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Are People Really Going to Take the Train to LAX?

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Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 6:53 AM
click to enlarge crenshawlax.jpg
Mayor Eric Garcetti has made it one of his top priorities to connect the city's rail system to LAX. It must be a pretty popular idea, judging by the number of other politicians who agree with him. Just the other day, Bobby Shriver kicked off his campaign for the county Board of Supervisors with a pledge to build rail to the airport.

Gina Marie Lindsey, the airport's executive director, has always been cool to the idea. As she explained a couple weeks ago, the airlines don't want it because it will end up costing them money.

There is another question to consider: If the Crenshaw Line connection is built to the airport, will anyone take it?

A  couple years ago, Los Angeles World Airports did a comprehensive survey of 23,000 LAX passengers, showing how they get to the airport and where they come from. Here's a map from that report that shows where people start their trips to the airport, by ZIP code:
click to enlarge LAWA 2011 PASSENGER SURVEY
  • LAWA 2011 passenger survey

Broadly speaking, passengers come from two types of places: hotels and neighborhoods where rich people live. So you see a lot of trips originating along the coast from the South Bay up through Santa Monica. You also see a lot of trips from areas along Santa Monica Boulevard from Santa Monica through Beverly Hills and Hollywood. And there's also a pocket downtown. The highest concentration comes from hotels around LAX - but those passengers come largely via hotel shuttles.

For the typical airport passenger, then, the ideal train route would go from Hollywood to Santa Monica, and then hug the coast to LAX.

click to enlarge The Crenshaw Line - MTA
  • MTA
  • The Crenshaw Line
That is not where the Crenshaw Line will go. Instead, it will go through Inglewood and South L.A. - which do not have high densities of airport passengers. (Those areas do have a high concentration of airport workers, but that's another story.)

A passenger coming from Santa Monica or downtown would have to take the Expo Line to Crenshaw and then transfer in order to get to the airport.

The MTA is still working out how long this trip will take. Part of the problem in estimating that is that planners haven't figured out exactly how passengers will get to the airport. The most likely option seems to be that passengers would transfer to a people mover - a small train - either at Aviation and Century or at a facility somewhere near Parking Lot C. It's not clear yet how long it would take to get from that facility to the terminals.

But an MTA spokesman did provide a rough estimate of the time it would take to get to the Aviation/Century stop from downtown and Santa Monica. Drumroll please...

Downtown (7th and Figueroa): 38 minutes
Santa Monica (4th and Colorado): 42 minutes

This includes a five-minute transfer at Crenshaw. But again, it does not include the additional time it would take to transfer to the people mover and get to the terminals.

Now, another important question. How long would it take to make the same trip by car?

According to Google Maps, both trips take just 20 minutes by car. That seems to assume zero traffic, so let's add some time for that. Maybe 30 minutes? More?

The downtown train route might make sense in heavy traffic - but Santa Monica? Would anyone take the train from the airport all the way out to Crenshaw and Expo and then back to Santa Monica when you can just take a cab up Lincoln?
click to enlarge The Expo Line, once it's completed to Santa Monica - EXPO LINE CONSTRUCTION AUTHORITY
  • Expo Line Construction Authority
  • The Expo Line, once it's completed to Santa Monica

Obviously, a taxi will cost a lot more than taking the train. But we're talking about airline passengers, who, in general, can afford it, and to whom time is important. If they're leaving LAX, perhaps after getting off a trans-oceanic flight, they probably don't want to spend a lot more time traveling. And if they're going to LAX, they probably want to get there quickly so they don't miss their departure.

For fun, we can also figure out how long it would take to get to the airport from Hollywood and Vine using the Red, Expo and Crenshaw lines. That would be, ... let's see, carry the one... 58 minutes. (Plus, of course, transfer time to the people mover.)

And by car... 30 minutes. In heavy traffic, it might take an hour. But if you go by train, you would have to transfer three times, which is more than most passengers will tolerate.

By now, it should be clear that the Crenshaw Line was not designed with LAX passengers in mind. Instead, it was designed for people who live along Crenshaw and currently take the bus. (Crenshaw is the second-most-trafficked bus corridor in the city, after Wilshire.) Adding an airport connection will not change that fundamental fact.

Jose Ubaldo, the MTA spokesman, said that the agency is considering express service on the Crenshaw Line for LAX passengers. Good idea. Let's hear more about that. However, if it requires design changes it may already be too late, seeing as MTA just broke ground on the Crenshaw Line.

Bottom line: Everybody wants to be able to take the train to the airport. That would be tremendously convenient, if done correctly. But don't count on MTA and LAWA to do it correctly. In the real world, the convenient system that everybody is imagining may not be what we end up with.

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