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.
Do 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.