Quick Note: A Hypothesis About Airport Connectors

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.


  1. calwatch

    And quite frankly, even if the cost per rider and similar was publicized, it likely wouldn’t do much since many unique people fly. Even those who don’t fly have relatives and friends come over to visit, and they are often required to either pick them up or hear the complaints of how they ended up getting there. The airport is also probably one of the few times an average person pays for parking in a given year (since they get parking for free or paid for by their employer). So good airport transit affects the majority of voters.

    Democratically speaking, politicians have to something about airport transit even if they think other transit is a higher priority. It has to be separated from Regular Old Public Transit which upper middle class or higher people may not use because of its unreliability, so ideally it should be on its own right-of-way or dedicated for airport use (like the Denver SkyRide). Elites are the ones who are traveling to foreign countries and see the marked contrast between the United States and other industrialized countries, but the average person who hasn’t left the country still feels annoyance about the whole air travel process, even though the alternatives of 12+ hours drive are not palatable.

  2. Ben Ross

    Both explanations are clearly playing a role.

    In the early years of the Washington Metro, the 4th of July was the biggest ridership day by far. People going to the fireworks. This was a big part of Metro’s constituency. It continues to be — although more people going to sports events than the 4th of July.

    But you can’t underrate the elite vs riders factor either. Just look at the Hudson Yards extension. Or the streetcar-to-the-convention center fad (which I distinguish from streetcars meant as first legs of something bigger, like Cincinnati’s or the H street streetcar in DC, which have popular support).

  3. Adirondacker12800

    unique users than 100 million annual trips between the region’s three airports.

    The 100 million passengers a year include people who get on or off international flights at JFK or Newark and change planes. Or domestic flights at all three. Their roundtrip counts as four passengers. They don’t care whether or not the taxi stand is crowded, the highways congested or their is or isn’t mass transit available. They are there to walk across the concourse. Maybe even get on Airtrain.

    This is around $100,000 per rider,…

    Paid fares? There are more people using it between the free stations.

    They didn’t build either Airtrain to get people to the train station. They built them to get the shuttles to the parking lots, hotels, car rentals and train stations out of the terminals. And shuttle the inter-terminal passengers around. That it also goes to the train station is an extra. The choice was to build expensive people mover or costlier roadway expansion or limit flights. Frees up all that space at the curb for the limos and cabs.

    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.

    Not that they would use it. They think it’s a fabulous idea – for other people.

    • Alon Levy

      Twelve years ago, ridership per day was 26,500, of whom 6,800 were paid (link). The more recent press releases about AirTrain ridership say that the present 20,000-ish ridership is a record, so I’m assuming this is paid fares.

          • Adirondacker12800

            If there are as many passengers that ride for free the cost per rider is one half. Twice as many that don’t pay a fare, one third.

          • calwatch

            On the other hand, JFK would need some sort of airport transit regardless between terminals and to serve remote parking. So the “cost” of bringing AirTrain to transit is really the cost per mile between the remote lots and the train station. In the case of Howard Beach, it’s not that long a distance.

          • Alon Levy

            Right, but as I recall, two thirds of the AirTrain’s paid ridership goes to Jamaica and not Howard Beach. The A is a schlep to Manhattan, which is where most people are going to.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Most people are going someplace other than Manhattan. Especially the people who are at JFK to change planes. Who might be using Airtrain to go from international to the puddle jumper or vice versa.

          • Alon Levy

            I forget the number, but a majority of JFK’s traffic is O&D. If I remember correctly, it’s 36 million O&D per year, out of 57 million total. Changing from an international to a domestic flight at JFK, or anywhere else in the US, isn’t a great experience, and whenever possible, for example if I’m flying into a medium-size US city like Seattle, I change at a European hub.

            The destination for pretty much everyone who uses JFK as a visitor is Manhattan. The origins are more dispersed, but from all of Long Island and Manhattan and points north and most of Queens, Jamaica is more convenient than Howard Beach.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Hmmm. When grandma and grandpa fly in for the wedding they stay in a hotel in Manhattan even though the ceremony and reception are in Westchester? Or when the kids who moved to Texas come back to see their parents who still live on the Island? Hmmm.

