With 2024 Transit Connection, LAX Hedges Bets, Expects Travelers Will Park

LAWA
LAX’s planned people-mover (dark blue line) will connect with Metro’s under-construction Crenshaw light rail line (vertical red line, on right). The project includes two “intermodal transportation centers” (blue polygons, in middle and right) which means car parking. Image from LAWA Handout [PDF]
“We have to deal with reality,” L.A. World Airports (LAWA) Chief of Planning Christopher Koontz stated at last week’s Metro Board of Directors meeting: even after the LAX rail connection opens in 2024, LAWA expects air travelers will keep drivingLAWA is the city of L.A. department in charge of LAX and a couple smaller airports. Responding to Metro Boardmember Jackie Dupont-Walker’s questioning, Koontz confirmed that connecting LAX to the under-construction Metro Crenshaw Line will mean “an expansion of parking.” 

In his presentation to Metro, Koontz clarified that the airport is looking to get its own employees to ride transit, but citing airport-transit examples in Washington D.C. and Atlanta, more than 90 percent of airline passengers are expected to continue to drive. Koontz’ presentation included a handout [PDF]; LAWA later provided SBLA this longer slideshow [PDF].

LAX people mover concept map showing immediately east of the Crenshaw Line's 96th Street Station: four stories of parking (in purple.) Image via LAWA.
LAX people-mover concept map showing immediately east of the Crenshaw Line’s 96th Street Station: four stories of parking (in purple). Image from LAWA handout [PDF]
Though a source (who declined to be identified) put the number at approximately 8,000 new public parking spaces, LAWA would not confirm this, nor would they provide a number. SBLA asked LAWA to provide an estimate of new parking spaces, or confirm or deny the 8,000 space figure. LAWA spokesperson Marshall Lowe responded:

We do not have an exact parking count but structured above-ground parking will be added in the Central Terminal Area, at the Intermodal Transportation Facility and the Consolidated Rent-A-Car facility.

LAWA’s diagram shows four new large parking lots at automated people-mover (APM) Intermodal Transportation Facility stations, plus two taller replacement parking lots in the middle Central Terminal Area loop. According to one concept [PDF p. 10], these large new Intermodal lots would be 4-level parking structures, so, roughly 8,000 new spaces seems about right. These 8,000 new spaces would add just over 50% to existing LAX owned/operated parking: 8,000 Central Terminal Area spaces and 7,300 economy Lot C spaces. At roughly $25,000+ per space for above-ground parking structures, the 8,000 spaces will likely cost over $200 million to build.

How travelers arrive at LAX today. Image provided by LAWA
How people arrive at LAX today. Image provided by LAWA

Today at LAX, 51 percent of people arrive by private car, nearly 40 percent are dropped off. Combined transit sources account for about 10 percent, with the Metro Green Line (plus shuttle) accounting for just 1 percent.

According to the 2008 federal Transportation Reseach Board report Ground Access to Major Airports by Public Transportation [PDF], LAX is actually doing pretty well compared to other major U.S. airports. At 10 percent transit share, LAX ranks 10th out of 27 full-fledged U.S. airports. San Francisco is first in the U.S. with 23 percent transit share. Numerous foreign examples dwarf domestic ones. Worldwide leaders Oslo and Hong Kong airports report 64 and 63 percent transit usage, respectively.

Getting people to the airport is a pretty complicated endeavor. LAX draws people from an even larger area than is served by Metro. Travelers arrive in groups, carrying luggage. Even the most livability-minded readers will likely concede that new intermodal facilities will need some parking. But 8,000 new parking spaces — a $200 million public investment — could raise some concerns.

Shifting into first-person for editorializing, speculating, and questioning, here are some of my thoughts on the plan and the parking. First, the problems:

