Why Do Airports Not Want Us To Have Nice Things?

FINDING THE PUBLIC BUS STOP AT DETROIT METRO AIRPORT IS KIND OF LIKE FINDING THE ROOM OF REQUIREMENT AT HOGWARTS, except it only appears when you’re broke. Want to fly on a plane? Gotta spend $30 to get to the airport in a cab! This substantially drives up the cost of a $37 ticket on SkyRat. The signage is virtually nonexistent. There are no brightly-colored, vinyl arrows plastered to the gleaming, terrazzo floors. There are plenty of signs for cabs, however, and for the various parking shuttles and parking structures. It almost seems like this is– bear with me- perhaps intentional? I was thinking about this when I dropped off my roommate at the airport for a ski vacation in Colorado. Yes, we argued over it. And yes, I told him it was a stupid thing to do during a global pandemic. Kids these days.


A Blast from the Past: DTW vs. the ADA

I mentioned this on Twitter and someone pointed out that DTW actually settled a lawsuit over this issue in 2014. In it, the plaintiffs argued, on behalf of two travelers, that the airport was discriminating against disabled passengers by forcing buses to unload in areas that were both dangerous and far away from the terminal. The suit stated that:

e. The new location at the GTC [Ground Transportation Center] is approximately 100 yards from the nearest indoor area of the airport, as opposed to 50 feet in the McNamura Terminal at the present location, thus forcing people to either wait outside for their bus or run quickly once it arrives. Disabled persons, especially those with mobility limitations, who cannot “run” quickly enough are thus forced to wait outside, even in harsh weather conditions.

f. The GTC severely limits a disabled person’s access to and communication with Prospect Airport Services, a service used by disabled persons to assist them in getting around at the Airport, thereby leaving them stranded, and without access to reasonable accommodations.

g. The obscure location of the elevators in the GTC is unclearly marked and difficult to find, creating further hurdles and frustration for disabled persons seeking to use them.

Like, wait. You’re going to make it so disabled passengers have to travel six times the distance? And make it hard for them to find the buses? Besides this being obviously draconian (and illegal), it seems like it undermines access to the airport from the standpoint of traveling to the point that, well, someone might just choose not to fly. It gets even better when you find out that they followed up by alleging retaliation by airport management and police. Beyond the fact that this is some of the stupidest Michigan thing I’ve encountered all week– and I’ve been reading about the auto industry all week- it seems like maybe there’s a little bit more here that’s worth unpacking.

My time at DTW when I went on the POCACITO trip to Germany. I wasn’t actually sure that POCACITO was real until I actually got to the airport and checked in.
What’s the real reason for the obstinance here?

Pre-COVID, the airport was deriving around 21% of its total revenues from parking. They’re fairly public about this. Granted, from a business standpoint, airports are weird beasts. They’re usually operated by these weird, quasi-non-governmental authorities, often chartered and thus officially sanctioned by a government– if not officially a department of municipal government itself. I found similar numbers for MSY (New Orleans, about 10 million passengers per year pre-COVID) and TPA (Tampa, about 25 million passengers per year pre-COVID with major expansion plans). In 2019 and 2020 I had similarly disastrous experiences with transit in these two airports. Impossible to find, terrible signage, and, in the case of MSY, the route was virtually nonexistent (it was like a two hour trip).

From my RTA study back in the day, the airport said– after much back-and-forth- in a canned statement that “the Airport Authority looks forward to continuing to work with the region’s leaders as they determine how to best connect DTW passengers to Southeast Michigan and the people of Southeast Michigan to DTW.” Neither this inquiry, nor one from last February on the same subject, addressed the issue of poor signage.

St. Donald of Shoup Weighs In

There are some views that contrast with the “ban all cars, forever and evermore” rhetoric of the 200,000-strong NUMTOT subculture. Donald Shoup is the father of what can perhaps be called parking theory, which I’m defining as the idea of understanding parking as a market-based or platform economy rather than simply “a thing that should be provided for free everywhere without question.” Such is the case in the Midwest, where we believe that free parking in front of our intended destination is a God-given, inalienable right. Shoup argues in The High Cost of Free Parking that parking should be regulated essentially as a market good in order to decrease congestion, increase the availability of parking. He does touch on parking at airports specifically (p1208) but he doesn’t really conclude what to do about it.

This isn’t a fault of the book or the author per se. Shoup is a parking guy, not a transit guy. But it’s an interesting gap in the discourse because it creates a clash between two things that most urbanists agree are good things: increased transit access vs. market-pricing of parking. If you stay in the Big Blue Deck at DTW for a long weekend, you might well pay $50 or $60. That’s a lot more than the $4.50 round trip on the (perhaps somewhat erroneously-named) FAST bus. We want more transit, but we want market rates for parking. Shoup’s approach therefore isn’t quite enough for us– we need a better way to think about how to access airports.

Like what?

I’m glad you asked! A lot of the issue with transit is around the question of legibility. People need to understand how to get to the place they’re going. This begins with signage and it ends with signage! It needs to be in bright colors and bold lettering. Signage in the airport needs to direct passengers to mass transit options beyond just “ground transportation.” Beyond signage, it requires marketing. Tell your elected representation– and your local airport and transit authorities- that you want better visibility for mass transit at your local airport. Also, feel free to remind them that the glorious autonomous paradigm of tomorrow is going to similarly render their parking-dependent business model obsolete. So they had better retool.

DTW had nearly 37 million passengers in 2019. Those people can all either ride there in cars, or they can ride transit. A 10% modeshare (I suspect it’s less than 1% right now) would represent 370,000 passengers paying $2 each way. That’s a ton of money! Think: expanded service! Shorter headways! Also, like– why the hell does it have to only be $2? There’s no reason why the FAST bus from the airport can’t cost $4 instead of $2, and have $1 or $2 go to the airport itself. You could waive this fee for workers, who rely on the bus to get to work. Let’s get this done. An $80 Uber is economically inefficient and exorbitant.

Check out The High Cost of Free Parking or Parking and The City, and then buy it from a place that isn’t Jeff Bezos. This article is part of a series on mobility and transportation infrastructure. The original content on The Handbuilt City is possible because of the generosity of our paid subscribers— and readers like you.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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