I have a transit confession. Before last Tuesday’s decision to reduce fares, I was already an UP Express rider. With my Presto card I paid $15 to Pearson from Bloor, my home station, making the UPX 1/3 the cost of a taxi, ½ the cost of Uber, at least twice as fast to the airport, more reliable than any option and more luxurious than a limo – of course I had the entire coach to myself.
No question that the UPX works for me, but I don’t represent the commuter access needs of the region. I live within a ten-minute walk to the Bloor UPX station. Not many people in the city have that location advantage. The new cheaper fares will likely attract a greater number of airport goers who live and work within the UPX catchment, but make no mistake, it will not transform the UPX into a commuter train.
Of the approximately 40,000 people work at Pearson, only 3,500 live anywhere close enough to the UPX to consider it a commuting option, regardless of the ticket price. As for the other direction, it might poach some riders from a crowded Kitchener GO line, but only those that originate at Weston, and perhaps Bloor, but these folks already have access to the subway.
We know from the research conducted by Pamela Blais for the Neptis Foundation, that the bigger Airport Employment Megazone, which includes Pearson and the airport corporate centre, employs 300,000 people and is the largest and fastest growing employment centre in the province after downtown Toronto, which employs 465,000 jobs. Yet unlike downtown Toronto, the Airport Employment Zone is underserved by transit, and consequently is responsible for 500,000 auto trips per day. The fare-reduced UPX wont solve this problem either.
Map from: The Neptis Foundation. (2015). Planning for Prosperity: Globalization, Competitiveness and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
This week, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority and Urban Strategies released a report called Pearson Connects, which calls for a multi modal hub at Pearson that is transit connective from all directions. It sets priorities for these transit connections, including the Finch West LRT. It’s interesting to learn from this report that 3% of the workforce in Jane-Finch is employed at the Airport, compared to a city-wide average of 1 per cent.
Then there is the western stretch of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, which, under Transit City, was originally bound for the airport. Post Transit City, the western section was deprioritized by The Big Move. Then John Tory replaced it with an expensive heavy rail section of SmartTrack. Fortunately, Mayor Tory recently made the good decision to morph it back to the Crosstown LRT, listening to an expert report that noted the LRT option is 3 to 8 times cheaper than heavy rail and would serve more passengers.
The western Crosstown is shovel-ready but it is not clear where it waits in queue on the runway. One would hope that it doesn’t get bumped back by the misconstrued assumption that the fare-friendly UPX is now the defacto airport connection we need. The UPX is not a commuter line and it wasn’t designed to be. With trains full every day, the UPX would carry only 17,000 people, about 1/3 of the King Streetcar, for example.
Transit lines serving the airport
The map above illustrates the concentration of where Airport Employment Zone workers live who commute to the zone. The data shows traffic analysis zones based on TTS data, but does not provide the number of commuters within walkable proximity to transit stations.
Nevertheless, the map shows some good news: there are large concentrations of airport zone employees living near the MiWay BRT which is largely completed. What is disappointing are the large concentrations of workers in Brampton where the Hurontario LRT would have reached.
We all have a right to be frustrated. Toronto commuters have been transit-starved for decades, and the first ribbon cut since the Sheppard subway was the UP Express, yet another megaproject that fails to provide transit where it’s badly needed. In a year or so, we can look forward to the completion of the over-budget University-York extension which serves densities too low to support a bus.
Some are asking that Metrolinx consider lowering the UPX ticket to the same as a TTC token, which misses the point. The fare is not the issue. The project itself is. The new UPX fares are on par with GO and in the same ballpark as Vancouver’s Canada Line, which functions much more like a commuter line than does UPX. As yesterday’s Globe and Mail article reports, the new UPX fares declared on Tuesday are what Metrolinx had recommended from the start.
Others are suggesting we need to add more stations to the UPX to serve more commuters. I would like to see the cost/benefit/ridership/time-to-completion analysis of mutating the UPX into commuter rail compared to deploying those ready shovels on the Western Crosstown to the airport. As the Pearson Connects study illustrates, other major world class airports have multiple options to get to the airport for commuters, the average traveler and even the first class.
How Toronto Pearson stacks up against international airports on transit options and mode share
The UP Express was always intended to be a business elite line, as was decided by the Feds and directed by Queens Park. Metrolinx brought the UPX into their broader plan that called for rapid commuter transit to the airport, including the Crosstown LRT. While the order that these projects have been built is less than ideal, lets get on with building the commuter transit we need, rather than try and shoehorn the UPX into the transit we don’t have.