Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Airports and public transit access: O'Hare Airport and the proposed fast connection from Downtown Chicago

Note below:

I'm wrong. There is a Metra Station serving O'Hare, called O'Hare Transfer, on the North Central Line. The issue isn't so much the time it takes to get from Downtown -- 32 minutes. It's that the service is infrequent--two trains in the morning, three trains in the afternoon, five in the evening--and not convenient for early or late flights. While the airport ground transportation system does provide service to this station, I don't know how long it takes to get to the airport from the station by shuttle. When you factor that time in (plus it costs more than the subway), the subway makes more sense.

Midway is in striking distance from the Heritage Corridor Metra line, but not super close, a few miles from the Summit Station. The line has limited service, unlike the rapid transit line.

Chicago, IL
O'Hare Airport serving the Chicago Metropolitan Area is one of the world's busiest.

Rapid transit serves the O'Hare Airport--the Blue Line--along with various bus services, including regional bus from distant locations. While Chicago has a rich system of regional railroad passenger service including the nation's only still existing interurban railway, the South Shore Line (serving Chicago from Northern Indiana) neither O'Hare nor Midway Airports are served by trains that is, the Metra system of regional passenger railroad services).  Midway too has rapid transit ("L" or "El") service, although the last time I was there, the station was a long walk with heavy baggage to the airport.

The Airports are owned by the City of Chicago, which put out a tender for creating a high(er) speed rail connection from Downtown (the Loop) to O'Hare Airport. According to Progressive Railroading ("Four teams vie to build Chicago O'Hare express rail line"), four companies have responded.

Airport service through a set of regional rail services?  In January, there was an interesting op-ed, "The limited thinking behind the O'Hare-Loop high-speed rail idea," in the Chicago Tribune making the point that (1) there isn't good recent data on how many people go to the airport from the Loop, (2) but that the most recent study (from 1988) found that it was about 20%, and (3) that it makes more sense to not just focus on adding a rail connection from Downtown but from other locations in the region as well.

-- proposal for express service to O'Hare, Midwest High Speed Rail Association

Rail service and National and BWI Airports.  That dovetails with discussion in this blog about railroad passenger access to National Airport in Northern Virginia. It's limited, but does exist via VRE, which provides limited mostly one direction service (from Virginia in the morning and to Virginia in the evening) so that the station isn't a particularly convenient way to get to the airport.

-- "A brief comment on ground transportation at National Airport vis a vis VRE rail service," 12/16
-- "Revisiting stories: ground transportation at airports (DCA/Logan)," 11/17

By contrast, the BWI Airport in Maryland is served bi-directionally by both the regional passenger service MARC and Amtrak. A few years ago, MARC added weekend service on the Penn Line serving BWI, so that it is reasonably cheap to get to and from there by train ($7 one-way) every day of the week.

Were the MARC Penn Line and VRE Fredericksburg Line to be merged as I have suggested ("A new backbone for the regional transit system: merging the MARC Penn and VRE Fredericksburg Lines"), this would provide service to National Airport, Union Station, and BWI Airport on the same line.

Toronto and London.  WRT the desire for higher speed train service to the airport, Pearson Airport in Toronto developed such a service, separate from the existing GO passenger rail system, and it hadn't been particularly successful, although ridership has increased reasonably significantly since the premium pricing was replaced with cheaper fares ("Union Pearson Express fare slashed from $27.50 to $12, CBC; "Ridership Has Tripled on Toronto’s Union Pearson Express," Torontoist).

Heathrow Express is an example of a higher speed railroad passenger service that is premium-priced ("Heathrow Express peak fares increase by almost nine per cent," London Evening Standard) and successful, but London is a huge metropolis and an international center. 

Next year, the new London Crossrail project will bring additional passenger rail service to the Airport ("Heathrow Express braces for Crossrail to end airport monopoly," Bloomberg).

