Toronto Transit

The many challenges of creating a transit hub at Pearson Airport

Sign in Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport. Whether we realize it or not, Pearson Airport is already a transit hub. 

Updated April 7, 2016

Lester B. Pearson International Airport is Canada’s busiest airport, handling 41 million passengers a year. It is not the busiest transportation hub in the Greater Toronto Area, though; Union Station is considerably busier (GO Transit alone handles 64.4 million passengers a year at Canada’s busiest station).

Pearson Airport is located almost entirely within the City of Mississauga, but the terminals are less than a kilometre away fromthe City of Toronto’s western boundary; due to the location of the airport terminals, most passengers reaching the airport by road, or transit pass through the City of Toronto to get to it.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), the not-for-profit agency that operates Canada’s busiest airport, has expressed interest in creating a transit hub and guiding transit-oriented development around it. It’s an interesting idea, and some of the facts are compelling.

There are approximately 300,000 jobs located at and near Pearson Airport. The airport itself hosts 40,000 employees that work for the airport authority and its contractors and tenants, including retailers, airlines, and allied services. The remaining 250,000 jobs are located in office parks and industrial areas that surround the airport, in the cities of Toronto, Mississauga, and Brampton, a very large area that extends north into Bramalea, west of Hurontario Street and south to Highway 403.

You can read the GTAA’s report, written by the prestigious planning firm Urban Strategies Inc., and named Pearson Connects: A Multi-Modal Platform for Prosperity online as a PDF. The report claims that Pearson Airport and environs has more jobs, and more economic clout than any Canadian downtown, with the exception of Downtown Toronto. To a degree, this is true. But the size of the Airport Employment Zone, as the GTAA defines it, is much larger in size than any downtown, even Toronto’s; the jobs are mostly dispersed in warehouses, factories, and suburban office buildings difficult to reach by transit.

In fact, Pearson Airport and its surrounding area — all 25,600 hectares  (256 square kilometres) — has fewer than 25 employees per hectare, while Downtown Toronto, one-tenth the size, has nearly 200 employees per hectare (and a growing residential population as well). Igor Dragovic calculated these figures from a recent Neptis report. The low employment densities found in business parks and warehouse districts are only partly to blame; the airport itself, with five active runways and a large land buffer, contributes to this.


The GTAA wants to build an “airport-related multi-modal hub” that would tie together existing and planned rapid transit services, including the Kitchener RER Service, LRTs on Eglinton and Finch Avenues, the Mississauga Transitway BRT and a proposed Derry Road transit corridor.  It cites airports in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, and Hong Kong as examples to emulate.

GTAA ProposedThe GTAA’s proposal for a transit hub, taken from Page 7 of the report

The report also neglects to recognize that Pearson Airport is already a major transit hub; the problems lie in integrating the existing and proposed transit services together. And for an area the size of the GTAA’s Airport Employment Zone, that’s a very tall order.

Existing Transit Links

Four separate transit operators currently serve Pearson Airport: the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), Mississauga Transit (known as MiWay), GO Transit, and Brampton Transit. The map below displays the primary daytime routes and their terminals.

Airport Links
Day time transit links from Pearson International Airport, 2016

The TTC operates the most routes to Pearson Airport — two daytime routes and three night time routes — and delivers the most transit riders to the airport. The 192 Airport Rocket, operating every ten minutes or better, 7 days a week, carries more passengers than the Union Pearson Express, Metrolinx’s airport rail link from Union Station. GO Transit, the TTC and Brampton Transit focus their airport services on the airport terminals, while MiWay serves Terminal 1, the Viscount stop on the LINK inter-terminal train, as well as the infield airport service and cargo area with five separate bus routes.

Airport Buses1Routes serving Pearson Airport

The first problem is that many routes serving the airport don’t connect. MiWay routes 24 (a rush hour local serving employment lands to the east of the airport terminals) and 107 stop at Viscount LINK station. Route 107 is an express bus between Mississauga City Centre (Square One) and Westwood Mall in Malton, extending to Humber College in Etobicoke on weekdays between September and June. Route 57 Courtneypark serves the airport infield area, but does not connect to the GO, TTC, or Brampton Transit routes at Terminal 1.

GO Transit operates two hourly bus services to Pearson Airport — Route 34, to Yorkdale and Finch Stations on TTC Subway Line 1, and Route 40, between Richmond Hill Centre, Square One, and Downtown Hamilton. Both routes run 21 hours a day. And Brampton Transit runs one bus route, the 115 Airport Express, which runs 7 days a week to Bramalea Terminal, Brampton Transit’s busiest hub.

