Lack of a rail connection to the major airport in Los Angeles has been a sore point for residents and visitors. Five years from now, the city will finally have one.
Last week, the L.A. City Council approved a plan to build a key part of the airport connection — an automated people mover or elevated train that travels between the airport terminals and takes riders to parking and car rental centers. The train will also connect to the Green Line and the Crenshaw Line, which opens next year.
But just because you build a rail line to the airport doesn’t mean everyone will use it.
Connecting one of the busiest airports in the world to the regional rail system is important; there will be benefits for many people beyond those who travel in and out of the airport.
The signs are, however, that most people won't use rail to access the airport in the foreseeable future. They'll rely on cars and bus shuttles like FlyAway operated by Los Angeles World Airports, as they're doing now.
How many people are expected to take the train to LAX?
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority planners project the share of people using rail to get to and from LAX by 2035 will be relatively small – between 1,500 and 3,000 rides a day. That amounts to just around 1 percent of the projected total trips taken to and from the airport.
These projections were made in 2014 before final plans for the Crenshaw Line and the automated people mover were in place and before passage of Measure M, a sales tax increase that will dramatically expand transit in the county. But Metro planner David Mieger said the predictions are in line with what Metro is expecting on the Green and Crenshaw Lines by 2035.
As the transit network expands through Los Angeles, with a planned rail corridor under the Sepulveda Pass, connecting with the Purple Line subway in Westwood, and potentially extending all the way to LAX, rail ridership to the airport could increase significantly after 2035, said Mieger.
How does the predicted LAX rail mode share compare to other major cities?
New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport has the highest share of rail users of any U.S. airport at about 12 percent. San Francisco has around 11 percent share, while Chicago O’Hare has about 5 percent.
U.S. airports have much lower airport rail ridership than those in Europe or Asia. At airports like Heathrow in London or Narita in Tokyo, 25 to 35 percent of travelers use rail.
Why is rail ridership to LAX expected to be so low?
Mieger said for most travelers, other options will still be much faster and more convenient than Metro rail, unless you live close to the Crenshaw or Green Line.
To take rail from downtown L.A., you would have to jump on the Expo Line, transfer to the Crenshaw Line and then transfer to the people mover to reach your terminal. Compare that to riding the Union Station Flyaway shuttle, which travels directly from downtown into the terminal using Metro ExpressLanes.
Mieger said buses like Flyaway shuttles will continue to be the fastest, most dominant transit choice for most travelers, making up a projected 8 percent of airport trips.
What do other airports have that LAX does not?
The airports that get the most rail riders usually have a few things in common. For one thing, the rail line often goes directly into the terminals, so travelers don’t have to transfer to another system like a people mover.
Officials explored the option of extending the Crenshaw Line directly into LAX but determined it would have been prohibitively expensive.
San Francisco doesn't have a rail line that goes directly into the terminal; it requires a transfer from BART to the AirTrain when traveling to the terminal and the reverse when heading out. But it does have a second quality: a fast and very direct ride on BART without other transfers to get to and from the airport to the central city.
Places like San Francisco, New York and Chicago have another advantage in that most travelers are headed to or are coming from a centralized city hub.
Getting to downtown L.A. will require two transfers via rail. And while downtown is a destination for many business travelers and tourists, there are many other job centers and entertainment centers spread over the metropolitan area, making demand a lot more decentralized.
The Crenshaw Line is costing about $1.8 billion. The people mover is being built and operated by a private company for a contract worth $4.9 billion over 30 years. Given the low rail ridership projections, is this worth it?
The people mover isn't just serving the light rail station. It’s also connecting bus lines, long-term parking and rental car facilities — and there’s no doubt it will cut down on heavy traffic around the terminals. Environmental reviews project almost 25,000 daily boardings by 2035.
The Crenshaw Line will serve an area with existing high-transit demand, so ridership outside of those going to and from the airport is expected to be high, about 28,000 daily rides by 2035. It could also serve many of the nearly 60,000 people who work at LAX.
The bottom line is that planning convenient transit to airports is challenging as planners balance the needs and desires of people who use transit differently.
LAX travelers might only use the service once or twice a year each. They’ve got money and luggage and are in a hurry. Speed and convenience are their top priorities. On the other hand, people using transit every day to get to work need more connectivity, including stops in a multitude of neighborhoods and destinations, and reasonable fares.
All those priorities don’t align when you have limited resources to build expensive rail lines.
Why not build a dedicated express rail line to LAX?
Some cities have attempted to build higher-priced express rail services between the city center and the airport to serve travelers who prize speed and convenience. Metro CEO Phil Washington has said Metro would study such a link between downtown L.A. and LAX.
It's not clear downtown L.A. has the necessary concentration of demand that more centralized cities do. But even centralized cities with existing high transit ridership struggle to sustain express service when serving only two destinations.
The Heathrow Express in London, for example, costs about $35 one way and has half the ridership of less expensive, less direct airport rail services. The Toronto Union Pearson Express couldn't attract enough dedicated riders with its fares of $22 each way. It adapted by cutting fares in half, expanding the number of stops and extending total trip time to be more in line with a conventional commuter rail service.
The good news is buses can be a more cost-effective way to run express services. The Flyaway shuttles will offer a shorter, although more expensive, one-seat LAX ride when compared to rail.
However, Flyaway users should note there may be a change once the people mover opens in 2023.
Mieger said Flyaway shuttles to LAX will continue to drop riders off at the terminals, but shuttles leaving LAX may pick up riders at a new intermodal pick-up and drop-off hub, accessible via a short ride on the people mover from the terminals.
The change could make Flyaway service more reliable when leaving LAX, as current shuttles often see significant delays from heavy traffic in the arrivals loop at the terminals.