Ranking U.S. airport rail connections

PORTLAND–The easiest part of my journey here Thursday for this year’s XOXO festival was the last leg: a roughly half-hour ride on the light rail from the airport to downtown.

Many cities do not offer that kind of convenience, leaving visitors to choose between infrequent buses that get stuck in traffic and don’t have enough room for luggage or ride-hailing services that may not even save that much money over taxis (sorry, New Orleans; you’re guilty on both counts here). But not all airports with rail service get the basics right: a quick and obvious route from terminal to train, frequent service, a one-seat ride to downtown, and plenty of connecting service once you get there.

Here’s my sense of how 10 U.S. airport rail connections rate. It could have been an even dozen–I’ve also appreciated MARTA’s one-seat ride to ATL in Atlanta and availed myself of SEPTA’s less-frequent commuter-rail airport service in Philadelphia–but both of those happened in the prior century, and I’d rather refresh my memories of each first.

ORD: You do have to walk what feels like half a mile of underground corridors to get to the Blue Line station, but then you’ve got a traffic-free 45-minute, $5 ride to the Loop that runs 24 hours a day. Bonus: CTA is one of the very few U.S. transit agencies to take NFC phone payments instead of making visitors choose between paying a paper-fare surcharge or buying a smart card that will collect dust in a drawer later on.

PDX airport rail stationPDX: TriMet’s Red Line light rail takes you to the middle of downtown in about half an hour, the station itself is just outside one end of the terminal, and trains offer almost round-the-clock service, even on Sundays. As in Chicago, you can pay your fare via NFC; unlike CTA, Tri-Met also caps your daily fare at $5 if you use that option.

DCA: National Airport’s Metro connection checks off all the boxes, including a walk from the station to the terminal shorter than many of the planes waiting on the other side. And having spent the years before National’s new terminal opened in 1997 taking a shuttle bus to the Interim Terminal makes me appreciate this convenience even more. But: On weekends, Metro opens too late for even 8 a.m. flights.

SEA: Each time I’ve taken the 38-minute ride on the Link light rail from Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle, I think of Steve Dunne from “Singles” and his dreams of a Supertrain for commuters. Having to walk through a parking garage to reach the airport station, however, is not so super.

SFO: Putting SFO’s BART station at the end of a wye was an epic blunder: At best, only one in two southbound trains from San Francisco stop at the airport—at a steep fare of $9.15 from Embarcadero–and taking Caltrain can require separate BART rides from Milbrae north to San Bruno, then south to SFO. I appreciate being able to walk from the BART station to T3, but everybody would be better off if the Airtrain inter-terminal shuttle went across 101 to a single station for BART and Caltrain.

DEN: The RTD’s A line electric commuter rail replaced a bus that only ran every hour or so with service every 15 minutes during the day, and being able to end your trip downtown at beautiful Union Station is a treat. But at $9, this is on the expensive side.

BOS: You have to take a bus to the T’s Blue Line stop (so does this even count as airport rail access?) and then connecting to the T’s other lines is as much of a mess as anything in downtown Boston. And if you don’t already own a CharlieCard, you’ll pay a paper-fare surcharge because the T doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of selling its smartcards in all of its stations.

EWR: Newark’s station on the Northeast Corridor allows Amtrak to serve as a connecting “flight”–United will sell you that routing if you want to travel from Stamford or New Haven to one of its own destinations. But if you’re only going to Manhattan, NJ Transit’s schedule can leave you waiting at off hours, and the $13 fare is the second most I’ve paid to take a train to a U.S. airport.

CLE: Fun fact: Cleveland was the first North American city to institute rapid-transit service to its airport. And if you start your journey to Hopkins from downtown, your commute can begin in the historic confines of the Tower City complex. But Northeast Ohio is not exactly a paradise of rail transit, which cuts down on the utility of this connection.

JFK: Taking the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to JFK’s Airtrain was easy enough the one time I did that a few years ago, but if I had to make that commute more often I imagine I’d tire of the $15 combined cost of LIRR plus Airtrain–or the slower ride on the subway.

