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Toronto Transit

The many challenges of creating a transit hub at Pearson Airport

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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.