A Brief History of Public Transit in York Region

By James Bow

Public Transit on Yonge Street

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Early History

The history of York Region starts in 1788, around the time the United Empire Loyalists were fleeing the United States, to set up what would become the colony of Upper Canada (purchased from the Mississauga Indians). At the time, the British government set up the Home District out of the western reaches of the Province of Quebec. Also known as Nassau District, it took up the area along the western shores of Lake Ontario and into the Niagara peninsula, covering much of what is today referred to as the Golden Horseshoe.

The Lieutenant Governor of the time, John Graves Simcoe, commissioned the construction of a military road from the site of the town of York to the shores of Lake Simcoe. This road would soon be named Yonge Street after Simcoe’s friend, Sir George Yonge. This road would link what would become the City of Toronto to the lands and resources of northern Ontario, and it would become a strong basis for settlement of the lands en-route. York County was officially founded in 1792, and some of the towns and cities that were founded at the time include Thornhill (first house built in 1794), Richmond Hill (first homestead built in 1794), and Aurora (first house built in 1795).

The first public transit agencies to serve York County were stagecoaches operating along Yonge Street between Toronto and Barrie. The railroads arrived in the mid 19th century, with lines stretching north from Toronto bringing service to Woodbridge, Bolton and Uxbridge. At the end of the 19th century, interurban railroads like the Metropolitan extended service up Yonge Street. Electric service followed early in the 20th century. As well as Yonge Street, electric rail service extended to Woodbridge, starting in 1914, via Toronto Suburban Railway tracks running south on private right-of-way to the village of Weston.

With the growth of the City of Toronto, travel patterns tended to be oriented north and south towards and away from the city. A growing division began to appear across Steeles Avenue, between York Township on the south, and the far more rural townships of Markham and Vaughan to the north. The growing urban influence on York Township was reflected in the early 1920s when York Township was split in three, producing the townships of York, North York and East York.

TTC Influence

By this time, the Toronto Transportation Commission had bought out the Metropolitan Railway and was operating service along Yonge Street to Lake Simcoe on the LAKE SIMCOE line. The operation included a little-used steam railway linking the village of Schomberg to the town of Aurora. The Toronto Suburban Railway continued to operate its Woodbridge line until 1926, before abandoning the service due to low ridership. A bus service by Woodbridge Bus Lines took up the slack, linking Woodbridge to Weston in an operation that would eventually become the TTC’s 93 WOODBRIDGE, and one of the kernels of Vaughan Transit.

The history of the LAKE SIMCOE line and its descendant, the NORTH YONGE RAILWAYS, is covered elsewhere on this site. After the service was “temporarily” replaced by buses in October 1948, the Toronto Transportation Commission supplied a bus service between Glen Echo loop and Richmond Hill via the NORTH YONGE bus. At the time, the bulk of York Region’s population lived around Yonge Street, in a line of growing towns and villages that included Thornhill, Richmond Hill, Aurora and Newmarket. However, with the population and development boom following the end of the Second World War, these towns were growing, as were former hamlets and villages elsewhere in York County, like the town of Unionville, Woodbridge, or King City.

The townships of York County had successfully contracted with the Toronto Transportation Commission to provide transit service linking York County’s towns to Toronto. Under the terms of the contract, the TTC would maintain and operate the service and collect the fares while the contracting townships (usually North York, Vaughan, Markham and the town of Richmond Hill) would either reap the profits (after a surcharge to cover the TTC’s administrative costs) or pay for any deficits. Other privately run bus services, such as Roseland Bus Lines, operated services like the WOODBRIDGE bus. Then there was the TTC’s intercity bus subsidiary, Grey Coach, profitably providing service between Toronto and the communities north of Toronto via Highways 11 and 27.

On January 1, 1954, when the province of Ontario merged the cities, towns and townships south of Steeles Avenue into the municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, the Toronto Transportation Commission (renamed the Toronto Transit Commission) became responsible for all public transit within the boundaries of the new municipality. Services north of Steeles Avenue continued to be operated on contract between the local townships and the TTC. The WOODBRIDGE bus was taken over by the TTC, and other services appeared, including 41 KEELE service to the newly opened railway yard operated by Canadian National Railway on February 6, 1965, and the 24 VICTORIA PARK extension into the Esna Park industrial area in Markham on October 15, 1973.

The Growth of an Urban York

The urban development that forced the creation of Metropolitan Toronto in 1954 did not stop with the creation of the city, however. By the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, development began spilling beyond Metro’s borders at Steeles Avenue, primarily affecting the communities along Yonge Street to start with, but gradually filling in the parts between. The Ontario government, understanding the challenges such development represented, commissioned the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Transportation Study in the mid 1960s to look at how this development could be best managed. The report resulted in the creation of GO Transit, which launched initially with a modest commuter service along Toronto’s lakeshore in May 1967, but the seeds for a provincially operated regional transit agency had been sown. Another result of these studies was the formation of the Regional Municipality of York on January 1, 1971, replacing the government of York County with an integrated, two-tier municipality that encouraged the townships of Vaughan, Markham and King to sit down with the towns of Richmond Hill, Aurora and Newmarket to work together towards the area’s urban future.