          • calwatch

            The people who have NYC backgrounds are likely to use the closest airport to their location with flights there, or the most convenient one. For many of them, that would be La Guardia, unless you are in Staten Island or Jersey where Newark would be the obvious choice. JFK gets most international and transcontinental travelers flying an airline not named United and they are coming to New York to visit Manhattan, even if they can’t afford to stay there. (My favorite near-town hotel was the Country Inn Long Island City because of its easy subway access, which apparently a group of savvy Germans also discovered since the predominant language at the free breakfast was German.)

          • Alon Levy

            Says a lot that the cheaper spillover hotels are in Long Island City and not Downtown Brooklyn, no? 😉

          • Joey

            Adirondacker: hence “pretty much everyone” and not just “everyone”

          • Adirondacker12800

            Millions and millions of people live in places not Manhattan. The airlines allow them to travel just like people who live south of 96th Street.

          • Joey

            Andirondacker: and hence “as a visitor.” Alon’s point is that most people who use JFK as a destination (as opposed to an origin) are probably going to Manhattan. It says nothing of the people who are using JFK as an origin.

          • Adirondacker12800

            the vast majority of them eventually come back home and become destination passengers.

          • Matthew

            I wish I could fly into EWR. It’s terribly inconvenient to fly through JFK. But prices are almost double to go to Newark from London compared with JFK. Probably because everyone else thinks the same.

            I’d rather go through Boston Logan than JFK. It’s further, technically, but at least I get to see my friends on the way.

          • Joey

            Adirondacker: “origin” and “destination” in this context refer to both ends of the trip – if you live in New York, then JFK is your origin, Maybe it’s slightly confusing terminology, but it’s useful to think about things in these terms because your mode of transportation to/from the airport is likely to be the same for both trips at your “origin” end and your “destination” end.

          • Adirondacker12800

            And most people do not live in Manhattan. Airtrain still needs to be there to service them. And the out of towners who aren’t going to Manhattan and want to rent a car, go to Jackson Heights or Boerum Hill or Mineola. And the people who are staying at an airport hotel. And the people changing planes. Drag the Long Island Railroad all the way out to the airport and the only thing it does is save a few minutes for the people who happened to get to Penn Station just in time to catch a train. And happen to be using the terminal it goes to. Everybody else has to get on Airtrain. Well not the people who took a cab, limo, or bummed a ride from someone, those will people will still get pickup and dropoff at the terminal’s curb.

  4. orulz

    I think that you should not necessarily stop the discussion at cost per rider. That’s important, for sure, but it’s not the end of the story.

    Generally speaking, I would say, the economic impact of a transit trip to the airport is much higher than the economic impact of the average transit trip. People flying for business tend to only fly when it’s very important for business – the cost of an airline ticket has to be justified. People flying for leisure tend to spend a lot of money. Whether or not you believe in Reganomics, you have to admit that on some level, economic activity DOES benefit just about everybody.

    Improving airport transit access means that these people traveling get to spend more time doing business or spending money on leisure activities than they would otherwise be able to if transit were poor or unavailable. Capturing more travelers with transit enables cities to redirect these relative “big spenders” towards the walkble, transit oriented parts of their cities that many people across the board agree should be improved.

    So, in summation: I propose that another main reason that airport connectors seem to be evaluated by a different set of criteria, is because transit trips to and from the airport actually DO deserve to be weighted more heavily when compared with the average transit trip. As for whether it’s a factor of 1.1 or 3.0 or whatever I cannot say. If only we all knew someone who is (1) interested in analyzing transit, (2) has a strong grasp of ecomomics, and (3) has a mathematical background to figure all the numbers out, and (4) runs a popular transit blog so that lots of people would read the analysis… 🙂

  5. Robert Cruickshank

    This is a fantastic analysis of how political support for such airport connectors gets generated.

