(March 1, 2000) Charging at the Airport on Golden Chariots

By James Bow.

I begin to see how repetative editorializing about transportation issues can be. Really, when you are writing about transportation, the central thesis of most articles generally falls into two categories: 'build it, you guys!' and 'build it properly, you guys!'. You can argue about the technology that's to be used, or the route that's to be followed, but it's hard to advocate transit without advocating investment in transit infrastructure.

So, this editorial is going to sound very similar to the editorial I wrote last November wherein I criticized the tendency of the TTC's transit projects to be 'gold plated'. Only this time, my focus shifts to other players, and on a specific route.

There is little doubt that Toronto's International Airport needs to be better integrated into the region's public transit network. Currently, the choices for airport travellers include arriving by car or private limo service, or taking the Airport Express buses from the downtown or Islington Station. For those who don't have the spare cash to splurge on these luxuries, the Airport trip becomes an even greater burden. GO serves the terminals from York Mills, Yorkdale and points west, but service is hourly, at best. The TTC, following its decision that it didn't cost appreciably more to loop its buses within the Airport rather than turn them back at the City Limits, also offers local service along Dixon Road to Lawrence West Station and express service to Kipling Station. The express service, currently on trial, operates at 45 minute frequencies from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., while the Malton service is slightly more frequent, but takes longer to reach its destination.

There are a number of reasons why this has to change. Business travellers clearly are well served by the Airport's limosine service, but for the rest of us, the cumbersome or expensive trip to and from the airport to final destinations in the city is an added burden which embarrasses Toronto and tarnishes its reputation as a travel destination. The airport is a major trip generator within the region, and the failure to make public transportation a viable alternative there throws a wrench in our plans to ween ourselves from our dependence upon the automobile. There is also an element of pride involved in these arguments. Many other cities, like London, New York, Paris and Chicago, have linked their airports into their rapid transit networks and have benefitted from this arrangement. Why shouldn't Toronto do the same?

For this reason, a number of proposals for a rapid transit link to the airport have surfaced. Going back in history, we have either a subway or an LRT connection stretching from the west end of the Bloor-Danforth subway. In this decade, the Eglinton West Subway was seen as our best hope to get trains to the airport. More recently, the Federal Ministry of Transportation has seriously examined building a high-speed rail link between Union Station and the Airport. A far less expensive version of this proposal suggests linking the Airport's soon-to-be-built people-mover with a new station near the Woodbine Racetrack on an expanded Georgetown GO Train line, although some people complain about the burden of transferring between GO Train and people mover. The detail of these proposals are increasing, giving us the hope that such a connection will be built at some point in the near future.

I see the need for a rapid transit connection to the Airport, but I fear that we are gold-plating the projects that hope to get us there. Consider this: of all the trips to and from the airport, only 16% have anything to do with the downtown core. This means the idea of a high-speed connection between the Airport and Union Station could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but will not address the needs of most people who use the Airport. A rapid transit connection in the form of the Eglinton West Subway or a connection with Kipling Station on the Bloor-Danforth might serve more people, but would also be notoriously expensive. The "budget option" (which, thankfully, is the one most likely to proceed) does offer a less expensive connection which may be useful to more people (offering, as it does, the potential for service to Georgetown and Oshawa through the GO Network, and possibly to Kitchener, Stratford and London via VIA Rail). Unfortunately, there appears to be no serious consideration given to a perfectly useful, and even less expensive alternative.

Those of you who know me know that I am a big fan of rail transport. It isn't easy for me to say this, but buses on private right-of-way are an option that hasn't even been considered, and these may be the best way to go in extending service to the airport.

An average bus route using 40 foot buses in mixed traffic generally has a comfortable operating capacity of 3000 passengers per hour. Above that, streetcars operating in mixed traffic offer higher capacities (up to 6000 passengers per hour) due to their larger size. Buses operating on private right-of-way can operate faster and more frequently, with a capacity of up to 10000 passengers per hour. Above that, streetcars offer higher capacities per vehicle, and can be coupled together to form trains, bringing up a full LRT's capacity to up to 20000 passengers per hour. Above that traffic demand, subways become feasible. Buses are cheaper to operate than streetcars, despite their shorter lifespans and lower capacities, because you don't need to add the cost of rails and overhead wires to your capital costs as you would with a new streetcar route. Thus, if buses can comfortably handle the loads demanded by a particular route, and if you are willing to accept some environmental trade-offs thanks to emissions, it may make sense to go with buses as your technology choice for your transit project.

