Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Rail to the airport

Running a little behind this week, so I just wanted to pass along this story from USA Today on domestic airports adding rail service. People love the service, of course, and many airports are doing it, but later in the article they get to the economic irrationality of it in America's decentralized car-centric cities (as opposed to Europe and Asia).
Still, airport-rail ridership in the USA is woefully low compared with other countries, says Andrew Sharp, director general of the U.K.-based International Air Rail Organisation. In many European and Asian airports, 20% to 30% of travelers get to and from the airport using rail. In the USA, ridership typically ranges from 2% to 5%, he says.

Ongoing debates

Like most large construction projects, airport rail proposals face stiff headwinds. Opponents challenge funding sources and new taxes and cite preferences for cars and buses. But the central argument in most debates has centered around ridership, specifically whether airports have enough demand to justify millions in cost.

BART's connection to SFO, completed in 2003, has yet to reach BART's initial ridership forecast and is still not profitable. Prior to construction, BART projected there would be 17,800 average daily boardings to and from the airport by the year 2010. As of this month, SFO ridership was at about 11,000.

Frank Sterling and Juliet Ellis, activists in the Bay Area, also questioned BART's plans to spend $500 million for Oakland International's people-mover and its decision to charge $6 for the service vs. $3 for the current shuttle bus.

"The proposal to charge double that for the new connector might drive away customers, unless it delivers twice the value," they wrote in a recent newspaper commentary, "Can East Bay residents afford this?"

Then they use some of my favorite arguments from past posts:

These are appropriate debates, Coogan says. Some cities are better off sticking to buses, he says. For example, LAX's FlyAway Bus, which provides non-stop rides to various neighborhoods in Southern California, is more convenient for many travelers than the metro.

For some cities, it'd be wiser to spend scarce funds for extending metro to public transportation-friendly suburbs before considering airports, Coogan adds.

"How often does a person go to work? And how often does a person go to Paris in a year?" he says.

More on these arguments here, here, and here (near the bottom). As I said in one of those posts: I agree, and I've said before that the market here is a niche one plenty well served by buses: young singles who can't get a ride to/from the airport. Business travelers will almost always rent a car or take a taxi. Families won't schlep their luggage on transit. Most others will have friends or family pick them up or drop them off. And our off-site airport parking is dirt cheap. The ridership drivers just aren't there.

Update: And then there are the fare increases.

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At 11:00 AM, June 16, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Great post Tory.

P.S. Early this morning at 12:30am a METRO LRT derailed near Greenbriar and Braeswood. How do you de-rail slow moving train? My belief is the driver was moving it a lot faster than he/she should through those sharp turns.

At 1:48 PM, June 16, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

Obviously it really depends on the city and what type of rail service we are talking about. When I lived in Washington, I took Metro to National Airport all the time. It was very convenient and easy. I also often took MARC (which is the regional rail in Maryland) if I was flying out of Baltimore, especially if I was flying out anytime around rush hour as it was faster than using the highways.

In a place like Houston, running the city transit system (i.e the light rail) to the airports probably doesn't make as much sense. Of course it doesn't make much sense to run light rail to the suburbs anyway; that is a job for regional rail service. But if there was a larger, regional rail expansion in Houston (which is really needed btw), it would make sense to connect the airports with rail.

At 4:03 PM, June 16, 2009, Anonymous Keep Houston Houston said...

The thing that makes the DC Metro station at Reagan than most other "airport rail" schemes is that it's an inline station. The Blue/Yellow lines start much further south and only make a slight detour to serve DCA.

Most other cities with Rail (St. Louis, Philly, Portland, etc) have the airports as the endpoints of the rail lines. This is a much less profitable position.

As I see it, it will never make sense to have LRT service to either Hobby or IAH. However, both airports (and IAH in particular) aren't too far from heavy rail corridors that may someday be commuter rail. If commuter rail in the 59 and Hardy corridors can be independently justified by non-airport ridership, then the additional cost of an inline airport link would probably be worth it.

At 4:44 PM, June 16, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

To clarify, I agree that it can make sense in cities with well-developed core transit systems, like DC (National) and NYC. Now DC Dulles and BWI are a lot more questionable...

At 9:57 PM, June 16, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are dead on re: bus is the best solution for some cities. You are also correct regarding LRT to IAH; the trip would likely be too slow and airport trips are time-sensitive. BWI is a case in point here - LRT from the airport to downtown Baltimore takes about 8 weeks; no one rides it. However you fail to account for the importance of airports as employment centers - riders are not just air passengers.

At 7:44 AM, June 18, 2009, Blogger Justus said...

For what its worth, coming from the Oakland Bay Area, I just thought I'd mention that dropping a bunch of money and doubling the fares for a rail connection as opposed to their current shuttle system sounds like an AWEFUL idea. I'm not a huge fan of the shuttle, but I'm even less of a fan of BART's constant fare increases.

For what its worth, I've been living in Houston (and my girlfriend also) for the past year and a half without a car. We live in the Montrose area, I work a mile from home and she takes the 82 bus to the Galleria. LRT is nice, and I think the Galleria connection will be a good thing, but there is no need to over expand this thing too quickly!

And yes, I think that going all the way out to IAH and Hobby would be going too fast. FWIW I have taken the bus to Hobby several times - its slow, but its better than begging for rides.

At 10:49 AM, January 12, 2010, Blogger Unknown said...

Yes, rail to far-away airports make little economic sense, but I believe any new airport proposals should factor the cost to all the citizens of not connecting to the city's transit system. An extra few million for transit connection tacked on to a hundreds-of-millions airport project would collectively provide a return-on-investment to the taxpayers in a few years.

Houston METRO's Airport Direct bus to IAH is not a great solution either: it costs $15 one way and it only stops at Terminal C. This means a two-way trip ($30) costs as much as covered parking for a 5-day trip. And those who fly from one of the other terminals, except A, will have to use the TerminalLink automated, rail-based people mover.

Lastly, I'd like to point out that rail to Hobby already exists! Sure, it's freight, but it starts across Telephone Rd from Hobby's tarmac and continues to Mykawa & Griggs, just a few dozen feet from where the new SouthEast light rail terminates. I've never seen a better case for using Eminent Domain to compel a reasonable arrangement to *share* this ROW.


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