    That said, I also think those airport connections are good to have. Airports are one of the largest generators of automobile trips in a given urban area. So in order to build a transit network that reduces the need or desire to drive, one will have to build things like airport connectors. Keep in mind that it’s austerity logic to pit these lines against other urban or suburban transit routes. The real cost/benefit analysis is between a complete transit network on the one hand and maintaining the status quo of requiring people to drive in order to get around. Even an airport connector wins on that basis.

    • keaswaran

      I’m not so sure about that. Let’s say that we have a nearly complete transit network that is just missing one line. If that missing line is the airport line, then most people will be able to use transit for their daily needs and will take a taxi when they go to the airport. But if the missing line is one of the other lines, then the people who need that line for their daily life will be forced to own cars. I don’t think airport trips are the case that determine the binary variable of car ownership as much as other trip types are.

  6. Jason Bennett

    The number of people here in Los Angeles who complain about not being able to take the train to the airport is incredible. Most of them would never step foot on a subway, regardless, but somehow they consider the fact that you have to take a bus from the nearest station to the airport to be an indictment of the entire system.

    Honestly, I think a large part of the demand for airport connectors is because it’s the first impression that people have of the transit in a city. If you can get off the plane and onto the train easily, that means you’re in a modern city with great transit, regardless of anything else, and people want to live in a city that is perceived to be modern. For example, here in LA, we have an excellent bus service called the FlyAway that will take you downtown much more directly than any train will, but a) it gets stuck in traffic, and b) it’s a bus, so no one respects it, and therefore we’re building an expensive airport train terminal. I’m sure it will get widespread support, not because the “elite” want it, but because most people think that tourists should be able to easily take the train from the airport.

    • calwatch

      Which is why you get all the whining from rail advocates about putting an express train on the Harbor Subdivision, despite the obvious Title VI violation and environmental justice concerns caused by a 55 mph train speeding through low income, heavily minority communities. The Crenshaw Corridor will serve several times as many riders on that short stretch of the Harbor Subdivision used (Aviation to Fairview Heights) than a Philadelphia-like airport express route operating every half hour,

      • Alon Levy

        I think the frequency question can be separated from the question of stop pattern. In Stockholm, the (private, premium, not fare integrated) Arlanda Express runs every 15 minutes, with two additional hourly runs at peak hours, but the regular commuter trains that go to the airport and make many intermediate stops only run every half hour.

        In LA, mainline rail could do both – the Arlanda Express uses the same tracks as the rest of the network, it just has dedicated platforms and doesn’t have fare integration with anything else. Put a commuter EMU making about 11 stops from LAX to Union Station and an express train stopping only 2-3 times, at intersection points with other rail lines (Blue Line, south Vermont). Run them every 15 minutes each; at this speed, a difference of 8-9 stops can easily be accommodated without overtakes.

    • michael.r.james

      If you can get off the plane and onto the train easily, that means you’re in a modern city with great transit, regardless of anything else, and people want to live in a city that is perceived to be modern.

      Exactly. And it is a pretty reliable indicator of what the rest of the city is going to be like. And the fares too. Take the Heathrow Express which has a typically British 12 different fares for a single short rail journey, and the most common fare is US$33.20 (rtn $54.00), so very quickly the first-time visitor learns that everything in London is expensive (esp. transport both London Underground & InterCity trains) and they nickel-and-dime the travellers with a confusing array of different fares for the same journey.

      The American experience as recounted by Alon is due to the fact that rail transit was not built into the airports from the beginning. And this is why it becomes so expensive to do retrospectively. At JFK I don’t know why they didn’t do the relatively modest diversion of the A train into the airport, when they built the airport 5 decades ago, instead of forcing people to catch a shuttle bus that does a giant tour of the entire site (including the maintenance and airline offices on the periphery etc) before reaching the subway stop.
      When you go to HKI, or Changi or Shanghai-Pudong airports their rail transit was designed in as part of the original construction and they work perfectly and seamlessly. Perhaps the “elite” still use taxis but a lot of all kinds of pax just routinely jump on the train which is hassle-free.

