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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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.

Bring on the pain train and get it over with, Metro

Metro is about to get immensely less convenient, and I am relieved by that development.

Woeful WMATA headwaysFriday’s announcement that the rail system will see miles-long sections of track and stations closed in series for rebuilding over the next year means a new level of agony for anybody trying to get around the area. At best, continuous single-tracking will reduce service to 18-minute headways; at worst, a 24-day shutdown of the Red Line across much of Northeast will upend 108,000 weekday trips.

But the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s “SafeTrack” plan has one thing the past five years of alleged rebuilding have not: a 2017 deadline. Since the 2011 launch of a $5 billion capital-improvement plan, we’ve been enduring miserably long headways and service interruptions at nights and on weekends without any sustained sense of progress.

And now that months of smoke and fire incidents (one fatal) have made “arcing insulator” part of the Metro vernacular, it seems this work didn’t fix a damn thing in some critical areas.

If this SafeTrack really can pound three years’ worth of work–things like replacing insulators and electric cables, cleaning debris, rebuilding trackbeds, and installing radio and cellular transmitters–into a single year and finally wrench Metro over years of neglect, make it so.

Silver Line track through TysonsI admit that’s easy for me to say. I work from home and my wife bikes or walks to work. For many trips into D.C. Capital Bikeshare has become an effective alternative to Metro, and Uber, Lyft and car2go can also take Metro’s place for many trips. When I do take the subway, I am adept at checking not just Metro’s own next-train estimates but the Metro Hero app’s real-time maps.

But I still have a substantial investment in Metro. Literally: We chose our house to stay within walking distance of two stops, and we could only do that because the condo I bought two blocks from an Orange Line station doubled in value from 2000 to 2004. I could give away my aging car last year because we live in an area with (supposedly!) effective rail transit that I continue to rely on for most of my trips to the District as well as such Virginia destinations as Tysons Corner and National and Dulles airports.

As such, I want to see Metro do two things before it takes a tire iron to everybody’s schedules.

One is to show the progress of this work clearly and consistently. Bragging about how many track fasteners have been replaced is useless when I have no idea how many still need replacement; I need to know just how much further along each closure advances the system. WMATA general manager Paul Wiedefeld has been saying the right things about transparency, so I am cautiously optimistic about this.

The other is accountability. Metro has been talking a big game about overcoming deferred maintenance for at least a decade–the quotes in the Post’s June 2005 story “Efforts to Repair Aging System Compound Metro’s Problems” are painful to read now, as are the things Wiedefeld’s predecessor Richard Sarles said–and we need to know what went wrong and on whose watch that happened. I would like to be optimistic on this point, but I’m not there yet.

Watching concrete dry on the way to Dulles

I find watching paint dry as dull as anybody else, but concrete’s another thing–when it’s reinforced by steel in the service of a large construction project that I will enjoy at some point in the hopefully not indeterminate future.

That’s why I don’t sit on the bus from the Wiehle-Reston East Metro to Dulles International Airport. I stand so I can get a better look at construction of the Silver Line’s extension to IAD and beyond.

Silver Line construction at IADThat project’s opening seems painfully far off when I look at a calendar and note how many months stand between now and 2020, the current if-all-goes-well estimate for its opening. It annoys me to observe how slow we build a railroad on mostly open ground–it’s not like we’re trying to thread the Second Avenue Subway under Manhattan, people!

But seeing bridges placed over roads and streams, the structures of stations emerge from the dirt, and columns rise out of the ground to carry aerial tracks through Dulles reminds me that there is a payday coming… someday.

Gawking from the bus or a car is also one of the few ways to monitor this progress. The Dulles Metro project sends out an e-mail newsletter every few months, and a thread on railroad.net (I know, nerd) sees a post maybe once a week on average, but there’s no Flickr or Instagram account to follow and no construction webcam to check.

Peering through the windows of a packed Silver Line Express bus is not a great substitute for that… or for, you know, having a one-seat and traffic-immune ride to my city’s international airport. But at least it gives me an excuse to give my phone a rest.

Bikeshare is my other Metro

My mental map of D.C. has looked a lot different since I got a membership to Capital Bikeshare. Being able to jump on one of those red rental bicycles and ride the next 30 minutes at no extra cost effectively collapsed my sense of distances between neighborhoods.

SmarTrip card and CaBi keyBut it’s taken me longer to realize how “CaBi” has changed my commuting budget: It’s replaced so many Metro rides that its annual membership fee has become effectively free.

Letting bikeshare replace bus transfers was easy and obvious (going from Farragut Square to 16th and U is a million times more pleasant on a bike than on a crowded, slow S-series bus). Then I learned that CaBi not only worked well for going from my home to morning or evening work events downtown–with the bonus of getting a Key Bridge vista of the Potomac and the city–but would also spare me Metro’s peak fares and recently-iffy reliability.

(I take CaBi home from downtown much less often. The bikes weigh about 40 pounds and only have three gears, making getting up the hill from Rosslyn a tedious and sweaty exercise.)

Finally, I got into the habit of chaining together bikeshare rentals, docking a bike at one station and then taking out another from an adjacent dock. (You can also get an extra 15 minutes of time if you get “dockblocked” by a station with no open spots.) With a combined 60 minutes of free travel available, Capitol Hill events easily fall within CaBi range.

So how much has this saved me? A few days ago, I went through my trip history and added up every ride longer than a mile, figuring that would be a decent proxy for trips I would not have otherwise taken on foot. The total over the previous year: 43, with the bulk of them understandably concentrated in spring, fall and winter. Valuing each Metro trip avoided at $2–a lowball estimate for the train, high for the bus–gets me to $86 in savings.

