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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Weekly output: post-TWC Comcast, airport lounges, Windows 7 PCs

I’m off to Chicago Tuesday morning for the cable-industry conference formerly known as just the Cable Show and now branded as the Internet & Television Expo, “INTX” for short. It’ll be my first visit to this gathering since the 2012 edition in Boston, and recent news developments in the pay-TV business should make it an interesting event.

4/28/2015: What Comcast Giving Up on Time Warner Cable Could Mean for You, Yahoo Tech

Comcast giving up on its ambitions of buying Time Warner Cable gave me an excuse to suggest a few things it might want to do now that it won’t spend the next year in a post-merger food coma.

redesign Amex lounge post4/29/2015: redesign | travel: Amex tries to reinvent the airport lounge, redesign | mobile

My pal Rocky Agrawal launched this site this week as a marketplace to connect professionals with potential clients (see VentureBeat’s writeup). A few months back, he’d asked if I’d like to write about American Express’s attempt to get into the airport-lounge business; as a fan of making travel more comfortable, I had no problem taking on that gig and cashing that check. And if, in keeping with redesign’s ambitions, this post connects me to more travel writing, that would be okay.

I had meant to do my usual social-media marketing for this post when it appeared, but Wednesday ran away from me as the days sometimes do, and Thursday and Friday were just as bad.

5/3/2015: Windows 7 still a safe alternative to Windows 8, USA Today

It had been two years and change since I’d answered about the same question in my USAT column. But since then, Windows 7 has exited “mainstream support,” which gave me a chance to explain Microsoft’s support-lifecycle policy. Big surprise: How many commenters have testified that they’d rather use Windows 8 than Win 7.

I left my conference badge in San Francisco

If business travel has helped ruin Las Vegas for me (downtown LV excluded), it’s had the opposite effect with San Francisco. With this week’s trek to Google I/O in the books, I’ve now had at least one work trip a year there for the past dozen years–and the only part of the experience I dread is being reminded that the days of quality $100-a-night hotels near Union Square are gone.

Departing SFOAs a city, San Francisco has many of the qualities I look for: walkability, history, beautiful architectural and natural scenery, diverse dining from food trucks to white-tablecloth establishments, a pleasant climate, and a subway that goes direct to the airport.

Even the flights are good: The approach up the Bay to SFO offers one of the best arrival vistas around even when your plane isn’t landing in parallel with another. (Bonus: When I fly United’s nonstop home to National I have a 50-50 chance of getting the River Visual approach’s even-better rooftop views of the District or Arlington.)

As a journalistic destination, San Francisco allows me the chance to see job-relevant people I otherwise only meet on social media or e-mail.

On the other hand, those job-relevant folks aren’t all newly-wealthy founders or long-wealthy investors. Some are fellow tech reporters who, unlike me, must cope with a frighteningly expensive real-estate market that keeps getting more toxic, courtesy of deranged housing policies founded on entitlement and denial. One unsurprising result: In May, a friend and his family were served with an eviction notice after their landlord elected to cash out by selling their place.

So while I enjoy going to the Bay Area as much as ever, I don’t feel so bad about my home being some 2,400 miles east. I do, however, feel bad about judging one of my favorite travel destinations with a version of “nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.”

Weekly output: WWDC (x2), FlightCar, laptop shopping

This week’s worth of stories features a new client, which is a pleasant sort of feeling.

6/2/2014: Apple’s WWDC news, WTOP

I talked to the news station about Apple’s news from its developer conference and took a shot at the line that Apple is somehow stalling out in the market because it doesn’t use its public time for demos of products like self-driving cars that are years from shipping.

6/3/2014: How Apple Sees the Cloud: Not Like You Do, Yahoo Tech

You might have seen an earlier version of this post appear briefly on Yahoo’s site, courtesy of a miscommunication in editing. The version that showed up online later in the day benefited (I hope!) from another round or two of revision.

VentureBeat FlightCar review6/7/2014: Taking FlightCar for a SoCal spin: A smooth ride — mostly (review), VentureBeat

I rented somebody else’s Prius through FlightCar during a recent trip to southern California for a friend’s wedding. At the time, I thought that my using a “shared economy” service would at least qualify me to put the cost on my Schedule C as a research expense, but then I wound up selling a post on the experience to VentureBeat. They do good work there, and I’m glad they saw fit to publish mine.

On Sunday, FlightCar announced that if a renter had coverage denied by a credit-card issuer on the grounds that it’s not a standard rental-car agency, it would cover any damage expenses. The company also looked into my own rental and thinks that the phone-number mismatch I reported was due to a typo on my part. The e-mail confirmations that I received didn’t go into that level of detail, so if I did somehow mistype my area code I never would have known until showing up.

6/19: The travel-news site Skift reposted the story the day after it debuted, if you were yearning to read it in a different design.

6/8/2014: Buy or wait: When to pull the trigger on a new computer, USA Today

An old Post colleague e-mailed to ask what factors to consider when shopping for a new MacBook. That query led to this column, in which I note how the computer industry has progressed to the point that you don’t need to agonize so much over what kind of processor or how much storage is comes with.

This weekend provides an unfortunate reminder of our collective innumeracy

An Asiana Airlines 777 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport today, leaving two passengers dead and more than 100 wounded. That is terrible news all around, even considering how many of the 307 people on board seem to have walked away from a hull-loss accident, and upsetting in particular to this frequent SFO flyer.

OS X calculatorBut the really awful news about travel this weekend most likely happened Thursday–when, if recent trends continued, more people died on American roads than any other day of the year. That comparative statistic, or maybe just the average daily toll of 89 people, will get some mention as useful context in every story about the SFO crash, right?

Of course not. News coverage, political debates and popular consciousness tilts overwhelmingly toward the big and unusual disaster and away from smaller-scale but vastly more frequent calamities.

This mismatch is obvious in transportation policy–would that driving had a culture of safety close to what’s made commercial aviation the safest form of travel in America–but the effects may be worse in national-security issues.

Unreasoning fear of terrorism can lead to all kinds of silly rules, like the National Football League’s prohibiting fans from bringing all but the smallest non-transparent bags to games. (I had to observe that the statistics to date show that its own players represent a bigger threat than terrorist acts at NFL stadiums; that was unfair on my part, considering how many people drive to games and what state they might be in afterwards.)

But it can also lead us to accept the slow, silent erosion of our rights.

How else can you explain how politicians and pundits in or aligned with both parties keep defending the National Security Agency’s minimally-accountable surveillance of domestic communications–sometimes with a waving away of even the public’s need to know? Because 9/11, that’s why! Because we choose to view a hateful, contemptible and exceedingly rare crime as the existential threat it is not.

I don’t mean to get into a rant here, so I’ll close with what I hope is an uncontestable recommendation: Drive safely, please.

(Updated 9/7 with correct numbers about the SFO crash, another number about road safety and a few rephrased sentences.)