Fly Away (Or Try To) - TransitCenter
September 5, 2014
Fly Away (Or Try To)

Original Saarinen Terminal at John F Kennedy Airport with AirTrain.

Labor Day weekend is when most people jet out of town to the soak up the last bit of sun before their climes drop into another polar vortex.  I am one of the lucky ones who got to the beach over the weekend. Living in Brooklyn, the trip to that airport is a relatively easy, though a multi-step, journey.  A trip on the F train to Penn Station, a transfer to New Jersey Transit, then onto the AirTrain gets me to the gate. Not too bad, but it does take a long time.  If I had departed from either of the other two airports in the region, it would have been just as much of a laborious expedition. John F Kennedy airport requires getting on the Long Island Rail Road or the A, E, J, or Z train to the other AirTrain. And getting to LaGuardia is even a bigger hassle, usually being stuck in traffic on a bus or in a cab. Needless to say, getting to the airport in New York isn’t the easiest task.  There is no direct rail line to any of the airports and the option of a taxi can cost more than $60: an option not for everyone.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Some airports have amazing connections to the city.  Washington National Airport isn’t even the terminus of the Yellow and Blue Metro lines, it’s simply a stop that is a 15-minute ride from downtown Washington.  San Francisco ends their BART system at the terminal of SFO, and Seattle’s Light Rail gets you to SeaTac directly from downtown, although not with the most frequent service.  Rail is not the only option: Las Vegas has a reliable public bus that brings you to the Strip from McCarran Airport, while the infamous monorail stops just short of the terminal.

How to deliver passengers to the airport is more of a question of how a city’s airport fits into the overall urban fabric. Some places like Memphis, which is the busiest cargo airport in the United States, are looking to make its airport into its own city, with their Memphis Aerotropolis Plan. This plan, supported by a US HUD grant, situates the airport at the center of development, rather than on the periphery. Today, most airports today reside far from the city center, making public transit links a challenge.  In some ways, the Memphis plan recognizes the major employment hub that airports are for many regions. And for those of us who can travel out of town, if we all lived that close to the airport, we wouldn’t have a struggle getting there. Confusingly, some of the renderings in the Memphis plan have bikepaths and pedestrians enjoying a stroll next to semi-trucks hurdling down the adjacent highway. This unrealistic image is not what comes to mind as a livable community, and it doesn’t even mention the noise from the air traffic overhead.

Other cities, including New York are not trying to center activity around the airport, but have attempted to create another hub of activity near the airport. New York Governor Cuomo was set on constructing a 3.8 million square foot mega-complex in South Ozone Park, Queens, near the Aqueduct Racetrack, including a casino, convention center, and a slew of hotels with quick access to JFK. This plan has been dashed because of political opposition to the casino, but the idea of using the airport as a major node for economic activity and being able to get to it easily was the impetus.

Atlanta’s economic growth has been tied to the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, since the city hosts the major U.S. airline Delta, and has become the busiest airport in the world by passengers moved.  Being the largest airlines in the world, Delta’s major hub is Hartsfield-Jackson, using the airport to host the majority of its connecting flights. The city of Atlanta has facilitated this economic opportunity by making it relatively easy for travelers to get to the airport itself with city-run hotel airport shuttles and the MARTA heavy rail system going directly to the terminal. Connecting a city to others can increase business and tourism, especially on a regional basis, and helps put a city on the map.  Atlanta has boomed in the recent decades and this growth has proven to be attributed to the airport with tens of billions of dollars of economic impact.

The success in Atlanta is in stark contrast to Denver, which also has a large airport that serves as a hub for the major US airline, United.  Denver International Airport (DIA) was built in the mid-1990s as a replacement for Stapleton Airport, which was located in an urban area of the city (Stapleton has now been adapted into a New Urbanist community).  DIA is located 25 miles from downtown Denver and has been hard to access with a rapid public transportation option since its creation.  In 2016, over two decades later, the airport will be connected by commuter rail to Union Station downtown.  Denver has seen steady growth during this time, but if this link had been made earlier, would the city’s economy have grown more?

In sum, the accessibility of airport connections capitalizes on the potential economic benefits that airports can bring to a region. It seems like a no-brainer that this link should be made as smooth as possible to encourage business and tourism.  It makes a city attractive and competitive to be able to bring people to the airport for them to travel onto other parts of the world.  For now, in New York, we will have to stick with the multistep journey to our airports, but someday this link may be smoother.



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