There hasn’t been much news on the Auckland light-rail projects for a while now, with the project seemingly stuck in some sort of purgatory as the Government (hopefully) slowly comes to the realisation that the NZ Super Fund proposal to build an elevated and tunnelled route is complete madness. With the Puhinui station upgrade and improved bus priority about to start construction, it will hopefully get people to understand that a high quality PT option will be delivered in the next few years. Although some will refuse to to believe that a Puhinui-Airport rail link would be much harder and more expensive than it intuitively seems.
As I discussed late last year, one of the frustrating things about the idea of serving the Airport with heavy rail is that it places what I think is undue importance on this particular job – getting people from the city centre to and from the Airport. It’s a useful reminder that only around 4% of trips on the City Centre to Mangere corridor are these ‘end to end’ journeys.
While the Airport is an important part of Auckland, it seems strange that such huge emphasis get placed on trips between the city centre and the Airport, a pretty small minority of overall journeys. Also, very little discussion ever occurs about the people who travel to and from the airport every day.
Alon Levy’s excellent Pedestrian Observations blog looked at this issue of over-emphasising Airport connections a few years back and came up with some interesting hypotheses to explain this.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that cities spend far more per rider on airport connectors than on other kinds of public transit. On this blog, see many posts from previous years on the subject. My assumption, and that of such other transit advocates as Charles Komanoff, was always that it came from an elite versus people distinction: members of the global elite fly far more than anyone else, and when they visit other cities, they’re unlikely to take public transit, preferring taxis for most intermediate-length trips and walking for trips around the small downtown area around their hotels.
In this post, I would like to propose an alternative theory. Commuters who use public transit typically use their regular route on the order of 500 times a year. If they also take public transit for non-work trips around the city, the number goes even higher, perhaps 700. In contrast, people who fly only fly a handful of times per year. Frequent business travelers may fly a few tens of times per year, still an order of magnitude less than the number of trips a typical commuter takes on transit.
What this means is that 2 billion annual trips on the New York-area rail network may not involve that many more unique users than 100 million annual trips between the region’s three airports. Someone who flies a few times per year and is probably middle class but not rich might still think that transportation to the airport is too inconvenient, and demand better. In the US, nearly half the population flies in any given year, about 20% fly at least three roundtrips, and 10% fly at least five. Usually, discussions of elite versus regular people do not define the elite as the top half; even the top 10% is rare, in these times of rhetoric about the top 1% and 0.1%. When Larry Summers called for infrastructure investment into airport transit, he said it would improve social equity because what he considered the elite had private jets.
To summarise, there are two main reasons why Airport connections might end up being over-emphasised compared to other transport needs:
- Politicians, senior bureaucrats, business leaders, media and other members of the ‘elite’ use Airports far more frequently than the average person – so therefore connections to airports are a much bigger deal for them than for most people.
- A very wide variety of people travel to the Airport over the course of a year, compared to other key places. This means that a lot of people experience travel conditions to and from airports, even if they do so quite rarely.
What seems to be lacking in Auckland discussions is good data and useful metrics to compare different corridors against each other. Alon does this for New York, which illustrates how poor Airport connections perform compared to other projects.
None of this makes airport transit a great idea. Of course some projects are good, but the basic picture is still one in which per rider spending on airport connectors is persistently higher than on other projects, by a large factor. In New York, the JFK AirTrain cost about $2 billion in today’s money and carries 6.4 million riders a year, which would correspond to 21,000 weekday riders if it had the same annual-to-weekday passenger ratio as regular transit, 300 (it has a much higher ratio, since air travel does not dip on weekends the way commuter travel does). This is around $100,000 per rider, which contrasts with $20,000 for Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 if ridership projections hold. Earlier this year, the de Blasio administration proposed a developed-oriented waterfront light rail, projected to cost $1.7 billion and get 16 million riders a year, which corresponds to about $32,000 per daily rider; a subsequent estimate pegs it at $2.5 billion, or $47,000 per rider, still half as high as how much the AirTrain cost.
Avoiding this over-emphasis on airport connections will continue to be difficult in the absence of good data, because the allure of good airport connections is strong in both political elites who use airports extremely frequently, as well as the broader public who use them occasionally.
Of course this isn’t to say that Auckland Airport doesn’t need rapid transit connections from both the north and the east. But rather, we shouldn’t over-emphasise the ‘end to end’ element of what the broader City Centre to Mangere light rail project does, and we certainly shouldn’t go out of our way to serve the airport with enormously expensive infrastructure – especially if that means ongoing delays to other key rapid transit corridors, especially in the northwest. Given this, it feels like Auckland is getting the balance about right.