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The Importance of Airport-Downtown Rail Connections

Direct transit links are not only good for urban quality of life but improve regional competitiveness. They should be a no-brainer. Being able to land in a city and board a train with assurance you’ll be downtown in a fixed amount of time provides peace of mind for residents, tourists and businesspeople alike. A pleasant and even scenic journey bolsters this experience, and makes a powerful first impression that can boost investment.

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With service every 15 minutes, the A Line takes you from Denver Airport to Union Station in 37 minutes

On a recent trip to Denver I finally got to experience the long-awaited A Line, which opened in 2016. Having grown tired of the long drive in to the city over many years of visiting, it was wonderful to board a train at Denver Airport (DEN) and arrive at Union Station 37 minutes later. At 15 minute intervals, you never have to wait long, and the service is reliable and comfortable. The $10.50 fare is a bit steep, but tolerable. Arriving at Union Station on a busy Saturday evening to have a drink at The Cooper Lounge, overlooking the main hall, is a beautiful thing. It makes it seem like Denver has its act together.

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Travel by Train – and I Did!

LaGuardia (LGA) is the most notorious airport in the United States when it comes to transit connections to the center city, although it is hardly the worst statistically. The website FiveThirtyEight posted a 2015 article discussing travel times from airports to downtowns. Notably, only four American cities have a transit system that gets you there by train faster than a car. Interestingly, my very own Minneapolis/St. Paul International (MSP) scored highest on the FiveThirtyEight chart with a 30-minute train journey from terminal to downtown, which beats the 35-minute drive. Denver’s A Line would today be ranked much better on an updated version of the list.

Jarrett Walker at Urban Transit wrote about the keys to great airport transit service in 2016. A few relevant  things pop out to me. One is modal share of air travelers using transit should be one-third to one-half or more, provided a well-connected airport like London Heathrow (LHR) at 36% or Hong Kong (HKG) at 63%. Modal share is a pretty good indicator of overall effectiveness of the airport transit line (a quick survey found that there isn’t a North American airport that even approaches a 20% modal share).  Second is total travel time matters, and airport to downtown times of 30 minutes for Minneapolis, Washington Reagan (DCA), Atlanta (ATL), San Diego (SAN), and Boston (BOS) are really important. Third, it is really important for the airport transit line to also provide access to other major regional destinations besides downtown.

With Denver, I’ve now taken transit from numerous airports to destinations in their respective cities, often downtown. Perhaps my favorite journey is Boston, only it’s not by train, it’s by boat. If you’ve never done so, I highly recommend arriving in Boston, weather permitting, and taking a Water Taxi from the airport. The fresh air will do you some good! Life’s about the journey, I guess.

The list of transportation infrastructure that impact quality of life in cities is long and varied, but a quick, reliable transit link from airport to downtown is pretty high on that list. It enables residents, visitors, businesspeople and employees to access both airport and downtown with ease. This helps regional economies function but also gives the impression that cities have their act together. As a resident and business owner in Minneapolis, I can say that light rail service from MSP to our downtown for the past 15 years is a huge boost to our regional economy and quality of life.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

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9 thoughts on “The Importance of Airport-Downtown Rail Connections

  1. Andrew Evans

    LaGuardia is terrible, Newark isn’t much better since you have to take a commuter train and wait outside in whatever weather is going on. JFK is by far the best out of the 3. I wouldn’t call anything under $15 too bad, way cheaper than a taxi or other ground transportation.

    Haven’t had to take ground transportation in Denver other than a car rental. I think I remember it being a nice airport, and I think that was before the rail line was completed.

    I think we took the train in from Atlanta, and did take some transit when there a handful of years ago. Open container laws are amazing, and weird at first.

    Although I hate CDG in Paris, it’s easy enough to get to with a $20’ish metro ticket. There is also a TGV and rail station connected to the airport, which is a blessing and a curse. It’s great since a person could buy a TGV ticket and catch a train a few hours after landing. It’s bad because if you’re late getting in, then you have the pleasure of buying a new TGV ticket at around half price, and it’s standing room only. The airport is also the only place in Paris that we’ve experienced where the people are snobby, so there is that.

    We do have it great here, with either the light rail or a less dense metro area that makes driving easier. That and our airport is easy enough to get around in and signed pretty well.

  2. Jay Severance

    We fully agree with Mr. Newburg/Urban’s assessment of the importance of connecting the airport with downtown, and the success of the Blue Line in providing that service…to Minneapolis. Unfortunately, Saint Paul does not share that benefit. Yes, there is a downtown in the East Metro also. Moreover, downtown Saint Paul also serves as a multi-modal hub at the Union Depot for multiple intercity and suburban bus lines, the new Gold Line and Rush line BRTs and AMTRAK. There is definitely a need for a similar LRT connection from downtown Saint Paul to MSP!