BWI: For passengers coming from D.C., BWI’s rail station takes the basics of Newark’s Amtrak connection and makes them worse: MARC runs less often than NJ Transit, especially on weekends, and instead of a short monorail ride you have a bus that takes longer and runs less often. Also, the BWI rail station itself is a miserable concrete bunker that doubles as a cellular dead zone. If, on the other hand, you’re coming from Baltimore, you can take the light rail direct to the airport—but I wouldn’t know about that.

So what about my own favorite Washington-area infrastructure project, phase 2 of Metro’s Silver Line? That will offer a one-seat ride from Dulles to downtown at what I’m guessing will cost $6 and change at peak hours, $4 off-peak and should take about 50 minutes, going by a published 43-minute estimate of travel from Rosslyn to Dulles.

(Having the station be across the hourly parking lot from the terminal doesn’t bother me a bit; the added walking over the rejected station option closer to the terminal, factoring out moving walkways, is 260 feet, and if that’s too much pedestrian locomotion then Dulles isn’t the airport for you anyway.)

They can’t finish that thing soon enough, and when they do I anticipate it will occupy a spot on this list right after National.

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Waiting for Moynihan to arrive at Penn

One of D.C.’s strongest points of civic superiority over New York can be encapsulated in four words: Union Station, Penn Station.

We have a Greek temple of a train station built around a beautiful vaulted hall, with a view of the Capitol dome out one door and Metro out another. (We’d rather not talk about Union Station’s Carter-era years of decay.) They have a dreary, subterranean space that hasn’t seen sunlight in over half a century–courtesy of the Pennsylvania Railroad tearing down the original Penn Station starting in 1963 to clear room for Madison Square Garden atop what was left of its waiting rooms.

That “monumental act of vandalism,” as the New York Times said in an editorial at the start of demolition, not only didn’t save the Pennsy from financial ruin but soon became a source of lasting civic shame in NYC.

The most straightforward fix possible has been obvious since the 1990s, when then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D.-N.Y.) championed building a new train hall in the James A. Farley Post Office building across 8th Avenue from Penn. That edifice not only sits atop Penn’s train platforms but was built in the same neoclassical style as the original Penn–and designed by the same architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White.

But the deal that seemed done in 1997 died multiple deaths and experienced multiple resurrections over the subsequent years. New York did build a concourse under Farley for Long Island Rail Road passengers–it’s much less bleak than the rest of Penn–but I doubted things would progress further until the state announced a signed deal last June to build a Moynihan Trail Hall in the Farley building.

And the crazy thing is, construction is now, finally, underway. On my way to Penn Friday, I couldn’t miss the construction cranes perched above the Farley building. And after I got home, I read that workers have begun installing gigantic canopies over that structure’s courtyards.

That’s exciting to me, even if Amtrak says I’ll have to wait until 2021 to see the finished product. (And if I’ll have to give up a bit of D.C. snobbery.) It’s also exciting to my mother, who grew up in New York and remembers what the original looked like, even before its pre-demolition decline. When they finally open the new hall, I know what I want to do: take the train into a reborn Penn Station with Mom, then have her tell me if they did the place justice.

My growing transit-card collection

TORONTO–I’m coming home from here with an unusual souvenir: a plastic card with embedded electronics.

Transit cards in TorontoThis city made me do it. Buying a Presto Card to pay for transit, even with its $6 purchase fee, made sense factoring in the slight discount it gets on the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcars and subways and the much larger break it gives on the Union Pearson Express airport train. With the Collision conference ensuring I’ll travel here for the next three years, I would be crazy to pay cash fares.

The same logic has led me to build a collection of transit smart cards beyond my Metro SmarTrip card. I’ve got a CharlieCard for the T in Boston, a Clipper card for BART and other Bay Area transit agencies, and a TAP card for L.A.’s Metro. The MetroCard I keep for the NYC subway and the Viva Viagem card I use on Lisbon’s Metro aren’t as smart, but they do the same job of freeing me from fumbling with cash at faregates.

And having all these cards handy doesn’t just feed my transit snobbery; eliminating a barrier to hopping on a subway, streetcar or bus saves me real money when I travel.

This isn’t quite the future of transit payments I had in mind when Metro rolled out the SmarTrip card in 1999. But until more transit systems follow the examples of Chicago and London and let passengers pay via NFC with their phones, I’m stuck on this track.

