28 November 2018

Yes, Airports Should Be More Bike-Friendly. But For Whom?

Can you ride to your flight?

I've done it, on a couple of occasions--most recently on a trip to Montreal three years ago. The flight left LaGuardia Airport, which is about 7 kilometers (4.25 miles) from my apartment.  Since I went only for a long weekend, I didn't need to bring much with me.  Also, the fact that I was gone for such a short trip meant that vandals and thieves would have a relatively short window of opportunity.  Still, I rode my "beater" bike.

It's not only the short distance from my apartment that makes LaGuardia an easy bike trip for me.  The route is flat and most of the route takes me along residential streets.  I have to navigate through traffic on the entrance ramps to the terminals, but even that is really not difficult in comparison to entering some other airports.

John F. Kennedy is further away: about 22 kilometers (14 miles). If I'm not carrying a lot, it's certainly not a difficult trip.  Like the route to LaGuardia, the way to JFK is flat and includes mostly typical Queens streets.  There is more traffic entering and leaving JFK, but I know a few ways to navigate it by bicycle.

I've taken a number of flights from JFK, but only once did I cycle there.  For one thing, when I go from JFK, I am usually gone for longer periods of time than I am on my LaGuardia flights. So, even if I use my "beater", my bike has a greater chance of being stolen or damaged.  Also, when I go to JFK, I am probably taking a flight very early in the morning or late at night.  If I have to be at the airport at 5 am, I really don't want to ride--or, more precisely, wake up early enough to ride--that early.  Also, if I'm returning from overseas, I'm probably jet-lagged and cycling on busy roads might not be such a good idea.

The other major New York airport is Newark-Liberty International, which is accessible only from major highways that prohibit or severely restrict bicycles and pedestrians.

I got to thinking about all of this because of an article in the New York Times.  It profiles Conor Semler, a Boston-area transportation planner whose job involves taking flights about twice a month.  He said something that resonated with me:  "I prefer not to be in a car."  Plus, he said, the bike can be better depended upon to get you to your flight on time:  If you drive or take a taxi or bus, you could get caught in traffic.  And most US airports don't have a direct rail link to, or even near, them.

Conor Semler converting his rolling luggage to a backpack. (Taken by Kayana Syzmczak for the New York Times.)

Logan Airport, Boston's terminal, is closer to the center of the city it serves than any other major US airport, which certainly makes things easier for Semler.  Also, he usually flies to Ronald Reagan International Airport, just outside Washington DC.  When he arrives, he walks ten minutes to a Capital Bikeshare station in Arlington, Virginia and rides 30 minutes to his company's office.  

In other words, he is aided by the relative proximity of the airports to his home and office, and his familiarity with the area around them.  It's not so simple when you don't know your way around--or when there isn't a bike share available when you arrive.

I don't know what bike parking is like at Logan, but in most US airports, there are few or no places where one can park a bike safely, especially for long periods of time. Big airports have long-term parking for cars. Why can't they have it for bikes?   

But having any sort of safe parking facilities for bikes would help a group of people mentioned in only one sentence of the 1200-word article:  airport employees.

I don't have empirical data, but I am sure that in many airports, a significant number of folks who work in the corridors and terminals ride their bikes to work. That is certainly the case at LaGuardia and JFK, in part because they are closer to the center of the city--and the neighborhoods where employees live--than most other airports are to theirs. 

That airport employees would ride to work makes sense when you understand cycling's "equity gap," which has been summed up thusly:  "The poor bike, the rich bike-share."  In other words, people in lower income brackets are more likely to ride (or walk) to work than people in higher income brackets.  But poor cyclists are as invisible to non-cyclists--and to bicycling advocates--as the poor generally are to the rest of society.  Most non-cyclists, particularly in urban areas, see cycling as a kind of privileged fashion statement by young people who wash down their $20 avocado toast with a $15 craft beer.  That, I believe, is the reason why they resent any effort--whether through building infrastructure or starting bike-share programs--to encourage more people out of cars and onto bikes.

One thing I know about most airport employees: They don't make a lot of money.  (I'm not talking about the people who work for the airlines and TSA:  I mean the ones who are directly by the airport or its operating agency.)  In fact, many don't make much, or anything, more than minimum wage.  They can't afford to lose their bikes!

So, while I am glad that the Times showed that making airports more bike-accessible and bike-friendly is a good idea, I wish that they didn't re-enforce the notion too many people have about cyclists:  that we all do it for leisure or by choice.  The real benefit in having bike lockers, let alone other facilities, will accrue to the person who's loading luggage onto the flight that someone like Conor Semler reached by bike.


  1. Our main city hospital has not long ago provided covered and secure bike parking. In many ways it is better than the provision for cars which is spread far and wide on an edge of city site. No extra spaces were provided for staff when a city centre hospital was amalgamated and many staff now use up on street parking of nearly a mile away. I would be pulling a folder out of the car to cycle the last part if I worked there and had a drive commute!

  2. Once again I've enjoyed your blog, thoughts, and priorities. I've thought about riding to the airport, but never pulled the trigger. Maybe I'll have do a 'ride-by' reconnaissance trip to assess the bike parking facilities at my airport. http://metwashairports.com/sites/default/files/dca_bike_map_9-2018.pdf

  3. Coline--I think there is still a long way to go in making it easier to bike to, and park bikes at, our jobs.

    Paul--Actually, I did a reconaissance ride to the airport before I rode to my flight. It's a good idea, not just to see what facilities are available, but to become familiar with the route.