Keys to Great Airport Transit

Toronto’s new high-fare, elite train between downtown and the airport is a failure in ridership terms, so it’s a good moment to talk about transit to the airport in general.

This critique by Cherise Burda of Ryerson University, one of the Toronto line’s few regular riders, pretty much sums up why the Toronto Union Pearson Express is doing so poorly:  Fares too high (CAD $27.50 one way) for a line that just doesn’t connect the airport to enough places.  She also shares this very useful table from the recent Pearson Connects study, a transport plan for Toronto’s main airport by Urban Strategies, Inc.  Focus on the four columns at the right.

YYZ mode sharesDo you think that specialized airport express trains are the key to high transit mode share to an airport?  Think again.   What matters is not just the train to downtown, but the whole transit network and the airport’s position in it.  Where can you get to on that network, and how soon?  (A true assessment of this issue would have included bus services too, of course.)  London’s Heathrow, for example, has a high-fare express train very much like Toronto’s, but it also has a slower train that makes more stops for a lower fare, and a subway line that makes even more stops and serves even more places.  Those lines connect to more services, and are therefore more useful to far more people.

Basic math:  1000 airport employees using an airport service every day are more ridership than 100,000 air travelers using it, on average, maybe a couple of times a year.

This is the simple reason that airport transit politics are so frustrating.  Everyone wants to believe in transit to the airport, because they might ride it a few times a year.  But to create a great airport train (or bus) for air travelers, you have to make it useful to airport employees too  That generally means a service that’s an integral part of the regional transit network, not a specialized airport train.

The other key issue is that most airports are cul-de-sacs.  It’s hard for a line to continue beyond the airport unless it’s underground, and this is another huge limitation on an airport service’s ability to serve a sufficiently diverse market.  If you can afford it, aspire to be like Sydney, whose rapid transit system tunnels under the airport so that it can continue beyond it without branching. And if you’re a rare airport like Seattle’s, where surface transit can stop at the terminal but continue onward, so much the better.

So again, here are the keys to great transit to the airport, for travelers and employees:

  • Total travel time matters, not just in-vehicle time.  Airports are citadels of impatience.  Travel time matters hugely, but travel time is not just in-vehicle time (the time you’ll see advertised) but total time including waiting.  That’s why the advantage of making few stops is wildly exaggerated. To accurately measure real travel time, add the in-vehicle travel time to half the waiting time, where the latter is governed by frequency.  You’ll find that a more frequent train that stops more often (and is therefore useful to more people) comes out ahead even for the downtown-to-airport traveler.
  • Combine air travelers and airport employees on the same train/bus, and appeal to an economically diverse range of air travelers, not just the elite.  This is a case of the general principle that transit thrives on the diversity of trips for which it’s useful, not on specialization.  If elites want a nicer train, give them first class cars at higher fares, but not a separate train just for them.  (And as always, elite services are a good role for the for-profit sector.)  As always, the more people of all kinds you can get on a train or bus, the more frequently you can afford to run it, which means less waiting, and the lower the fare you need to charge.
  • Connect the airport to lots of places, not just downtown, by providing a total network.  It’s the total transit system at the airport, not just the sexy airport line, that determines who can get there, and how quickly.  And the total network requires connections — another reason to care about frequency.
  • Don’t interfere with the growth of other services.  Airport terminals are still not huge destinations by citywide standards, so don’t sacrifice other major markets to serve them.  Toronto’s airport train, for example, not only carries few people but creates issues for higher-ridership services with which it shares track. Another common problem is the branch into the airport that cuts frequency and capacity on a mainline, even though the mainline’s demand is much higher (San Francisco, Vancouver),
  • If you can afford it, go via the airport instead of terminating there.   Most airports are large-scale cul-de-sacs, and like every cul-de-sac, they say: “I want only as much transit service as I can justify all by myself.”  So if you can tunnel under the airport and serve it on the way to other places, as in Sydney, you will often end up with much better service for all your airport users, employees and travelers alike.



28 Responses to Keys to Great Airport Transit

  1. calwatch March 1, 2016 at 2:01 pm #

    Quite frankly, in 90% of the cases an airport express bus or people mover from the nearest rail station is cost effective and provides greater benefit to workers and passengers, unless it happens to run through the airport. Airports are often home to a regional cluster of office parks and other business that depend on proximity to the terminals as well.

  2. Tom West March 1, 2016 at 2:28 pm #

    I find it odd that any rapid transit service is condemned as a ‘failure’ after just nine months. Looks like the operator panicked in the face of bad publicity.

