How Important Is Airport Transit Access?

There’s a good thread going in Reddit’s Los Angeles vertical on my piece on LA’s steady transformation into a more transit-oriented city and it’s clear that one thing a lot of people are interested in is the question of transit access to the airport.

This is obviously a high salience issue to people who travel, and since most of us have visited more places than we live it can seem like a really big deal. In practice, I’m not sure that it really is. If you look at the top five MSAs with the lowest “driving alone” mode share you get, in order, New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago. Transit access here is kind of a mixed bag. In Washington we have great access to our smaller airport but terrible access to the larger Dulles. In New York it’s a mess. Boston and Chicago are fine (but the ride to O’Hare is really long) and I’ve never been to SFO. By contrast if you want to find really good transit access to airports what you generally need to do is look at cities who have newish light rail systems that were constructed after the rise of big time passenger aviation. Think Phoenix or Minneapolis. But even though those are fine cities, they’re not really what you’d call great mass transit cities.

And I think that’s basically no coincidence. It’s just really hard to serve an airport really well with transit because airports are almost invariably on the edge of a metro area. If you build an auto-oriented city, it’s easy enough to string a new light rail line from the airport to the convention center and have yourself a neat little trip for visitors. That’s useful, even. But in terms of serving the people who actually live in your city, getting to the airport is always going to be a bit of a weird edge case resulting in a route that’s not super-appealing to a large number of people.

The good news is that’s fine. If you have to choose between taking a cab to the airport and paying some money or taking an inconvenience transit route and saving money, life will go on. What makes a difference is whether you can have neighborhoods where a fair set of people could get about their daily business without driving and whether you have at least some transit accessibility to the breadth of the city for the people who need it. If you can combine an airport access project with a project that serves other goals—the under-construction Silver Line in Northern Virginia will both connect Dulles to downtown by rail and bring the Tyson’s Corner employment hub into WMATA’s warm embrace—then go for it. But it can be a mistake to judge a city by how it looks on a quick visit.