The strange case of the Highway 407 Transitway

At long last, the extension of the TTC’s Line 1 up to a parking lot in Vaughan (if your community also has a parking lot with lots of lands owned by the provincial finance minister’s family, you too can get a subway!) is open and inquiring minds want to know…..what happened to the Highway 407 transitway? This nebulous piece of infrastructure was the official reason for adding a station on the extension between Vaughan and the subway station at Steeles West/Pioneer Village; otherwise, why build a rapid transit station in a location virtually impossible to walk to.

7332 Jane St - Google Maps-page-001

Is that maybe a sidewalk I see? Wonder if it get’s plowed in the winter….

According to the city of Toronto and Metrolinx, the Highway 407 station is a link between the TTC and GO regional buses operating along Ontario’s only toll highway.[1]In official documents, reference is also made to the “Highway 407 transitway” as a piece of infrastructure crucial to the “Big Move” regional transit plan. The project jogged something in my mind; I remember references to the transitway from way back in 2007 from when I read early draft documents from the nascent Metrolinx. The project is meant to be bus rapid transit in the form of a transit-only roadway paralleling the 407, initially from the Highway 400 to Kennedy Rd; although the project is ultimately supposed to be built from Pickering out to Mississauga.

In all the years since then (I started my undergrad at York that year, damn I feel old) the transitway does not seem to have advanced beyond early planning stages, while Metrolinx spends a lot of time promoting a multitude of other projects with varying levels of utility. Why do we care about this at “Dude, Where’s my Bus Map?” We have vowed not to take a Toronto centric approach on the site; it helps that Shaun lives in Montreal and his neighbours would murder him in very creative ways for being a Toronto snob. Hold off your rage Montrealers, the fate of the transitway has implications for intercity bus riders everywhere.

In Canada, although described as an urban country (in that 80% of us live in built-up areas) can, to me, be more accurately described as a suburban nation. Millions of lives are lived far from the pedestrian-friendly streets filled with small shops that urbanists celebrate. Because of this, although rail projects receive a lot of attention and some prestige, transit services/intercity buses that use the large suburban arterials or highways in innovative ways have a lot of potential to change lives for the better and reduce auto dependence. In the GTA, this is already happening. GO Transit operates very successful highway coaches throughout the region, many of which gain impressive ridership, especially those that link post-secondary institutions. A good example is the # 51 GO bus. Traveling from Pickering GO rail station and mostly using the 401, 404 and 407 to travel via U of T’s Scarborough campus, Centennial College and York University, this bus is packed to the brim with passengers; young people going to school and some not so young people (my father frequently picks up the bus at Centennial College to go to work at York U).

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Route 51 and related Highway 407 east buses serving Scarborough and Durham Region. 

Although the new subway station at York is important, given that campuses suburban student base, buses like the 51 are, I would argue, much more important for York. The importance is even greater for Centennial and UTSC; growing postsecondary institutions with little hope of getting rapid transit in the near future.

If bus 51 and it’s cousins could travel on a dedicated transit roadway or lane, with stations along the route for connections to local transit, imagine how that would transform the riding experience? Areas around highway interchanges are certainly not attractive and probably will never be, but the reality, for the time being, is this is the landscape which most Canadians will interact within their day and something like a bus transitway using the highway infrastructure could be a great way to transform the suburban experience. In the long term, changing the built form of the suburbs is important but let’s face it, that’s something for the long haul and us bus riders need improvements now.

This “highways are a fact of life” argument holds true outside the GTA as well, perhaps even more so. Haven’t we all been sitting on the 401, jammed in traffic and wished hard for some sort of bus priority lane? It wouldn’t even need to be all that extensive, just in the urban sections of expressways for the time being. Think this would be politically hard? Think again: the 404 in Toronto has had HOV lanes for use by carpoolers and GO buses for some time now.