Covering conference costs

My travel for work often involves a four-word question with a one-word answer. As in, somebody asks me “Who’s sending you here?”, and I reply by saying “me.”

Self-employment usually means self-financing of travel. Except for when speaking somewhere gets my travel comped or a conference organizer offers a travel subsidy (or the very rare times that a client covers my travel costs), I have to pay my own way.

When I started freelancing in 2011, I didn’t worry too much about how. I was blessed with clients overpaying me, and I was so tired of having the Post deny my travel requests–like the three years in a row they wouldn’t send me to South By Southwest–that I chose to spend some money to see what I’d missed.

I’m more practical these days: If I go somewhere, I should sell enough work based on things I learn during that trip to cover my costs. As long as I can find a scarcity to exploit, that should be doable. Google I/O and Mobile World Congress, for example, either limit press access or take place in locations where tech-news sites don’t have anybody based full-time–leaving me less competition. So did the Falcon Heavy launch.

To be honest in my accounting, I also have to consider how much I would have written and sold on a normal week at home, when my expenses amount to Metro fare and part of the utilities bills. In other words, I didn’t write five Yahoo posts from CES just for my health.

Most of the time, I do sell enough from out of town to get my above-baseline income to meet travel costs that I already try to ratchet down with my Airbnb and public-transit habits. What I still need to address: not slacking off the week after a mega-gathering like CES or MWC, a pattern you’ve probably noticed in my weekly recaps of my work.

Some trips, however, are worth doing even at a loss, and I appreciate that self-employment lets me make that choice.

For example, the XOXO conference in Portland was so mind-expandingly great in 2013 and 2015 that I paid not just for airfare and lodging but even for the conference pass–and I only sold a single post from it each time. Friday, the organizers tweeted that after taking 2017 off, the conference would return this September… so, you know, my financial realism may have to take a break that week.

Last-minute MWC advice

Having to spend a week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress ranks as one of the easier problems to manage in the tech industry. I mean, would you rather go to CES?

But if you’re new to MWC, as I was only five years ago, the wireless industry’s global gathering can have its confusing moments. If so, the following advice may help you navigate your way around this trade show.

Fira Gran Via: MWC’s primary venue is a set of eight large halls that you can traverse much faster than the Las Vegas Convention Center, thanks to the overhead passages–most with moving walkways–that knit the Fira together. To get there, take the train: The L9 Sud Metro stops at the Europa | Fira and Fira stations, to the north and south of the Fira, while frequent commuter-rail trains from Espanya also stop at Europa | Fira.

Power and bandwidth: In addition to a plug adapter (you already have that in your bag, right?), you should also pack your laptop’s charger’s extension cord if it came with one. Distance from an outlet has nothing to do with that; a laptop power brick plugged into a plug adapter plugged into a wall outlet can easily fall out, but the extension cord will distribute that weight away from the outlet.

I hope you won’t show up to MWC with a locked phone that will prevent you from popping in a cheap prepaid SIM. But if your locked device is on Sprint or T-Mobile, you at least get free, slow and adequate roaming.

Eating and dining: Barcelona is one of the world’s great cities to eat and drink. Unfortunately, the press room in the Fira does not provide lunch, so you’ll have to forage elsewhere on the show floor (FYI, Ericsson’s exhibit in Hall 2 has offered a great free lunch the last few years). The press room does, however, offer an apparently inexhaustible supply of coffee from a bank of Nespresso machines, and plates of cookies occasionally show up there too.

Remember that dinner happens late in Spain, so don’t turn down a late-afternoon snack.

Getting around: Your MWC registration comes with a transit pass good Monday through Thursday; don’t just use it to commute to the Fira. Railfan tip: Because the L9 Sud line is automated, standing in the front of the train lets you enjoy the view of the tunnel ahead. Cheapskate tip: That line is also the most cost-effective way to and from the airport.

If you normally rely on Apple Maps, set it aside for the duration of MWC. This app still doesn’t offer transit directions in Barcelona–two and a half years after Apple bragged about adding transit navigation, which itself came nearly eight years after Google integrated the same in its own maps.

