Sunday, July 26, 2009

In Defense of the Island Airport

In Which Andrew Will Somehow Mask His Irritation at VIA Rail Settling the Strike Nine Hours After He Cancels His Reservations With Them

Recently I've begun seeing flyers around Parkdale, flyers which feature an infant in a breathing mask and criticize the five four hundred "TOXIC diesel trains" that will be roaring through the neighborhood when the Blue22 rail link between Union Station and Toronto Pearson International Airport comes to fruition. Personally, I have always thought that Blue22 was ridiculous, the sort of project only a politician could support. For one, it steals valuable rail corridor space that could be put to much better use as a western extension of the Downtown Relief Line.

I think this conflict all stems from a misapprehension of the situation at hand. See, personally I don't think air travel, in its most common form, has staying power. Those big turbofan jetliners, the Boeings and the Airbuses and Ilyushins, are not the cheapest machines in the world to operate. There's an old joke: what's the easiest way to become a millionaire? Be a billionaire and buy an airline. The environmental cost is no less, even if it's not commonly thought of; a 2006 Guardian piece reported a "general consensus" that aviation was responsible for 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Here in Toronto, I think the Island Airport - officially, Toronto City Centre Airport - provides a much-needed alternative. For the last three years, Porter Airlines has been the sole passenger airline operating from YTZ, flying Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft on short-haul routes in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. When I was planning for my trip to Montreal next month for the 67th World Science Fiction Convention, Anticipation SF, I was only interested in VIA Rail or Porter Airlines because the two of them offered the lowest environmental impact.

Nevertheless, the Island Airport has historically had a fractious relationship with the city of Toronto, both old and new. The controversy goes back to the late 1970s, when the first whispers of passenger service out of YTZ reached City Hall, and reached a fever pitch in 2006 when Porter Airlines began its operations. Mayor David Miller, you see, doesn't like the idea of the Island Airport, and was elected on a platform that included a halt on the construction of a bridge across the narrow Western Gap to the airport - perhaps out of the hope that ferry-only access might choke Porter's profit margins like Hercules in the crib.

It hasn't really worked out that way, but Miller still opposes the idea of passenger aircraft flying from the Island. Personally, I think the city should encourage development and use of the Island Airport. No matter how much Pearson's management might want it to be otherwise, there is no reason to believe that the status quo will last forever. Short-haul flights on efficient aircraft like the Q400 are far more sustainable a mode of transportation than modern jetliners.

For a mayor who's staking so much, like the Jarvis bike lane project, on his environmentalist creds, Miller's continued opposition to the Island Airport seems quixotic and more than a bit shortsighted to me. For my part, I imagine what's possible - a pedestrian and transit bridge that flies across the Western Gap, and a platform where travellers can step straight on a streetcar and step off again at Union Station.

It'd be a hell of a lot cheaper, cleaner, and quieter than Blue22.


  1. I think you're retarded.

    Air travel will always be here, regardless of the cost. It is too important to society.

  2. I just found your blog today and I wanted to say that I really enjoy it.

  3. HTSAC - Thanks for the comment, I really appreciate it.

    Anonymous - Nice to see you can throw insults around while hiding behind that veil of yours. I never said air travel will go away, I said that it may not stay "in its most common form." $99 round-trip tickets to Varadero are not "too important to society," and if those go away, the levels of demand that lead to something like Blue22 being thought of as a good idea go away.

  4. Blue22 is of benefit for the entire city. Take your "not in my backyard" attitude and move to the States

  5. Taking a Q-400 from Toronto City Centre Airport pollutes substantially less than taking a jet from Pearson. Worse, transferring flights from downtown to Pearson dumps pollution on Rexdale and Malton, and those communities have younger and poorer populations than the waterfront. The actual reason for Mayor Miller's opposition to the airport has little to do with environmental rationality, and more to do with his idea of what makes a "perfect" neighbourhood, a concept bound up with theories of the "creative class" and the "creative city".

    That said, as a West End resident, I regard the building of "Blue 22" as an opportunity to push for the badly needed electrification of rail in Toronto. Just as we need to look at aviation differently, we also need to look at the way we power trains, and electrification now makes a lot of sense.