When was the last time someone you know began a story with, "I just biked to the airport and..."? Never, right? Well, it's for a really good reason: the lack of inter-modal (using several forms of transportation to get from point A to point B) infrastructure and support for non-automobile travel in the United States. It's also a huge pain in the ass and a symptom of a much broader problem with our fundamental unit of measurement in urban development.
To those who might argue that many American cities are making progress in supporting bicycle traffic, let me say this: there are two major problems with the current approach most cities are making: they largely treat bicycling as a form of recreation and not as a serious form of transit, and they do not actively develop models of inter-agency government cooperation that truly support inter-modal transport.
To date, a number of airports in the United States have specifically created both bicycle access paths and bicycle parking facilities: San Francisco, Portland, D.C., Burlington, and a few more. While this indicates a positive and active support for bicycles as a legitimate form of transport, missing from this list is the more than 300 other major U.S. airports that don't support bicycle access and parking at the airport.
I should know about how frustrating it is to try to park bicycles at airports#&8212;I've tried. I scheduled a flight from LaGuardia to Chicago last year. Since I was traveling for only two days, the obvious solution was to take my small duffel bag, hop on my bike and pedal to the airport. I was guaranteed to be there within 20 minutes, regardless of traffic. This sounded like a great idea for a number of reasons: it was free, it made me completely independent of traffic, there was no airport parking fee, and it was healthy.
Indeed, I got to the airport in exactly 20 minutes, and then it happened: there was no bike rack to be seen. Not even one single lonely metal loop in the parking garage as a concession to the few and intrepid travelers who bike to airports. I asked a police officer where I could park my bike. He looked at me, sort of smirked, and then told me: "Nowhere." If I chained it up against a parking sign, it would be cut and confiscated by the Port Authority Police Department (how ironic). I ended up pedaling out of the airport, crossing the Grand Central Parkway, locking up the bike under a tree at 94th Street and then walking the quarter mile back into the main terminal building.
Parking my bike wouldn't have been a problem if I could have realistically taken it on board with me and then biked out of O'Hare in Chicago. And that's where the broader question of institutional support for inter-modal bike usage comes into play. It's not that major U.S. cities are not aware of bikes or aren't "bike friendly." It's that bikes#&8212; and the addition of bike lanes and going green#&8212;are consistently seen as a cost to the city and not as a creator of value.
For business travelers, for example, transport to and from the airport is a business deduction. However, we are compensated the same (dollar for dollar) for taking the bus or train as we are for taking a taxi. A smarter approach to green transport would create a system of business deductions on the basis of CO2 emissions, where for every reduction in emissions in your choice of transport there was an equivalent increase in deductible amount.
Not only are there no rewards for being green and using a bike, you are actually punished because passenger transport in the United States charges you extra for bringing a bike as part of your luggage. Airlines, it seems (with the exception of British Airways), are unilaterally against making bicycle travelers' lives easier. In the past several years, the price of transporting a bike as cargo on an airline has reached a point of exceeding the price of most relatively good used bikes. Airlines now charge approximately $80 and up each way to bring a bike as checked luggage. For many domestic flights, the cost of the bike now exceeds the cost of the ticket itself.
This wouldn't be a serious problem if getting from airports to city centers or other cities within a region was straightforward, reliable and inexpensive. This is generally not the case in the United States, however. Unless you have friends willing to do an airport run or you're willing to rent a car, inter-modal transport between airports and rail stations has a long way to go.
Of the 382 "primary" airports in America, only eight have rail service of any kind that drops passengers off within walking distance of the terminals: Atlanta, Chicago, JFK, San Francisco, Newark, Minneapolis, Boston and Philadelphia. While in Europe, 20-30 percent of travelers use rail to get to airports, that figure is under 5 percent in the United States. Not only that, many European cities have fully integrated high-speed intercity rail directly into airport connections (the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, is the best example of this: the high-speed rail terminal is directly in the airport). By contrast, Amtrak, America's national passenger rail carrier only serves four of these primary airports: Newark, Baltimore, Burbank and Milwaukee. That's it.
Now, there is already a solution#&8212;a very, very inelegant solution: to simply buy and store used bicycles in all the cities I fly into and out of, which I have actually managed to do. I have bicycles locked up in New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Fort Lauderdale, Boston, London and Paris.
It's not just about getting to and from the airport. It's that, without a bike, you are often dependent either on a car or on a public transport system that closes early or doesn't get you where you want to go in a reasonable time. Unlike most of the rest of the world, the United States uses the automobile as the fundamental unit of measurement instead of the human being. This has repercussions far beyond trying to park a bike at an airport. At the end of the day, if you have to drive to buy milk and bread, there is something fundamentally wrong with the zoning laws in your community.
It's not that individual cities, counties, airports or transport companies haven't tried to change. It's that no one has put the pieces together and looked at the overall picture from a perspective of motivation and value. If all airports create bicycle parking stands, but airlines increase the cost of bicycle transport, the reliance on cars remains unchanged. If there is no regional inter-city transport that closely links airports to multiple city hubs in a given region, the same problem persists.
For inter-modal transport to truly work, and for human-powered vehicles and human-scaled development to compete effectively with the automobile, there must be a holistic approach to inter-modal transport. That approach must view inter-modal transport not as a cost to appease environmentalists or special-interest groups, but as a creator of value by driving down the overall cost of transportation and by creating other tangential benefits (healthier, well-exercised travelers, for example). To get the ball rolling, here are some institutional changes that I think could help:
- The federal government could create a per-mile business travel deduction formula that takes C02 emissions into account.
- Local governments could offer airports tax incentives to construct bicycle access and parking facilities.
- The federal government could offer city governments subsidies or demand by law that all public transport vehicles (bus or train) have reasonable bicycle accommodation.
- Amtrak could create a carry-on-and-lock section for all trains.
- Airlines could sell standard bike bags at airports (a source of income) and include in the bag a multi-size wrench for quick disassembly of bike wheels and pedals.
- Local governments could offer tax incentives for airports to offer bike rental facilities on site.
To date, I still can't park my bike at LaGuardia#&8212;and I have given up trying. I just lock my bike on 94th Street and walk across the Grand Central Parkway. In the meantime, I have gotten used to having a bicycle in every port.