The Mystery of Ground Transportation

Josh Stephens's picture

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 airports according 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 BART system 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 AirTrain is 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 FlyAway bus, 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.

Josh Stephens is a contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report ( and former editor of The Planning Report (



Michael Lewyn's picture

Go Providence!

One airport that deserves honorable mention: Providence.

When I had a delay in Providence, I walked out of the airport, and discovered within seconds that I could walk (not take the bus, WALK) to the nearest commercial street in about five minutes.

How many airports are actually walkable? I don't think I would know how to walk anywhere from Atlanta airport, and the Jacksonville airport would require a pretty long walk through a sidewalk-less no man's land (I'm guessing 30 minutes but I've never really tried) to the nearest commercial strip.

Boston's Blue Line (and Providence and San Jose)

It should be noted that Boston's airport has not only the Silver Line bus but also the heavy-rail Blue Line (though you have to reach the station by shuttle bus). It worked very reasonably well for me, even if I later had to transfer to the Green Line.

Speaking of Providence, I was interested to learn that Boston's commuter rail is planned to have a future stop at Providence's airport, which might have been a very reasonable option should I have found flights to Providence cheaper.

And speaking of walkable airports, a column last month in the San Jose Mercury News featured a letter from a business traveler making trips to San Jose. She stated that she walks—a rather short distance—from the airport terminal to her company's nearby corporate headquarters. Quite close to the terminals is a cluster of multistory office buildings, obviously built to capitalize on proximity to the airport. So apparently SJC counts as a walkable airport.


All well and good to ride BART to SFO, nice, even, but it's still a Willie Brown era pork feast that should never have been built. The whole project beset by huge cost over-runs, scandals, and lawsuits. The ridership has been dissappointing, and BART recently cancelled their Millbrae-SFO trains, even though BART has started offering inexpensive long-term airport parking at the under-utilized station. Millbrae, BTW, was the BART-CalTrain-SFO connector station, so Penninsula residents taking Caltrain to the airport now have to transfer at Millbrae, ride to another off-SFO BART station, and transfer to an airport-bound BART train. Confusing, right? Is it such a big surprise that ridership is nearly undetectable?
In another suburban planning coup, Millbrae built big-box retail on the property which abuts the multi-modal station rather than TOD. What else could we have done wrong, I wonder?
Meanwhile, for less than the outlandish cost of building the BART-SFO extension, the in-place CalTrain system could have been electrified and extended to downtown SF, thus killing two birds with one stone. CalTrain could have added a stop just outside the airport and connected ALL the airport terminals with the airport people mover system. California High Speed Rail will eventually connect SFO with downtown SF and San Jose, and will share a Right-of-way with CalTrain, so the BART-SFO connection will become even less relevant.
It's a nice ride, but also a textbook example of lobbyist-fueled planning.

rob bregoff

How about a nod for the best

How about a nod for the best intermodal connection? Baltimore/Washington International has service by light rail, heavy commuter rail and AMTRAK. If they played their cards right, they could serve half the eastern seaboard.

Stockholm train advertisements

While sitting on a plane I saw train advertisements on the back of seats! :)

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