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The York University Busway

Text by James Bow

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The York University Busway is a 6.5 line of bus-only laneways and roadways that allows transit buses to travel from Downsview station on the SPADINA subway to York University. It opened on September 6, 2009 for buses on the 196 YORK UNIVERSITY ROCKET route. As of April 2017, it also serves a branch of the 199 FINCH ROCKET and York Region Transit’s VIVA Orange Line.

As with subways and light rail transit lines, busways offered an advantage for public transit vehicles by isolating them against competing automobiles. A number of transit agencies, including the TTC, tried using lane restrictions, and specially-painted lanes on roadways to achieve this (examples include Eglinton Avenue, and the Bay Street Clearway), but these measures were not always effective. More effective would be removing competing automobile traffic from the roadway altogether.

Giving Buses Room to Roam

In 1974, Curitiba, Brazil opened the first bus rapid transit system relying on bus-only roadways. The technology was introduced to the United States in 1977 with the opening of Pittsburgh’s South Busway, followed by the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway in 1983. In Canada, Ottawa opened its Bus Rapid Transit network called the Transitway in 1983. The technology was even considered by the Toronto Transit Commission in the early 1980s as part of its Network 2011 proposal. The third phase of the plan called for the Eglinton West rapid transit line to be built as a busway from Eglinton West station on the SPADINA subway to Renforth Avenue.

Busways had the advantage of offering quickly-built rapid transit service for low initial capital. However, their main disadvantage was that they were limited in the number of passengers they could serve. Cities like Ottawa were able to establish rapid transit networks quickly, but successful systems eventually discovered they needed to upgrade their busways to LRTs or subways to continue their growth. Even the Network 2011 plan called for the Eglinton West busway to be upgraded to a full subway in its final phase. In cities that already had LRT and subways operating, it was often more cost-effective simply to expand these systems, and thus with Toronto’s subway and streetcar network already in place, busways were slow to take root in the city’s political consciousness.

Stalling Subways

However, in 2004, after the opening of the shortened SHEPPARD subway line, subway construction had stalled in Toronto again. As it looked like subway expansion might be a long time in coming, the City of Toronto and the Toronto Transit Commissioned considered using a busway improve rapid transit connections in the city. One strong candidate was the 196 YORK UNIVERSITY ROCKET route. Connecting the growing student population of York University with Downsview station on the SPADINA subway, buses were operating as frequently as every two minutes, fifteen seconds during peak hours, resulting in congestion. Although the bus operated on the fastest route possible (west along Sheppard, Tuscan Gate and St. Regis and north along Keele), competing automobile traffic slowed buses down.

North of Finch Avenue ran a corridor to allow hydroelectric wires to run across the north of the city. This was free of development, and could potentially house a two-lane roadway that, free of cars, could allow buses to travel from Dufferin Street to the entrance of York University without facing congestion. Construction of the bus-only roadway was proposed by the TTC in 2004 and, after designs and studies and approved by Toronto Mayor David Miller and city council. Construction began on July 25, 2008.

Construction Complications.

Although the hydro corridor was free of development, it was not free of obstacles, particularly the hydroelectric towers themselves. During construction, a gas pipeline was found to be closer to the surface than previously thought, forcing the busway to be redesigned. This delayed the opening of the whole busway until after the start of the Fall 2009 term at York University. Although the busway within York University started operation on September 6, 2009, the full busway wouldn’t open until November 20, 2009.

The busway started just north of Downsview station, using taking advantage of left-turn signals to allow buses to easily access the station’s bus terminal. North of the station, on Allen Road and Dufferin Street, 2.7 kilometres of painted lines on the arterial road kept cars out of the buses way. At the Hydro corridor north of Finch, northbound buses pulled into a right-hand curve turning buses left to a signalled intersection between the busway and Dufferin Street. From there, buses entered the dedicated bus only roadway for 2.1 kilometres, crossing Alness Street at another signalled intersection, and the Barrie GO Train line.

After crossing Tangiers Road, the busway approached Keele Street, curving north to meet Murray Ross Parkway. Operating in mixed traffic along Murray Ross, the buses turned north onto a bus-only road within York University connecting them with York Boulevard and the bus terminal at York University Commons. In the hydro corridor, the busway consists of two lanes (one in each direction) with “Ontario Tall Wall” barriers on either side. In York University, the busway is protected by guardrails. At the signalled intersections, traffic signals with transit priority signalling allow buses to pass through without stopping.

