Corp Comm Connects

Should Pearson be the Union Station of the west GTA?

Pearson officials warn the airport needs more direct transit connections as passenger numbers and area commutes climb.
June 14, 2015
By Tess Kalinowski

Just as the new Union Pearson Express (UPX) train launches, airport officials are warning of a looming ground transportation crisis.

Transportation studies for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) show the roads around Pearson becoming increasingly congested, threatening dramatically longer drive times in the future.

Without an infusion of public transit, the capacity crunch could stunt the prosperity of Pearson and the region’s second largest employment centre that sprawls around it.

In a bid to help coax even more travellers and commuters out of their cars, the GTAA is considering building its own multi-modal transit hub on airport property.

It’s talking about a kind of Union Station West that could be developed within the next decade along with regional planning discussions about how to directly connect Pearson to new high-speed rail, LRTs and municipal and regional buses.

“For an airport to function properly it has to be hooked up to not just rail, but to roads and the whole network,” said Howard Eng, GTAA CEO.

It’s not that the airport hasn’t factored in transportation planning, it’s just that the issue is increasingly urgent as jobs in the area mushroom and passenger numbers climb.

“That accelerated growth rate brings everything to the fore a lot more,” said Eng.

It’s not good enough for transit to go by the airport - it has to go directly to it, he said.

But even the new regional LRTs and bus rapid transit coming online in the next one to six years won’t be enough to make those “last-mile” connections to all-important airport area jobs. The Eglinton Crosstown and Finch LRTs will terminate seven or eight kilometres from the airport. The Renforth Gateway hub, where the Mississauga Transitway will connect with the TTC next year, stops south of Highway 401.

About 40,000 employees work directly at Pearson. A further 235,000 work in the surrounding area. It is surpassed only by downtown Toronto as an employment zone, and it’s growing dramatically.

Pearson passenger numbers are ballooning, too. Canada’s largest flight hub attracted 39 million travellers last year. That will grow to about 90 million by 2045.

But the overwhelming majority of the 106,000 people who arrive at Pearson each day get there by car.

A Metrolinx study this year showed only 11 per cent of those traveling to Pearson and the surrounding area take transit. GTAA figures are more conservative - about 5 per cent, expected to rise to 8 per cent once UPX ridership matures within the next five years.

Unless that changes, the stage is set for epic gridlock that could push trucks, logistics and tourists off the roads.

But the airport landscape of dusty roads teeming with tractor-trailers discourages commuters who might consider getting out of their cars, says Scott Hendershot, project manager of sustainable development at Pratt & Whitney, an aircraft engine maker that employs about 750 people near Pearson.

The company supports healthy commuting options, with cycling and carpooling programs “as much as possible considering where we are,” he said.

“Because of where we are, carpooling is the prime means to sustainable commuting,” said Hendershot. Many employees live in Oakville, Burlington and Mississauga, where there are few direct bus connections.

Back at the airport, the TTC, MiWay, Brampton and GO Transit serve about 7,400 riders a day. The GTAA is working with transit providers to improve signage that would help more people find the bus stops at the base of the terminals. But it’s not an inviting environment, either. A few cold metal benches and schedules are posted on the dingy lower level at Terminal 1.

There’s no point designing transit service for travellers who might take a bus to the airport occasionally. MiWay buses are designed to carry airport workers, said Mississauga transit head Geoff Marinoff.

The MiWay express bus deposits riders at Pearson’s Airport Link train, which moves people between terminals. It’s a more reliable service, but it adds another transfer to a worker’s commute. The local bus that stops on the curb tends to get stuck in traffic during rush hours, impeding reliability.

“For us to be more successful, we’d really need some dedicated access for public transit. If we had dedicated access in and out, it would be reliable. That would be a game-changer. Then (the bus) becomes even more attractive,” said Marinoff.

Given the influx of travellers and workers to the airport area, a game-changer is needed, says Eng.

Pearson’s $35.4 billion contribution to Ontario’s GDP is riding on it, he said.

“The easier it is for people to get to this region, the more they want to invest.”


Here are some ways Pearson-area commuters get to work.

Trading traffic for time

Scott Hendershot was already taking transit to work a couple of times a week when he still lived near Yonge and Eglinton.

But three years ago, he and his wife moved to High Park to be closer to Hendershot’s job in Mississauga as project manager of sustainable development at Pratt & Whitney, near the airport.

They got rid of one car and Hendershot became a full-time transit commuter, riding the subway to Islington, where he switches to the Mississauga MiWay 57 bus. The toughest part of the trip, he says, is the dash across the 70 km/h traffic to the bus stop when it’s time to go home.

The commute is about 45 minutes each way compared with a 25-minute drive.

He reckons it’s about $10 a day between his TTC and MiWay fares, more than he would spend filling his Toyota Prius.

“It’s a net cost increase for me, but I see it as marginal because the entire commuting time is mine. So when I do occasionally have to drive to do whatever I have to do for my business, I don’t like driving,” he said.

Pooling in the fast lane

Like many of Pratt & Whitney’s 750 airport-area employees, Abby Johnson lives west of Toronto.

For a long time, she and her husband, who works nearby, drove together from their Burlington home. But when they had kids, they staggered their schedules to minimize the hours the children spent in daycare.

Johnson joined the company’s carpooling program. Her current pool partner, who lives in Oakville, meets Johnson each day at the Bronte carpool lot near the QEW.

Carpooling means they can use the HOV lanes on Highway 403, so the trip in the morning takes about 35 minutes, and it’s about 45 minutes home. “Without that, (it’s) an hour easily,” she said.

It also means they rotate through the 10 preferred parking spots Pratt & Whitney reserves for its carpooling employees.

Johnson also figures she saves about $200 a month on gas.

Pratt & Whitney has an emergency ride program that will pay for a cab if a carpooler has to leave early unexpectedly. Johnson has never used it because the carpoolers know one another and help out when someone’s stuck.

“You can always work something out. It’s a network. Once you’re in, you know who to draw on.”

Waiting for a better way

Jeffery Ince, an airline baggage worker, drove to his job at Pearson for years. When he moved to the Fort York area, Innes decided he would do without a car.

He leaves for his 9:30 p.m. shift by 8 p.m. - earlier if he can - taking the Bathurst streetcar to the subway, riding to Kipling and transferring to the TTC’s Airport Rocket bus. It typically takes about an hour and a quarter.

Others have it worse, says Ince: “That’s southern Ontario. Tons of people at the airport are from Cambridge, St. Catharines. Things are spread out.”

He knows of a cleaner who commutes 90 minutes each way from Scarborough via the TTC. His shift starts at 11 p.m. but he often leaves early to make sure a transit delay doesn’t make him late.

Ince expects to use the new Union Pearson Express train occasionally. It would cut his commute time and he would be eligible for the airport workers’ rate of $10 for a one-way ticket. A $300 monthly pass works out to about $7.50 per ride for a five-day-a-week commuter.

But, he says, “I really wish it was priced like the TTC.”

“It seems to be geared to the travellers, and travellers of a certain economic bracket. If you go to Hong Kong or Tokyo, they have a similarly priced train. It’s fine to say these other places have that. This train doesn’t have to be that.”