Posts about Airports
Portland has achieved near-cult status in urbanist circles for its progressive development and transportation policies. All is not perfect in Portland, but there are lot of great things we can take away from the City of Roses.
The city has a thriving downtown, and walkable inner-ring neighborhoods. It sports an extensive transit network and unbeatable bike infrastructure. But the central city gives way quickly to suburban development and highway interchanges. And there some examples where, even a town whose name is synonymous with alternate transportation, it's hard to overcome the primacy of the auto.
Last week I traveled to Oregon for work and had a few hours to kill in Portland before heading back east. Here are a few great things that Portland has accomplished, and also some pitfalls the DC region should try to avoid.
Transit and bike friendly airport
Landing in PDX, you are greeted by abundant wayfinding signage, all of which clearly points out transit and bike options.
Left: Wayfinding signage points out bike and transit options.
Right: MAX information is highly visible.
The MAX light rail line dead ends at one end of the terminal, much like the MTA light rail does at BWI. The covered walk from there into the main terminal is easily half the distance most drivers would walk from the nearest, most expensive parking garage. The MAX is brightly advertised on monitors in the airport, encouraging people to take transit into the city.
PDX is also extremely bike friendly, even featuring a bike assembly area. As one of the few airports in the country to be connected by trails and bike lanes to its downtown, this is an outstanding amenity. And while fliers probably don't use it heavily since checking a full-size bike on an airplane has become almost prohibitively expensive, even travelers with folding bikes will find the work stand, tool set, and bike pump useful.
It's also a low-cost amenity that is makes commuting by bike easier for thousands of airport employees and serves as a visible reminder that biking is a valued access mode.
Top left: Ample covered bike parking on the arrivals level. Top right: The bike assembly station. Bottom: detail of bike assembly sign.
Washington National Airport is ideal for an amenity like this. DCA connects to multiple trails, making a ride to the airport convenient from downtown, the close-in Virginia suburbs and even parts of Maryland. Washington National is even closer to downtown DC and Arlington than PDX is to Portland, making biking an even more viable option.
Bike amenities everywhere
Induced demand gets a bad rap on the highways side, but Portland is using it to its advantage with bike parking. You cannot walk 20 feet without finding a bike rack, both downtown and in neighborhoods. I was struck by Portland State University and Oregon Health and Science University efforts to provide ample bike parking. Demographically, students, and to some extent faculty members, are more likely to ride bikes, so it makes perfect sense.
Hundreds of bike spaces at Portland State University. Classes clearly aren't in session for another week. Photo by the author.
Comparatively, the major universities in DC have made meager attempts to provide ample, high quality bike racks. The biggest bike parking are on Georgetown's campus consists of 4 "comb" racks which are nearly impossible to safely lock bikes on. George Washington University's campus in Foggy Bottom, is practically devoid of on-street bike racks. GW's newest mixed-use building, Square 21, provided a total of 10 racks spread around an entire block with a Whole Foods and multiple restaurants.
The MAX trains also have hanging bike racks in them for cyclists. While racks like these won't work in the shorter Metro cars, they're worth keeping in mind as the DC streetcar system gets started.
In downtown, several streets feature buffered bike lanes. Although they were one-way, they were nice and wide, allowing easy passing for cyclists traveling different speeds. In other places where bike lanes were not separated from traffic, they were painted bright green and flowed into large green bike boxes at intersections.
In the redeveloped South Waterfront neighborhood, there are significant on- and off-street bike treatments that connect to a trail into downtown. Best of all, there is a massive bike parking area and a bike station with valet and repair services.
Left: A curb-separated bike lane splits as it enters the South Waterfront. Right: The northbound bike lane turns onto the sidewalk to send cyclists across the crosswalk to the sidepath into downtown.
This is right next to the lower Portland Aerial Tram station and a Streetcar stop. The Tram connects the burgeoning research, education, and residential neighborhood with the main campus of Oregon Health & Science University, situated on a massive hill and separated from the waterfront by I-5.
