A few years ago, I listened to a speech by the UK Minister for Transport regarding why there was no need for a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport because a new airport would be built near the Thames Estuary very soon. A retired mandarin sitting next to me whispered that he himself had once been directed to draw up plans for a soon-to-be-built Thames Estuary airport…by PM Harold Wilson.
It does continually amaze visitors that one of the world’s greatest cities ended up with four airports that somehow still do not meet the need, but there is one thing London does as well as any large city: Help people get to and from its main airport. As transport expert Jarrett Walker points out, the Heathrow-related options are hard to beat. You’ve got:
*The lightning fast no stops Heathrow Express train
*Heathrow Connect trains with a few more stops but more affordable
*The Tube (Piccadilly Line) which is even more affordable and stops in many places so that a range of Londoners can board and debark near their homes
*All three of these options connect you directly to the city’s existing transport network of local trains and buses rather than being “bridges to nowhere”.
Walker contrasts the Heathrow situation favorably with systems like Toronto’s fancy airtrain that cost a mint and doesn’t help people from a wide range of geographical locations get to the airport more quickly.
I really loathe the fact that so few US airports (with some wonderful exceptions like Reagan National) have a train or subway go straight to the airport as is the European norm. Indeed, this country seems to have a peverse habit of making trains go near the airport, but not into it. For BWI, you take the train to the middle of nowhere and then a shuttle comes to get you (and maybe you hike a mile and grab a zeppelin after that, I have traumatic memory loss about the particulars due to being on an icy, windblown platform as we waited for the shuttlebus which was late and couldn’t fit everyone when it did arrive).
In the Bay Area we had a proposed tax levy “to extend the train track to San Jose Airport” which I voted against because what this actually meant was that it would stop a few miles away and then people would switch to something else. Stopping the train a few miles from the airport is as useful as having an airplane touch down a few miles from the tarmac. Coming from the south to San Francisco Airport is really annoying, as you usually have to take a Caltrain to Millbrae, get on the BART system and go north past the airport, get off the BART and cross to other side waiting for another BART south on which you backtrack to get to SFO. That creates much hassle and lots of chances to miss flights if any one link in the chain breaks, which understandably reduces the number of people who use it.
Walker is full of good ideas on how cities should design airport transport and his whole post is worth a read.*
*The only thing I either disagreed with or just didn’t follow was Walker’s argument that airport workers should be prioritized when designing transport systems because they make the most trips back and forth. Why should the population of an entire city or state be asked to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for an amenity targeted at a relatively small group of employees rather than one focused mainly on serving the much larger number of taxpayers who will use it to travel to the airport, however infrequently?