With ten years remaining on its lease, privately-held Nieuport Aviation, the owner of the terminal at Billy Bishop Airport (BBA), has launched a major public relations campaign. The objective is to convince the City of Toronto, its primary landlord, to renew the lease. Nieuport’s consultant and advocate is the U. of T. urbanist Richard Florida.
Florida and his consultancy Creative Class Group published a report last January entitled Toronto’s Downtown Airport: A Powerful Economic Asset in the City’s Urban Core, which I critiqued in a previous post. And a few days ago he published an op-ed in The Toronto Star.
Debunking an Airport Booster
Florida is a big booster of airports and believes that every global city should have several. In the op-ed Florida paints a paradoxical picture of BBA as a “neighbourhood-friendly” airport that “blends seamlessly into Toronto’s urban centre” yet somehow also manages to be “a crucial economic generator potentially contributing nearly $5 billion in annual economic impact.” However, both sides of this paradox can be readily debunked.
Aircraft operations at BBA are a major source of noise, air, and carbon pollution in downtown Toronto. As evidence of its neighbourhood-friendliness Florida writes that “many travellers walk or bike to it.” How many? His own report tells us (p.12) that in 2022 only 4 percent of passengers biked or walked, another 27 percent took transit or the shuttle, so that the remaining 69 percent drove to BBA, making their own contribution to the downtown core’s pollution and congestion problems. How neighbourhood-friendly is that?
Economic impact studies are a well-known but dubious methodology used to justify airports, convention centers, and stadiums, among other things. The problem is that they are rife with exaggeration. A recent study of the impact of expanding the UK’s London City Airport was Airport was criticized by CE Delft, a European research consultancy, in terms that are entirely relevant to Florida’s study of BBA. “Adding direct, indirect, and induced effects together leads to double-counting and the overestimation of the economic impact of airport expansion. If all sectors would claim the direct, indirect, and induced effects as their own, the country’s GDP would be significantly overstated, seeing as most sectors are either a supplier or customer of another sector.”
Furthermore, if BBA’s traffic is primarily shifted from Pearson, as seems likely, BBA’s positive economic impact is offset by the negative economic impact at Pearson. Indeed, if all of BBA’s traffic is simply shifted from Pearson, its economic impact on the GTA is precisely zero.
BBA’s traffic peaked at approximately 2.8 million passengers before the pandemic. It recovered to only 1.8 million in 2022. Airport operations data for 2023 show fewer operations at BBA this summer than last. Porter Airlines, once a startup based at BBA, has increasingly shifted its focus to Pearson. This hardly indicates growing traveler acceptance for BBA.
Florida argues that BBA’s competitive advantage is that it “puts business and leisure travelers smack-dab in the middle of all that [downtown Toronto] action.” He neglects to mention that the Union-Pearson shuttle, which runs every 15 minutes during peak periods and takes just 25 minutes to provide travelers using Pearson with similar access.
A Better Choice
There is a clear and environmentally friendly alternative to extending Nieuport’s lease. Decommission BBA and convert its 215 acres to parkland, which would increase Toronto Island Park by thirty-five percent. Residents of downtown Toronto are starved for parkland, with an average of 6.4 square metres per capita, compared to 28 square metres for all Torontonians. Expanding Toronto Island Park to encompass the entire island would facilitate a transformation of the island park to attract both residents and tourists. The island tunnel, now restricted to airport users, would become an alternative access route to the park, relieving congestion on the ferries. And it would eliminate a major source of noise, air, and carbon pollution in downtown Toronto.
Now that Nieuport Aviation has started its publicity campaign, it’s time for a real debate about the future of BBA. In my view, Richard Florida’s claims on Nieuport’s behalf are deeply flawed. It’s time to hear other voices and for the City of Toronto to undertake some serious policy analysis, including an articulation of its alternative use as parkland.