Good on-street transit information
Tri-Met and the city of Portland have made significant investments in good, visible transit information on the streets of downtown. The city's wayfinding system signs point to the nearest streetcar and MAX stations. Major downtown stops have very clear customer information, communicating which buses stop where, and where those buses travel. Also, many of the stops have real-time arrival screens, something DC has yet to achieve outside of the Metro.
Left: A bus stop is clearly marked with visible, high quality infrastructure.
Right: Real-time bus arrival information.
Acquiring right-of-way and laying track is expensive. So Tri-Met and Portland chose to single-track the MAX and Streetcar in some places where right-of-way would have been politically or financially unfeasible. In downtown, the streetcar runs on one track in both directions for 2 blocks just past PSU. For a low-speed system, where headways are unlikely ever to be shorter than a few minutes, this compromise makes sense if it allows for the most effective routing, in this case right through the center of PSU's campus.
Left: Streetcar singletracking south of PSU. Image from Google Maps. Right: Single track flyover on the Portland MAX Red Line. Image from Bing Maps.
On the MAX line to the airport, the system is single tracked in two places, for almost a mile after the Gateway/NE 99th Ave stop where the Red Line parts ways with the Blue and Green lines to head north along I-205, and again upon entering airport property until just before the terminal station. The first location incorporates a tight cloverleaf flyover and several over- and underpasses around I-84 and I-205. Again, frequencies on this line are unlikely to be high enough to make it worth the massive extra cost to build this infrastructure doubly wide.
Not quite level boarding
The result is that people with disabilities can only board some doors, which would maddeningly frustrating when an extra few inches of precision would have made all the doors accessible. The operational ramifications of having to deploy a ramp are minor, but not insignificant, so I'm not sure why you wouldn't just make sure the platform is entirely level with the rolling stock.
In DC, the existing streetcar platforms on H Street only have portions that are raised, so people in mobility devices will not be able to board at any doors. Hopefully, though those raised sections will at least be totally level, eliminating the need to operate and maintain ramps.
Mixed-traffic transit and highway right-of-ways
For a medium-size city, Portland has built a significant rail transit system in a phenomenally short time. However, this system suffers from one major shortcoming: low-quality right-of-way. The majority of Portland's light rail and streetcar systems run in either mixed-traffic lanes, or in the highway medians or shoulder.
The areas dense enough to best utilize high-capacity rapid transit only get high-capacity transit. The sections of the system where trains can run relatively fast suffer peaked ridership and lower productivity resulting from low-density development and park-and-rides that surround the stations.
The MAX gets more preferential treatment, running along a transit mall through much of downtown, but runs in highway right-of-ways in many directions on the outskirts of town, where comparatively little is within walking distance of stations.
Good or bad, Portland has led the way with many innovative urban investments. As we develop our bike and streetcar networks here in the Washington region, we should look to the west for lessons learned.
Before there was National Airport, there was the Washington Airport at Hoover Field. It was established in 1926 and located just west of today's intersection of the George Washington Parkway and the 14th Street Bridge.
Aerial View of South End of Highway Bridge, 14th Street Underpass Looking Northeast, 1932,
from Library of Congress.
The terminal, constructed in 1930, was built in the International Style and designed by architects Holden, Stott & Hutchinson. It was a frame structure with a brick veneer base and stucco walls. It was built at a cost of 50 cents per cubic foot, for a total cost of $29,187.78 for its 58,000 total cubic feet of space.
Upon completion in 1930, the terminal supported 50 sightseeing flights a day and 30 commercial fights. A few months after the terminal opened, Luddington Airlines (later absorbed by Eastern) began flights to New York "every hour on the hour." By 1931, the airport had 70 daily scheduled arrivals and departures, making it the busiest airport in the country.