      It is the same sorry story in Australia. Sydney airport (a mere 8km from the CBD) only got its train link last decade and it was attempted as a commercial thing but rapidly went bust because it cost so much to build and they had to charge silly fares. The proposed Sydney West airport (about 50km west of CBD) is still being fought over whether to build, or even design provision for, rail even though there is a reserved rail ROW nearby! We never learn. Melbourne Tullamarine (23km to CBD) was even on a rail ROW but to this day you have to catch a bus which functions ok but which every single person who is forced to use, hates (and it takes you to the CBD rail station). Now the freeway serving Tullamarine is so busy they are spending $800 million to add an extra lane! (And the extra traffic that it will induce will flow thru the system creating new demands by the road lobby to add more lanes to the other freeways its intersects– in fact it has already begun.) So, as JB says, there is a cost saving to building rail (especially early but at any time) which should be factored into the equation. Another factor is that by any other means of transport the air-traveller builds in a lot of extra time as a safety margin against road congestion etc.

      • Alon Levy

        Ironically, arriving at Arlanda says very little about the rest of Stockholm. The Arlanda Express is a premium-fare private train, running much faster and more frequently than the regular commuter rail branch to the airport and the buses. In contrast, pretty much everything else in Sweden works on the principle of equality or pretend-equality, and the public transit in the Stockholm metro area is thoroughly fare-integrated, and cheap if you have an unlimited monthly pass (and expensive if you don’t).

        By the way, since people on Twitter brought up Melbourne as well, is there any plan to extend rail to the airport? It’s really awkwardly located for mainline rail, unless they want to screw freight service even more than it already is and run passenger trains on the Albion-Jacana freight line. But the tram can get there. Would be especially nice if they realigned stations in Essendon to create a transfer from the tram to the commuter rail.

      • Matthew

        “and [British rail companies] nickel-and-dime the travellers with a confusing array of different fares for the same journey”

        So true, a thousand times. It’s very frustrating, and all my continental friends think that the British are nutty for running their trains like this. For example, upon moving here, when I landed for the first time at Gatwick I discovered that I could save £10 off my single, one-way ticket by instead buying a return, two-way ticket using a mobile phone app — and throwing away the return portion. Everyone else was paying more by using the ticket machines. Crazy. Nowadays, I still can’t get a straight answer for the price of a ticket to Stansted. I get a different answer every time I go.

        Funny thing about the Heathrow Express is that it’s a total ripoff. Yeah, it’s fast… to Paddington. If that’s where you’re going, great. If not, you’ve got to connect to the Tube anyway, the Express might save you 10 minutes, at best, for a £15+ premium. The Piccadilly Line covers far more of the city.

        Although if you’re flying into Heathrow, you probably have money to burn anyway. Damn flights there are expensive. Thanks to Thameslink, and to the miserable hopelessness of British coach travel, it’s approximately as easy for me to get to Gatwick as it is to get to Heathrow. Maybe easier, I only have to use one elevator at St Pancras to get to platform level.

        “At JFK I don’t know why they didn’t do the relatively modest diversion of the A train into the airport, when they built the airport 5 decades ago”

        Robert Moses.

        According to The Power Broker, Moses built the Van Wyck Expressway intentionally blocking the path of a possible subway extension to Idlewild Airport (later JFK).

        • michael.r.james

          Matthew wrote:

          Although if you’re flying into Heathrow, you probably have money to burn anyway. Damn flights there are expensive.

          They are expensive because the government pax levy is the highest in Europe and the airport’s landing charge is the highest in Europe (I’ve heard maybe the world?), and of course … it’s British. I pretty much refuse to travel to Blighty these days. And an alternative to flying into London and getting all irritated on top of your travel tiredness, is to fly into Paris, catch the RER B train (costs €9,25/US$10.60; I forget if that includes the Metro supplement but you know €1.80 max; €1.40 by carnet of 10 tickets) into the heart of the city (or Gare du Nord where you can put your luggage into a locker for the day); and spend the day there, then take the last Eurostar (G. du Nord) to London. You’ll have had a wonderful free day’s stopover in Paris and arrive relaxed in St Pancras, and in all likelihood at no extra cost (esp. if you book the Eurostar at the same time as your flight; if you get a special deal on First (or is it called “business”) you might even score a nice meal if I recall?). Eurostar takes 2h15m these days so only double the Piccadilly line from HRL!

