New York’s MTA and Port Authority have just released slides from a meeting discussing alternatives for transit access to LaGuardia. While the airport is the nearest to Midtown Manhattan by road and thus the option of choice for many business travelers, its transit options consist of local buses within Queens or to Upper Manhattan, and as a result its passengers are the least likely to use transit: about 10%, vs. 15% for JFK and 17% for Newark. Transit to the airport has been on and off the agenda for quite some time, with the most recent attempt, a Giuliani-era proposal to extend the Astoria Line, torpedoed due to community opposition to elevated trains.
Regular readers of this blog know that I have little positive to say about transit geared toward airport travelers. Business travelers are much better at demanding airport transit than using it. However, LaGuardia’s location is such that it could serve as a useful outer-end anchor for multiple lines providing transit to underserved areas. One is north-south service in Queens east of the Astoria Line, for example along Junction Boulevard; there’s already a bus that goes on Junction, but it’s slow and infrequent, and the lines do not combine into a single trunk except on airport grounds. Another is east-west service along 125th Street, which is replete with traffic and supports higher combined frequency on the four lines serving it than any other bus corridor in the city. Yet another is any service to East Elmhurst, which is a very dense neighborhood far from the subway.
The alternatives analysis seems biased in favor of Select Bus Service, i.e. not quite BRT, but such a question can just as well be asked of any mode of transportation, up to and including subways. However, even if the proposal is to physically separate the bus lanes, much good can be done on those corridors, independently of airport traffic. Because BRT can be done open rather than closed, the airport travel market could in principle even be served by a few direct buses from 1st/2nd Avenues through the Triboro Bridge, or perhaps over the Queensboro if the city adds physically separate lanes on Northern or Queens Boulevard. Those business travelers who are willing to use airport transit put a premium on direct service to the CBD: circumferential lines such as those proposed here would do more good for ordinary city residents than for air travelers.
In a world in which New York’s construction costs are normal rather than very high, it would be possible to speculate about subway extensions. Although city officials have favored an extension of the Astoria Line, there are better ways to serve that segment of Queens, providing north-south service to East Elmhurst and perhaps additional east-west service north of the Flushing Line. My preference is something like this: a shuttle under Junction intersecting all existing and possible future radial subways, and a continuation of Second Avenue Subway along 125th Street. Although it has a gap in service from Harlem to the airport, Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 has a natural tie-in to 125th, making the airport less important as an anchor than it is for surface transit; and even with a subway, 125th may well have enough remaining bus traffic to justify physically separated median bus lanes.
Although the possibility of subway extension is remote given current construction costs, an SBS extension is likely. It’s affordable at current costs and willingness to pay, and provides lines on a map that political leaders can point to and say “I did it.” In addition, boosters and business leaders tend to like airport expansions, and those are sometimes useful for the city.
Although New York currently prefers closed to open BRT, it’s still possible that airport access will indeed be used as an excuse to improve city transit with circumferential SBS routes in Queens and Harlem. It’s unlikely much good will come of it – note how the slides talk about “service to the airport and Western Queens” instead of “service to Western Queens and the airport” – but it’s feasible.