Airports need good transit connections and Toronto just got one

UP express train
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

In North America it is just assumed that everyone drives to the airport; the parking garages are vast. Perhaps the attitude is that if you can afford to fly, then you can afford to leave a car sitting there for a week, or to take a limo there. Getting from JFK to Manhattan by train is a horrible experience; arriving from Newark into Penn Station is better, at least it is a direct train, but it still is, as Vincent Scully noted, scuttling in like a rat. Other cities, like San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta, have it better still, with subways extended out to the airport.

But there's nothing like the dedicated lines like you find in Hong Kong or London, that wizz you into the city in comfort and style. Now, after decades of talk, the Union Pearson Express has opened, carrying passengers directly from the airport to Union Station, the transportation hub downtown. There are two intermediate stops, including one at the main east-west subway line. After years of spending too much money on cabs and too much time on the horrible bus experience, I used the Union Pearson Express on a recent trip.

pearson stationLloyd Alter/ Pearson Airport station/CC BY 2.0
This line was not without controversy; they spent almost half a billion dollars to provide service for the supposed flying elite while the regular transit system is falling apart. Many protested the use of diesel instead of electric engines, but the Japanese Nippon Sharyo DMU trains do meet Tier 4 emission standards and are the cleanest diesels in North America. It's considered expensive, although it's less than London and it actually gets you downtown, and if you buy the new Presto card it's a lot less costly (but still C$19).

All of these things are absolutely true, and yet it is still absolutely wonderful. Unlike London, Atlanta or San Francisco, the access point is centrally located so that it is just a short walk to the train, particularly from domestic arrivals.

inside trainLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

A lot of people dislike the design touches, the retro Canadian brown tones, as Alex Bozikovic describes them: " The livery and the exterior paint job of the trains, led by Winkreative, are in shades of sage green, red, burnt orange and yellow-brown. They are intended to reflect the landscape of Ontario." However he continues by noting:

It’s hard to argue with the quality of this work. And yet if you know the state of Canada’s public-transit infrastructure – particularly that of Toronto – this level of refinement begins to seem a bit comical. Indeed the idea of a Toronto air-rail link has stirred controversy since it was first mooted by the Jean Chrétien goverment. The region is desperate for transit and this line is a niche product which will have a minimal impact on the region. It will serve 2.5 million riders a year, if the projections bear out; the Toronto Transit Commission moves more than 500 million riders a year.

But what a glorious niche product. I got off the train at the Bloor Street subway stop where one is forced to walk outside to get to the subway station, fine when the weather is nice but a long walk in the rain. It seems that they had to negotiate a right of way under an adjoining building and a proper connection is two years away. Nonetheless, I got from airport to front door in 38 minutes for C$18 including subway fare, the same time as it takes in a cab for a third the price.

My two trips on the UP Express meant two less cars on the road, saving fuel and reducing congestion. It was stress free and fast. But there is another aspect to it that I think is great for Toronto.

no jets© No jets TO

Right now, Toronto is going through another of its many political transportation wars, the proposed expansion of the Toronto Island Airport to accommodate jets. Most people who live in the area hate the idea; Toronto harbour is a solid residential neighborhood, a huge tourist attraction and it's all focused on our newly beautiful booming waterfront. But the airport is popular because it is so convenient to downtown.

With the UP Express, Pearson Airport is really just as convenient as the Island now. Why take a shuttle bus and a ferry (or if they ever finish it, a moving sidewalk in a long tunnel) when you can zip to the big airport in the same time? The biggest benefit of jets downtown, namely avoiding the horrible drive to the airport, is gone. UP Express may just be the weapon that kills the island airport expansion. Now that would truly be great for Toronto.

Airports need good transit connections and Toronto just got one
Riding the Union Pearson Express

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