Connecting California

Conductor, Please Drop Me Off a Mile From the Airport

In California, We Wouldn’t Dream of Connecting Our Trains and Planes. That’d Be Too Far-Sighted.

Conductor, Please Drop Me Off a Mile From the Airport

A riddle. If you land at a big-city airport and there’s no train there, where are you?

Answer: California.

Yes, San Francisco, I know you’re the exception, with a BART train stop inside San Francisco International Airport (SFO). But the California rule is that we’ll invest billions in our airports and billions in our trains, but we wouldn’t dream of directly connecting the two.

Instead, we taunt those who dare to dream.

How else to explain the fact that so many of California’s urban trains and trolleys come close to the airports—but not close enough to take you all the way there?

You can see planes coming in to land at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field as you ride the city’s charming trolleys, but the trolley won’t take you to the airport. In San Jose, two train systems—the Metro Light Rail and the Caltrain—run near the airport, but a shuttle bus, the Airport Flyer, is required to reach them. In Southern California, the Metro blue line trains go to Long Beach, but not to its airport. The Metrolink commuter rail stops about a mile from the Ontario airport.

Some places are making progress in forging links, but even then there are caveats. Oakland is building a cable car connection between its airport and the nearby BART station—better than nothing, but it will require switching trains. Sacramento has begun a light rail extension that is supposed to reach its airport someday, but timing and funding are uncertain. Burbank Airport has a stop on the commuter rail Metrolink, but Metrolink trains run infrequently and stop running early. (Today, as I write this, the last train to downtown L.A. leaves the airport at 5:53 p.m.) Even San Francisco’s BART train doesn’t go south of SFO into the heart of the Silicon Valley. You have to take a BART train north to the Caltrain commuter rail heading south. A 12-minute drive by car to San Mateo can take more than an hour by rail.

For Californians, all these failures to connect, considered in isolation, may seem trifling. But taken together, they represent a form of self-sabotage for a place that is at once dependent on its links to the world—and too far away from that world.

The writer Carey McWilliams described Southern California as “an island on the land,” but the term applies to the entire state. And the Island of California needs the best possible transportation connections both to get out-of-state visitors to their destinations (trade and tourism and the highly mobile technology industry are our economic anchors) and to get ourselves around so we can run the state (two-thirds of Californians have to get on a plane if they want to visit their state Capitol).

But in today’s California, we are cheap, and the infrastructure we need is expensive. When we build, we prioritize what’s easy over what’s important. California is about to start high-speed rail by building a stretch of tracks in the less populated San Joaquin Valley, where getting started is relatively easy. The connections of the rail to urban transit centers—which are more difficult and expensive, and also more important and valuable—come later.

Nowhere is this mindset more evident than at California’s busiest airport, LAX. A generation ago, L.A.’s subway system built a line—the Green Line—with a station that touches the edge of the airport property but doesn’t go into the airport. There is a shuttle bus, but few passengers use it, and with good reason. When I lived in Redondo Beach, a 10-minute drive south of the airport, getting home from LAX via shuttle bus and train took an hour.

Today, Los Angeles has a chance for redemption. But L.A. may blow it. Another Metro rail line is being extended to the LAX area, but, of the options being considered by transportation and airport authorities, two would end the rail line at the corner of Aviation and Century Boulevards, more than a mile away from the airport. Given the billions being spent on airport modernization and Metro rail expansion, that’s mind-blowing.

The stated reason for stopping, again, at the airport doorstep? Costs of course. Taking the train into the airport would cost more than $1 billion, and there are only $200 million or so in existing tax dollars for a connection. If the rail line stops short of the airport, riders could switch from the train to a people mover of some sort (that is scheduled to be built in 2028).

Or they could walk.

One recent night, I parked my car at a gas station at the corner of Aviation and Century and walked to Terminal 1. I passed by fortress-like airport hotels, parking lots, and a Carl’s Jr. The sidewalk was barely lit, and I tasted the exhaust as motorists on Century sped past me at 50 mph. The walk took me 25 minutes, and I wasn’t carrying any luggage other than a notebook and a cellphone.

This is life in the Great California Train Tease. We’re spending hundreds of billions on rail and airports. And we still keep missing our connections.



  • John Grant

    When I lived in Hollywood,I took my children to the opening day celebrations of the red line, green line, and blue line. I was excited, and wanted them to be that way as well. Alas, Joe, your article is exactly on the mark. I now live in Ventura County, and have managed to get from LAX to Ventura on the train/subway combo, but it took an advanced logistics degree, to work out the timing, Worst of all is if you go to the MTA website, you are instructed to catch a bus, not a subway. I wish your article was less accurate, but alas, I believe we are doomed to stagnate eternally in car culture. If only they had listened to Walt Disney in 1955, who built his monorail to show them what to do. Tomorrowland has unfortunately become Fantasyland.