The Greater Toronto Area needs to invest in a large number of necessary transportation projects in order to have the infrastructure it needs to manage its growth effectively over the next twenty years. At the same time, we have a limited supply of tax dollars. We can not afford to waste one penny in getting these projects out. The big advantage of the GO Train proposal over the high-speed connection is that it makes use of existing tracks and existing rail-cars. A road parallelling the railway tracks from Union Station to the Etobicoke North GO Station might cost more than implementing full service on the Georgetown GO line, but from here west the bus's advantages become more clear. The railway tracks continue northwest, necessitating either an expensive new rail line to bring train service into the airport, or extending a people-mover run to bridge the gap. The bus, on the other hand, could easily hop over onto Highway 409 and continue its high-speed drive to the terminal. It may even be possible to build bus only-lanes into this already established piece of infrastructure.

Ottawa has shown that buses operating on private right-of-way do offer good, low level rapid transit at costs lower than an LRT. Their system isn't perfect, but it works, even connecting to their airport. A similar system for Toronto would not be fancy, and not nearly as prestigious as a subway or other high-speed rail connection to the airport, but it would get the job done. The prospect of a bus terminal built into the basement of Union Station makes the connection even more obvious. Also, busways have some additional benefits that a rail connection might not offer. If you extend the busway west to connect with the 401, inter-city buses can make use of the line, bypassing traffic in a more direct run downtown. This not only opens up the airport to passengers from the west of the city, but could improve travel times for bus passengers heading downtown. They might be more willing to forget about bringing their car into the city in the first place. Stops along the route would not be expensive to build and would open up the busway to more passengers, possibly served by a combination of local and express services. A busway could easily represent a low cost, low level rapid transit line bringing much needed service to an underserviced sector of Toronto. In Ottawa, emergency vehicles also use the busway in order to bypass traffic and reach their calls faster, and there's no reason why this can't be applied here.

All of these benefits may be available for an airport busway, or they might not be. A GO Train might be better able to get people out of their cars on their way to the airport, or a high-speed bus route might do the same thing. The point is, we won't know unless we give the busway serious consideration, and that is not happening. Until it does, we can not honestly say that we've examined all of the options and we can not know for certain that we've selected the best one.

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On a related issue, watch out for the residents of Weston. This long-established community abuts the railroad tracks to a far greater degree than the more mixed industrial-commercial neighbourhoods along the rest of the route. It is in Weston that most of the level crossings exist, and the people of Weston would probably have very reasonable concerns about the prospects of a bus-only road through their neighbourhood and the emissions associated with it. They'd probably also have concerns about a significant increase in rail transit as a result of a GO connection. The prospects of building underpasses to replace the numerous grade crossings along this segment has not been raised, and will likely increase the cost of any such connection along this route, bus or GO Train. You have been warned.

P.S. (Dated October 1, 2000): Since writing this editorial, I've come to the conclusion that the most effective link to the airport would be a people-mover to a new GO station near the Woodbine racetrack, and hourly or half-hourly GO service on the Georgetown line. This would be cheap, and create a comfortable service that would be open to more people

P.P.S. (Dated March 10, 2002): Of course, since writing this editorial, the current transportation situation for the airport has changed. The TTC began operating the 192 Airport Rocket between Kipling station and Terminals 2 and 3. Soon after this service was in place, the higher priced Airport Express runs to Islington, Yorkdale and York Mills stations were cancelled.


Peter Drost rebuts:

It is widely reported in the media - and in James Bow's March editorial - that a downtown rail link to Pearson International would only serve approximately 16% - 18% of airport users. The 16% - 18% number apparently represents the number of downtown trips made up to the airport. It might be true, but it's somewhat misleading.

When (and if) a high speed link is ever established to the airport there is no doubt that people using the service will be coming into Union Station via GO Transit and the TTC from all points across the GTA. For many, this will be cheaper and easier than arranging an aggravating (and expensive) taxi or shuttle bus ride on the heavily congested highways around the airport.

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