    • Robert Wightman March 5, 2016 at 11:26 am #

      Let’s see; ridership is dropping month by month even when they give away a free ticket with every ticket bought. That seems to meet the definition of failure to most people. The line was poorly conceived and implemented. It has all the appearances as something for the top 1% at the expense of the other 99%. Plus it makes it very difficult to run all day GO service on the line until more track capacity is added, service that would be loaded at more that 10% of capacity.

      The province is trying to save political face. Someone is going to bear the brunt of the fallout and it won’t be a politician.

  3. Bjorn Swenson March 1, 2016 at 10:19 pm #

    Airports also tend to have unconventional travel patterns. For example, the first bank of flights on most airlines from Denver tends to leave at about 6;00 am; as people are supposed to be two hours early for their flight, this means that airline workers, TSA, et al would need to punch in around 4:00 am.

    RTD schedules its airport-bound routes to have their first arrival roughly at 3:50 am, in order to align with the presumptive work schedules of airport employees; there aren’t very many places that would justify frequent service at three in the morning except to the airport.

    The need for early-morning (and very late evening) service carries over to RTD’s new airport train, which has the first train depart Union Station (downtown) at 3:15 in the morning, and the last train arrive back at 2:03 am Sunday through Thursday and 2:33 am Friday and Saturday.

    Many transit properties tend to give the route to the airport the same service span as they would an urban route of comparable ridership, such as a 6a-10p or 5a-12a span. While those spans would normally meet the vast majority of customer travel times, if a TSA scanner or Starbucks barista needs to clock in at 4:00 am, but the first bus would make them an hour late to work every single day, the transit property just lost a fare-paying customer.

    As an example, in Houston (which I am intentionally using because of its recent system redesign by the blog author), the first bus from downtown to the airport doesn’t arrive until 6:14 am. If one had to strictly adhere to the two-hour minimum check-in, they couldn’t take any flight before 8:14 am. Similarly, note that the greatest service frequency is offered during the typical rush hours, which if Houston is like any city I’m more familiar with, is probably not aligned with when the greatest number of flights happen, or when the major airport shift changes occur. (To be fair, the route’s ridership may be more oriented towards Downtown Houston workers than towards the airport.)

    • Bjorn Swenson March 1, 2016 at 10:19 pm #

      Addendum: The new RTD A-Line schedule is here:

    • ararar March 6, 2016 at 2:20 pm #

      there’s no traffic anywhere before dawn, for people with those shifts the airport should just have parking available (they always have), and manage it appropriately, e.g. the barrier opens to the badges of non-paying employees only before 6:14 am. For the others, a monthly tariff to have all-day parking permission could be applied (if there actually is a voluntary or compulsory program to reduce car commutes for well-connected workplaces).

      • cd March 11, 2016 at 9:38 am #

        Then all airport employees on early shifts would be required to own a vehicle.

  4. el_slapper March 2, 2016 at 1:46 am #

    It depends on what you want. Beauvais, the third parisian airport, 50 miles to the north of paris, has exactly 2 buses. One to “Paris Porte Maillot”, every 10 minutes, widely used by passengers, and one to the beauvais train station… every 100 minutes or so.

    When I lived in Taverny & had to take the plane at Beauvais, I had to take the car. Porte Maillot was far from home, and a buse every 100 minutes is not acceptable.

    But the real point is what Jarret points out : the workers don’t live in Paris, they live in the Beauvais area. They have to come by car. They have no choice. A proper transit to the airport would help a lot locals to work there, but also some people to go there by transit(as I was). Not just 2 lines with just two stops each.

    Paris CDG is far better served, but yes, it is a kind of cul-de-sac. The masterpiece, though, is the high-speed train that stops here, allowing people from all the country to directly take their plane. The suburban subway is inferior(very unreliable), stops at the airport and does not go further, but still useful. It did save my back quite a few times.

    The worse, though, is the second airport, Paris-Orly, dedicated mainly to domestic flights. There’s a special bus that goes to Paris’s center, but with the traffic jam level, it’s hell. There’s the Orlyval monorail, but that leads you only to Antony, where you’re still far from everything.

    So, plenty of special services, but nothing correctly integrated to the parisian traffic system. I never took the plane at Orly for this specific reason. The train is longer to travel, but stations are muuuuch easier to reach. By car or by transit(my usual choice).

  5. Alon Levy March 2, 2016 at 7:36 am #

    Actually… for passengers, the destinations are usually strongly clustered around the CBD. For example, the second map here combines origins and destinations for passengers traveling through LaGuardia; the Outer Boroughs basically do not exist, and in Manhattan, the connections are mainly to Midtown and the Upper East Side. Most air travelers are not me: I fly a lot to visit friends and family and to connect with academic colleagues, and I tend to crash with friends, so for example I treat Boston as “that place I need to go through to get to Cambridge/Somerville.” But for most travelers, the destination is the CBD.

