Making it easier to reach LAX
On Thursday, June 26th, the Los Angeles Metro Board of Directors committed the agency to building an intermodal light rail, bus and tramway station to actually serve Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). This is a significant development for Los Angeles, for a number of reasons. It not only affects quality of life issues for the city residents by providing easier car-free access to the airport and taking drivers off of city roads, but it also transforms the experience for visitors to the city from a clogged, backwards central terminal area to, one hopes, a smooth transition to mass transit and a consolidated car rental facility. Ever since the failure to reach an agreement for the Metro Green Line to reach LAX in the early 1990s, it has been readily apparent to both residents and visitors that Los Angeles has missed a key element that is considered being part of a world class city: the ability to use rail to reach a major airport.
When Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Olympics, a significant effort was made to upgrade LAX not only to meet the expected influx of travelers but also to provide a modernized face to reach the world. But the improvements were a rush to meet the deadline of the Games, with an undersized international terminal and no plans to make space for future mass transit expansion, despite the lack of a subway or light rail line. Thirty years later, Los Angeles is only now getting around to addressing the needs that were made so apparent then. Since time of the LA Olympics, fixed rail has reached the Chicago O’Hare, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco International Airports. These cities have joined world leaders such as London, Paris, Rome, Singapore, Beijing, Tokyo and Hong Kong – all of which offer direct rail links. In fact, of the ten busiest airports in the world, Los Angeles International is the only airport without a direct rail link.
If Los Angeles wants to compete with these other cities, it is essential that both LA Metro and Los Angeles World Airports understand exactly what is needed to make things work properly and encourage both local and international travelers to use the planned intermodal rail station. As it stands, passengers will still need to take an automated tram to their specific terminal, akin to San Francisco, so the need to minimize the hassle of changing modes of transportation is significant. These are the following steps that the transportation agencies must take in the planning stage to ensure success:
- Make transitions between train and tram as easy as possible: Passengers should be able to easily move from one mode of transportation to another by taking at most one elevator, escalator or flight of stairs. Elevators should have enough room for multiple bags, and any planned remote baggage check-in should involve no significant changes of levels.
- Simplify the path to the airport: Minimize the number of train, bus and tram changes needed to reach the central terminal area. Ideally, passengers should only need at most two transitions, one from bus to rail or rail to rail, and one from rail to tram. The Crenshaw Line should serve downtown if at all possible. If not, the transition to the Expo Line should be made simple and easy.
- Minimize the walking effort needed between tram and terminal: Anything that involves longer than a ten minute walk to reach the terminal, especially with bags, is a major concern, particularly for older travelers and people with children. London and Chicago can manage because there is no need to take the tram. Los Angeles will not have this luxury. Further, access between tram and terminal should never involve crossing a busy street.
- Make it possible for travelers to bring their bags on trains and buses: Los Angeles is notorious for not allowing space for luggage on trains on the Green Line or many buses serving the airport. Follow the example of London, which not only has space in trains on lines to the airport but also on any mass transit line serving a railway station. Passengers using the tram to reach the new consolidated rental car facility also deserve easy access for their bags.
- Promote the services to the airport both locally and outside the city: The free shuttle from the Green Line to LAX that currently exists has only a minor mention on the Metro route maps and hardly anywhere else. Airport transit services, including Flyaway Buses, should be promoted through brochures, internet advertising, and print ads in airline publications, major magazines and elsewhere.
- Label everything properly: LAX needs to make it clear inside the terminals exactly how to reach the trams, and for that matter, the Flyaway Buses. Current label schemes are often confusing and difficult to understand. Metro’s labeling scheme is far, far worse. Labels at major stations are often years out of date. Trains for individual lines often lack maps of the lines routes, let alone displays along the side of a train announcing which line it serves. I once wound up on a Blue Line Train instead of an Expo Line Train at a shared platform because the Blue Line train arrived late and there were no signs – electronic or otherwise – to say which line it served. Look to London, where the city takes pride in its Underground maps and train labels being easy to navigate. Rail services will fail if passengers either do not understand how to reach their destination or are too intimidated to use them.
- Plan for the future: Make sure that if the new service is successful, train platforms are large enough to handle additional rail cars, and that more trams or tram cars can be added as well. Build more effective drop off zones for express buses not only at the intermodal facility by the airport, but also at major rail-bus interchanges elsewhere in the city. And plan right now for how a rail link will run from LAX to the Westside. Having to head northeast on the Crenshaw Line and then double back on the Expo Line will take far too long for many Westside travelers. A dedicated north-south Westside line will be the only way to take more cars off of Lincoln Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway.
Most importantly, make sure to remember who this service will be serving. It is not only intended for visitors to our city, but also for locals. As passenger numbers at LAX continue to climb, the only way to make neighborhoods around LAX truly happy is if more people choose to reach the airport by means other than cars. LAX is one of the most important airports in the world. We need to build a modern, effective rail link to the airport to show we feel that way as well.
Kevin Klowden is a managing economist at the Milken Institute and director of its California Center.