  • “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. We’re in a time when traffic predictions are turning out to be wrong. Overall vehicle miles traveled (VMT) were anticipated to just keep growing, but have declined nationally and in California. This leads to things like toll roads declaring bankruptcy. Betting $200+ million that 2024 transportation behavior will look mostly like 2014 (or 1974) seems risky. Gas prices are volatile. Technologies are changing. Will airport parking become less needed when Lyft or Uber or Zipcar introduce some kind of airport-trip-sharing app? Some air travel could shift to high-speed rail. Improved transit connections to Burbank and Ontario airports could shift travel patterns, too. It is hard to be sure today about the utility of that 8,000th parking space in 2024.
  • I feel like transit never quite gets ahead when it is accompanied by heavy investment in driver convenience and capacity. In Freemark’s study of why new light rail failed to increase transit use, the author notes that cities that invested in light rail also invested heavily in freeways. From the plans, in addition to parking, it appears that LAX will also be making “improvements” to streets (see green and red lines on the map at top of post), all to cater to people in cars.
  • 8,000 new parking spaces at LAX could represent a glut of parking, increasing overall parking vacancy percentages and depressing LAX parking prices, including lots operated by LAWA and by private parking companies. I worry that fear of this scenario could trigger greater opposition to the APM project, which is beginning its environmental review process. In the past, parking interests helped kill any adequate Metro Green Line rail connection to LAX. A new APM, with a sea of new parking, could make the project even more threatening to private parking interests, already inclined to oppose a new rail connection.
  • LAWA diagram
    Concept rendering showing how the people-mover interfaces with LAX’s Central Terminal Area. The blue rectangles are new, taller parking structures. Image from LAWA handout [PDF]
    It is not clear how many, but the LAWA plan will be adding spaces in the Central Terminal Area (CTA). To some extent, some of the parking in the CTA needs to be redone to make way for the APM. The image on the right shows the replacement of existing structures with taller ones.
    In my guesstimation, adding spaces there seems to negate an APM project goal of reducing traffic congestion in the CTA. I expect adding more parking in the central loop will make that loop even more congested. Perhaps not replacing that parking, combined with some sort of congestion pricing strategy would reduce some congestion there.
    My first congestion pricing idea (not sure if this is feasible logistically or politically) is to charge cars a fee to enter that CTA loop. There would need to be a toll booth, though most fees could be collected using a transponder. Charging would discourage some pick-up and drop-off car traffic from entering the CTA, instead encouraging the use of free “kiss n’ fly” drop off areas at the Intermodal Transportation Facilities. If charging for cars is infeasible, parking charges could be a less effective proxy. Make parking at the outer Intermodal facilities relatively cheap, while CTA parking is limited and expensive.

On the plus side:

  • The cleaner technology APM system will likely replace current parking shuttle bus trips. Today, travelers park (and rent) cars on the periphery of LAX and take shuttles into the CTA. These shuttle vehicles idle circulating into and out of the congested CTA. More APM traffic should mean fewer polluting shuttles.
  • Maybe this is some kind of long-term plan to be revealed, but more new peripheral parking potentially frees up more central space. I am guessing that maybe, in the long run, Lot C might become part of the CTA?

What do I think LAWA-LAX should do?

Ideally investments should be made according to policy goals. To me, the currently proposed APM plan feels like LAX leaders are surveying their existing car-centric landscape and looking to perpetuate it. People drive to the airport today because the region has spent many billions on car convenience — 405 and 105 freeways, parking, etc. — compared to close-to-zilch on other airport connections. Ideally, LAX should continue to serve drivers as well as it has, while seeking to, at least somewhat, diversify how air travelers arrive.

What modal percentages should we realistically aim for? For overall economic resilience? For the environment? For a Los Angeles full of great streets? I don’t know, but my hunch is that modal percentage goals would move us toward a little less driving, and a little more transit, and, yes, more than zero percent of people walking and bicycling. I would look to best practices worldwide, and design a system that supports a diversity of modes.

To a large extent, in a given vicinity, livability and car-convenience are mutually exclusive. It’s nearly impossible to make the same place both super-easy to park in and super-easy in which to walk and ride transit. I expect a lot of places around LAX will continue to be car-centric, but perhaps not all places. I am concerned that, surrounded by the majority of 8,000 parking spaces, the new Metro Crenshaw Line’s 96th Street Station will become a crappy car-infested place.

96th Street Station and Aviation Boulevard might become a sort of a portal to livable Los Angeles. Clearly rail and bus connections are planned, but also maybe car-share, bike-share, bike-rental, and longer-term bike parking. For Aviation Boulevard, how about bus-only lanes, great sidewalks, protected bike lanes, and maybe just one lane of car traffic? Maybe car traffic only at limited times of the day? Theoretically, what might enable this is for those new parking structures to be oriented well. This might be a stretch, but it seems like the West Intermodal Transportation Facility might cater to cars arriving from the 105 Freeway and Sepulveda Boulevard, and the East Intermodal Transportation Facility could cater to cars from the 405 Freeway. This could leave leave Aviation Boulevard in the middle to de-prioritize and de-emphasize cars.

If LAX is about to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new parking that might never recoup its capital and maintenance costs, maybe a portion of that funding could instead go to making transit-walk-bike safe and convenient at 96th and Aviation. I’d guess that the big cost there wouldn’t be capital expenditures, but space. I suspect that a serious complete streets treatment (think MyFigueroa) on Aviation from, say, Manchester Avenue to El Segundo Boulevard would be less than $50 million, probably about half of that.

What do you think readers? Am I being unrealistic? How should LAX invest in the future of people getting from all over the region to its gates?

(Thanks Juan Matute and Payton Chung for providing me excellent background material for this article)

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