Text by James Koole, 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
- 1975 - Grey Coach (later 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 call them, is designed to remove some of the stigma of public transit. Air-conditioned, with high-back seats, and plush fabrics — these are 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 you have the future of public transit. At least, that’s what York Region hopes Viva will be.
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.
Opening in four stages between Sept., 2005 and Jan., 2006 with an extension to Markham’s Cornell neighbourhood planned for the future, Viva Phase 1 will serve as a backbone to the existing York Region Transit services.
The first stage opened on Sept. 4, 2005. The initial north-south route runs from Finch Station at the terminus of the Toronto Transit Commission’s Yonge Street subway line. From there Viva Blue runs north along Yonge Street as far as Bernard Street, at the north end of Richmond Hill. Viva Purple runs from York University along Hwy. 7 to Town Centre Blvd. in Markham. The two routes intersect at a newly constructed Viva station near the corner of Yonge Street and Highway 7.
A month later, on October 16, 2005, further routes and extensions 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.
With great connections to existing TTC subway stations, Viva offers vastly improved service to commuters with a midtown or northern Toronto destination. While GO Transit offers quick train service to downtown via Union Station, those who need to get to other areas, specifically in the north end of Toronto, were largely pushed into cars up until now.
Beginning in Nov. 2005, Viva Blue was extended as far north as Newmarket. Peak service was added to give riders more flexibility — it is now possible to ride from Unionville Station to McCowan, and the purple line was extended to Martin Grove at peak times only.
Viva Phase 1’s final stage comes online on Jan. 1, 2006. On that date, Unionville riders will get a new peak service to Finch subway.
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.
Viva’s future is largely already mapped out. While Phase 1 of Viva is primarily a series of bus routes on main traffic corridors, the Viva system of the future could be anything from buses on their own private right of way (similar to the busway in Ottawa, Ont.) or even Light Rapid Transit (LRT) or a full subway.
Phase 2 calls for Viva service to be separated from traffic through dedicated lanes and busways. This would improve the consistency of service, and also increase speed, both of which are required to provide commuters with a viable alternative to the car.
Current Viva stations and infrastructure along with everything built for Phase 2 will be constructed with future conversion to either LRT or subway in mind.
In 2009, Viva services will be reviewed and decisions about how to proceed will be made. Options would include continuing as a bus-based system, conversion in whole or in part to LRT vehicles or subway, or a combination of all three.
Whether York Region’s commuters take to Viva is something of an unknown. Largely under serviced by transit for many years, they will need some prodding to convince them that transit can work in York. The layout of York Region provides further challenges with winding streets and large areas of suburban sprawl that act as a hindrance to good transit. York Region hopes to counter some of its planning mistakes of the past by creating what they call transit villages. Viva services enable this sort of planning by offering good transit service to these denser population centres, taking the pressure of local roads by reducing traffic during peak commuting periods.
But will it work? In short, it has to. If York Region wants to solve it’s traffic congestion and pave the way for future growth, then Viva must succeed. Without a strong backbone of transit services that offer fast, efficient transportation within York and between York and Toronto, the traffic congestion will suffocate growth.
Kudos to York Region planners for recognizing now that they have to implement a strategy to control and manage growth in order to ensure that it doesn’t come at the expense of the ability for it’s residents to move around. Now it is up to the residents of York Region to show they understand that changing their habits is just as important a part of the solution as fancy buses and visions of subways.