  • densely

    Physical connections are only part of the issue. Trains have to run when people need them, so a trip doesn’t take a ridiculously long time. This is especially important when a trip requires changing trains; unless a train is waiting on the other line when you get off, the system becomes impractical for commuters.

  • Sullivan131

    NYC’s also has no service directly to the airport. They had to add “People Movers” like the JFK or Newark air train.

    LaGuardia, JFK, Newark. No, No, and No.

    This is not just a California problem.

    And at least Burbank has Metrolink service.

  • Sullivan131

    My biggest problem with LAX is the exclusion of Metro Bus service. They have all these large and wonderful (and often empty) buses for Enterprise rent-a-car and hertz, but no MTA service. Thank god for FlyAway busses.

  • calwatch

    The Green Line shuttle connection is no worse than the bus from the MBTA Blue Line into Boston or the shuttle from the BWI Amtrak Station. It needs to run more reliably and more frequently – I once missed a shuttle and had to wait for over 20 minutes in the exhaust-choked loop – but most cities don’t have rail directly into terminals. Even SFO requires a transfer to AirTrain from BART for most flights.

    • Meredith MacVittie

      Philadelphia has train service to all airport terminals. Heathrow has the wonderful Heathrow express to get you to Paddington station in 30 minutes (or you can take the regular tube in about an hour). Even Boston isn’t that bad, considering you CAN figure out transit options from the airport (I’ve done it before). In LA, you have to rely on the FlyAway bus if you don’t want to spend money on a cab or a rental car or have a friend pick you up – which is a budget-conscious option, but no thanks to Metro.

  • LAquaker

    Ivy-tower studies have described this dynamic between airports & public transportation for 50 years.

    Boston tore out it’s airport connectors decades ago. SF waited a generation, than built a class-filter (trolly) after thirty years.
    Race and class; the elephant in the room. I HAVE NEVER READ MARX.

    I rode to LA on a Greyhound bus from the Bay last night.
    Of the five ‘new’ Greyhound bus i have traveled on this month, four had hard, twin steel rings in the seat fold and a single ring at the footrest on ALL window seats; obviously for shackled passengers.

    At MTA ‘RedLineExtention’ (now ExPo Line ) meetings in the late 1990′s, i
    listened to Sierra Club experts try to limit stops in South Central to
    keep locals from stealing their TV’s from Dacha’s at the beach and
    bringing them back on light rail. AND, without ‘grade separation’, light rail is a negitive, waiting cars in poor neighborhoods wipe out any gains against ‘global warming’.

    The only way to use MetroLink south past Santa Ana is to buy a monthly pass.

    Try driving into Culver city from the East.

    Born and raised in all-white High Schools in the Valley, this pure cracker
    has lived at 41st and Normandie for 25 years and refuses to drive after
    being locked in a patrol car 4-5 times a year for decades.

    And, ‘Ralphs’ closed our last two supermarkets this month:(

  • KJ

    I don’t understand your reference re. travel between SFO and San Mateo taking an hour; although you cannot take a train directly between SFO and San Mateo, bus or train+bus trips typically only take 20-30 minutes. I agree, though, there is room for improvement.

  • DMalcolmCarson

    I think that although it sounds good in theory, in fact if you spend that billion dollars to extend a rail line that last mile into the airport, the increase in ridership that you get from that ends up being negligible. People don’t relish dragging their luggage from from the curb to the ticket counter; dragging it onto a subway platform, onto a train, and then whatever distance remains between the end of the subway line and their final destination is far less appealing then that. I’d take a billion dollars worth of complete street improvements spread throughout the city over a direct connection to the airport any day of the week.

  • Amber Garza

    The fact that there is NO shuttle service between the Rancho Cucamonga Metrolink station (or the East Ontario Metrolink station) and ONT STILL boggles my mind.
    It’s a 5 mile distance from Rancho Metrolink to ONT. Guess how long it takes on public transportation (bus)? 36 minutes if you’re lucky enough to be flying at the exact right time, up to 1:28 if you’re travelling at an off-peak time. That’s just ridiculous.

    • Rafe Husain

      while the metro link tracks run on airport property, A station at ONT requires laying of no tracks or land purchase,

  • Rafe Husain

    The problem is systemic. Lawa, which runs lax, has been systemically gamed. Lawa is dependent on parking revenue along w rental car, cab and limo revenue. This gaming is systemic and planned. Lawa has opposed any direct mass transit into lax. Our beloved GM and ExxonMobil lobbyists were involved in the setting up of lawa and its financing.

    The city needs to take over lawa, restructure its finances and make it work for the public.

    • Headley (sic) Lamarr

      Sounds like things have not really changed since Roger Rabbit got framed. LAX is the egregious example of this absurdity

      Ironically it’s in smaller cities that the transit system seems to be reaching airports: PDX, SLC, OAK (soon), DEN (underway) that I’m aware of.