And that, in turn, is $11 more than the $75 I paid for this year’s membership and still exceeds the $85 I’ll pay at my next renewal.

The Tysons Corner El

Ever since I started watching the support columns for Metro’s Silver Line start to rise across Tysons, I’ve had one thought about them: That train will have some nice views up there.

Silver Line track through TysonsThat was not a popular reaction to the decision to string the Silver Line through Tysons on aerial tracks instead of in a tunnel–from the wailing about it, you’d think that this sprawl-choked “edge city” and its six-lane arterial roads would have turned into an oasis of walkability if only the train could have gone underground.

But as I saw today on the first westbound revenue-service train and then on the way home, Tysons looks considerably sharper from 30 to 50 feet in the air. You see its budding skyline swing into view as the aerial tracks swoop above the Toll Road and over to 123, you can gaze beyond the next endless block and too-long stoplight, you can look down on Beltway traffic (go ahead, chuckle at the plight of the drivers below), and as you proceed along 7 you can try to guess which used-car lot or strip mall will get redeveloped first.

(See my Flickr album from today’s ride to Reston and back.)

This elevated perspective may not have the overall beauty of the Yellow Line’s view of the Potomac River from the Fenwick Bridge–or of the Green Line’s ride through the treetops on the way to Branch Avenue–but it is an underrated aspect of the Silver Line that I plan on enjoying on my way to or from Tysons, Reston or Dulles Airport. And the good people of Tysons might as well take ownership of it by nicknaming their stretch of this route the Tysons Corner El.

A Metro user-interface wish list

One side effect of being a user-interface critic is never being able to step away from the work–the world is full of bad UIs. And sadly enough, public transportation has been a tremendous contributor. Consider the transit system I know best and use all the time, Metro.

Don’t get me wrong here: Metro’s rail map is a model of clarity (yes, I own a copy of “Transit Maps of the World”) and I’ve grown so used to Metro’s signs counting down the minutes until the next train that the absence of equivalents in places like Boston baffles me (“I’m just going to have to wait at Government Center for an indeterminate period of time?!”). The leadership at WMATA greatly improved the system’s usability when they provided a schedule feed to third-party sites like Google Maps, as I documented in an article for ReadWriteWeb two weeks ago.

Yet in some ways, Metro’s user experience remains awkward enough to make you wonder about the motives of the people behind this “UX.”

  • Too many bus-stop signs are useless. The one pictured at right, across the street from the Clarendon Metro station, isn’t even the worst: Although it offers no map or schedule, it does name the end points of each route.
  • Bus-route monikers mean nothing. Take the 30s routes–please. Most 30s buses going west out of downtown head up Wisconsin Avenue, but the 38B goes across the river to Arlington. The 32, 32, 34 and 36 are local, but the 37 is express. Metro can’t even pick logical names for new routes, with no established constituency to confuse: When it added express service to BWI Airport, it named this route “B30” instead of, you know, “BWI.”
  • The NextBus interface, on both the desktop and mobile, is clumsy and slow. It’s terrific that Metro lets you look up real-time arrival estimates for buses–when those estimates approach reality–but unless you’re standing in front of a sign with a NextBus stop number, you have to look up service by choosing a bus line, then a direction, then a stop. Metro’s sites desperately need a “service near my location” button like those on NJ Transit and BART’s mobile sites; fortunately, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel tweeted in June that Metro was working to add that. (The photo shows a related problem of incompatible next-arrival tools used by other systems; to see if Arlington Transit’s 42 bus will get there before the 38B, you’re asked to hit a separate site.) Update, 12/1, 12:02 p.m. Reader “t” commented that NextBus’s smartphone site – nextbus.com/webkit –  offers that geolocation option already. I tried it, and it almost instantly reported the next arrivals for the four Metro bus routes nearest my home, plus a D.C. Circulator stop about a mile away.
  • The downtown transfer stations need better exit signage. Get off at Metro Center, then try to find the westernmost exit. You can’t without a compass on your phone; at any given point, you can only see one or two signs pointing which escalator will take you towards one of its four exits. (There used to be a large map on the Red Line platform showing exactly where those exits put you on the street, but that disappeared at some point.) The situation is as bad at L’Enfant Plaza.
  • As a great many others have complained, station names are a form of grade inflation. In the city, endlessly-hyphenated names like “U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” suggest how much influence a particular councilmember holds; in the suburbs, exercises in wishful thinking like “Vienna/Fairfax-GMU” imply that locations five miles away are next door. I can only hope Metro’s board quashes Fairfax County’s delusional proposal to name seven of the eight future Silver Line stops in the county after either “Tysons” or “Reston.”
  • Poorly-connected suburban stations. Building a Metro stop is an expensive exercise, but some area jurisdictions must have forgotten that when designing Metro stops that impede access from adjacent neighborhoods. In Fairfax, the Dunn-Loring stop squats in the median of Interstate 66–but there’s no pedestrian bridge connecting it to the north side of the highway. Walking from the West Falls Church stop to a friend’s house in Pimmit Hills–about a mile by air–sends me on a two-mile trek along multiple highway on- and off-ramps. In Montgomery County, walking from the Forest Glen stop to the east side of Georgia Avenue requires a hazardous crossing of eight lanes of traffic.

You’ll note that I didn’t include a common Metro rant: its byzantine route structure, with off-peak, peak and “peak of the peak” fares that also vary by distance. That’s because Metro’s stored-value fare cards, and in particular its SmarTrip RFID cards, help to hide the cost of any given trip. (When I interviewed Metro CFO Peter Benjamin in 1999 for a piece explaining the then-new SmarTrip system, he said upfront that Metro wanted to make the price of any one ride as invisible as the cost of a single drive.) It’s funny how a good interface can make complexity vanish.