Barcelona has a not-undeserved reputation for pickpocketing. Don’t leave your wallet in an exposed and open pocket, and hang on to your bag or purse.

Other details:

If you’ve never seen Whit Stillman’s 1994 indie classic Barcelona, try to fix that before you depart. It’s not available on Netflix and Amazon’s free streaming, but you can rent it on Amazon, Google, iTunes and Vudu.

If you have some free time–by which I mean, if being six to nine time zones ahead of your editors gives you unsupervised time–try to spend some of it visiting architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpieces. The Casa Milà apartment building and the Sagrada Família basilica aren’t as far out of your way from MWC as Park Güell; they all have a kind of magic about them.

On your way home, if you have mid-tier or higher status on American, Delta or United or have a Priority Pass membership, you’re eligible to visit the Sala VIP Miro lounge at BCN, upstairs to the left and downstairs after passport control for non-EU flights. Nobody will mistake it for a Lufthansa Senator Lounge, but it works for a pre-departure snack and a drink or two before a long day spent over the Atlantic.

Updated 3/1/2018 to correct and expand lounge-access directions.

When a work-from-home type gets a driving commute

One of the many ways I count myself lucky is that I haven’t had to drive to work since high school. No matter where I’ve lived around D.C, I’ve been able to get to my job by bus, Metro or on foot. And since 2011, I’ve only had to step into my home office.

But the past two summers have added a different sort of commute: our daughter’s various day camps. And as the person in the house with the most flexible schedule, it’s fallen to me to drive our kid to one camp or another most mornings. Sometimes it’s easier for me to pick her up in the afternoon as well.

Compared to the commutes most people endure around D.C., that’s left me nothing to complain about. I’m not sitting in traffic on I-66, the Dulles Toll Road or the Beltway; instead, I’m on neighborhood streets lined with trees and not enough big front porches. And the very worst day-camp commute I’ve had only ran some 20 minutes each way.

(The best day-camp commute involved a location barely half a mile away, so I could walk our child there and back–with some crankiness on her part.)

I sometimes feel like I’m engaged in commute cosplay as I sit at a stoplight, sip coffee out of a travel mug, listen to WAMU (of course I do), and then end the morning’s schlep without clocking a highway mile or crossing the Potomac.

I’d anticipated going back to my usual car-light routine with the start of school this week, but my wife’s broken clavicle means I’m the sole driver in the house through sometime in October. It could be worse. I mean, our daughter could go back to demanding that the same two CDs be on heavy rotation all the time. And outside of picking her up from extended-day care at school, I still barely have to drive anywhere.

That makes now a good time to contemplate the benefits of living in a walkable neighborhood… as if having the second half of this year’s property tax come due next month didn’t give us reason enough.

What part of “Share the Road” can’t some drivers understand?

My wife has an mercifully short commute to work, which most days she speeds up by biking there. Friday morning, that route led to a detour through an X-ray machine and a CT scanner.

The fault: an idiot driver who attempted to make a left turn from a center, no-turn lane by signaling late and then turning into my wife’s path. She braked hard, fell off the bike and landed on her shoulder. The resulting damage: a fractured clavicle bone and some scrapes, plus a few weeks of having to get through everyday chores with her left arm in a sling.

The driver, meanwhile, continued on. It’s unclear whether passerby will be able to identify this menace.

At one level, I’m angry to see this reckless disregard for any human beyond one’s own windshield, much less my spouse. A driver like that could also threaten me when I’m walking around the neighborhood, or my neighbors, or any of our kids.

At another level, I don’t know why this happened to my wife and not me. She is an exceptionally careful cyclist–she was wearing a reflective vest Friday, just in case–while I have been much more foolish, especially in my younger days. (If I blew by you going the opposite way on the W&OD Trail or the Cap Crescent 15 or 20 years ago, I’m sorry; I was a jackass.) And I’ve clocked several thousand more miles on two wheels. By that statistic alone, I should have taken this hit, not her.

What I do know: If you can’t share the road, do the rest of us a favor and get off the road until you can strap yourself into a self-driving car that, unlike you, will at least be programmed to obey the laws of the U.S. and the laws of physics.