Getting to the Airport in London and in Other Places

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?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

32 thoughts on “Getting to the Airport in London and in Other Places”

  1. "relatively small group of employees"

    I think his point is that the employees in question are a better proxy for the overall traveler origin/destination distribution than the segment that just wants to get to/from the city center (and nowhere else, at least right away).

    In the US, the city center destined segment (oh jeez I can't resist: the toffs) aren't going to take public transit if they can help it. Otherwise ATL, ORD and as you note DCA are competently connected. SFO and OAK on paper look ok but in practice are bizarre. I haven't taken it (rental car) but PDX is well connected (might be slow).

    Barcelona is one European airport where the ground transport options might have been designed by Texans.

    1. A big group of travelers who go straight to the city center on trains are tourists who spend $$$$, seen it all over the world.

      1. Sure. But you've probably been on lots of planes filled with road warriors and people traveling for eg family reasons. I don't have the ratio of these types of travelers to tourists, but I'd be surprised if for most cities the tourists outnumbered everybody else.

        One of the disagreements people have over urban transportation architecture is whether or not to focus on the people who live and work in a city vs. people who visit a city and then leave. London has built infrastructure that supports both. That's unusual, to say the least. (We pop over to the V&A Museum and neighbors on LHR layovers as short as ~5 hours, which is pretty cool.)

        1. That's a reason I praise London. And FWIW, yes, I am a road warrior, but I have lived more of my adult life in London than in any other city other than SF Bay Area and have ridden in and back as a student, worker, tourist and academic, alongside a huge range of people.

          1. And so have I, for 30+ years :-). Well for a while s/academic/grant funded NASA/ARPA researcher/g.

            I think the point that perhaps motivates your original post and responses is that that there are always perceived tradeoffs (usually budgetary) between servicing one sort of traveler over another. Yet thriving cities seem to need both. Anyway here is a competent Israeli mathematican who has taught me a lot about the underlying implicit structures of built urban transit, including how various modes connect together.

            You'll cough at the title of the top post as I write.

          2. Thanks for the link. It is remarkable how many people have put so much thought into this.

            Yes, thriving cities need different types of travelers (so yes, cough). As long as upper end passengers are willing to pay 10 times what I do and bring some business to my city as well, I am happy as a taxpayer.

          3. But they aren't… the Heathrow Express underperforms ridership expectations. Most likely, the CDG Express will underperform as well, because to the 99% or so of CDG travelers who aren't going to the immediate Gare de l'Est area, the RER B will both remain faster and save them a transfer. BART to SFO not only missed projections by a factor of about 4, but also made public transit on the Peninsula worse: first, the expense of building it led SamTrans to gut the county bus service, and second, the BART extension branches between Millbrae (with a connection to Caltrain) and SFO, so suburban travelers from points south have to transfer Caltrain-BART-BART-Airtrain, none of which transfers is timed.

    2. Barcelona Airport can be reached by metro line 9 that runs to both terminals, and by the R2 suburban train to Terminal 2, from which there is a free shuttle bus to Terminal 1. If you are in a hurry, say to make a high-speed rail connection at Sants railway station, a taxi is affordable. This is a reasonable and non-Texan offer.

      The train to France passes through a very large hole in the ground where the super-duper new Sagrera railway station will be some day, a sacrifice to German austerity.

      1. James, Is that new? Because when we where there 4 or so years ago the only way I could find to get to BCN from the Barri Gòtic was metro + a non-trivial bus ride. On the way in to Sitges from Granada, only buses seemed to be available.

        If so that's fantastic because we're going back to Barcelona as soon as we can. Paris has captured us for this year though. Flying in to CDG for the first time, looks like easy sailing to the Gare du Nord.

        1. Sure, check the city transport websites.

          CdG: Take the RER not a TGV. The ticket will be valid for any station on the route eg Châtelet, St-Michel. The only problem is that the ticket machines assume a credit/debit card with a PIN, so take a few euros if you can. The ticket window often has a long queue of despairing foreigners. Depending on where your hotel is, it may make sense to take an airport coach (eg to Etoile, Invalides or Porte Maillot.) If you really want to see industrial banlieues, there are weird buses for airport workers (350 and 351) that take you to one grotty industrial estate after another. RATP web page.

