabrics — these were not your average city buses. Combine that with real-time tracking by satellite, and stops that not only shelter you from rain and wind, but also tell you when the next bus will arrive and, York Region argued, you had the future of public transit.
The Early Days of VIVA
In June 2002, the Region of York entered into a Private-Public Partnership (P3) agreement with a group 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:
- Yonge Street from Highway 7 south to the Finch subway station
- Jane Street from Highway 7 south to York University and the Downsview subway station
- Warden Avenue from Highway 7 south to the Sheppard subway line
- 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 thought 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. VIVA Green connected Unionville residents to Don Mills station on the Sheppard subway line via In addition to this, VIVA Purple was extended east to McCowan Road.
A month later, on October 16, 2005, two routes were added. Viva Purple was stretched east to McCowan and two new lines came on stream at the same time offering those in Vaughan and Unionville Viva service. Vaughan residents saw the addition of Viva service from Martin Grove and Hwy 7 to Downsview subway station via York University. Unionville commuters gained new service to Don Mills subway station on the TTC’s Sheppard line. Buses operated via Don Mills, Finch (stopping at Seneca College), Gordon Baker, Pharmacy, Denison, Warden, and from there following the VIVA Purple route into Markham. At the west end, VIVA Orange extended from Highway 7 and Martin Grove in Vaughan via east on Highway 7, south on Jane and into York University. The service continued south on Keele and Sheppard to link with the TTC at Downsview station.
In addition to the above changes, VIVA Purple was extended east to McCowan Road. In November 2005, VIVA Blue was extended north to Newmarket (an additional fare was required to travel beyond Bernard Terminal. 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 via Yonge, Richmond Hill Centre and Highway 7 to Unionville GO station.
Viva has some features unique to transit systems in the GTA. Firstly, they use GPS tracking and scheduling to allow riders to know not only when a vehicle is scheduled to be at a stop, but its actual arrival time.
Secondly, Viva’s buses are a hybrid of the kind of service that both TTC and GO Transit riders have become used to. The frequency and convenience of bus service is matched with some of the interior comforts of GO Transit train coaches — high back seats, worktables, and facing seats provide a high level of comfort and the ability to do some work on a longer ride. Future enhancements include on-board wireless Internet access making Viva buses something of a rolling office.
The other key feature of VIVA’s service would have to be added with Phase 2, which VIVA called “VIVANext”. This included a plan to separate VIVA’s buses from traffic through the use of dedicated lanes and busways, called “rapidways”. These features could speed up travel time and bypass congestion. Stations along the rapidways (called “VIVAstations) offered 27 metre long platforms sheltered from the elements by sweeping steel and glass structures. Each station was to include a 9-metre long enclosed, heating waiting area. The stations were to be accessible, offered 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 buss, enhancing accessibility.
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, launched in 2009 was made in conjunction with the extension of the Spadina subway to Vaughan Centre (it is likely that this extension will end VIVA Orange, as it will be replaced by the subway and an extension of VIVA Purple), 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.
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 (at a cost of $5.6 million). 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 is expected to be completed by 2014, with the remainder of the Highway 7 East rapidway from Enterprise to Kennedy expected to start construction in 2016 and see buses by 2020. This part of the project is late in coming because it is dependent on work going on for the new Downtown Markham.
In 2010, work began for a three kilometre along David 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 is set to open in 2014.
Rapidway construction also launched in 2011 on the Highway 7 West rapidway, with the first segment from Vaughan Centre to Highway 407 likely to open in 2016, in conjunction with the extension of the Spadina subway to York University and Vaughan Centre.
The next phase for rapidway construction include Yonge Street from Richmond Hill Centre to 19th Street north of Richmond Hill, starting in 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. The rest of the VIVA network is planned to receive rapidways, but no firm dates have been set for construction.
Route and Service Changes
Since opening in 2006, service on VIVA has changed with the times. VIVA Purple rush hour service from York University to Martin Grove ended in September 2007 due to low ridership and the arrival of Brampton Transit’s ZUM. VIVA Green was cut back to rush hour only in September 2007, again due to low ridership, although full service is expected to be restored once future development around Downtown Markham comes on stream. Finally, in January 2008, VIVA Purple was extended east to Markham-Stouffville hospital, ahead of a planned extension to Cornell.
In May 2011, VIVA Orange was rerouted off its old route of Keele, St. Regis and Sheppard to a new bus-only roadway built by the TTC between York University and Dufferin along the Hydro right-of-way corridor north of Finch street. Service could have began 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. Finally, the 2013 annual service plan called for VIVA Orange off-peak service from York University to Downsview station to end due to insufficient ridership.
In comparison, VIVA Blue has seen increasing ridership, and service levels have increased to match. 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 through riders travel time. Passengers had been lobbying for this route since GO Transit cancelled Yonge Street express service. The service proved popular, and more runs were added on September 5, 2010.
VIVA’s bus fleet also evolved as well. Nova LFX buses were added to the fleet of Van Hools in 2010.
VIVA Service in Toronto
VIVA’s network operates short sections into Toronto, linking to the outlying subway stations at Downsview, Finch and Don Mills. Additional stops are provided at 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 are also not provided between VIVA and the TTC at Downsview, Finch or Don Mills stations. In the case of Finch, VIVA Blue buses operate out of a regional terminal that is outside the TTC’s fare paid area. At Downsview and Don Mills, VIVA Orange and VIVA Green buses board buses within the TTC bus terminals, but charge fares. These buses disembark passengers outside of the TTC fare areas at these stations.
VIVA’s Current Fleet
- 5101, 5103-5108, 5110-5111, 5113, 5115-5116, 5118, 5120, 5122-5135, 5137-5138, 5140-5142, 5144-5149, 5151-5158, 5160 - Made by Van Hool (2005-6), 40’ fixed buses, Seats 36
- 5201-5225 - 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
- 1370-1395 - Made by Nova Bus (2013), 60’ articulated buses, Seats 56 (Currently Being Delivered)
VIVA’s Retired Fleet
- 5102, 5109, 5112, 5114, 5117, 5119, 5121, 5136, 5139, 5143, 5150, 5159 - Made by Van Hool (2005), 40’ fixed buses, refurbished and transferred to YRT.
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.