Gray Coach, and then GO Transit, became increasingly responsible for serving commuter traffic across the municipal boundaries of the Greater Toronto Area from the late 1960s and into the 1970s. On November 27, 1977, the 59 NORTH YONGE bus was transferred from the TTC to GO Transit, which expanded the operation into a inter-city local bus service serving Yonge Street (and Bayview Avenue) from the regional bus terminal at Finch subway station as far north as Newmarket. GO had already been operating local bus service into York Region for years, starting a line operating along Bayview Avenue in January 1972. The expanded service was followed by a GO Train to Richmond Hill, which opened on May 1, 1978. GO Train services to Barrie and Stouffville replaced federally-operated train services on September 7, 1982.

While the province of Ontario took over greater responsibility for regional public transportation in York Region, the municipalities of the region, especially those near Yonge Street and Steeles Avenue, started to launch their own public transit networks. Rather than relying on the Government of Ontario or the TTC to serve commuters looking to leave town, these networks would be focused on local trips, getting people to and from homes and schools and shopping.

The established towns of Newmarket and Aurora started bus service following the Second World War, with Earlby Ruthven and Larry Needler launching Newmarket Bus Lines on May 3, 1948, operating two buses on a circular town line at thirty-minute intervals. They were bought out by Robert Stackhouse on July 1, 1958, who renamed the service the Newmarket Town Bus. The company was sold to the intercity bus company Travelways on September 20, 1967, and was replaced in the early 1970s by Newmarket Transit, operating with government subsidy, using a private bus company under contract with the Town of Newmarket.

Aurora also had a private bus operation in the form of Aurora Bus lines, owned by Ronald Farquharson. This continued from the 1960s until July 1972, when the municipality took over operations. At the time, the provincial government, to encourage public transit use, had brought forward a policy of subsidizing municipal public transit operations throughout the province. This move sparked a boom in public transportation operations throughout York Region.

That year, the City of Vaughan launched Vaughan Transit, offering local service to the neighbourhoods around Woodbridge, Maple and Thornhill. As these communities had yet to be joined together by urban sprawl, Vaughan Transit operated almost as three separate networks centred around their communities, with connections with other transit agencies (the TTC loop at Islington and Steeles in Woodbridge’s case, the connection with the 41 KEELE bus in Maple’s case, and Finch subway station in Thornhill’s case). Similarly, Markham Transit started in 1973, with Travelways operating under contract with the Town of Markham. Richmond Hill followed suit with Richmond Hill Transit in 1976.

TTC Contract Operations

Even after the municipalities of Vaughan, Richmond Hill and Markham started their own transit services, these towns continued to contract with the TTC to provide service on a number of major north-south streets, since travel patterns of these services demanded through service at Steeles Avenue, rather than an inconvenient transfer between a local bus and the TTC. Such services included the extension of 105 WILSON HEIGHTS to Glen Shields on February 18, 1980, the extension of 17 BIRCHMOUNT to Denison on October 14, 1980, the extension of 7 BATHURST to Arnold Avenue on November 22, 1980, the extension of 25 DON MILLS to Highway 7, and 129 McCOWAN NORTH and 43 KENNEDY to 16th Avenue on September 8, 1987, the extension of 35 JANE to Langstaff on April 18, 1988, the extension of 68 WARDEN to 14th Avenue on November 26, 1988, the extension of 96 WILSON north on Weston Road to Longstaff on February 5, 1989, and the extension of 128 BRIMLEY NORTH to 14th Avenue on September 5, 1989.

As the operating deficits of these buses were paid for by the local municipalities in which they ran, they were considered no different from buses operated by the local municipalities’ transit agencies. The fares collected were the same as on the local transit agency, and transfers were issued and accepted between connecting routes. Patrons were obliged to pay a TTC fare when the bus crossed Steeles Avenue into Toronto and, in practise, that TTC fare was collected when the passenger boarded the bus in Vaughan or Markham, as it was usually assumed the passenger wanted to travel into Toronto. Returning, passengers exited by the front door and paid the local bus fare; they could request a transfer (punched through to show the local fare had been paid) at that time to connect with a local route.

As the TTC extended Toronto’s subway network north, some of these routes were split to operate to the more northerly stations, saving passengers a long run to the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway. Such routes as 107 KEELE NORTH and 160 BATHURST NORTH are examples of this policy. When the TTC opened the SHEPPARD subway, it launched two new routes - 224 VICTORIA PARK NORTH and 268 WARDEN NORTH, leading transit fans to speculate that all TTC-contracted services into York Region might be similarly renumbered, such as 241 KEELE NORTH, 207 BATHURST NORTH and 225 DON MILLS NORTH. This did not come about. The older routes retained their numbers, and 268 WARDEN NORTH was consolidated back into 68 WARDEN due to insufficient ridership to justify the connection with the SHEPPARD subway.