    The Riverview Corridor project linking Saint Paul downtown to MSP has been in the works for close to 20 years, and should provide the needed connection. The project has progressed to the point of the “Locally Preferred Alternative” (LPA) being considered for addition to the Metropolitan Council’s approved projects for seeking Federal funding.

    Unfortunately, the vision in the LPA falls far short of the level of service provided by the Blue Line. The Riverview LPA calls for development of a “modern streetcar” running mainly on streets from downtown to the river, sharing the right of way with normal automobile and truck traffic…and emergency vehicles, delivery trucks…in inclement weather…encountering the same issues and requiring a longer schedule than the current route 54 bus! Oh, by the way, it will cost 2 billion dollars which includes rebuilding 7th street, a new bridge across the river and a tunnel under Fort Snelling!

    Fortunately, there is a better way. For at least 250 million dollars less, an off-street, dedicated guideway, LRT line, mainly using abandoned freight rail right of way, could appreciably improve the speed and reliability of transit from downtown Saint Paul to MSP. This route would parallel 7th street and swing North at Davern Street continuing to the South end of the ex-Ford manufacturing site and then cross the river on a new bridge, joining the Blue line at 54th Street. The comparative times from the Xcel Center to MSP are these: Route 54 bus=20 minutes; Modern Streetcar=22 minutes; Off-Street LRT=14 minutes…two thirds the schedule time and less traffic and weather interference! And, it would also serve the transit needs of the 8000 new residents and workers at the Ford Site in coming years.

    The Riverview project must go forward, but in a more aggressive form to meet the needs of the East Metro now and in the future. The Met Council was chartered to bring a regional focus to Metro issues. It would be most timely now for the Met Council to take a step back and insist that the project team undertake a rigorous evaluation of system configuration options that look and operate more like a high performing LRT, similar to those being applied to the Southwest LRT Green Line and Bottineau Blue Line extensions.

    The Saint Paul downtown to MSP connection would complete the vision of a “Transit Triangle” joining MSP, Target Field Station, and Saint Paul Union Depot providing the nucleus of a Regional Multi-Modal Transportation Network for the Metro and Greater Minnesota. Let’s do it right!

    1. Monte Castleman

      I’m in complete agreement that we need to build this thing and build it on dedicated ROW light rail. However building a bridge at 54th street sounds like another compromise just like we made with choosing streetcar. But I’d say we need to keep it straight, short, and fast and build 7th street rather than taking a huge detour through the Ford site.

  3. Nick M

    “It makes it seem like Denver has its act together.”

    As someone who travels to Denver frequently and has coworkers located there, the A Line is very deceptive. Denver has done a great job of building transit lines that are either along highways (even worse than Hiawatha) or rail lines. If there is anyone on here that complains about Metro Transit’s bus service, I suggest they spend some time on RTD–I say this as someone has spent time on the express buses from DIA to DT Denver (before replaced by the A Line) as well as local buses, including just last week. I don’t say this to be fiercely pro-Minnesotan as much as I want to avoid us romanticizing the very different way that Denver has chosen to pursue transit. In my experience it has produced some very nice projects but it is also rife with many dysfunctions that we have been able to avoid. For example, all of RTD’s fares are high compared to peer cities, not just the airport fare.

  4. Tom Reynen

    We live in the Twin Cities but have a second home in downtown Vancouver BC. They put in a light rail system from the airport to downtown for the 2010 Olympics and it has been wonderful. Instead of a $30 cab ride, we can take the light rail to 2 blocks from our place and it is only $1.80/$2.80 each way depending on time of day and fact we are seniors. Tourists pay a $5.00 surcharge from the airport unless they buy a multi ride fare card but it is still much cheaper than a cab. And Vancouver does not allow Uber or Lyft.

  5. Jack

    I’ve taken the water taxi from Boston to Providencetown (P-Town), which is lovely.

    If you ever fly into Venice, take the water taxi from the airport into the city. It is amazing.

  6. Scott

    Nice post.

    I’ve never understood why the LRT station at Terminal 1 is so far away from the airport and involves going up and down escalators several times. Is there a post- 9/11 security reason for locating the tunnel such a distance away? Considering it sits within a tunnel, couldn’t it been located closer to the Terminal?

    Also, it seems odd that the Terminal 2 station is outdoors and located in a parking ramp. Again, couldn’t this have come closer to the Terminal with its’ big, empty and heated lobby? I imagine more people would ride the train during the winter if the station was heated and nicer.

    Saying this, it is incredible that we are able to take the train for the price of a bus ticket, and that it comes every 10 minutes most of the day. Funny that many other cities don’t have that luxury.

  7. Allen

    Denver had SkyRide before they built the A-line. It had full coach buses. it was easy to take and comfortable.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Yes. I’ve utilized regional buses in Denver as well and found them comfortable and convenient. I miss the old underground downtown bus station.

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