          Granada to Sitges? That's bound to be complicated. Since they opened the Malaga AVE line, you can go fast to the AVE station at Tarragona Camp. But that is in a field outside the town, and you have to get a bus to the regular train station to catch a regional train along the coast to Sitges. Might be simpler to fly.


        Apparently not built yet out to BCN. I might emphasize that I have already successfully navigated these routes, 4 years ago. It was very Texan though. Try renting a car at DFW. Factor in 30 minutes extra just to get around. The buses at the *then* metro terminus for BCN were ill-marked and not that frequent.
        Likewise to Sitges (which for everyone not familiar, sits on a rail line).

        But everybody understand, that it's a fact that the Spaniards are the world's best subway builders, in terms of costs and completion. They'll get this done.

        1. The L9 metro line is open.

          Fun fact about Sitges: in 1936, the anarchists ruling Barcelona used to take condemned Nationalists out to the cliffs near Sitges so they could be shot at dawn, romantically appreciating their last moments. Source Hugh Thomas, IIRC.

  2. The lesson is simple. Build excess capacity before it is needed whenever possible, because if you don't, then when you do need it, you will not be able to build it.

  3. I don't remember BWI being so bad. The shuttle is generally quite regular. As opposed to, say, Dulles, which really is awful, at least until (if) the Silver Line extension gets finished. Others with which I have extensive experience that have poor transit options for their size include Boston Logan, which can't be reached by public transit from the south, and Philadelphia, which has much the same problem.

    1. "generally quite regular"

      That's the US standard, yes, so BWI no worse than most US airports and I didn't mean to imply otherwise. In Switzerland they say "Always on time", but what do they know?

    2. The unusual thing about BWI is that the rental-car facility is so far from the airport terminal–to the point that it's necessary to distinguish between them when driving to the airport, and to figure in an extra 10 or 15 minutes for the shuttle ride when catching a flight. (However, for reasons unclear to me BWI is unusually good at shunting passengers through security, so you gain there.)

  4. Having an urban rail line to the airport – flying is just another form of mass public transport – is a no-brainer but so 20th century. Really good airports have a main or high-speed rail line running underneath, like CdG and Frankfurt.

    1. Are you the under the impression that the London methods are all above ground? If so, that's not the case.

      1. I think James is referring to the fact that CDG and FRA both have direct high-speed rail connections; you don't have to change trains when arriving from out of town.

          1. Has this changed recently? I'll admit that I haven't been to London in a while, but the last time I flew to London (going to Cambridge), I had to change trains in London (Paddington, I think).

          2. You are correct, Heathrow Express goes to Paddington Station, used to stay in the Hilton right on top of the station, very convenient.

    2. Well, CDG does have a high-speed rail line right there, but calling it a "good airport" is overdoing it, I think.

      1. You have a point. The old mushroom-shaped Terminal 1 is best taken as a museum of what people thought airports should be like in the 1950s.

      2. CDG has a great train setup. I, however, remember it as the only airport that I ever walked out after an international flight without anyone looking at my passport. (Coming from NYC, in 1999). Also, to balance things out, the only airport where I've been questioned by someone wearing an assault rifle (a GTA officer, in summer 2001).

  5. The light rail in the Twin Cities goes straight to the airport. You have to take a very short shuttle train to get to the main terminal, but it doesn't involve going outside and it's because there was nowhere closer to put the rail station. And I emphasize the short; the thing runs every couple of minutes, and lasts not much more than that.

    1. A switch works if the same entity controls both services. In much of the US, it's two or three different ones that don't talk to each other, owe each nothing, and act that way.

      1. The shuttle at MSP isn't controlled by the same entity as the train, but it is controlled directly by the airport, which probably produces the same effects.

  6. New York has arguably the greatest subway system in the world, yet it's poorly connected to all of the airports. Part of the problem is that the subway system predates air travel, but that's also true of London.

  7. Buses are your friend, and smart phones make them easier to use in unfamiliar cities.

    For example the bus services to/from SFO are pretty good if you're going anywhere between Palo Alto and parts of San Francisco, although the frequency is bad. I'll take it over light rail if I time it right.

  8. You need to take a short transport prepare to get to the primary terminal, yet it doesn't include going outside and this is on the grounds that there was no place nearer to put the rail station.

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