Stops on the route include Downsview station, the Dufferin-Finch intersection, Murray Ross and York University. On opening, the 196 YORK UNIVERSITY ROCKET was routed on this busway immediately while 117 ALNESS was rerouted a week after (using the roadway from Dufferin to Alness). The 41E KEELE express bus used the portion of the busway operating within the York University main campus. The bus-only lanes also helped all buses operating on Dufferin Street between Sheppard and Finch, including 117 ALNESS, 105 DUFFERIN NORTH and a portion of 104 FAYWOOD.

Around this time, the left-turn loop at the northeast corner of Dufferin and Finch was closed down, and sidewalks and transit stops built into their place.

In total, the York University Busway cost $37.8 million to build, with $18.4 million paid for by the City of Toronto and $9.6 million each from the Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario. The busway increased the average speed of the 196 YORK UNIVERSITY ROCKET from 23.3 km/h to 32.8 km/h, or 41%. This improvement made the route the third fastest TTC route in rush hour, after the SCARBOROUGH RT and the 192 AIRPORT ROCKET. Service frequency on the route was increased from every 2 minutes, 15 seconds to every 2 minutes, while at the same time reducing the number of buses in operation from 20 to 16.

Changes Since Opening

The bus-only railway on the hydro corridor was not initially named the York University Busway. That monicker was officially applied in early 2010. And although the busway opened after the launch of York Region Transit’s VIVA Orange route, which operated between York University and Downsview station, this service was not initially routed onto the busway when it opened. The problem was the property the busway operated on. A portion of the hydro corridor was actually on the property of Imperial Oil, and negotiations between the City of Toronto and Imperial Oil for its construction initially specified that only TTC buses would use the route. Negotiations between York Region Transit and Imperial Oil for permission got stuck, initially, and a reroute was not possible until May 1, 2011. When it happened, the VIVA Orange bus stop at Keele and Finch was shut down, new ones built at the Dufferin/Finch intersection and at the intersection of Murray Ross Parkway and Jack Evelyn Wiggins Drive.

With Imperial Oil’s permission secured, other services started using the busway. GO Transit started to use the road to deadhead bus to and from its Steeprock bus depot. The York University shuttle bus also uses the busway as part of its route between the Keele and Glendon campuses. Brampton Transit received permission to use the busway should it extend its 501 QUEEN ZUM route east from York University, but never used it. On March 28, 2016, the TTC’s use of the busway increased, when they extended the 199 FINCH ROCKET west from Finch station via Finch, Dufferin and the busway to York University.

While the busway operated, construction continued on the extension of the SPADINA subway to York University and Vaughan. The section of the York University busway between Tangiers Road and Keele Street was supposed to close permanently on Tuesday, November 15, 2016, to make way for the commuter parking lot at Finch West station, but this work was delayed, and the shutdown didn’t take place until June 2017.

Questions about the Busway’s Future

The York University busway was initially proposed in 2004, at a time when subway development was at a standstill. Construction began and the busway opened after the provincial government approved and funded the construction of the extension of the SPADINA subway to York University and Vaughan. This led to criticisms that the money spent on the busway was wasted, since the main route it served, 196 YORK UNIVERSITY ROCKET, was going to be made redundant with the subway extension.

However, when the busway opened, the TTC expected to get six years of operation out of it before the extension opened in 2015. Delays to the subway extension meant that the busway provided exclusive access to York University for another two years. When the subway extension opened, bus service into York University was reduced, as TTC and regional buses were rerouted to Finch West and Pioneer Village stations. The portion of the busway within York University was abandoned and eventually built over.

The TTC had intended to close the busway following the extension of the subway, although at the time Toronto Mayor David Miller disputed this, but the TTC officially decided on November 14, 2016, to maintain the busway after the subway extension opened. Most of the elements of the busway were useful. The 199 FINCH ROCKET continued to use the roadway after the subway extension opened, operating out of Finch West subway station. The bus lanes on Dufferin Street and Allen Road continue to enhance service on 105 DUFFERIN NORTH.

The cost of building the York University busway has been more than justified in the benefits it has provided over the eight years the route has operated before the extension of the extension of the SPADINA subway. It will continue to be justified in its continued use as part of a bus rapid transit line stretching across the northern part of the city.

Document Archive

York University Busway Image Archive


  • Marshall, Sean. “York University Busway: Below the Radar.” Spacing Toronto. N.p., 21 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
  • Weese, Bryn. “York University Busway Opens.” Toronto Sun 20 Nov. 2009: n. pag. Print.
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