Photo: unfinished monorail track in Las Vegas

End of the line: The Las Vegas monorail ends just short of the airport.

Photograph by Glenn Elliott

By Christopher Elliott

It’s a half-hour drive by car from my house to the airport. But the bus ride? That’s an odyssey.

Here’s what I’d be up against if I wanted to save the $10-a-day parking fee and catch the city bus from Winter Springs, Florida, to Orlando International Airport: Depending on the time of day, I’d have to walk from one to five miles, catch a bus, make at least one connection, and walk another half mile.

Total time for the 28-mile journey: two and a half to three hours.

Chances are, you’ve run the numbers on a greener, cheaper trip to the airport by mass transit and come to a similar conclusion—forget the bus or train; it’s easier to drive.

It shouldn’t be that way. Many major airports are pathetically underserved by public transportation, offering no light-rail or subway connection or perhaps only city buses that take forever to get to or from downtown. The most striking example of this failure is Las Vegas, where you can literally see the beleaguered monorail from downtown dead-end across the street from the airport.

The problem needs to be addressed nationwide. The pat excuses for our rapid transit deficiencies must be reexamined. We need to reallocate resources and maybe write some big checks.

Getting to the airport is already a joke in some of America’s biggest cities. Have you tried driving from Manhattan to JFK or from the Los Angeles suburbs to LAX recently? I have. It’s almost impossible to avoid a traffic jam on New York’s Van Wyck Expressway or L.A.’s 405. What are the public transportation options? Well, there’s the AirTrain to JFK, which is sometimes criticized for being inconvenient (lots of transfers) and dicey (in places, especially after hours). But hey, at least there’s a train. In L.A. the bus is pretty much your only public transit choice.

So why is the U.S. mass-transit impaired? “It’s a lifestyle choice,” says Michael Bell, a professor of policy studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta and an expert on airport mass transit. American air travelers like the freedom of having their own car and the convenience of bringing lots of luggage.

I beg to differ with the good professor: You’d be attached to your car, too, if there were no better way to get where you’re going. We often have no real choice, which is heading us down the wrong road.

There’s another explanation for the failure: The lack of will by shortsighted politicians focused on the financial bottom line. “Most public transportation systems earn only about one-third of their operating expenses from passengers,” says Lawrence Hughes, a New York-based transportation policy expert. “The other two-thirds is typically paid for by taxpayers.” Perennially in campaign mode, politicians understandably hesitate to spend money on unprofitable mass-transit projects whose benefits may not be felt for years.

And here’s an interesting side note: Income from parking and car rentals at U.S. airports accounts for about 63 percent of non-aeronautical revenues. So while passengers may love a zippy train to their terminals, airports have an incentive to promote driving—and parking.

The government is beginning to acknowledge the problem. Consider the Transportation Department’s $79-billion budget this year, which includes $1 billion for high-speed rail projects on top of the $9 billion it received in 2010. Some airports are moving in the  right direction, too. Seattle and Vancouver recently added airport trains; Washington, D.C., plans to run a new Metro line to Dulles Airport; and Phoenix plans a $1.1-billion light-rail connection to its airport.

But it’s not nearly enough. Mass transit—not just to the airport but all public transportation—typically remains an afterthought in Washington, despite the rhetoric and the promising new projects. Of the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal tax on gasoline, only about 2.86 cents are allocated specifically to mass-transit projects. The bulk of the money pays for roads and bridges, which primarily benefit drivers. And therein lies the rub.

“The trip to the airport in most big cities is symptomatic of broader trends in the U.S.,” says Jen Henry, a mass-transit expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “We have invested the vast majority of our transportation infrastructure dollars in roads and highways, whereas Europe has had a more balanced approach.”

I know, I know: Many Americans recoil at suggestions of European solutions, so I’ll spare you the paeans to the speedy, seamless, sparkling trains I took to the airport when I lived in Frankfurt and Vienna (though they were convenient and cheap). 

Instead, let’s take a page from our own history. Walk through the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento to see how Americans traveled before they had cars. You might catch a glimpse of our own future. For example, Los Angeles was connected by a first-rate network of trains and trolleys, which connected to a far-reaching rail system. Many other American cities also had reliable, quick train service before there were airports to get to.

Market forces alone didn’t forge this rail network. The government offered loans and land grants, foreseeing the economic upside of having a dependable transportation infrastructure. And, just as it was in the mid-19th century, the solution today needs to be a comprehensive, public–private partnership, say experts. Everyone has to be in on it, from passengers to politicians to urban planners. “We now understand the limits of automotive culture,” says Peter Hansen, editor of the journal Railroad History. “We recognize that it’s not sustainable.” Cities of the future need to become dense “nodes” of mixed-use urban areas that can be easily connected to airports, as opposed to the sprawling suburbs of the 20th century. The stakes are now even higher. The benefits aren’t just to the economy; they’re also environmental.

Imagine reaching the airport from downtown in ten minutes by train, at a fraction of the cost of a cab, car, or airport shuttle. Imagine rediscovering the pleasure of driving, revving up the car only for Sunday drives in the country rather than ghastly commutes into the city.

I’m optimistic. As I write this, the first phase of Florida’s new high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando is under way. The train will terminate at the airport, but unfortunately for me, it doesn’t go far enough. Extending the line to the northern suburbs where I live is still just a plan.

For now, at least, I’ll continue driving.

Contributing editor Christopher Elliott also addresses readers’ travel problems. E-mail him your story at celliott@ngs.org.

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