    Now, as you note, regular subway connections to the airport are important, and not just airport express lines. But that’s not necessarily because of the frequent grid of connections. It’s because the line itself is usually more frequent; the price is lower; the CBD may be larger than one train station in cities like London and Paris; and passengers have origins and not just destinations, and origins are much less CBD-centric than destinations. Regional rail is actually very good at serving origin passengers, since it has large coverage, so people from the suburbs and even neighboring cities can take it to the airport. (I usually fly to and from New York even when I visit Boston and Washington. It has better and somewhat cheaper trans-Atlantic service.)

  6. Sean Nelson March 2, 2016 at 9:30 am #

    As a Vancouverite who benefits from our “Skytrain” rapid transit line to the airport that’s fully integrated into the rest of the transit system, I’ve been watching gape-mouthed at Toronto’s handling of the Pearson line. In a city where getting new transit lines seems to be such a political nightmare, what a wasted opportunity to build a brand new rail line and have it so cut off from the rest of the system. It’s been like watching a slow motion wreck to see how this line was proposed, constructed and now is reaping the consequences of it’s design.

  7. Max Wyss March 2, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

    Interesting to see what happens in London right now. The Heathrow Express train fleet is grounded because they did discover some structural faults. Heathrow Express now cancels their regional trains, presses that rolling stock into Express service, and requests that the passengers for the intermediate stops use bus and subway. Ah, yeah, they did lower the fares for the Express a little bit… Because the regional trains are not serving the airport only, Great Western has to add some additional trains for the non-airport-related service.

    • EJ March 3, 2016 at 6:38 pm #

      FWIW, and this is admittedly anecdotal, but as someone who made semi-frequent business trips between Los Angeles and London a few years ago, I always used to take the Piccadilly line to and from Heathrow. The London office was a short walk from Piccadilly Circus, so if I were to take Heathrow Express, I’d have to take the tube, bus, or a cab to Paddington, walk to the main train station, wait for the train, etc., vs. just jump on the Piccadilly line. Due to the transfers, there was no time advantage, and considerably less convenience when taking the train, despite the tube being much slower. And there were always a fair number of Heathrow bound passengers on it, I certainly wasn’t the only one who found it more convenient.

      It had nothing to do with fares – this was business travel; I wasn’t spending my own money. I think my experience is relevant though – the Piccadilly line cuts across a wide swath of Central London, with numerous stops, whereas Heathrow Express is only really a one-seat ride if you happen to be going somewhere near Paddington station. Be interesting to see what happens when the Crossrail tunnels open and the former Heathrow Connect actually becomes relevant for accessing Central London and the City.

  8. European Moving March 2, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

    Very helpful post about airport transit. Thank you.

  9. Mick Doyle March 2, 2016 at 2:18 pm #

    Fascinating article. Thanks for sharing. Nice to see Sydney getting a rap.

  10. Shaun March 2, 2016 at 3:06 pm #

    @Tom West

    “Looks like the operator panicked in the face of bad publicity.”

    That comment might be fair if this outcome was not foreseeable more than a decade ago. I could provide any number of links to substantiate that claim, but let’s go with this one:

    As a comparison to bolster Jarrett’s point, most of “the 8% transit mode share” cited in Jarrett’s table comes from the bus routes that service Pearson. The one that many of us take coming from the city centre is the 192 Rocket from the Line 2 subway terminus. In 2014 the 192’s daily ridership averages were 3700-4700, as compared to UPX that never hit a daily average of 3000 despite the enormous footprint that it had on our infrastructure.

    During this time, our conventional transit services have been at the bursting point as we watch the UPX trains sail by with an average of 14 riders (less than 10% capacity, and in raw rider numbers less than almost all of our bus routes), with ridership levels staying stagnant. The operator’s stance on this was that it was merely an issue of marketing and habit, overlooking the patently obvious until a few weeks ago.

    A bigger problem for all of Toronto is the way in which this glaring ignorance has the potential to undermine larger issues that *might* finally be addressed after years of painful map drawing and erasing. Or repeated train wrecks, as accurately expressed by @Sean Nelson.

  11. George bell March 2, 2016 at 3:49 pm #

    The biggest problem with upx is that it only has 3 stations from which people might want to go to the airport.

