Here's a pop quiz for regular UrbanToronto readers: What is Canada's second-largest employment zone? If you guessed downtown Montreal or Vancouver, you haven't been paying enough careful attention.

As we reported recently, earlier this year and last year, according to the NEPTIS Research Foundation, the area around around Toronto Pearson International Airport is the second largest employment zone in Canada after Downtown Toronto. More than 300,000 people work in an area that includes parts of Brampton, Mississauga and Toronto. NEPTIS reports that the concentration of jobs in financial services in workplaces near the airport is greater than the total number of jobs in North York.

Toronto Pearson International Airport Transit TerminalMost people working in the Airport Employment Zone travel more than 10 kilometres to their workplace, image, Neptis

Despite its second-place rank, the airport zone currently has poor transportation connections. Due to that lack of transit, NEPTIS found that the area generates more than 1 million car trips each day—more daily trips than to and from Downtown Toronto. That's a key reason why the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) intends to develop a major transit terminal at the airport.

Toronto Pearson International Airport Transit TerminalEng (left) and Verster at the Board of Trade, with event moderator, Yvonne Rene de Cotret, image, GTAA

Howard Eng, the GTAA's president and chief executive officer, and Phil Verster, president and CEO of Metrolinx recently addressed the Board of Trade of Greater Toronto about the issue.

The GTAA is already developing plans for what it's dubbing "Union Station West", a regional transit hub at Pearson, which it hopes to open by the late 2020s.

Toronto Pearson International Airport Transit TerminalA transit hub at Pearson would supply a vital link to the Golden Horseshoe, image, GTAA

The rationale for a building a major transit terminal at or near the airport is becoming increasingly clear. Pearson welcomes more than 47 million passengers annually and contributes directly or indirectly to 6.3 per cent of Ontario's gross domestic product. More than 49,000 jobs in the airport zone are at Pearson itself. The GTAA estimates that "in the future", the airport would handle 85 million visitors, while the nearby area would supply 700,000 jobs and generate 8.5 per cent of the provincial GDP.

In 2016, the GTAA hired Urban Strategies Inc., a global urban design consultancy to develop a white-paper, “Growth, Connectivity, Capacity” that described the remarkable passenger growth and economic significance of Toronto Pearson International Airport.

Toronto Pearson International Airport Transit TerminalMultiple transit lines could one day intersect at Pearson, image, GTAA

The white paper discusses how Pearson and the surrounding area have extremely few transit options connecting workers to their jobs in the burgeoning Airport Employment Zone or to other key employment nodes in the region. The Union Pearson Express is the only higher-order transit accessing the area. Buses operating in mixed traffic supply all other transit service. This lack of connectivity results in traffic congestion that is reaching critical levels, adding to commute times, threatening economic opportunity, and creating air pollution that affects local communities and impacting climate-change strategies.

"Road congestion is impacting our region's ability to attract investment and also impacting quality of life for our residents," Eng said. "We're committed to working with the municipalities surrounding the airport, area employers and industry groups to improve ground transportation in the airport area. Our vision for a regional transit and passenger centre at Toronto Pearson will help to reduce congestion in the area, lower costs for industry and improve productivity for local business."

Toronto Pearson International Airport Transit TerminalThe number of passengers travelling to and from other airports by transit is much greater than at Pearson, image, GTAA

The Union Pearson Express significantly upgraded public transit access between the airport and Downtown Toronto and is proving popular with passengers and employees. However, the UP express, the GTAA says, is not sufficient because it can only serve 800 passengers per hour. While there are a growing number of planned transportation routes approaching Toronto Pearson, few connect directly to Toronto Pearson.

The airport authority continues to reach out to, and work with, transit agencies and governments to firm up plans for rapid transit to and from the Pearson area. For example, the GTAA's vision includes extending the light rail transit lines along Eglinton and Finch Avenues West and connecting the future Highway 407 transitway to the air terminals and the Mississauga Transitway.

For example, last April, the GTAA and Metrolinx announced that they are working together to study potential connections for the Kitchener GO Transit rail corridor to Toronto Pearson’s regional transit and passenger centre and other potential transit connections.

