Airport Access vs. City Access

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.


  1. Lawrence Velázquez

    “Included just for completeness, as the Hudson Yards stop represents massive incompetence.”

    This bit from your map made me literally laugh out loud.

    I know it’s not the main thrust of this post, but that map is pretty depressing. I’m always baffled as to why construction is so incredibly expensive here.

  2. Cullen

    Remember that thousands of people work at airports. So, finding them a cheap and convenient way to get there is important too. It’s not just business travelers.

  3. EngineerScotty

    Transit to airports is probably just as important (if not moreso) for serving airport workers than it is for serving travelers. They aren’t hauling tons of baggage around, they are somewhat more likely to be economically dependent on transit, they are in a position to be comfortable with a city’s transit system as a whole, and they are regular customers. (This includes workers who don’t work at the airport proper, but instead work in the various hotels and other service industries which invariably surround airports).

  4. Alon Levy

    Cullen, Scotty: of course. Serving airport workers is a different matter from airport travelers – partly in the ways Scotty mentions (in short, they’re even less interested in premium service to downtown than business travelers), and partly in that airport workers need access to many more areas than just the terminals. Another issue is that airports are inherently unwalkable, and even workers who live nearby usually drive; a report I read a few years ago and am still trying to find, about New York’s secondary job centers, finds JFK has a much higher auto mode share than other centers, such as Flushing and Jamaica, and even employees who live nearby drive to work.

    • EngineerScotty

      Many major airports have various shuttle services to get customers between the terminal and parking lots and other services (hotels, off-airport car rental agencies, etc). In most cases, the shuttle services are a) free, though generally only for those who are customers of something else, b) frequent and c) provided by a hodgepodge of different providers. One wonders if there might be a better possibility to integrate some of these things–including employee service to cargo areas and other parts of the airport besides terminals–in with more general public transit. (And of course, is there any advantage in doing so…)

  5. M1EK

    I agree when we’re talking light rail that airports should be a low priority – but this is New York, not just any city, and we’re not talking light rail. If Atlanta can support rail to its airport, one would think it’d be an obvious slam dunk in NYC.

    Even the flawed service to JFK seems heavily used. We tried hard to use it on our last trip there – couldn’t quite justify it with the number of people we had – but it seemed full.

    • Alon Levy

      The JFK AirTrain is mildly used. Its ridership is about 10% of JFK’s passenger traffic, and the slides I link to give JFK’s total transit mode share as 15%. Compare that with 28% in Frankfurt… the best practice here is to do exactly what you propose in general: put the train station right at the airport, often underground since it’s not on a legacy railroad, and run direct suburban and intercity trains. The reason is that airport travelers are unusually transfer-averse: they have luggage (transfers are inherently more difficult, even cross-platform), they’re often from out of town (transfers introduce another opportunity to get on the wrong train), they often have overt contempt for the common people (“the train stops every half mile to serve riff raff”), they’ve already made many transfers to and from the plane (the first transfer seems much easier than the fifth), they perceive themselves as going to the downtown macrodestination instead of to specific microdestinations (they take taxis from the downtown terminal, so to them the additional transfer in the city center is avoidable).

      Even the fantasy map I linked to has a bit of that concern for a one-seat ride to the CBD, if you interpret “LGA Shuttle” as “rapid transit-ified, FRA-free commuter rail branching from the Port Washington Line,” though my priority there is to provide intra-Queens service with LGA as the anchor rather than to provide LGA service.

  6. david vartanoff

    The one seat ride is possible at small airports with a single terminal. At SFO, BART arrives at the international terminal; there are three others so employees and passengers end up on Airtrain just the same. Sadly the two systems are on different levels–user hostile design in my view. That said, the PA’s Newark Airtrain is useless until it is extended to Penn Station Newark.

    • Alon Levy

      Multi-terminal airports still find it worthwhile to have a station at the airport – they choose one terminal or a location right between two terminals, and build a people mover that’s short and frequent enough not to be perceived by passengers as another transfer. The monorail at Zurich is a good example; but even something like the intra-airport segment of the JFK AirTrain could work, even though most stations are located across the street from rather than inside the terminal.

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