Dramatic changes could be coming to Toronto's Pearson International Airport. Informally dubbed 'Union Station West,' a proposed Pearson transit hub is being touted as a transformative upgrade to regional transport, enhancing connectivity between Pearson International Airport, Toronto, and the western GTA. Announced earlier today, the ambitious Pearson Transit Hub would connect the region's transportation networks, providing multi-modal access to both the airport and the burgeoning 'Airport Employment Zone' (AEZ) that surrounds it. Housing passenger processing and security screening, the facility would bring about a re-configuration of the airport itself, with the dramatic new concept showcasing a departure from Pearson's previous Master Plan.
Situated immediately across from Terminal 3 on the east side of Airport Road at the terminus of Highway 409, the transit centre would replace the existing Alt Hotel, the long term and employee parking garage, and much of the surrounding surface parking. Integrating regional transit networks—and the UP Express—into a single hub, the so-called 'Union Station West' would make the airport and its surroundings a much more central part of the GTA. As it stands, a lack of transit accessibility significantly hampers future growth prospects for both the airport and its adjacent lands, which—home to some 332,000 jobs—are second only to Downtown Toronto as a Canadian employment hub. Somewhat less obviously, however, operational weaknesses within the airport itself can cause similar problems, with global passenger traffic—and the economic activity it catalyzes—lost to inefficiency.
Just as long commutes and lack of transit accessibility impede the airport's attractiveness, lengthy screening and passenger processing can dissuade travellers—particularly international flyers. For passengers, time lost to waiting in line is just as valuable as the time lost sitting in traffic. At Pearson, this is a well-established problem. As noted in the National Post, "[m]ost passengers at Pearson wait 20 minutes for pre-board screening compared to five minutes for 95 per cent of passengers at London’s Heathrow Airport and Hong Kong International Airport." By centralizing some of the security screening and processing—currently performed separately at Terminals 1 and 3—the new facility could enhance the airport's efficiency, making it a more attractive global hub.
Meanwhile, the preliminary rendering of the transit centre also hints at the evolving future of Terminals 1 and 3. Joining the outlying parking lots—which would be redeveloped with predominantly commercial office buildings—the parking garage and Sheraton Hotel alongside Terminal 3 could be removed. That facility would make way for a series of new gates. With processing and screening moved to the transit centre, these uses could be removed from Terminal 3, allowing the existing entrance hall to be redeveloped as a passenger area.
Elevated bridges—high enough for taxiing airplanes to pass under—link the transit centre with Terminal 3 and on to the expanded Terminal 1, potentially replacing the LINK train. Like its counterpart to the north, the newer—and larger—Terminal 1 would be reconfigured, and expanded with two new piers. Adding to the existing piers D, E, and F, piers G and H would extend to the south, while the removal of Terminal 1's existing parking garage would allow for a similar reconfiguration of the entrance hall into space for more gates and passenger amenities.
These plans depart from the vision previously outlined in Pearson's "Taking Flight: The Airport Master Plan 2008-2030." Outlining a long-term vision for the airport, the Master Plan called for a similarly ambitious expansion of Terminal 1, albeit with a third new pier (labelled as Pier I, below) in lieu of the north side gates now apparently favoured. While the planned expansion of Terminal 1 maintains elements of the previous Master Plan, the similarities end there.
Complementing the (comparatively) long-planned expansion of Pearson's existing facilities, the new vision offers a decidedly bolder re-imagination of Canada's busiest airport. Re-routing Pearson's screening/processing into the new transit centre, the duplicated regulatory facilities at Terminals 1 and 3 could make way for planes and passengers. This would be made possible by the more centralized and transit-oriented nature of the site, with the new multi-modal hub also allowing much of the airport's above-ground and surface parking to be removed.
As Pearson's passenger volume continues to swell—fast approaching the 50 million 'global mega hub' status—the airport's relative lack of connectivity and efficiency has long been identified as an operational weakness. Developed in partnership with planning firm Urban Strategies, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA)—the agency managing Pearson's operations—has put out a series of papers outlining the scope of these issues in recent years, beginning with the 2015 report titled "Growth, Connectivity, Capacity—The Future of a Key Regional Asset."
Amidst rapid regional population growth and rising passenger traffic, the paper outlined the need to expand the airport, with a more thorough vision presented in 2016's follow-up report; "Pearson Connects: A Multi-Modal Platform for Prosperity." Offering a focused analysis of the airport's lack of transit options, the report argued that a lack of connectivity presents a critical obstacle to the airport's continued development. Compared to other major airports worldwide—though, notably, not in North America—the share of passengers using transit remains very low. By contrast, the NEPTIS Foundation and the GTAA report that some 1 million car trips are made to the airport each day.
The case for a multi-modal hub was recently laid out in further detail in "Growing Canada With a Mega Hub Airport" report, published in December of 2016. Presenting a broader economic analysis of a transit-friendly aviation hub, the paper argued that expanding Pearson into a 'mega hub' would yield far-ranging economic benefits to both the GTA and the whole of Canada. (A 'mega hub' is defined as an airport with a total passenger volume of at lest 50 million, an international passenger volume of at least 20 million, and connectivity to at least 80 percent of the global economy. As it stands, Pearson meets only the international passenger threshold).
While the Airport Employment Zone (AEZ) is already Canada's second largest employment hub, greater connectivity to the world's markets could provide a huge boost to job creation. According to the report, a mega hub could see the 332,000 existing jobs could grow to over 700,000 by 2035, increasing the area's contribution to Ontario’s Gross Domestic Product from 6.3% to 8.5%. Notwithstanding connectivity to the airport, high order transit access is also critical in and of itself, bringing workers to an area that remains accessibly only by car for many GTA residents.
Finally, the positive economic spillovers associated with successful airports can be far-ranging, as outlined in a previous UrbanToronto article on the Pearson mega-hub:
More broadly, the impact of airports as economic catalysts in the 21st century is arguably comparable to the impacts of highways, railroads, and seaports in the past three centuries respectively. According to the "aerotropolis model" of economic development by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, the vitality of the knowledge economy is strongly predicated on connectivity and accessibility of people. As urban theorist Richard Florida wrote in Citylab, "[a]irports play a substantial role on the economic growth and development of cities and regions. In today's knowledge economy, far and away, the most precious cargo they move is people."
As today's announcement offered a very preliminary outline of the vision for the airport's future, we can expect to learn more in the coming weeks. No funding for the new transit centre has been secured as of yet, though the GTAA is reportedly engaging all three levels of government, and announcements may be forthcoming. If built, 'Union Station West' could join the proposed East Harbour station as a major new transit hub for the GTA, adding a vital component to the region's underdeveloped network.
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