Toronto Pearson International Airport Transit TerminalMetrolinx and partners are studying the feasibility of extending the Eglinton LRT to a regional transit centre (RTC) at Pearson, image, GTAA

The GTAA-Metrolinx partnership is studying:

  • potentially connecting the GO rail corridor to "Union Station West";
  • potentially connecting rapid lines and various local and regional bus services to Pearson;
  • improving ground transportation to and from the airport and the airport employment area; and
  • phasing these various projects so some of them are already available when "Union Station West" is a reality.

"Toronto Pearson is Canada’s gateway to the world and a key driver of jobs, trade and tourism," said Eng. "The GTAA is committed to working with Metrolinx to improve transit. These studies will help to connect our region for the benefit of passengers, airport workers, local businesses and residents."

"We are excited to be moving ahead with our partners to explore all options available. By strengthening connections among communities along the innovation corridor between Kitchener-Waterloo, Pearson Airport and Toronto, we will work to deliver faster, more frequent service for our customers" said Verster.

Toronto Pearson International Airport Transit TerminalThis map of the proposed Woodbine-Highway 27 GO station shows the Finch West LRT connecting with Pearson, image, Metrolinx

Although the UP Express has improved connectivity to Downtown Toronto, many Toronto passengers still require at least one connection and more than 1.5 hours of travel time to access Pearson. Meanwhile, passengers from elsewhere in Southern Ontario have no choice but to transfer at Union Station—even though GO and VIA Rail services already pass by the airport.

At the recent Board of Trade event, Eng and Verster reiterated their long-term plans to develop the first phase of the multi-modal transit hub at Pearson by the late 2020s. But, both CEOs talked about the importance of making smaller, incremental steps along the journey towards opening the airport terminal, as essential to the success of the plan. Eng pointed to the recent launching of MiWay's Airport express bus as but one example of those smaller steps towards better connections. Similarly, Verster spoke about recent improvements to GO bus services that provide passengers as far west as Hamilton and as far east as Richmond Hill with hourly service 24 hours a day to and from Pearson.

Toronto Pearson International Airport Transit TerminalThis chart compares the number of transit passengers at Pearson with the numbers for other airports, image, GTTA

While Eng and Verster did not discuss concrete plans for future rapid transit lines, at least two Metrolinx projects promise better connectivity to the airport area over the next few years. Metrolinx is leading a team, including the cities of Toronto and Mississauga and the TTC, to explore the feasibility of extending the proposed Eglinton West LRT to Pearson.

And, last week, the Metrolinx board of directors considered the business case study for a new GO Transit station on Highway 27 near Woodbine Race Track. While that station is east of the airport zone, the plans show an extended Finch West LRT connecting with the proposed new station--and continuing toward the airport.

The Urban Strategies research reveals that multi-modal transit hubs are a common component of the world’s largest airports, providing travel options for the millions of people who travel to, from, and through airports and their adjacent employment zone. These hubs:

  • connect air-travel passengers to and from the airport;
  • serve as major regional transportation hubs in their own right, providing key links between regional locations and transportation modes; and
  • connect employees to jobs at the airport and to those in the surrounding employment zone.

According to the GTAA, only 10 per cent of passengers and employees at Toronto Pearson use public transit. This figure is particularly low by international standards. For example, the figure for London Heathrow is 36 per cent, while the average percentage of passengers using transit at other airport hubs around the world is 34 per cent.

Toronto Pearson aims to achieve a figure of transit-using passengers and employees of between 20 and 30 per cent. It has determined that the Greater Golden Horseshoe area requires another multi-modal transit hub to support its growth. Such a facility should include a network of buses, airport express trains, rapid transit and regional trains. A multi-modal transit hub would provide travel options and capacity for the millions of people who travel to, from and through the airport, or the surrounding employment zone.

Toronto Pearson International Airport Transit TerminalAn early rendering of the proposed Pearson transit terminal, image, GTAA

Last February, the GTAA engaged HOK to design the regional transit centre, which would also act as a facility to improve passenger service at the airport. HOK is leading a design team that includes WSP Engineers and Weston Williamson + Partners. It intends to engage with many stakeholder groups, including airport partners, government and local community members. According to its website, HOK is a leader in sustainable, high-performance design and has led major aviation and transportation projects at some of the world’s most travelled international airports.

We will continue to update you on the project as it progresses. In the meantime, you will find more renderings of the transit terminal concept in our database file for the proposal, linked below. You can get in on the discussion in our associated Forum tread, or you can share your comments about the plan in the space provided on this page.