Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It will be awhile before rail goes to Houston's airports, and it doesn't matter

Earlier this month, Dallas officials celebrated the opening of the long-awaited DART light rail extension to DFW airport. It is now possible to travel by train from DFW airport to downtown Dallas. (I'll admit that I'm a bit proud to see that happen, because many years ago I was part of the team that did the planning and environmental analysis for that line.) Chronicle transportation writer Dug Begley used the occasion to ask his readers when, or even if, Houston would see its light rail system connect to its airports.

Begley's post - aside from tapping into the Houston-Dallas rivalry in order to generate some cheap page views - is emblematic of a gripe I've continually heard - that the city's light rail system is useless, that Houston is not a "world-class" city - until the trains go to both of the city's airports.

Indeed, of the 30 cities in the United States that currently have urban rail systems (heavy or light), 18 have rail connections to their airports, and two more have rail connections currently under construction. This puts Houston in the minority. From an intuitive standpoint, it also makes a lot of sense: if the train went to the airport, air travelers could ride the train instead of having to drive, pay for a cab, or use that slow local bus.

But here's a dirty not-so-secret of transportation planning: in the United States, only a small minority of air travelers ever use rail to reach an airport.

The Transit Cooperative Research Program published a study about the percentage of airport passengers that use rail to get to and from airports in cities in the United States that have such connections. It found that the airport with the highest share of rail-using passengers was DC’s Reagan National Airport, at 14 percent.

That’s right: fourteen percent. This is an airport right across the Potomac from Washington, with convenient rail access via the WMATA Blue and Yellow Lines, yet 86 percent of its passengers use a means other than rail to get there. The percentages of air travelers using rail were even more abysmal at other airports: 8 percent of flyers at Atlanta Jackson-Hartsfield and Chicago Midway, 4 percent at Chicago O’Hare, less than three percent at BWI, Cleveland or Philadelphia.

Granted, this report was published in 2000, but I don’t think the fundamentals have changed very much. In fact, an LA Weekly article from earlier this summer notes that a new light rail station serving LAX is expected to carry less than one percent of flyers using that airport.

There are many reasons why so few air travelers use rail to get to and from the airport. Business travelers who can expense their cab fare don't need to use it. Families who don't want to haul several pieces of luggage onto a train won't use it. Visitors unfamiliar with a city's rail network, or wary of public transportation in general, will avoid it. People going to places not served by the rail system obviously have no use for it. Locals going to the airport probably won't use it unless they live right on the rail line. In some cases, the distance between the airport terminal and the rail station discourages people from using it.

I've used rail to get to and from airports in at least two US cities (Chicago and Washington, DC), and I found these connections to be very convenient. But I was also traveling by myself, to downtown, without a lot of luggage. In other words, I was among a rather narrow subset of air travelers for whom rail was actually useful.

The fact is, of the people who use urban rail systems to access an airport, the airport employees themselves - baggage handlers, food service workers, custodial staff, TSA screeners - vastly outnumber air travelers. Certainly, the rail is useful for them. But they're also the same people who would be taking the local bus service to the airport if the rail weren't there.

With all that said, METRO's long-range plans do have the North (Red) Line eventually reaching Bush Intercontinental, and the Southeast (Purple) Line eventually connecting to Hobby. But we're not likely to see either of those connections built anytime soon, for funding and other reasons. And while these connections might be nice to have if and when they are built, they're really not going to have a outsized impact on the network's overall utility, or magically make Houston more "world class" than it already is.

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