Late October, 1935, witnessed the start of direct service between Washington and Chicago when American Airlines introduced the service. The duration of the flights were approximately four hours and via Cincinnati and Indianapolis. American's service was also the only one between the cities to have stewardesses in attendance and the only Chicago service using Douglas equipment.
The proposal for a safe and adequate government operated airport was introduced in Congress as early as 1927, but did not gain ground until 1938. This eventually resulted in construction of National Airport, which opened on July 16, 1941. With the opening of National, the old airport was no longer needed and razed. The grounds were purchased by the War Department for part of the Pentagon's grounds.
More images below.
"Airlines Start Direct Service D.C.-to-Chicago: American's New Schedule Brings Western City Within 4 Hours." The Washington Post, November 3, 1935, MA7.
Goode, James M. "Washington Hoover Airport Terminal." In Capital Losses, 460-461. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2003.
"Washington Airport Washington, D.C." The Architectural Forum, December 1930, 735-736.
There are a variety of ways to get to Washington's 3 airports. By far the most convenient way from downtown is to take Metro to nearby National Airport. But Metro does not make it out to Dulles or BWI International Airports.
Passengers arriving on international flights face a lengthy ride into Washington from either airport, but the length itself is not the only impediment for people to take transit to or from Dulles and BWI. Bus capacity and frequency are both major issues facing airport-bound passengers. While other major cities, both domestically and abroad, link their international air gateways to the city by bus, few make passengers wait as long between buses or leave them wondering how they're going to fit aboard.
The B30 links Greenbelt Station with BWI Airport. It runs approximately every 40 minutes every day of the week, including Saturday and Sunday. During the work week, there are four additional trips, due to the fact that Metro opens earlier. The bus leaves Greenbelt for BWI 25 times Monday through Friday and 21 times on Saturday and Sunday. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the airport.
Dulles is connected by the 5A, which runs from L'Enfant Plaza to Rosslyn and then on to Dulles Airport, making a few stops in the corridor. Trips during the week have an average headway of just under 40 minutes, with buses coming every 60 minutes on weekends. Each working day sees 30 trips to and from the airport in each direction, while only 18 are made on Saturdays and Sundays. The 5A can take over an hour to get from Dulles to L'Enfant Plaza.
As we are all aware, each bus has a finite capacity. According to WMATA, the average capacity for a 40-foot bus (pictured above) is 41 seats with a total of 71 passengers. Metro also operates 60-foot, articulated buses. These have a seating capacity of 57 and an overall capacity of 91. Of course, those numbers are typical for commuters, who don't regularly carry bags and suitcases. Bus capacity can also be limited by the experience level of riders. Novice riders don't always move back, and sometimes sit on the aisle seat, leaving a vacant or bag-filled seat by the window. And some buses serving the airports have luggage racks, which further limit seating capacity.
Suffice it to say that the buses serving Dulles and BWI have a capacity that is at least a little lower than the normal averages.
But let's assume that each bus could carry the maximum number of people. Even with that stipulation, the airport bus lines have a surprisingly low capacity.
To put those numbers in perspective, one railcar can carry about 70 seated passengers or 175 seated and standing passengers when full. That means that an 8-car train can carry about 1,400 people. One full 8-car train can has a higher capacity than all the 5A buses, combined, running from Washington to Dulles Airport on a Saturday or Sunday, if they're all 40-footers. Two 8-car trains would be more than enough to carry all of the weekday buses, even if they were all 60-footers.
During the holiday seasons, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, WMATA operates extra buses on both lines. This helps to ensure that someone doesn't have to wait 40 minutes on the next bus if they can't fit aboard the first one. But just last week, I saw airport-bound travelers left at Greenbelt because the B30 filled up before they could get on. Even with supplemental buses, passengers fret. After Thanksgiving, when my flight arrived at BWI, I hurried over to the stop outside Concourse E. The first bus, a 40-footer, came and filled up. Less than half of the people at the stop made it. The bus driver announced that an extra bus was "just behind her," and 10 minutes later, a 60-foot articulated bus arrived. Everyone did manage to climb aboard, but there was only room for about 5 or 6 more patrons.