With all this in mind, the lack of progress on the 407 transitway is mystifying. It’s a potentially transformative effort and for some reason, no one wants to take ownership of it. Outside of an announcement now and then and an unattractive website to show that the project is not completely dead, we hear little of this project. Contrast that with the fanfare surrounding Vaughan’s new subway station, that, let’s be honest, is not all that useful unless you’re a well-connected condo developer. A bus station at Kennedy and the 407 isn’t sexy enough to sell overpriced, cheaply built units to disparate young families but it would help move thousands of people to where they need to go. Similarly, it’s hard to make a great political photo op for a painted bus lane on the 401 in Ajax but having passengers on Greyhound, Megabus etc. able to bypass traffic would make a real difference in people’s lives.

Again, I absolutely support the reshaping of suburban areas into more vibrant places and oppose, in general, the building of new highway infrastructure but if we want to help people right now in the lives they live, projects like the 407 transitway need to be moved up the ladder of priority.

In the future, I hope to explore other aspects of highway bus priority projects elsewhere in North America, since it’s such an intriguing concept! As always, feel free to chime in on this or any issue, we need to hear from fellow bus nerds from time to time. Otherwise, we start to go crazy…..

[1] Due to fare integration problems, a number of GO buses supposed to be calling at the 407 station will still terminate at York University, to save students having to pay an extra fare to ride the TTC up to campus.

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2 thoughts on “The strange case of the Highway 407 Transitway

  1. Thanks for bringing this issue to my attention Vince! I think I might have noticed a meager mention of the 407 Transitway in a Big Move document, but never gave it much heed. This despite taking my first ride on the 40 and 47 (407 west) buses in 2017.
    I too had a quick look for info on the Transitway and was generally dissatisfied with the info provided. Parallel to this, I heard from someone/somewhere that the 407 buses are one of the clearest GO success stories in recent past. Although I cannot cite an official source (and I have found GO to be pretty terrible at systematically sharing its ridership data), I have heard that 407 west buses are filling as fast as they can be deployed. From your report of the 407 east buses, there is reason to believe that the same thing is happening there too.

    If this exploding ridership is true, it seems obvious to me what GO should do: continue to increase the frequency until the ridership reaches a plateau. The resulting service would be transformative for mobility through the northern GTA, with east-west mobility at “subway-like frequencies.*”

    *It would be equally accurate to say “streetcar-like frequencies” or “Finch bus-like frequencies,” but I am willing to play on a trope for a good cause.

    If you follow me that Frequency is Freedom, then it seems less convincing that building the physical infrastructure of the Transitway is urgent – or even necessary in a foreseeable future. For me, this brings forth a question: Bearing in mind that the 407 Transitway, in its proposed form, has neither electoral nor lobbyist champions, what are the essential elements of the project that could be prioritized?

    It strikes me that this question is useful for an Ontario government wanting to do a real thing in the foreseeable future; rather than on Ontario government willing to draw some maps and renditions as a stalling tactic to avoid actually building any real infrastructure.

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  2. Hey Shaun, thanks for wading in!

    First and foremost, I would *love* for GO services to be “branded” as Finch bus frequencies, because service in the 905 is, generally, far more meager than even in the 416 suburbs. (Some success stories notwithstanding: see Shaun Marshall’s piece on Brampton Transit)

    Of course, you and I both know that won’t happen since the humble local bus is something that coverage hungry politicians never celebrate. I still make the argument that GO’s 407 family of buses are far more useful to people in Toronto’s suburbs than Vaughan’s two subway stations. Just a feeling.

    I totally agree that in the absence of any infrastructure for the transitway, GO buses at 10-minute frequencies would be hugely liberating. You’re right in questioning whether, at that point, we even need the transitway infrastructure. I would argue that once the frequency is there, a transitway is a logical next step, especially since it involves building serious stations at the major cross streets of the highway, eg. Kennedy Road. In our blog, we’ve ranted about the piss poor bus facilities riders put up with and when you disembark, would you rather do so in a safe, lighted waiting area or standing on the road next to roaring traffic. Bear in mind, this isn’t Queen and Spadina (or even Morningside and Ellesmere for Chrissakes) where your connecting bus might only be a few minutes away and a simple stop is all you need; no, at Kennedy and the 407, the YRT buses might be 20-30 mins apart.

    Of course, this is all hot air. We have a provincial government that loves it’s photo ops at subway stations so those frequent GO buses might be a long time coming.

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