Urban Planning + Design + Research


Writing on a variety of topics related to cities, urban theory, sustainable development, China, urbanism.

America just doesn't get airport rail


Observing his experience at LaGuardia Airport, Donald Trump bemoaned that it's like "a third world airport". Now, putting aside the absurdity of  an avowed conservative who detests government projects in general complaining about the state of America's infrastructure, he has a point. America's airports and infrastructure are in terrible shape compared to the rest of the world. Rising Asian megacities as well as European cities are putting America's public infrastructure to shame. One type of infrastructure that some American cities are trying to retroactively insert is the rail connection from city to airport.

Now, I could broadly characterize the decrepit state of America's airports in general, or its lackluster investment in rail transport generally. But building rail connections to airports is a reasonable goal that many cities are now trying to do. New York's governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced his ambition to finally build a rail connector "AirTrain" to LaGuardia Airport in NYC, after decades of failed plans. In the Bay Area, the Oakland Airport connector to Bart recently opened, and in Los Angeles, a new light rail line is supposed to allow greater access to the city's main airport.

But all of these proposals fail to achieve the convenience, speed, and connectivity for travelers that airport rail links provide in other cities. Due to a lack of funds, political constraints, or the opposition of residents, the proposed airport connectors mentioned above look pathetic in the light of what other cities have accomplished, and they will do little to improve access to airports from the city.

What do the best do?

The best airport connectors require minimal line or inter-modal transfers and provide a convenient and quick way for travelers to reach the central city from the airport. Planners need to consider who is going to be taking these lines: business travelers, tourists, and those with small enough luggage pieces so that they don't have to shlep massive bags up escalators, stairs, or through long tunnels. Several cities in Asia have built convenient subway connections that take travelers from the airport directly to the center of the city: Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, and Seoul, among others. Even in the U.S., San Francisco International provides direct access to the BART system, on which one can reach downtown in about a half hour without any transfers.

Hong Kong's MTR provides swift travel from Hong Kong Airport to Central and Kowloon stations in 40 minutes. You can even check in to your flights in the city and board the train to the airport afterward.


Beijing's airport express opened before the 2008 Olympics and provides 25 minute service directly from both terminals of Beijing's airport to two stations in the heart of the city, Dongzhimen and Sanyuanqiao.

Beijing Metro, airport line shown
Beijing Metro, airport line shown

Seoul's AREX (Airport Rail Express) opened in 2010. Previously, Incheon Airport's long distance from Seoul made transit difficult. But the new line cuts time to around 50 minutes, and the line provides direct express  service to Seoul Station in addition to the "all-stop train" serving several stops along the way including Gimpo Airport. Recently, Korea's KTX High Speed Rail opened service directly from Incheon Airport to the rest of Korea, making Incheon's rail transit connections some of the best in the world.


San Francisco (SFO): Proving America CAN in fact accomplish convenient airport rail links, the BART extension to SFO opened in 2003. The airport station provides direct access to San Francisco Airport's  international terminal.


The clunky American answer

The proposed trains to LaGuardia in New York, LAX in Los Angeles, and Oakland all demonstrate the absolute WRONG way to go about connecting airports with public transit. The transfers, lack of direct access to downtown areas, and difficulty moving luggage through these transfers all work to discourage use of airport rail. In many cases, taking the airport rail will be more trouble than its worth.

Transfers: Instead of routing a metro line directly into the airport terminal area, the systems will require passengers to board a light rail, then transfer to another line some distance away from the airport. In New York's case, the proposed Air Train to LaGuardia will dump passengers at Flushing Meadows Station on Line 7, requiring a transfer and then a long shlep to Manhattan via the Subway or the LIRR. New York's JFK and Newark Airports do have connections, but they are similar: an airport train connects with Jamaica Station for JFK, and Newark's Rail Station in Newark. Because business travelers usually need to get to central city districts quickly, the complicated transfers discourage them from taking advantage of the train. Tourists must navigate the complicated and unintuitive path from the Airport Train to commuter rail or subways.

Cost vs Benefit

In all the American examples, the high cost of building direct rail into the airport is usually the most important reason cited by (politicians/activists/insert interest group here) to claim that people-movers or trams are the most cost effective way to connect airports to transit systems. But when you realize that the inconvenience discourages many passengers from taking rail to the airport, the cost savings in initial construction has to be considered against the lost revenue from lower ridership.

Los Angeles: Failure in the Making


In Los Angeles, the estimated cost of a direct link involving tunneling under the airport was said to be 3 billion dollars, which politicians like Mayor Eric Garcetti claimed was prohibitively expensive. But already, the cost of the new LAX-Crenshaw Line itself (which will connect to the people mover a little over a mile away from LAX) is over 2 billion dollars, according to Curbed LA, and the cost of transit improvements that will include the people mover, intermodal transfer facility at 96th st, and stops at two offsite rental car and transportation centers comes to over 4 billion. The people mover itself will cost around $1 billion, with only $300 million allocated so far by the city through Measure R. The direct line to LAX looks quite affordable when compared compared to all this. And Los Angeles World Airports, the city authority that runs LAX claims that digging under the airport is dangerous. But they never explored building a direct elevated light rail line into the airport terminals. If they can build an elevated people mover, why can't they build a direct light rail line into the airport? The decision of the LA Board of Supervisors to discard the direct line option seems ridiculous, and a political decision designed to please all interest groups while sacrificing the public good.

Another problem that should be pointed out is that the proposed Crenshaw metro line that will drop passengers at the transfer station is in itself not an ideal line to connect to the airport. Most importantly, it doesn't reach any destination in central Los Angeles (downtown or West LA) that travelers are likely to want to access. It does serve low-income areas near the airport (Inglewood), but residents in these areas are ironically the least likely to use LAX. Building a line to the airport through these neighborhoods will not magically lead low-income residents to suddenly buy airplane tickets, and could end up stimulating gentrification in these areas as proximity to the airport transit connections increases the value of land.

The low projected ridership of the people mover also undoes the argument of those claiming its more cost effective than a direct rail connection. Projections by La's own MTA suggest less than 1% of total airport passengers will take the rail connections once it's completed. Less than 1%!! So all of this investment will do virtually nothing to reduce auto mode share of trips to the airport. Does that sound like a good investment? Now, how about comparing ridership on other city's airport rail lines? I think you can guess where this is going...

San Francisco: An estimated 10% of travelers to the airport use rail, the highest rail mode share of any U.S. airport. In Hong Kong,  28% of trips to the airport are taken on rail. In short, LAX's projected rail mode share of less than 1% is laughable. This isn't what we were promised when we were promised a rail connection to LAX. Los Angeles, and other American cities, deserve better.