Pedestrian Tunnel a Game-Changer to Relieving Traffic and Congestion

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By Deborah Wilson, VP Communications & Public Affairs, PortsToronto

PortsToronto had high hopes for the pedestrian tunnel when it commenced construction on the 863-foot underwater structure in March 2012, but when the tunnel opened three years later was nothing short of a game-changer for Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

The tunnel was structured as a P3 project and would connect the Toronto mainland at the base of Bathurst Street to Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island. Until the opening of the tunnel in July 2015 passengers arrived and departed the airport aboard a 200-person ferry that ran every 15 minutes. With the introduction of the tunnel, passengers could now come and go on their own schedule, which had a dramatic effect on congestion and operations.

Opened in 1939 just days after the start of World War II, Billy Bishop Airport didn’t become a major Canadian airport until 2006 with the introduction of Porter Airlines. Today, the airport welcomes 2.8 million passengers each year and is home to two commercial airlines – Porter Airlines and Air Canada – which provides services to more than 20 destinations in eastern Canada and the United States. Billy Bishop Airport is now the ninth busiest airport in Canada, the sixth busiest with service to the United States.

As the airport grew post-2006, so too did traffic and congestion at the Bathurst Street and Lakeshore Blvd intersection. Although analysis indicated that only between 10-16 per cent of the traffic and congestion in the area was actually attributable to the airport (the rest is linked to the meteoric rise in condos developments in the area and local attractions such as the Rogers Centre) the impact of airport-related traffic was felt more acutely given that passengers arrived and departed the area in waves according to the ferry schedule.

When the tunnel opened passengers were able to arrive and depart the airport on their own schedule in a steady, managed flow, rather than in waves. With 90 per cent of passengers taking the tunnel, this had a dramatic impact on traffic in the area and has significantly reduced the congestion.

In recent years, other enhancements were made to improve access to the airport. These include re-configuring airport properties at taxis stands and implementing short-term drop-off/pick-up zones that have reduced the need for cars queuing in the neighbourhood.

Billy Bishop Airport is also working to influence passenger behaviour to reduce traffic congestion by encouraging access to the airport by bike, walking, shuttle or TTC. PortsToronto is working with the City of Toronto on the implementation of the Bathurst Quay Neighbourhood Plan and the Waterfront Transit Reset Project to promote urban-friendly access to the airport. And it seems to be working. A modality study conducted by Dillon Consulting in recent years has indicated that approximately 40 per cent of passengers walk, bike, shuttle or take transit from the airport. This is the highest percentage of non-single-vehicle access to/from any airport in North America.

This modality study was followed up with a public opinion survey conducted by Environics which polled more than 1,200 Torontonians to determine how they access Billy Bishop Airport. Interestingly, more people bike or walk to Billy Bishop Airport than take a car. The fact that the airport Bike Share stands are one of the ten busiest in the city would support this trend.

Operating a busy airport in an urban environment is about balance and over the last five years Billy Bishop Airport has worked with the City of Toronto and the surrounding community to ensure that operations remain in balance with residential and recreational interests. Last year Billy Bishop Airport was the North American winner of Airport Council International’s Environmental Achievement Award for its Noise Mitigation Program. This was inclusive of its traffic management strategy that included the tunnel as well as project-specific initiatives such as barging construction materials across Toronto’s harbour for an airfield restoration initiative. The barging operation removed approximately 6,000 trucks carrying asphalt or granular material off of the airport’s neighborhood streets, by transporting these materials on water. The success of this operation in Toronto’s waterfront, is a model being used by other building agencies such as the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and Waterfront Toronto.

The airport will continue to look for ways to reduce the impact of operations on the surrounding community through investment in infrastructure like the tunnel and the recently opened Ground Run-Up Enclosure to mitigate ground engine noise, as well as taking advantage of its location to encourage alternative means of access.

Certainly, Billy Bishop Airport’s close proximity to downtown and local attractions is a big part of why we are successful in getting people out of their cars, but it’s also the result of infrastructure investment such as bike racks installed on the mainland and island side as well as, and a free shuttle between the airport and stops downtown. As the City of Toronto continues to invest in transit we hope for even better TTC connectivity to give people more options.

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