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.

Politics Toronto Transit

A smarter SmartTrack

ST - Before 2016
John Tory’s original SmartTrack plan, shown with the existing TTC Subway and GO Rail networks. 

In Friday’s Globe and Mail, we were treated to a scoop by Oliver Moore, that newspaper’s excellent transportation reporter, on behind-the-scenes revisions to Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack rail transit platform, a topic that I discussed several times in this blog.

Tory’s SmartTrack plan, dreamed up by a private-sector planning firm, was intended to connect office parks in Mississauga and Markham to Downtown Toronto, as well as serve the proposed First Gulf development at the Unilever site near the mouth of the Don River. Tory promised that it would provide relief to Toronto’s overburdened subway system, but that was never the main objective.

I have been aware of rumours that Tory’s SmartTrack plan was going to be walked back due to mounting costs and technical issues of implementing the mayor’s campaign promise. The team that came up with the idea of a U-shaped rail network intended to connect several suburban employment centres with Downtown Toronto overlooked some important details, such as the availability of land along the former Richview Expressway corridor along Eglinton Avenue West. SRRA, the private-sector planning organization that came up with SmartTrack, assumed that the Richview lands were available and owned by the province, but the city owned the land, and sold much of it off for development in 2011 and 2012.

The cost of building the western spur between Mount Dennis and the Airport Corporate Centre was, in all likelihood, found to be prohibitive, though we have yet to find out what the estimated costs for a tunnel along that section. The eastern section, north of Kennedy Station, would have closely paralleled both the Scarborough RT and the proposed extension of the Bloor-Danforth Subway to McCowan Road, a project that Tory also backed.

The Globe and Mail’s Oliver Moore reports that SmartTrack will cover a much shorter section than the map on John Tory’s 2014 campaign brochures. Frequent rail service will complement existing GO Transit Regional Express Rail (RER) services on the Kitchener and Stouffville Corridors, terminating at Mount Dennis and Kennedy Stations. The Eglinton West section will be covered by the “shovel-ready” Phase II of the Eglinton-Crosstown light rail transit line (ECLRT), which is already under construction east of Mount Dennis. (The provincial government deferred funding for this section of the ECLRT in 2010 for budgetary reasons.) The north-eastern section of SmartTrack, between Kennedy Station and Unionville Station in Markham, will be deferred.

This new plan, which is being finalized and will likely be officially announced later this year, will cost an additional $2-billion to $3.5-billion to the existing plans for RER, in order to facilitate more frequent, subway-like frequencies, as well as complete the western section of the ECLRT.

If Moore’s reporting is accurate (and I have seen maps and other materials that collaborate his report), then Tory will have to eat some crow. Spin doctors will have to figure out how to polish this turd as Tory seeks a second mandate in 2018. It’s also inevitable that the new additional service on this corridor will continue to be branded as “SmartTrack.” But this is the best solution, and maybe this is a sign that Tory is learning on the job.

At the end of the day, what Toronto gets is what Metrolinx’s “Big Move” plan envisioned: upgrades of most GO Transit corridors to RER, as well as Phase II of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT line to Pearson Airport. (The Finch West and Sheppard East LRTs are also approved, but have yet to start construction.) The paired-down SmartTrack plan, if trains are frequent enough, and with attractive transfers with the subway and TTC surface routes, will draw some riders. It could help provide medium-term relief as the [Downtown] Relief Line Subway is studied and built.

New SmartTrack PlanThe new SmartTrack plan, including Phase II of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT

But where I find myself annoyed is when I realize that we wasted over a year on Tory’s campaign slogan without any progress on the Relief Line (which will offer real, long-term relief to the Yonge Subway), the Waterfront West LRT, or other transit priorities such as accessibility at all existing subway stations. I remember during the 2014 election campaign, critics of Tory’s simplistic and flawed SmartTrack plan were dismissed without acknowledging their objections. It’s also worth noting that Tory also adopted rival Olivia Chow’s bus plan, after belittling it during the campaign.

In order to provide fast and reliable transit to the Airport Corporate Centre and Pearson Airport itself, there are opportunities to refine the western section of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT. The environmental assessment called for 15 stops between Mount Dennis and Pearson Airport, while SmartTrack would have had as few as three stops along the same section. If the ECLRT can be sped up at all, it would be worth considering. I would also be interested in whether the SmartTrack corridor could be integrated with the UP Express rail link, whose ridership started off quite low.

And maybe, just maybe, the high costs of constructing the Scarborough Subway extension will also prompt a rethink, going back to the original LRT replacement and extension plan. As the Spadina Subway extension to York University and Vaughan is now two years late (and yet another $400 million over-budget), maybe there’s an opportunity to get it right there as well. It’s also imperative that proponents of the Relief Line Subway strike now.

I could be giddy with the revelation that Mayor Tory’s signature campaign platform is coming undone, having foreseen the problems with his plan. But I’m not. However, I do take pleasure in knowing that we have a smarter plan in the works.