Even in a city infamous for its traffic, the congestion at Los Angeles International Airport was growing dire.
Spurred by extensive construction, a surge in air travel and the arrival of Uber and Lyft, traffic volumes at the nation’s second-busiest airport rose by half over a decade, turning a drive through the 1.5-mile terminal area into a half-hour ordeal.
Without major changes, airport officials warned, traffic at LAX on an average summer day would soon resemble the bumper-to-bumper crawl on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
On Friday, city officials unveiled a plan aimed at reducing the congestion.
Starting at the end of October, travelers leaving LAX will be required to board a shuttle or walk to a waiting area east of Terminal 1 to hail an Uber, Lyft or taxi. Drop-off policies, and pickups for family and friends, will not change.
The plan will remain in place until the completion of an elevated airport train, scheduled for 2023. The people-mover will arrive every two minutes and will whisk passengers between the terminals, a car rental facility, a ground transportation hub and a Metro station.
The sleek train and a $14-billion overhaul of the aging airport are major parts of L.A.’s efforts to improve transportation in traffic-choked Southern California before the 2028 Summer Olympics. Where pickups will occur after the people-mover opens is still unclear.
The idea of transferring to a shuttle bus to catch a ride home has frustrated and dismayed many travelers, who say more schlepping will make LAX more stressful.
“It’ll be a lot less convenient, and it will probably take a lot longer to get home,” Kristi Nichols, 23, an engineer who travels frequently for work and to visit family, said at the airport Friday.
Starting next month, she said, she’ll try to get picked up by family or book a SuperShuttle instead.
Officials are asking travelers to give the new system a try. Frequent bus service and a well-organized pickup area may be more efficient than today’s crowded curbsides, they said, where riders can wait for a half-hour or more while Uber and Lyft drivers inch through traffic.
“You will no longer have to fight the traffic to get out of the central terminal area,” said Keith Wilschetz, deputy executive director of operations at Los Angeles World Airports. “Once you’re in your car, you’re right on Sepulveda.”
Uber and Lyft account for 27% of the 100,000 vehicles in the LAX terminal area on an average day, Wilschetz said. Taxis make up 4%. Shifting pickups to a parking lot will eliminate about 15% of the vehicles in the terminal, he said.
During the first half of 2019, LAX saw 10% more vehicle trips than in the same time period in 2016, the first full year that Uber and Lyft operated there. The number of Uber and Lyft trips soared 123% over that period, while taxi trips fell 39%, according to city data.
Meanwhile, ridership plummeted on high-occupancy buses and shuttles, data show. Trips on LAX’s FlyAway buses fell by two-thirds, as did rides on shared vans such as SuperShuttle and Prime Time. Courtesy shuttles to car rental facilities, parking lots and hotels saw a 20% decline.
Passengers hoping to go home in an Uber or Lyft should order a ride as they pick up their bags, then board a shuttle on the lower level of the airport, Wilschetz said. Travelers looking for a cab should proceed directly to the waiting area, where there will be a taxi queue.
Curbside lanes on the arrivals level will be converted to bus-only lanes to speed travel times. Bright green shuttles are supposed to arrive every three to five minutes, and will make a maximum of two stops before going to the pickup lot.
The pickup area, at the corner of World Way and Sky Way, is a parking lot converted into a plaza with umbrellas, trash cans, bathrooms and phone charging stations. The area will offer food trucks that will operate from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Many travelers will form their first impression of L.A. based on the waiting area, Wilschetz said, so “we want it to be a good one.”
City airport officials in August awarded a $65.5-million contract to set up and maintain the lot, operate the passenger shuttles, direct traffic and offer customer service for travelers who are lost or frustrated.
Uber has some concerns with the plan, a spokesman said, and company officials hope LAX will “listen to and incorporate” input on how to improve the system. Lyft said the company has been “working closely” with the airport to reduce congestion and shorten wait times.
Drivers for both companies currently wait near the airport, in an area that some drivers call “the pig pen,” until they are assigned a rider. Matching with a passenger and fighting through terminal traffic to reach the curb can take up to an hour, and drivers are not paid for that time.
“You should see Monday mornings,” said Lyft driver Jorge Ferran, 63. “It’s horrendous.”
If it works, the new system could help drivers pick up passengers more quickly, which would increase their earnings, said Harry Campbell, who publishes the Rideshare Guy website.
But that depends on whether passengers give the shuttles a try, he said. Already, he said, people are talking about being picked up by friends or family again, or trying buses that carry travelers from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
“There’s a psychological barrier to having to take a shuttle to an Uber,” Campbell said. “It’s just a hassle.”