Schipol Versus Dulles: Intermodal Connectivity in Today’s Cities

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Dulles Airport is infamous for those “mobile lounges.” Photo by Kaptain Krispy Kreme from Flickr.

In my continuing quest to identify the elements that make for an enjoyably car-free urban existence I definitely need to mention inter-modal connectivity. After all, what use is it to have a high-quality transit network within a city if you can’t easily get into and out of that city’s airport via public transport? eyes-on-street-for-web.jpgThis has been a perennial problem for anyone using Washington DC’s Dulles airport, where the ground transportation options are pathetic. At least the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority (WMAA), which runs Dulles, added a Super Shuttle option there a couple of years ago, which makes life somewhat easier for car-free air travelers. But click on the “Metrorail and Metrobus” button there to learn how clunky and antediluvian the mass-transit connections to this important regional air hub are.

The contrast with just about any of the world’s other significant airports is enormous. For example, this past October I had occasion to fly into Dulles with my daughter from Madrid, via Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. We had a four-hour layover at Schipol, so we killed time by jumping on one of the frequent rapid trains that connect the airport to downtown Amsterdam, checked out the city, and caught a train back to the airport in time for our outgoing flight.

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Bike parking outside Centraal Station in Amsterdam. Photo by yvestown from Flickr.
The train whisked us over numerous highways, canals, and bike-routes, and past a small windfarm, into Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. Once there we had a fun morning walking along the canals, dodging the thousands of cyclists, and doing a bit of shopping. Centraal Station, like all train stations in bike-friendly places like the Netherlands or Japan, has massive bike-garages near the exits. The station also stands at the hub of a system of recently upgraded trams. The plaza in front of the station is a clanking mass of trams, pedestrians, and cyclists who whiz by along their lengthy networks of bike-paths. A newcomer definitely needs to stay alert as this traffic is nothing like the car-centered traffic on most streets in the United States!

I had checked the times for return trains before we left the station, and we got back to the airport in plenty of time. Then, after our seven-hour transatlantic flight we arrived at Dulles airport to face the depressing prospect of dealing with (a) the horrendously inefficient system of “mobile lounges” with which WMAA still attempts to move passengers around the airport, and then (b) the onward trip to Washington DC.

Well okay, on this occasion my husband picked us up at Dulles in his car and drove us into the city. Otherwise, we’d have been waiting for the Super Shuttle or perhaps – given that it had already been a long day – I would have laid out the $60-plus that the cab-drivers charge for this trip.

But still, the contrast between the approaches the two countries take to intermodal connectivity was evident. The Washington regional planning bodies have been deadlocked for more than 30 years now over whether, when, and how to extend the city’s Metro (subway) system out to Dulles. Recently there has been some progress on this, but they still haven’t been able to agree on whether the line should go over or under the vast regional retail- and office-center at Tysons Corner. And so, hundreds of thousands of people who travel through Dulles airport every week have been left heavily reliant on private automobiles.

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  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    umm, this isn’t that momentous a piece… fly out of National Airport, connected by subway, or BWI, connected by train. Or you can get to Dulles by taking a Metrobus that costs $3, the 5A. Or you can get to BWI by taking the subway + the B30 bus. Tranferring to the B30 or 5A from a subway only costs $1.75 with transfer, although it is a pain to transfer. Both the B30 and 5A have luggage racks and more comfortable seating than a typical bus.

    Vote with your $. And one could argue that the connection you clamor for is but a form of “induced flying” comparable to inducing driving by building more roads and parking structures/lots.

    Anyway, I should feel more guilty about flying.

    Re the bus station comment by Mr. Arpi… the bus station was extant before the subway system. Union Station wanted much higher rents than Greyhound was willing to pay, based on their profits. Eventually, the two modes will be linked, but that is because Greyhound’s site is desirable, now–it wasn’t 10 years ago or earlier–to developers, who can pay for the cost of relocation.

    And note that by taking the subway + B30 + Baltimore light rail you can get to Baltimore 7 days/week by public transit in a manner that allows you to take a bike back and forth.

  • http://embarq.wri.org Ethan Arpi

    Washington has other problems with “intermodality” too. The smart card has been a great way of integrating the bus and the metro system, but it still isn’t enough. You can only transfer from metro to bus but not bus metro without paying. Also, the bus station in North East should have been placed closer to either New York Avenue metro stop or Union Station. Instead you get dropped of in a No Man’s Land from which you have to lug your bags blocks to get to public transportation.

  • http://www.nextbillion.net Rob

    I can’t agree more with regard to Dulles Airport. Simply, I don’t fly from there unless absolutely necessary – I am willing to pay a premium to fly from Baltimore or National airport rather than face the daunting task of (a) getting to Dulles via I-66 (always clogged) either via Super Shuttle, metro + bus or the 5A bus; (b) getting through security; and (c) catching a ‘mobile lounge’ to the terminal.

    Between those 3, it adds probably 2 hours on top of the typical airport time-sink and unmeasured stress. I’ll take train-accessible BWI or metro-accessible National any day…