For passengers arriving in our nation's capital for the first time, whether from Paris or Kansas City, the long bus rides are made torturous by overcrowding and long wait times.
In Berlin, on the other hand, the TXL JetExpress bus runs every 10 minutes weekdays and every 20 minutes on weekends. It connects Tegel Airport to the city center in under 40 minutes, and reaches its first rail connection within 10 minutes of leaving the airport.
In the face of today's budget crisis, however, it seems unlikely that Metro will be expanding service anytime soon. But WMATA needs to find ways to improve the headway of the lines. The 5A's running distance could be shortened and the headway improved if the line were truncated to West Falls Church, and once the first phase of the Silver Line opens, to Wiehle Avenue. Truncation would be one way of improving service without increasing cost.
The B30 is not in as dire need of improvement. Especially on weekdays, airport travelers bound for Washington have MARC and Amtrak as options. But improved headways and reduced travel times would reflect well on the entrance to the capital.
Travelers to and from Dulles airport probably wonder why there is a monopoly taxi service, the Washington Flyer, serving the airport. I am aware of only one other major US airport that has a monopoly taxi service. With rising concerns about climate change and the DC area's status as a non-attainment area for air pollution, the millions of empty miles taxis drive due to this anachronistic service need to be eliminated.
In 1962, when Dulles International Airport opened, it was located out in the middle of nowhere. There were legitimate concerns that passengers would not be sufficiently served by existing taxi services, so the airport created its own, which currently operates as the Washington Flyer Taxi (a monopoly service under contract to three different companies). Dulles is no longer in the middle of nowhere, and the original reason for the existence of the Washington Flyer no longer applies. Dulles is now surrounded by businesses and residential areas, and thousands of people arrive every day in taxis from all around the region—taxis which then leave the airport empty to return to Alexandria, DC, Montgomery County or wherever else they started from.
According to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Washington Flyer taxis provide 2,500 to 3,000 rides per day from the airport, but only provide 300 to 350 rides to the airport. That means more than 85% of taxis return empty. It's probably a fair assumption that a similar number of people arrive at the airport by taxi as leave, so that means that more than 2,000 local cabs drop passengers at Dulles and then drive back empty.
Assuming a 25-mile, 1-way trip on average, taxis to and from Dulles drive more than 100,000 miles per day empty. That totals 38,000,000 miles per year. At 20 mpg and $2.25 per gallon, that's 2,000,000 wasted gallons of gasoline, costing taxi drivers more than $4 million per year for gas when no passenger is riding in their cab. Last summer, when gas prices were higher, drivers were paying more than $20,000 per day for gas to drive back empty to the airport or their home jurisdiction. Those wasted miles also contribute to our poor regional air quality and add 17,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the primary climate change pollutant, annually to our atmosphere.
The current situation benefits virtually no one, with the possible exception of the cab company owners, since monopolies are always a good deal for the businesses that have them. Eliminating the Washington Flyer taxi service will not change the fares paid by airport patrons: the same number of people will still be flying in and out of Dulles. Drivers, though, will save millions of dollars and thousands of hours of wasted time. It's likely this will reduce the need for as many drivers and taxis, but taxicab drivers as a whole will collect just as much in fares while saving millions of dollars on operating costs. Reducing this waste will also reduce the pressure to raise fares on customers while introducing competition may result in better service, too.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) does not need to be in the taxi business. At DCA they manage the dispatching of the taxis without providing service themselves, so they already know how to do it.
I don't suggest canceling the current contract, but MWAA should start planning now for the transition out of the taxi business at the end of this contract. Eliminating the Washington Flyer will improve service, reduce waste and significantly reduce unnecessary air pollution.
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