Time to Retire Billy Bishop (Airport)

With the City of Toronto’s lease to the Toronto Port Authority due to expire in a decade, discussions about the future of Billy Bishop Airport are intensifying. The Creative Class Group (CCG), a consultancy founded by the urban scholar Richard Florida, has just released an encomium entitled “Toronto’s Downtown Airport: A Powerful Economic Asset in the City’s Urban Core.” This post is an analysis of that report. Be forewarned: I have come not to praise Billy Bishop Airport, but to retire it.

Aerotropolis: Mad About Airports

At the outset, I’ll make it clear that the CCG report involved no original research, but rather referenced research and reports produced by other people and organizations. In this it differs from last year’s York Aviation report, which attempted (erroneously in my opinion) to determine the impact of Billy Bishop Airport on travelers’ time and on economic activity.

 The CCG Report uses the “Aerotropolis model” of urban development, in which airports serve as urban growth nodes, pulling hotels, convention centres, office buildings, and manufacturing and logistics centres into their force field. The CCG report writes approvingly that “large global cities” have many airports, citing London with seven, New York six, and Vancouver five. Alas, Toronto has only two.

I was surprised about Vancouver, so checked out this claim. A travel website, Travel Triangle, counted seven Vancouver airports: Vancouver International, Vancouver Harbour Seaplane Terminal, three general aviation airports (Boundary Bay, Pitt Meadows, and Langley) and two nearby airports, both deemed international because they accommodate some flights to and from the US (Victoria and Abbotsford). If we were to count Toronto airports the same way Travel Triangle and CCG count Vancouver airports, we would have a not-too-shabby five: Pearson, Billy Bishop, Buttonville, and the international airports in nearby Hamilton and Buffalo, both of which serve passengers from the GTA.

The CCG Group is so keen on airports because they benefit two groups of people. Florida’s “creative class” involves the circulation of people and ideas. So Billy Bishop provides an opportunity for Toronto’s downtown-based creatives to hobnob with creatives in the global cities accessible from it (New York, Washington, Chicago, Boston) without having to schlepp out to Pearson. The second group airports benefit are airline and airport workers, for whom the report notes it provides “good, high-paying blue-collar jobs.” The classism implicit in this analysis is self-evident.

Four Inconvenient Facts

This celebration of airports in general, and Billy Bishop in particular, runs up against four inconvenient facts.

The first inconvenient fact, never mentioned in the CCG Report, is the Union-Pearson Express. This train takes 25 minutes to go from Union Station to Pearson, making it much more accessible and less expensive to downtown travelers than taking a taxi. With the revival of air travel after the pandemic, UP Express is running every 15 minutes during peak hours and every 30 minutes during off-peaks.

The second inconvenient fact is that Porter Airlines, Billy Bishop’s major user, is getting cold feet about Billy Bishop. Porter would like to fly jets both to nearby destinations it currently serves from Billy Bishop and to other more distant destinations. It is apprehensive that, due to concerns about noise and air pollution, the runway at Billy Bishop won’t be lengthened to accommodate jets. Porter sold its terminal at Billy Bishop to Nieuport Aviation for $700 million in 2015, but during the pandemic stopped paying rent. Nieuport successfully sued Porter for $130 million in damages in a decision in Ontario Superior Court announced last fall. So we have an unstable situation with the terminal owner looking for business to recover its investment and its major tenant, unhappy with the rent, positioning itself to move out. Indeed, Porter began jet service on February 1 from Toronto to Montreal and to Ottawa from a new hub at Pearson’s Terminal 3.

The third inconvenient fact is Zoom, which has proven to be an effective substitute for many in-person meetings and will therefore reduce the level of business travel for the foreseeable future.  

The fourth inconvenient fact is that airplanes are among the most significant emitters of greenhouse gases. Carbon taxes will therefore drive up airline ticket prices. And members of the creative class are likely to be aware of this inconvenient fact, and, for love of this planet, reduce their air travel.

Not a Good Neighbour

The CCG refers to Billy Bishop as “the world’s first walkable, neighbourhood-based airport” because four percent of its passenger arrive by walking or cycling. The report also boasts that a quarter of its passengers take the airport shuttle or transit. After accounting for walkers, bikers, and transit users, 70 percent of passengers access Billy Bishop by automobile.

The CCG report praises Billy Bishop Airport for converting its ferry from diesel to electric power, planning to convert its buses to electric power in 2023, and using clean electricity. Finally, it adds that the airport is adding public art and sculpture, including First Nations public art. All of this is putting lipstick on a pig. The point consistently made by Billy Bishop Airport’s critics is that aircraft operations create noise and air pollution in a densely populated urban area.

The CCG report attacks the proposal by Parks not Planes to add the space now occupied by Billy Bishop Airport to the Toronto Island Park because, it claims, Toronto already has lots of parks. It mentions Toronto Island, the Leslie Street Spit, and names nine smaller urban parks near the waterfront. People not Planes, in my opinion, has a convincing response, which is that downtown residents have a mere 8.4 square metres of parkland per capita, but the entire population of Toronto has 28 square metres of parkland per capita. So, despite the nine parklets, downtown residents are greatly underserved by parks in comparison to residents of the rest of the city. Turning the Billy Bishop site into parkland would add 215 acres to, and would increase downtown parkland by, a very significant 35 per cent.

Time of Reckoning

A decision will soon have to be made about the lease for the land Billy Bishop Airport occupies. The CCG Report has attempted to present the airport as both a powerful engine for economic growth and environmentally and neighbourhood friendly. This case will not fly. Pearson can accommodate all the traffic at Billy Bishop, and the UP Express makes it readily accessible to downtown residents, including the creatives. Billy Bishop is a source of noise and air pollution in its neighbourhood, and downtown residents would be better served by terminating the lease and expanding the Toronto Island Park.

2 Responses to “Time to Retire Billy Bishop (Airport)”

  1. […] A response to Richard Florida’s report by Sandford Borins Time to retire Billy Bishop airport PDF […]

  2. Mary Vitale Avatar
    Mary Vitale

    There is a public school 2 blocks from Billy Bishop and the pollution from the car traffic jams and the airline fuel vehicles is overwhelming. I live there and when we are outside we have to stop talking because the planes are so noisy and fly so low to take off and land. This is no longer an industrial area, it is residential.

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