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The Mystery of Ground Transportation

Despite the rising costs of belonging to the jet set, I took my share of flights for a few business trips and boondoggles this summer. Though most of my plane tickets were paid for, my transportation to and from my respective airports were not. Like any good urbanist, I approached each airport as a challenge to see how cheaply and quickly I could get from the airport to my in-town destination.

These were challenges that I -- or, rather, the cities -- failed more often than they passed.

Josh Stephens | September 2, 2008, 8pm PDT
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Despite the rising costs of belonging to the jet set, I took my share of flights for a few business trips and boondoggles this summer. Though most of my plane tickets were paid for, my transportation to and from my respective airports were not. Like any good urbanist, I approached each airport as a challenge to see how cheaply and quickly I could get from the airport to my in-town destination.

These were challenges that I -- or, rather, the cities -- failed more often than they passed.

Of all trips that ought to be served by good public transportation, trips to and from the airport must rank at the top. Few urban nodes experience the concentrated traffic that airports do, from both passengers and employees. While some airports serve almost as many connecting passengers as end-point passengers, nearly every passenger who tumbles off a Jetway at big origin and destination airports represent at least one potential car trip, if not two (since one leg of the airport trip is deus ex machina). So every trip reduced by public transit represents more than more trip eliminated.

My travels made it clear that rumored taxi lobby conspiracies -- or perhaps just garden variety incompetence -- have struck many airports, each one a subtle insult against the traveling public and the transportation grid. Moreover, it's likely that airport authorities and the cities they serve don't always coordinate as they should. And yet, a few airports are so well connected that hope may still take flight.

JD Power annually ranks airportsaccording to customer satisfaction, but that ranking takes into account "airport accessibilty" as only one of six criteria, and it's likely that most passengers don't even think to demand decent public transit and therefore think to complain about it on a survey. Maybe that will change as airfares keep rising.

Herewith are an unscientific collection of informal awards:

Best Overall (Business Class): San Francisco International.
The Bay Area's vaunted BARTsystem rolls right into the International Terminal at SFO with a clean, attractive new station. It's not a lame spur but rather a real BART line (passing through downtown San Francisco en route to Oakland and Contra Costa County and connecting with other BART lines and CalTrain) and is priced accordingly (i.e. it's expensive -- over $5 for the half-hour ride to downtown). The best thing about the SFO connection is also the best thing about BART: in the Bay Area commuters of all stripes ride BART, and, therefore, so does of a diverse array of airline passengers.

Best Overall (Coach): Minneapolis-St. Paul. The Hiawatha light rail line runs directly into both terminals at MSP and reaches downtown Minneapolis in less than a half hour, all for the standard $2 fare. Unfortunately, the system includes only the one line, but it's a remarkably efficient line, hitting many major destinations. (If Chicago ever resolves its maintenance backlog, O'Hare would take this category in a landslide.)


Most Bewildering: Boston Logan. If a camel is a horse designed by committee, then Boston's Silver Line BRT(with scant emphasis on the "R") is a transit line designed by a committee of camels. In the course of a 20-minute trip to South Station, the Silver Line seems to pass through every stage of man and a few states of matter to boot. In some places, it's a regular bus, chugging along on its own power and stopping at unassuming bus shelters. Sometimes it think it's a subway, humming through a dedicated tunnel underneath downtown and stopping at lavish underground stations. Sometimes it seems to go in circles, as its route doubles back on itself. Sometimes it doesn't do anything, such as when the driver has to step out and manually connect the bus to overhead electrical wires for the underground portion.

Most Conspiratorial: Las Vegas McCarren.Between the expanse of the desert and the enormousness of the Strip's buildings, it would seem that walking from McCarren to the poolside bar at Mandalay Bay would be a short stroll. As close as McCarren is, I found out the hard way that it's not walking close, not when it's 105 in the shade, and certainly not without sidewalks. It is, however, public transit close. Not surprisingly, McCarren ranks second in the nation for origins and destinations, and you can bet that almost all passengers are heading to the Strip (where else is there to go?). If they could get there via a spiffy express public bus line for a reasonable fare, it would probably be the most popular, and straightfoward airport bus line in the United States. Except that it doesn't exist. Instead, your cheapest choice is a slow shared van that stops everywhere between ancient Egypt and modern-day South Beach. Or you can always just flag down a Hummer limo and pop some Cristal en route.

Most Awful: Nashville International. My flight left at 8:30pm on a Sunday. The last public bus from the downtown bus depot to the airport: 5:15pm. Genuis.

Most Disappointing: New York Kennedy. The greatest irony of JFK's vaunted new AirTrainis that there are still luxury coaches stacked up outside Grand Central offering rides to the airport for $12 each way. AirTrain is that expensive and that arduous. It requires a long subway ride and if you transfer at Jamaica Station you're in for a haul of a transfer. AirTrain itself is fine, but for $5 on top of whatever the subway or LIRR cost, it really should be faster and easier, and if it worked properly it would put those buses out of business.

Most Promising (Relatively): Los Angeles International.
The Green Line light rail is a running joke in Los Angeles for coming within a mile of LAX before heading south to some hazy destination in Norwalk or El Segundo or somewhere. I mean, obviously there more people commuting to El Segundo than to the number-one origin and destination airport in the United States. In truth, however, a Green Line station at the airport would be a mistake. LAX serves an urban region far too vast for a single rail line, and the rest of the Green Line's route simply couldn't capture enough passengers. More practical for LAX is the FlyAwaybus, a system of massive, plush coaches that provide express service from each LAX terminal to downtown, Van Nuys, and Westwood for all of $4. Los Angeles World Airports has done a terrible job marekting FlyAway, but it's a model worth expanding: as a bus, it has the flexibility to reach all corners of the county, but because it's comfortable, clean, and dedicated to airport passengers, it has far greater cachet than either the green line or any of the random public buses that serve LAX. If LAWA can figure out how to market and expand it, L.A. drivers may have one less thing to complain about.

Best Overall (First Class): None. If you're in first class, you're not on public transportation.

If you have other nominees for the above awards or other suggestions for awards categories, please post away.

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