    1) union station is itself a cul-de-sac given downtowns location on the lake. there are only two streets south of union before you hit the lake – the east end of Toronto is well served by the 3$ subway and a 10 minute bus ride to the airport. Basically if you are 2 km or more away from union subway is a better bet

    2) bloor/Dundas connects to the subway but with an outdoor connection and its in a low density area

    3) the other station which is in a low density subdivision and basically you would never be near unless you lived there

    4) your at the airport!

    A better long term plan is for more busses and eventually expanding to lrt to eglinton. But even that is assuming that it’s worth it given all the other priorities in the city that would do much better DRL and waterfront lines.

  12. Dexter Wong March 3, 2016 at 1:27 am #

    How an airport is served depends on how a transit agency wants to serve it. In Honolulu, currently, service is split between taxis,shuttle vans (principally Speedi Shuttle and Roberts Hawaii) and city buses 19 and 20. The city buses do not have luggage racks because the city did not want to compete with the shuttle vans. So a good deal of passengers are airport employees (although there are airline passengers who try to squeeze luggage into the tight spaces available). When the new metro rail system opens it will serve the airport, but ends at Ala Moana Center (just across the canal from Waikiki). The city says it will have shuttle buses available for airline passengers to get to Waikiki. (But I don’t know if they will have luggage racks.)

  13. Ugo Lachapelle March 3, 2016 at 3:34 am #

    Funny how Toronto’s train isn’t working, but Montreal’s bus to the airport works a lot better.

    After one year, Montreal’s express to the airport worked pretty well (1750 passenger per direction on average). And I can understand most of the appeal. It’s frequency is decent when it is needed, it gives access to the metro system as soon as possible by letting people down at one of the most useful hubs, and generally stops where it can.

    As for pricing, you cannot pay for a single ticket; you must pay the 1-day ticket (10$), but it gives access to the whole network in the city of Montreal for 24h. All bus passes, including the regional passes, are accepted as well, so workers can easily use the bus.

    It certainly isn’t the best bus; there could have been easier access to the local suburbs for the airport employees, and the bus could have been made a more integral part of transit within the city, but the few details making a bus so much more popular than a train is quite revealing in what makes transit a success.

    • Max Wyss March 3, 2016 at 10:21 am #

      I don’t think it is because it is a bus, that it is more successful. The crucial part for the success is that this bus is part of the whole system (fully integrated in the fares). It does not pretend to be a “premium product”; it is just another useful line of the network (maybe not totally, as stated, but still).

      • Sean Gillis March 3, 2016 at 5:50 pm #

        Has there been any progress on the plans for a rail connection to Trudeau International and the West Island? It appears there’s ideas to make a stub from the main line heading west, which would split the line> seems like a bit of new track going directly to the Trudeau terminal would solve the problem, as Trudeau is not a cul-de-sac.

        Here is an update from February (en Francais):

        It’s very unclear on details like frequency, or where the LRT would run on on-street, or how trains might get from Lucien l’Allier to Gare Centrale with the Bell Centre in the way.

        • David Arthur March 4, 2016 at 9:49 am #

          When Montréal planners say ‘light rail’ they seem to mean something comparable to the Vancouver SkyTrain, not a tramway – this is expressed more clearly in the documents for the Champlain Bridge line.

  14. Ilya Petoushkoff March 3, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

    We’ve had kind of same experience in Moscow.

    All the three airports of Moscow hub are served by express train connections with a fixed 30-minute headway throughout the day (‘Aeroexpress’ trains). Historically, these trains were provided for a fixed fare, approx. 10…12 times higher than a citywide single fare the buses were subject to.

    Due to extreme congestion, during peak hours the trains are the only viable option to get to/from the airports.
    So, one should imagine how terribly frustrated airports’ employees were, observing each day the fast and reliable trains they simply can’t afford using, and basically forced to be stuck in traffic (were they inside a bus, or on a car).

    It took 7 years until the train operator eventually introduced slightly affordable fares for everyday users.

  15. Mikko March 5, 2016 at 5:36 am #

    Helsinki’s rail connection to the airport opened last summer, and there was quite a bit of criticism about the train being no faster than an express bus from the city center (about 30 minutes). The new rail service is an extension of the urban rapid transit system, and it actually matches the criteria listed the in the blog post reasonably well: it extends existing lines and doesn’t interfere with other services, it goes through the airport in a tunnel, is not a cul-de-sac, makes a lot of stops, connects to other services, including long-distance trains, is inexpensive to ride and is part of the city’s transit ticketing system. Yet lots of people seemed to expect an express train right up to the opening day, since the new line had been publicized as an “airport connection”. Many non-experts proposed running an express service in between the local trains on the new tracks. That’s not possible, since the headway is ten minutes for a large part of the day, and less on some shared parts of the track. There’s no room for express trains on the tracks, but this is difficult to get across to someone who’s certain that the 740 million euros spent on the thing were wasted if the trip didn’t get any faster.

