It is a truth universally acknowledged that cities spend far more per rider on airport connectors than on other kinds of public transit. On this blog, see many posts from previous years on the subject. My assumption, and that of such other transit advocates as Charles Komanoff, was always that it came from an elite versus people distinction: members of the global elite fly far more than anyone else, and when they visit other cities, they’re unlikely to take public transit, preferring taxis for most intermediate-length trips and walking for trips around the small downtown area around their hotels.
In this post, I would like to propose an alternative theory. Commuters who use public transit typically use their regular route on the order of 500 times a year. If they also take public transit for non-work trips around the city, the number goes even higher, perhaps 700. In contrast, people who fly only fly a handful of times per year. Frequent business travelers may fly a few tens of times per year, still an order of magnitude less than the number of trips a typical commuter takes on transit.
What this means is that 2 billion annual trips on the New York-area rail network may not involve that many more unique users than 100 million annual trips between the region’s three airports. Someone who flies a few times per year and is probably middle class but not rich might still think that transportation to the airport is too inconvenient, and demand better. In the US, nearly half the population flies in any given year, about 20% fly at least three roundtrips, and 10% fly at least five. Usually, discussions of elite versus regular people do not define the elite as the top half; even the top 10% is rare, in these times of rhetoric about the top 1% and 0.1%. When Larry Summers called for infrastructure investment into airport transit, he said it would improve social equity because what he considered the elite had private jets.
But what’s actually happening is not necessarily about the top 0.1% or 1% or even 5% directing government spending their way. It may be so; certainly politicians travel far more than the average person, and so do very rich donors. But broad segments of the middle class fly regularly. The average income of regular fliers is presumably considerably higher than that of people who do not fly, but not to the same extent as the picture drawn by political populists.
None of this makes airport transit a great idea. Of course some projects are good, but the basic picture is still one in which per rider spending on airport connectors is persistently higher than on other projects, by a large factor. In New York, the JFK AirTrain cost about $2 billion in today’s money and carries 6.4 million riders a year, which would correspond to 21,000 weekday riders if it had the same annual-to-weekday passenger ratio as regular transit, 300 (it has a much higher ratio, since air travel does not dip on weekends the way commuter travel does). This is around $100,000 per rider, which contrasts with $20,000 for Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 if ridership projections hold. Earlier this year, the de Blasio administration proposed a developed-oriented waterfront light rail, projected to cost $1.7 billion and get 16 million riders a year, which corresponds to about $32,000 per daily rider; a subsequent estimate pegs it at $2.5 billion, or $47,000 per rider, still half as high as how much the AirTrain cost.
However, what I propose is that the high cost of airport connectors is not because the elite spends money on itself. Rather, it’s because many ordinary middle-class people fly a few times a year and wish for better airport transit, without thinking very hard about the costs and benefits. An airport connector appeals to a very wide section of the population, and may be very cheap if we divide the cost not by the number of daily users but by the number of unique annual users. Hence, it’s easier for politicians to support it, in a way they wouldn’t support an excessively costly subway line connecting a few residential neighborhoods to the city.
It’s a political failure, but not one that can be resolved by more democratic means. The conventional analysis that the root cause is excessive attention to elite concerns implies that if spending were decided in more democratic ways, it would be directed toward other causes. But if the hypothesis I’m putting forth is right, then democracy would not really resolve this, since the number of people who would benefit from an airport connector, if only shallowly, is large. A rigorous regime of cost-benefit analyses, including publicized estimates of cost per rider and the opportunity cost, would be required.