          • Matthew

            To be fair, Heathrow is a very busy airport with limited space. It should cost more. No one is forced to use it. I’m happier to go to Gatwick or Stansted. Less happy to go to Luton or City. Generally, it seems that UK airports seem to be inspired by a peculiar mixture of Kafka, Orwell, and P.T. Barnum, but that’s the same between them all.

            I’d love to use the Eurostar but frankly it is not cheaper. It is much more expensive, unless you get super lucky. Then it is merely more expensive. Which makes sense: people will pay more to avoid airports! I would. But arriving from an overseas flight means that I’ll be ready to go to sleep, not enjoy Paris.

            If the EU decides to retaliate against the USA later this month, then everyone with American passports (like me) won’t find it so easy to hop on the Eurostar anymore. And, if (when) the UK votes to leave the EU, all hell will break loose. Interesting times! Journey-to-airport convenience will start to seem a lot less relevant when I find myself either (a) trapped on this island, or (b) running away from a mob of nativist Brits about to go Trump on me.

      • johndmuller

        Regarding Australia – I spent some time there quite a few years ago. At that time, it seemed that the major Aussie carriers were providing bus services from between the airport and their own private downtown terminals in the various cities they served. From the point of view of a traveler, knowing little or nothing about the costs and conveniences of whatever alternate transit modes there might have been, this system was pretty good. I am nowhere near a bus person, but I had no complaint about these coaches; the people were nice and the downtown terminal facilities were decent also and came with a couple of other useful things, like some kind of help finding lodging. I only recall traffic being an issue on a trip I made via taxi, but I’m sure that the buses must get their share whenever it is an issue.

        The downtown terminal system gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling about actually making your flight, as the airline is also running the bus service, and one expects them to know how to get you to your flight – maybe even hold it for the bus if there is an unexpected delay?

    • David Alexander

      therefore we’re building an expensive airport train terminal

      Until a direct line to the airport is opened up, isn’t this terminal going to suffer from under utilization given that Crenshaw is going to require transfer in a neighbourhood that isn’t exactly “tourist” friendly? Hell, I’ve had railfans in private chats freak out about riding the Blue or Green lines given the reputation of the areas south of LA for gang and criminal activity.

      • Jason Bennett

        I believe the Crenshaw line is scheduled to open before the transfer terminal opens. There will be one stop close to the airport, and then the separate transfer station, that will also be for rental cars and general ground transportation. To the extent that it reduces traffic at the airport itself, it will be nice.

  7. Steve Dunham

    Could you please explain the cost per daily rider? Is it based on unique individuals riding the system in one year? Or over the life of the system, with some adjustment for the fact that 20 years after it opens there will be different people riding it?

    • Alon Levy

      It’s the total capital cost of the line, divided by the average number of rides per weekday. It’s specifically not about unique users. It treats the utility of a local or regional rail line to the user as proportional to the number of times the user rides it.

  8. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Los Angeles

    I think it all rolls back to parking and the cost of parking.

    For most American, parking is free, so screw transit. Transit does well in cities like NY and Boston where parking can be $50 a day. However, even NYC has 50% car mode share, because for many people, parking is still free or very cheap.

    Airports, even in the middle of nowhere, charge parking. $10, $20, $30 a day. So that turns people towards transit so they can avoid the cost. The well connected can use their placard to park free in Times Square. But no one beats the airport parking deck toll.

    If airport parking were free, no one would call for trains.

    • David Alexander

      However, even NYC has 50% car mode share, because for many people, parking is still free or very cheap.

      Or more so that Americans are unwilling to tolerate that godforsaken piece of transit called a bus. I’ve jokingly noted that I won’t bother with a bus unless it has a 5 minute headway off peak, but I suspect that there’s some degree of truth in that for most people.

      I think it all rolls back to parking and the cost of parking.

      I’m tempted to argue that it’s some half-assed attempt in the pre-Uber era in which you have cities trying to ape other global cities to look “world class”, but also because they’re trying to appeal to tourists by creating something that bypasses the local and sometimes unpopular taxi regime that gets tourists (and frugal business types) from the airport to the core.