    The more serious criticism concern the alignment and dimensioning. The line is the heaviest kind of rail, with 230-meter station platforms and an 8-km rail-way spec tunnel (two tunnel stations) that can accommodate double-decker cars. Currently several of the new stations are located effectively in the middle of nowhere, as the municipality of Vantaa is in the process of planning and developing those areas and there isn’t much there yet. Hence the passenger numbers probably don’t look too good after six months. The bus lines in the area were reorganized, partly as feeder lines, and some of those changes had to be temporarily rolled back, because the airport workers not served by the rail line had too much trouble getting there on the reduced bus services.

  16. Mehmet March 9, 2016 at 1:02 pm #

    I’m a layperson, so forgive any naivete, but that’s what’s so frustrating about LA and the current talk of the Crenshaw line connection and the studying of the Slauson corridor. Both of those don’t really do much to change the connection options. Once Crenshaw is done, employees and passengers in West Adams and Crenshaw going to LAX will have a better no-to-one-transfer line — and if a local line were completed along the Slauson corridor, it could provide no-transfer trips for South LA and DTLA, which would be nice, sure, but neither would get at any of the other poles of LA, especially the really important ones like Santa Monica, Westwood, The Valley, and Hollywood.

    So I’m not crazy for thinking true BRT corridors down Lincoln and Sepulveda (up through Westwood and into the Valley) for sure, and to a lesser extent La Brea and Florence would be much better money spent, right? I see it as especially beneficial in LA due to multiple operators being able to use the lanes and provide service to LAX (Metro, BBB, Culver City, FlyAway, Beach Cities, Torrance, etc, maybe even Super Shuttle and other private shuttle services). There’s special advantage because LAX is situated in a much denser urban fabric than a lot of international airports and you can run Sepulveda and Lincoln as through lines south of LAX too. I’ve heard BRT is more expensive to operate after lower capital costs, but this is a no-brainer, right?

  17. Ming March 10, 2016 at 7:03 pm #

    Some of the critiques here are a little unfair. The design goal of the Toronto airport train was for it to not lose money. Ridership was never a goal. The province was mostly bankrupt, but they still wanted to build new transit infrastructure, and some experts suggested that an airport train could break even on its costs, so that’s why it was built. Later, they discovered that it wouldn’t be able to cover its construction costs, but it could likely cover its operating costs if the fares were high enough, and they still decided to proceed. Unfortunately, they priced it too high (plus new competition by companies like Uber), so they aren’t sure if they are still on the right path to cover operating costs. Unlike US transit infrastructure, Canadian transit infrastructure is actually heavily used, to the point where operating costs and farebox recovery rates are a significant concern. Currently, the plan for new transit infrastructure in the province involves selling other assets to pay for construction costs, delaying construction for as long as possible in the hopes that more money will be found later, and hoping that the economy revives by the time any construction is actually completed thereby providing the funds needed to actually operate the new transit lines.

  18. Geoff Olynyk March 11, 2016 at 11:42 am #

    The old price of the Union-Pearson Express, before they just cut the price, was $27.50 with no Presto card, or $19.00 with a Presto card. I put my palm over my face every time I see the headline “The UP-Express costs $27.50 (or $19 with Presto)”. It should have been “The UP-Express costs $19.00 ($27.50 if you don’t have a presto card)”

    Hell, it was cheaper to buy a Presto card just for the one ride ($6 to buy the card), than to pay the cash fare for the UP-Express.

  19. Alexander March 17, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

    The issue here I think that is being highlighted is the cost-effectiveness of such transit and the political imperatives of transit projects.

    Transit planners (consultants or otherwise) are familiar with this dichotomy. Many transit plans are thought of and created every year. Most of these represent an improvement in coverage (frequency, hours of operation, accessibility to transit) and cost a fraction of what is proposed, yet they are ignored because of the poor political impact.

    Projects like an airport rail link are great political posters – large infrastructure projects generate great media and an end product that politicians can point at and say that they helped to approve.

    It’s not common to see a major infrastructure project represent a cost-effective transit solution and also a great story for politicians. Toronto’s Union-Pearson express was not one of these. Other cities should take note.

  20. Kakurady April 19, 2016 at 5:14 am #

    I think we’re seeing a bit of “jurisdiction friction” here: The UPX line is managed by GO Transit under the province of Ontario, and the subway is managed by Toronto Transit Commission under the city of Toronto.

    On top of that, the UPX mostly uses existing rail to keep the cost down. Adding new stops to connect to transit would require laying more rail.

Leave a Reply