All of a sudden, two glimmering celestial objects have appeared in the night sky above that fantastical dreamscape we sometimes refer to as Greater Toronto’s transit strategy.
Way up in the north-west corner of the city, we have the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) fearlessly shilling, with the help of top provincial Liberal strategists, for a “multi-modal transportation hub” on its lands. Said hub would connect the Pearson/Mississauga area with regional transit (MiWay, Smart Track, various bus services, UP Express, etc.) and points west, especially Waterloo Region.
Way down in the south-east corner, near the Portlands, we have City officials quietly testing out a variation on the standard Downtown Relief Line configuration that includes a slight southward jog to allow for a new subway stop on the former Lever Brothers/Unilever site, which could someday become a second major office cluster. It’s not difficult to imagine that such a station would itself become something of a multi-modal operation, given planned links to the re-built Gardiner (think buses), Smart Track/GO, and the Queen’s Quay East LRT.
So what to make of this looming hub-of-war?
Let’s start with the airport. In recent weeks, an intriguing data point from a November, 2015, Neptis study has found its way into the policy dialogue about land use and transportation planning in the region. According to her review of the ten-year-old Places to Grow Act, veteran planner Pamela Blais has identified three employment “megazones” in the GTA. These distant constellations are not merely ill served by transit; Blais says they scarcely figure in Metrolinx’s long-term plans to link the region’s 25 urban growth centres. Two extend along the Vaughan/Markham/Richmond Hill axis, and the third, which is about two-thirds the size of the entire City of Toronto, centres on Pearson.
With almost 300,000 jobs, the latter is Canada’s second largest employment cluster, trailing only downtown. According to the GTAA, other global airports have multi-modal transportation hubs that serve multiple purposes, including, as the report notes, connecting “employees to jobs at the airport and to those in the surrounding employment zone.” (We have to keep up with the Joneses.)
I’ve been hearing rumblings about the GTAA’s transit ambitions for almost half a year, and it’s still not at all clear to me which tail is wagging which dog. The GTAA, blessed with debenturing authority and land, has the tools to borrow mega-bucks, which will be paid down by jacking the already outrageous user fees paid by airport customers. (Pearson, in case you missed the memo, has the dubious distinction of levying North America’s steepest airport fees, and is not even modestly competitive in global rankings of airport efficiency/productivity, according to a 2014 study done at the University of British Columbia.)
But the GTAA’s now public campaign to plant its flag in the steaming mess that is our regional transit plan is clearly intended to apply pressure to Metrolinx and the provincial Liberals to spend money tying said multi-modal hub to the regional network, such as it is.
As with Smart Track and Metrolinx’s mobility hub strategy, we’ll have to close our eyes and make believe that such schemes will somehow ferry commuters out to the far-flung office parks and warehouses that sprawl across northern Mississauga, Malton and Brampton. The planners and lobbyists will talk earnestly about this newly-discovered megazone, and the “last-mile” question, as if knowing about the problem means we’ll now be able to figure out how to solve it.
I have every confidence that not a single person involved in the advocacy or planning debate over this hub will ever schlep by bus or foot through the sidewalk-less industrial wilderness north of Pearson, asking themselves whether the last-mile problem isn’t really a last-ten miles problem.
Meanwhile, down near the Portlands, the Lever Brothers/Unilever stop appears on two of the City’s six relief line configurations (seriously: B2 and D2), all of which are going through a suspect public consultation process that’s meant to convey the sensation of motion in the absence of same. The University of Toronto’s transportation modeling group has produced reams of ridership projection data for 2041, extrapolating volumes on the various lines, with or without Smart Track (which is also meant to have a station in the vicinity).
I’m not going to bother unpacking these numbers (read the report if you’re interested). While they’re developed by smart and well-intentioned forecasters, the projections serve to obscure the more qualitative and/or historical land use evaluations that planners once provided to policy-makers.
In this case, I find it difficult to understand why the City would even entertain configurations that don’t involve a Lever Brothers station. We should all remember why London’s Canary Wharf destroyed the first wave of builders (no Tube line connecting the downtown to Paul Reichmanns’ shiny towers). We understand that the City has a successful paradigm for creating underground connections between office towers and subway stations. And we should know that after the 1970s — when the province came up with the Toronto-centred plan that led to the creation of the GO commuter rail network and the subsequent development of the office towers at King and Bay — suburbanites were prepared to commute in large numbers to jobs in the core. Still do, in fact.
No compelling evidence – that magic word! – exists to support an airport multi-modal hub which purports to serve the super low-density employment zones nearby, or shuttle executives between Pearson and the office parks in Mississauga or Waterloo. The densities simply aren’t there, and won’t be for a century or more. In fact, we already know this story. As Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson’s City Building Institute pointed out at a recent Environmental Defense event (full disclosure: I was moderator), none of the subway stops planned for the Spadina extension up to Vaughan have densities sufficient to support bus service, let alone subways.
So what will we do? The wrong thing, I’m sure.
The provincial Liberals will become fatally distracted by the GTAA’s shiny bauble as they continue to plow billions into pie-in-the-sky suburban transit schemes. And once again, we’ll also have to tell ourselves there’s just no money left over for projects like Queen’s Quay East LRT or the Relief Line, even though we know with 100% certainty how to make those kinds of transit investments not just work but pay broad dividends – social, financial, environmental, cultural, urban.
So make the connection: the GTAA’s transportation hub scheme is a fiscal black hole which will end up soaking up the faint political energy around the relief line. And that’s just how our world turns.