Even though O'Hare is slightly busier as the world's sixth most used airport, while Heathrow is the seventh busiest, a much greater proportion of O'Hare's users are "local" while Heathrow's customer base is international, and international travelers have a greater propensity to use higher priced ground transportation services.

Chicago and Toronto are similarly sized.  It's arguable that there is enough demand for a premium priced train service to O'Hare Airport from Downtown. But as the Toronto experience proves there is demand for a faster and more direct service, even if people aren't willing to pay a premium price.

Regional transportation planning often overlooks (or under-studies) airports.  The Downtown-centric project initiated by Mayor Emanuel does indicate that likely it's better to have a comprehensive transportation planning program for airports, led by the area metropolitan planning organization, so that broader questions can be asked and answered.

I haven't found many examples of such plans, but the Puget Sound region is one of them.

-- Regional Airport Ground Access Plan, Puget Sound Regional Council (note that the plan is out of date, and no longer on the PSRC website)

Utilizing demand for airport travel as a way to bring about better regional passenger train service to the airport and other destinations as suggested in the op-ed would achieve higher quality outcomes than the current project's strict focus on travel between Downtown Chicago and the O'Hare Airport.

One example of this is the proposed improvements at O'Hare for access from Chicago's western suburbs ("Chicago to deliver on western access facility for passengers at O'Hare, officials say," Northwest Suburbs Daily Herald).

Lessons for the proposed national infrastructure initiative
. While it's less that likely that President Trump's interest (even if significantly flawed) in spurring infrastructure development will have legs, it and the O'Hare project are illustrations that focusing on specific projects as one-off initiatives not part of larger thinking and well thought out plans means that it's easy to get a lot less return on investment from such projects than is anticipated.

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At 9:55 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

On Heathrow express, neoliberalism and outsourcing government:

(I don't think capitalism is in as much crisis as people think; I do think it is China and that it is turning into roach trap for money -- the money goes in and doesn't get out. Hence the lack of returns for everyone else.)

Hence Bannon's points (from M. Lewis article).

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

funny thing, when I was doing article capture for this post, that article came up, in another site ( and I kept the window up but haven't read it yet.

I think there are two different issues:

- outsourcing
- privatization of ownership (which also may involve getting a cash payment for a govt. agency desperate for funds)

Outsourcing has many different rungs on a ladder too. E.g., there is a difference between hiring FirstTransit to run buses vs. signing a contract, like for public space maintenance in Sheffield, UK, with no provision for review, public input, etc.

Because of the Trump infra. proposal, there is an article about the possibility of selling off National and Dulles Airports at WBJ, and they have a poll with the question:

"do you think the airports would be run better if they are privatized?"

I think the better question is do you think there are better ways to manage and operate those airports. It could involve privatization but doesn't have to e.g., the Pittsburgh Airport was one of the first "airport malls" in the US because they hired BAA as an operator, but the airport is still owned by Allegheny County.

I think that those airports can be better managed and operated, that federal ownership distances them from having to be open to input, even though they need passengers as customers.

But that wouldn't necessarily make the airports "more profitable," just better services, with more rounded and complete operations.

BUT with privatization, you have to have profits ("returns") for the providers of the capital to buy the asset.

And wages (really the earnings of officers should be thought of as capital not labor-earnings) of the top management team are way higher than they would be if the assets remained in the public sector.

There are lessons from Britain for us, but not as many as the pundits think. The US is a bigger market, localities that contract out don't have the same level of financial desperation (mostly, social impact bonds to my way of thinking are partly out of desperation, it's sick that localities need to resort to such to find financing for innovation).

The basic lesson is that some functions don't make sense to privatize or to try to generate extranormal franchise fees from (like various railroad concessions). Even if "outsourcing" the operation of some of these assets can make sense.

Privatization of railroad franchises in the UK hasn't proved that they do a better job than an opened up public sector e.g., TfL.

With PFI, we have the same lessons in the US. It comes down to "there is no such thing as a free lunch."