Moreover, the transit agencies of York Region started to take over some of the TTC’s contracted operations. The 25D DON MILLS branch into York Region was discontinued on May 7, 2010, replaced by augmented service on York Region Transit’s 90B route to Don Mills subway station.

Consolidation and Expansion

As suburban development continued, filling out the fields of York Region, York Region became less of a patchwork quilt of towns and villages and more of a city in its own right. New commuter patterns emerged, with more people choosing not to head into Toronto by transit, but instead looking for connections between their homes and jobs elsewhere in York Region. Demand for improved east-west service along the Highway 7 corridor sharply increased, such that the divisions of public transit agencies by the old municipal boundaries of York County made less and less sense. By the late 1990s, the push was on for a single public transit agency serving all of York Region.

One of the first signs of this pan-suburb thinking came in April 1990 when Vaughan Transit and Brampton Transit announced the launch of route 77 HIGHWAY 7, operating from Finch subway station via Yonge, Centre Street and Highway 7 into Brampton, with transfers offered and accepted between connecting Vaughan and Brampton transit routes. This service continued until September 5, 2010, when the Brampton section was supplanted by the creation of its new Zum express bus service to York University.

This was only the beginning. On August 30, 1999, Newmarket Transit absorbed Aurora Transit, creating a single network between the two cities. By this time, Vaughan, Richmond Hill and Markham Transit were accepting transfers between each other’s bus routes, effectively producing a single transit network for Southern York Region. This meant that York Region’s transit networks had been reduced to just three. The GO Yonge bus operations from Finch subway station to Newmarket continued, at fares which matched those of the surrounding transit agencies, and with transfers issued and accepted between the various networks, but this was only the start.

On February 1, 2001, Markham Transit, Newmarket Transit, Richmond Hill Transit and Vaughan Transit were formally amalgamated into York Region Transit, operated as a department of York Region. The GO Transit buses operating on Yonge and Bayview Avenues continued for a while longer, but York Region Transit had plans here as well. The Yonge “C” service was taken over in 2003, divided between route 99 YONGE SOUTH (Richmond Hill to Finch station) and 98 YONGE NORTH (Richmond Hill to Newmarket). GO’s Bayview service was taken over by the 91 BAYVIEW route. The Newmarket “B” service diminished once York Region established express buses on Yonge in the form of VIVA, but the service continued until 2010 before being finally absorbed. The “B” service’s legacy lives on in the rush hour VIVA Blue-A branch, which provides a faster run from Newmarket to Finch Station, bypassing the Richmond Hill Terminal at Yonge and Longstaff.

With the regional government now in charge of public transit, it was now much easier to expand service between the lower-tier municipalities, and into communities in more rural municipalities that could not have afforded their own transit service. Bus service began to expand into King Township, East Gwillimbury and Georgina.

The merger was a challenge, as the former transit agencies had different service standards, different fleets, and different operating contracts. Ludlow Transit held the contract to operate Newmarket Transit, while Miller Transit Limited operated Markham Transit, Partners With Transit operated Richmond Hill Transit and Can-Ar Coach Service operated Vaughan Transit. These contracts remained in force, along with their associated union agreements meaning that when workers of a particular division went on strike (as was the case with the workers of FirstBus Canada between October 2011 and January 2012), service was suspended for Newmarket, Aurora, King Township, East Gwillimbury and Georgina. The strike ended when the contract was cancelled, and operations shifted to TOK Transit on February 4, 2012.

VIVA Rapid Transit Service

Central to the creation of York Region Transit was the launch of a rapid transit network across the major east-west and north-south axes of York Region. Plans and negotiations took place through the first few years of York Region Transit’s mandate, before a contract was announced between York Region Transit and Connex (a division of the French company Veolia EnvironmentSA). On September 4, 2005, service began on the VIVA network, featuring four rapid-bus express lines operating along Highway 7 and Yonge Street, connecting the cities of Vaughan, Newmarket and Markham with the Toronto subway at Finch, Downsview and Don Mills stations. This was just the first step in an ambitious Bus Rapid Transit plan that would include frequent service on separated rights of way. The full history of the VIVA network is covered elsewhere on this site.

York Region Transit Today

In 2013, York Region Transit carried 22,709,612 passengers. It operates 484 buses along 124 routes (5 Viva, 24 regular, 29 local, 10 under TTC contract, 37 high school specials, 9 GO shuttles, 6 express, 3 community buses and 1 seasonal route). The network has two fare zones (covering the northern and southern parts of York Region) and has fully embraced the province’s PRESTO fare card system. VIVA service has seen expansion and contraction and, in 2014, the first exclusive bus lanes opened along Highway 7 between Yonge Street and Warden Avenue. It is the fourth largest transit agency, by ridership, in the Greater Toronto Area (after the TTC, GO Transit and MiWay).

The most impressive aspect of York Region Transit is how it consolidated its diverse beginnings into a single cohesive network. In spite of its challenging urban landscape, it has seen rapid growth, and is leading the GTA in terms of installing bus rapid transit. It has emerged from the shadow of the TTC and stands proud of its accomplishments.

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