Walkable vs. Unwalkable Airports

Michael Lewyn's picture

I've read some airport-related planning literature about the interiors of airports and about their public transit connections. (For a good example of the latter, see http://www.planetizen.com/node/34842 ) But one other difference between airports relates to their exteriors: the difference between walkable airports and not-so-walkable airports.

Many airports resemble that of Jacksonville, Florida (where I lived until a week ago). The airport is 15 miles or so from downtown Jacksonville, and is along a long stretch of vacant, undeveloped land. If you were to walk outside the airport, you would be utterly disoriented: you wouldn't know whether you were in a big city or a small town. So as a practical matter, the only sane way to exit the airport is by car or bus.

By contrast, a few nights ago I arrived at the airport in Little Rock, Arkansas. As soon as I left the airport terminal, I could actually see the towers of downtown Little Rock. More usefully still, I could see the hotel I was staying at, and (after a minute of false starts) was actually able to walk to it. The airport was hardly in an urban environment: I walked on grass instead of on a sidewalk. Even so, I felt like I was near a city, rather than in the middle of nowhere.

Better still is Providence's airport, where a decade ago I was able to walk from the airport to a thriving inner suburban neighborhood. I went on walkscore.com and was not surprised by the results: the Walkscore of Jacksonville's airport address was 15 (primarily due to on-premises shopping), the Walkscore of Little Rock's airport was 22, and the Walkscore of Providence's a stunning 65.

Of course, an airport cannot be as walkable as, say, a bus or train station: often, an airport needs to have spare land so it can expand in the future. Nevertheless, an airport that is near other visible amenities, like a train station near such amenities, is inherently a more pleasurable one.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.




My favorite example is Reykjavik's municipal airport, where you catch commercial flights within Iceland, as opposed to the big international airport, Keflavik, which is maybe 30 miles from the city center, which is what you use to get to or from Europe or North America.

Plans are to remove the muni airport and redevelop it, but for now, you can walk from the 100% corner of downtown Reykjavik, amidst the hippest restaurants and bars and boutiques, to the small airport in about 30 minutes, and then fly anywhere you want to go within the country, and even a few other places (Greenland, for instance).

Accustomed to US-style security, I got there far earlier than I needed to. I could have started walking away from downtown one hour prior to my flight's departure and still comfortably gotten there in time. If money and carbon emissions were no object, you could live in one part of Iceland and commute to your job in Reykjavik every day, using airline service like a commuter train.

My guess is that security concerns (whether justified or not) would prevent such walkability from being facilitated in parts of the US where airports are located really close to downtowns or activity centers: Logan Airport in Boston comes to mind, or McCarran in Las Vegas. Oh well.

Jake Wegmann

Spare Land @ Airports

Nice read...I've flown into all those airports as a pilot for Delta. I'll add a couple of thoughts about the spare land.

FAA regulations dictate criteria for "clear zones" around airports (especially the takeoff and landing corridors) for safety during inclement weather and possible emergency scenarios.

Commercial airports have traditionally been built away from urban areas. However, the urban areas usually end up expanding to the airports. Some people who live in these "new" areas complain about the noise from the airport, so municipalities mitigate this by building new airports even further away from current urban areas.

Some neat examples of airports near urban areas are San Diego (fly by the sky scrapers), Boston (the houses across the bay are beautiful), and San Francisco (the Golden Gate Bridge Visual). Don't even get me started on Washington-Reagan's River Visual (wow!).


Ian Sacs's picture

Helsinki & Antigua

couldn't help but add two more examples of very convenient airports:

- my beloved helsinki's vantaa airport is positioned ~30km outside the city, but the incredibly dense northern pine stands that surround the airport give one the feeling that he is landing in the boreal heart of the world. sometimes it's nice to be a bit removed from the city. a quick walk through the airport brings you to the front of the airport where one can immediately be whisked away by comfortable bus to the very center of the city. bike lanes are also provided straight into the airport if you happen to be traveling "pyörälläsi" (on your bike)!

- similarly, bird airport on the island of antigua offers very convenient local bus service to the "driveway" of the airport, and wide sidewalks straight into the terminal from nearby streets. we were taken a-back when the bus driver told us we had to walk the rest of the way, but apparently the taxi lobbies had managed to block local buses from offering door-to-door service to the slightly more daring tourists. nonetheless, a ride on local bus routes in antigua, including the bus that stops in front of the airport, is 30x cheaper than taxis (not kidding) and the music is better to boot!

La Guardia is walkable

Since 1999, you've had the almost car-free option of walking the 1.7 miles from La Guardia Airport along scenic Flushing Bay to the new stadium for the Mets, where you can catch the #7 train to Manhattan.

Albuquerque has sidewalks connecting the airport to the street grid. I think Salt Lake City and Phoenix do, too. Chicago Midway was once connected, but with all the renovations it may now be insulated by several layers of parking garages.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.

Stay thirsty, urbanists

These sturdy water bottles are eco-friendly and perfect for urbanists on the go.
Book cover of Unsprawl

Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places

Explore visionary, controversial and ultimately successful strategies for building people-centered places.
Starting at $12.95