Direct connections to airports have almost always played a major role in the development of transit systems. For the business and political leaders who typically take the most important roles in deciding how money for new mass transit investments will be used, a one-seat ride between downtown and the airport often takes highest priority.
There is little doubt that the primacy given to rail connections to airports is unjust from the socio-economic perspective. After all, because of the cost of flying, most people needing to get to and from airports are wealthy. Choosing to invest in a mass transit extension to an airport basically means further subsidizing the already rich, since transit systems almost universally charge their riders less than the service costs.
But airport transit extensions remain a priority for municipal leaders exactly because airports tend to attract any city’s most wealthy and powerful. Demonstrating the city’s technological prowess with a speedy and efficient mass transit system to the airport becomes an important tool for economic development. So cities often spend money on improving connections to airports before investing in the needs of more transit-dependent constituencies.
And in fact, all over the country, big mass transit extensions are being considered to get people easily from city downtowns to their respective airports. In the Washington, DC region, the Dulles Metrorail project will create a new Silver Line that ferries passengers from downtown D.C., through Arlington, Virginia, and on to Dulles Airport. This heavy rail extension will also provide service to the popular Tyson’s Corner section of Fairfax, Virginia, so the purpose of the extension is more than to simply serve the airport. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently announced a plan to remake his city’s airport and extend the Green Light Rail Line to the terminals. In Miami, a new Intermodal Center will serve as a connection point between the city’s metro, its commuter rail system, and the people mover from the airport. Recently, Honolulu has been considering altering the path of its proposed rail system to provide better service to the airport than is currently planned.
As the image accompanying this article (PDF here) demonstrates, however, transit planners in the cities mentioned above need to ensure that they’re thinking before they spend billions of dollars plotting to ease the commute between center cities and airports. In case after case, huge amounts of money have been spent, only to provide riders with inconvienient access between transit and terminals. This results too many times in walk times that are simply too long and confusing paths between transit stations and terminals. This limits the attractiveness of the service and increases the number of people who choose to drive to the airport, exactly what airport transit connections are meant to limit.
So what should system designers focus on?
- One-seat service from several parts of the city, preferably on well-marked trains.
- Limited walking distance between airport stations and check-in counters.
- In the future, downtown check-in.
In several existing U.S. services, high-quality one-seat service is provided to airports. Both Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, which began building their metro systems after the airplane age, incorporated airport access in the first phases of their construction programs. In the case of Washington, a connection to National Airport (renamed in 1998 to something grotesque) was relatively simple to envision because the airport lies directly between two must-serve areas of the region – the Pentagon and Alexandria, Virginia – and is just across the Potomac River from the Mall. This is not true for either Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia or Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington Airport in Maryland because they’re both far from the center city and when the system was first conceived, few commuters lived in the areas nearby. Today, Blue and Yellow trains provide all-day and frequent service to the airport from downtown, Rosslyn, Alexandria, the Pentagon, and other sections of the city.
In Atlanta, the Marta station at the airport is at the end of the city’s main North-South Line, which has stations in the city’s burgeoning downtown and midtown areas, as well as in Buckhead. In both cities, the fact that airport service is provided by typical metro lines means two advantages: very frequent service at all times of the day and the potential for boarding towards the airport at many stations throughout the city.
This is not true, for instance, at Newark, New Jersey’s International Airport, which is served by an infrequent commuter rail system. People wanting to take the train to the airport often must wait 30 minutes or one hour for the next train to the airport.
The systems in Atlanta and Washington have another advantage: because metro trains arrive directly at the airport, just in front of the terminals, there is no need for a people-mover system between the metro station and the check-in areas. This means that riders getting off the metro do not need to get onto another train with their bags to check-in – they can simply walk a few hundred feet there.
This is not true, for example, at Chicago’s Midway airport, where the Orange Line El terminates far from the terminal. One questions how this happened – after all, this line extension was finished in 1993 and could have been designed to drop passengers directly in front of check-in counters. Instead, riders must walk through a large parking garage and go up and down several levels to get been the rapid transit station and the airport. Because the parking deck is actually closer to the terminal than the transit station, passengers have a strong incentive to drive to the airport; in both Atlanta and Washington, the station is closer to the terminals than parking decks. Chicago’s was a very poorly conceived design and a huge missed opportunity.
In many airports, people-movers are used to connect rapid transit stations to the terminals and check-in areas. This is true at New York City’s JFK Airport and at San Francisco’s Airport. Though in the case of the latter, BART metro service does go directly to the airport, the station is too far from many of the terminals to allow an easy walk – so commuters must get off one train and on to another, with bags. This situation is even worse in New York, where mass transit stops very far from the airport, and the people-mover rider between stations and the terminals is more than 15 minutes long. Even worse, though the people mover was built specifically to ease commutes, people at some of JFK’s terminals have very long walks between the people mover and check-in counters.
Atlanta and Washington provide good examples for how the interface between transit and airports can be well managed. In the case of Washington, the airport is small enough that one mass transit station close to the terminal is good enough for the vast majority of users. Atlanta’s airport is much bigger, but because it only has one large main check-in area, transit riders arrive very close to the baggage counters and then, after passing through security, take a people-mover to the appropriate terminal. This dramatically improves the experience for users with large bags.
In some cities, a solution to this distance problem is being formulated. In Chicago, for instance, there are plans for a downtown check-in center that would provide direct rides to both of the city’s airports, after people have gotten rid of their bags. This would mean a long walk at the airport itself isn’t nearly as frustrating. But the problem with downtown check-in centers is that they require secure, dedicated trains carrying checked baggage and mini-airports in the city-center. This is an expensive proposition.
We should hope, then, that future transit plans for airport connections consider the positive and convenient cases of Atlanta and Washington and attempt to implement similar ease of use in their systems. To do so would mean that all the money spent on these extension projects would be slightly more worthwhile.