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Decades ago (early 1990s) when I was doing educational tv programs and preparing the viewer guides, I read James Brian Quinn's _Intelligent Enterprise_.

Simultaneous to the "re-engineering craze" he made the point about core competencies and adding value from various functions, and that you should treat protect functions of core competency or competitive advantage but consider outsourcing functions that don't meet that test.

I go back and forth. It's possible to build that competence within government. But it helps to be creative about it too. E.g., the Forum Vinium Helsinki unit is likely more creative than just about any govt. IT agency, even Oakland County, Michigan (a leader in making their services available to other counties).

The problem with contracting out is that it becomes contractual and all about the law and provisions. There is no (or very limited) room for flexibility, learning, etc.

E.g. the "bus shelter advertising contract" which was focused on bus shelters as opposed to public space more generally and "street furniture" as a broader category which included bus shelters but wasn't limited to them.

versus "continuous process improvement"

That's what I aim for, but organizations, especially govt., aren't set up for it.

This came up last Monday at a community meeting. They want "traffic calming" because of traffic congestion generated by the charter school.


(Unless the study does more than look at speed bumps, which the street already has, what can it do?)

I explained they need a transportation demand management plan to deal with the peak hour congestion problems that derive from student drop off and pick up.

DDOT doesn't really have that kind of protocol. They have SRTS, but it focuses on walking and yes, reducing car use, but not so much on making more efficient the movement of the vehicles that are coming regardless in the reduction of vehicles.

Most people didn't get what I was saying. A couple did. The leaders of the meeting didn't. The DDOT person presenting wasn't from the sustainable transportation unit...

But here was a perfect example of "constituent problems" generating the opportunity for identifying structural problems and creating structured approaches in response, that are are extendable to other situations elsewhere in the city.

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Nigel said...

Back to airport transportation....

Nigel from New Zealand writes:

Looking on the map of Chicago ..... If they moved the CTA Rosemont Station and the Metra Rosemont Station to where they both intersect, you will have the possibility of a transfer system (Trains to the planes?).

Also, looking at aerial photos, the airport shuttle train ( whatever it is called ) serves a car parking lot , but if it was extended 100 yards it will reach the current Metra Station.

Looks like another case where the left hand is not talking to the right hand.'Hare+International+Airport/@41.9783123,-87.8963424,2314m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x511747070259ad4b!8m2!3d41.9741625!4d-87.9073214

At 7:02 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I was in Denver a few weeks ago and took the rail link into downtown.

Some strange choices on routing; there is a huge medical facility but it looks a mile or so from the rail line. I don't have enough granular knowledge on their choices.

I will say that the train was reasonably full and I appeared to be one of the few passengers; mostly appeared to be airport employees.

At 9:03 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I've only been at Denver airport to transfer, never been able to take some time to stay there while on the trip. (FWIW, shockingly, Qdoba has the restaurant contract in one of the terminals and runs an upscale one off Mexican food concept that is awesome. Can't remember the name.)

It would be interesting to have a chart with this kind of info for all the airports. E.g., I was shocked to see that it is faster to take MARTA from Hartsfield to Downtown Atlanta than it is to take Metrorail.

I guess my direct experience of using rail transit to/from an airport is limited: National; BWI; Cleveland; O'Hare; Portland; Seattle; Salt Lake; Dusseldorf; Hamburg.

wrt your point about employees, years ago I was e-talking with someone from UC Institute of Transportation Studies because of my writings about mobility access and airports and she said a big reason they focused on studying it had to do with employees.

(We almost sold a bike sharing system to the SF Airport, for internal use, but at the end they went with another solution.)

At 9:03 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

oops, not Qdoba, Quiznos.

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Massport considering rail tram connections between terminals and the Blue Line T Station, to reduce congestion on the airport campus, and to increase the number of people coming to the airport by transit.

Toronto is also doing a broader ranged transportation study for the airport.



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