      • Adirondacker12800

        It’s congestion. Parking tends to get expensive in places that are congested. If the train or the bus gets you there faster choice users will leave the car at home. It’s why the parking operators are able to whack people for high parking fees at stations where the train goes to Manhattan.

  10. rewenzo

    Additionally, it could be that the pool of people that desire airport transit is shallow and large, but their feelings about it are more intense than say, extending the subway down Utica. Trips to the airport are stressful and arduous. Everybody dreads either schlepping their bags on a long, sweaty, transfer-filled ride up and down stairs and over curbs or paying $50 for a cab. But on the one or two occasions a year I need to get to Marine Park or some other area not currently well-served by transit, I’m probably not carrying luggage or worried about missing a flight/having everything packed/making it through security.

  11. Ken Hammer

    One factor concerning Airport Connections that is major, but I don’t have any idea on how to measure, is tourists and out of towners. While I don’t travel a whole lot, when I do fly, I prefer to connect via the rail/subway connection to the airport, versus trying to catch a bus, or Taxi. For example, I went to LA a couple a times a few years ago, and I had to catch a connector that then dropped me off at a parking lot to catch the bus to get to the hostel in Santa Monica. When I went to London, and flew out of Chicago, I took the Greyhound to Chicago, then the Blue Line to O’Hare, and in London, I used the rail as well. It is simply a lot more convenient using the public transit versus trying to find taxis and buses.

      • Kenneth Hammer

        Firstly, it was in 2007, so I don’t know the set up currently. That being said, I generally used the Heathrow Express because I had bought a rail pass to travel around the UK, and it was also good on that route. Once, I used the commuter rail, I think, but it might have been the Underground, I honestly can’t remember. In London, I used the Underground extensively, complete with buying an Oyster Card.

    • devin

      The Santa Monica point is actually emblematic of the problem of airport connectors in (relatively) decentralized places like LA: even once the rail connections are built, it will be a long trek from LAX to SM by rail, but the buses are much more direct–or at least, they are now that Santa Monica (like Hollywood, downtown, Westwood, and Van Nuys) has a Flyaway shuttle: terminal straight to Santa Monica!

      In a region where not only are residents spread out, but even tourists are spread between the nearby beach cities, distant Anaheim, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and so many other places besides DTLA, an airport train is going to have trouble meeting demand.

  12. johndmuller

    Alon, your observation about the appeal to politicians of this broad (albeit low intensity) support for these airport transit projects is quite insightful. No doubt Gov. Cuomo wishes that all his issues came gift wrapped this way.

    The vast majority of transit projects are nearly opposite in nature, featuring a smaller number of intensely interested supporters and very significantly, an additional set of people strongly in opposition. Politicians don’t like those negatives and instinctively steer away from them as much as possible. Unfortunately for them, nearly all of the issues that they have to deal with contain those sorts of warring factions – that’s why they like the airport connector so much.

    While on the subject of negatives, there seem to be a lot of people in the US at least who feel that other people, either some particular out-to-get-them group or just some nameless “them” – are getting more than they deserve, and of course that comes at “our” expense. Irresponsible politicians love to fan these flames. This stuff comes to the fore whenever there is something which either costs “us” or benefits “them” (things never seem to benefit “us” beyond what we justly deserve or cost “them” more than they rightfully owe). To our shame, certain portions of “us” and “them” tend to get institutionalized in those positions and “our” largess is rarely bestowed on “them”. Since transit projects usually are perceived as having at least some elements benefiting “them” (not to mention sometimes inconveniencing “us”), these projects often get treated poorly by the politicians.

    Once again using Cuomo as an example, we can see how he funds the upstate highway projects (after all, “we” all like driving, right?) with real money and downstate transit projects (buses and subways are for “them”, of course) with his permission for the MTA to borrow more funny money.

  13. Nathanael

    You’re almost certainly right, Alon. This of course raises a *policy* question. Since the airport connector benefits *more unique riders*, perhaps it is a better use of money.

    It’s a choice to prioritize maximum number of riders per day. Maximum number of voters who ride is a legitimate alternative metric.