UP Express serves Terminal 1, with an easy connection to the GTAA’s LINK train, which serves Terminal 3 and Viscount Station, where there is a long-term parking garage, and where MiWay routes 24 and 109 connect.

Airport Links 2Various transit agencies’ stops at Pearson Airport and environs

There are several important connections to Pearson Airport missing. The GO Kitchener Line runs just to the north of Pearson Airport, but does not serve it. (UP Express uses a spur off the Kitchener Line to serve Terminal 1). There are no direct bus connections from Bramalea or Malton GO Stations to Pearson Airport despite their proximity — Brampton Route 115 stops near Bramalea Station, at Steeles Avenue, but it’s not a comfortable walk to the train platforms.

Challenges to creating a transit hub

The employment lands surrounding Pearson Airport are not well connected to the airport itself, where the GTAA proposes a transit hub. The airport road layout and surrounding land uses make creating a hub here difficult.

It’s worth noting that Metrolinx is already building a transit facility, the Renforth Gateway Hub, located in the Airport Corporate Centre southwest of the Highway 401/Highway 427 interchange. The Renforth hub will serve as the eastern terminus of the Mississauga Transitway, and will serve MiWay, TTC and GO Transit buses. If built, the western extension of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT will also stop here. Feeder buses would serve nearby employment lands.

IMG_0268-001GO Transit and UP Express trains at Union Station

And there’s the matter of fare integration. In March, Metrolinx reduced the fares for UP Express by over 50 percent. Fares between Union Station, Bloor, and Weston are the same as GO Transit’s. But, as I explained mentioned earlier, they aren’t at all integrated with GO Transit, or with any other transit agency. UP Express offers discounted fares for airport employees, but full fare applies when transferring to, say MiWay, in order to get to the warehouse in Malton. So UP Express’ value as part of an integrated airport transit system is lost.

The LINK train, a cable car system built by Doppelmayr, is not extendable to connect to either the Renforth Gateway Hub or the Kitchener GO Line at Malton. The UP Express tracks and station only allow for three-car diesel multiple unit (DMU) or electric multiple unit (EMU) trains, limiting the train services that can be operated to the airport without astronomically costly tunnels to bring direct Kitchener RER (or high speed trains) direct to the airport itself. These infrastructure decisions were between ten and twenty years ago, and now they add to the difficulty of building a single-point multi-modal transit hub.

IMG_0284-001Pearson Airport is a jumble of roads connecting three freeways and several arterial roads to the terminals and parking garages.

In the short to medium term, a joint UP Express/GO RER/VIA station at Woodbine Racetrack, near Highway 27, would be a good place to create a mini-hub. Passengers from Brampton, Guelph, Kitchener, even London could transfer from GO and VIA trains to UP Express to get to the airport terminals. The Finch West LRT, as well as Brampton, York Region, and TTC buses could serve this point as well. The answer might not be in having a single-point hub, but multiple points, integrated with each other as much as possible.

There are a few small changes that could help: for example, Brampton Transit should re-route Route 30 Airport Road to Terminal 1 to provide more connections to the north. Perhaps Route 115 should connect to GO buses and trains at Bramalea Station better than it does. And UP Express should offer fare integration with connecting transit services.

In the short term, route and fare integration are the keys to improving transit for employees working at the airport and in the region, an area that’s difficult to serve due to low employment densities and few local residents. A shiny new airport hub doesn’t solve these problems, so I’m skeptical of the GTAA’s plans.

IMG_0298-001Viscount Station, where MiWay routes 24 and 107 call. The LINK cable car track is in the background.


One reply on “The many challenges of creating a transit hub at Pearson Airport”

This article has misinformation, being a LINK specialist I can attest to the fact that the LINK train CAN be extended towards the Renforth transit hub. This expansion would make the most sense connecting the airport to the southern HUB.

A couple example’s that the author failed to note is the BART pinched loop system that operates in Oakland, which is a Doppelmayer Cable Car installation can be replicated here to service the Renforth HUB. A Doppelmayer pinched loop system has the capability to travel up to 9kms, the distance from Viscount to Renforth and Eglington is approx. 5kms, so therefore the LINK train CAN be extended to service the Greater Airport area.

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