  14. Maurice

    The appeal of an airport rail transfer is for the middle class. Lower class rarely fly; upper class and business class will pay whatever the market demands for the convenience of door-to-door. I have a household income at the $100,000 range, but to me $50 for a taxi transfer ($100RT), or even $35 from La Guardia, is excessive. La Guardia is perfect (transit-wise) I buy a pair of 7-day passes at the airport and the airport transfer is essentially free. In true working class fashion, we have to stand on a crowded bus and lug suitcases down the subway stairs at Jackson Heights, take the E train to Manhattan, and save $70 plus tips. For the 1%, or 5%, that money is irrelevant. For me, paying $100 for a taxi transfer JFK to EWR seems to be highway robbery.

    The major benefit of airport connections is for tourists and for those in concentrated cities. If you must drive 10 miles or more to get downtown, you simply transfer the parking problem to somewhere with les secure long-term parking – something the airport excels at. It’s at the destination too where airport transfer is important – again, where the traveler wants to stay near downtown.

    I think of the airports I used the rail transfer – CDG, Heathrow, Newark (DO NOT USE RAIL – it’s a disaster, use the bus), Vancouver, Hong Kong, Shanghai (420km/h!!!), Beijing, Sydney, Amsterdam, Munich, Barcelona (4.20Euro); Venice (by boat, of course); in each case, I was staying in the downtown and car rental was not a main part of that stay. (Although conveniently, car rental from downtown or suburb is cheaper than airport)

  15. Kilroy

    One factor that I am surprised that no one has brought up is the usefulness of airport connectors for those people who work in the airports.

    Sure, airport connectors may be targeted more towards travelers, but if the price is reasonable (or if there is a lower price local service on the same line) they will also be used by some of the many thousands of workers in each major airport who make little more than minimum wage… Think about the people at the gate counter, the people working in the shops, the people tossing bags on the plane.

    When I took an express bus from Manhattan to LaGuardia, I was almost the only traveler on a very full bus. Everyone else was using the bus to go near or to LaGuardia, some as locals but many because they obviously worked at LGA.

    • Alon Levy

      Hmmm. This is interesting, because I’d imagine that the premium fare charged by many airport connectors is a factor behind low usage among airport workers. (Relatedly, the Q10 has sizable ridership among airport workers; the AirTrain is for fliers). And yet, this is a premium express bus…

    • michael.r.james

      Kilroy 2017/01/12 – 07:24 wrote:

      One factor that I am surprised that no one has brought up is the usefulness of airport connectors for those people who work in the airports.

      Maybe not on this particular thread but I raised it on earlier threads (re London Heathrow):

      2015/04/23 at 10:41
      In reply to threestationsquare 2015/04/23 at 09:42
      Are you serious? 200k pax per day (plus those accompanying them on pickups/dropoffs) and the 23,000 direct employees and all the associated businesses that cluster closely around big airports, is nothing? That doesn’t count all the deliveries such as catering etc. As Europe’s biggest airport it will also be the biggest air cargo centre which means yet more trucks distributing it all. I would venture to say that it is almost certainly the biggest parking lot in SE England, maybe the UK. It is (or was) the biggest retail outlet in the UK (actually maybe Europe) on turnover value which of course means an awful lot of delivery trucks. It is one of the biggest bus stations in London.

      I assume that airport workers get concessional fares for their travel to/from their place of work? Everyone who works in London gets a “London weighting” which is a salary boost designed specifically to defray seasonal transport tickets. When working in Paris I got my Carte Orange (monthly Metro travel card; limitless travel) at exactly half its face value–which made it the travel bargain of the universe. Of course where neo-liberal economics rule, it may well be laissez-faire, resulting in endless road congestion, increased air pollution and general high levels of hassle of travelling anywhere. Certainly the normal fare on the Heathrow Express train is US$33.20 (rtn $54.00), compared to €10 on RER-B to Paris-CDG or JFK-Airtrain at $5 (or half that with ten-ticket carnet).

  16. Pingback: Meme Weeding: Los Angeles Density | Pedestrian Observations

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