Mass transit, meet LAX. Maybe.


What do travelers arriving at Los Angeles International Airport want to see on their way to baggage claim? Mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti said he knew: Disney characters. Mickey and Minnie, Donald and Goofy, maybe even Chip and Dale. Because they were created here. They are Los Angeles. They’d tell you that you had arrived.

LAX: An Oct. 13 editorial on closing the gap between the city’s rail system and the airport said a proposed “intermodal transportation facility” would be to the west of LAX. It would be to the east. The editorial also said travelers “can get on the Blue Line” from Union Station. The train’s closest stop to Union Station is 7th Street/Metro Center.

But let’s face it, that’s low on the list of priorities for most travelers. When a visitor arrives at LAX today, his or her first question is unlikely to be “Where are the people in the mouse and duck outfits?” but rather “Why is this city so dysfunctional?” Trying to find the subway into town, for instance, visitors may hear rumors of the Metro Green Line, which has a stop somewhere in the general neighborhood of, but most definitely not in, the airport. They may hear that it can take them by rail to the city center or to Hollywood. It’s out there. Somewhere. Now call me a cab.

Los Angeles spent millions of dollars on a rail system to get arriving passengers just close enough to the train to be irritated. For departing travelers, it’s the same thing. Either find yourself a ride to the airport or take a bus there, or get dropped off at Union Station. From Union Station you can get on the Blue Line. Transfer to the Green Line. Take it to the Aviation stop, and you’re still not at LAX. Drag the luggage, shepherd the kids, get off the train and find the bus.


This ineptitude must end. It really doesn’t matter which theory or urban legend is correct: the taxi lobby rose up to fight plans to bring rail to the airport; the FAA was concerned about security and wouldn’t let mass transit anywhere near terminals; the MTA meant to go all the way to LAX but ran out of money; the airport was still mulling a master plan and the rail couldn’t be completed until terminals, runways and passenger depots were built out.

If Los Angeles can spend billions of dollars on rail but can’t use it to get people to and from the airport, it simply can’t do anything.

But don’t give up quite yet.

Planners and thinkers at Los Angeles World Airports and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have begun working together in a way they previously did not. In a presentation made last week to two City Council committees, they demonstrated that they are on track. They have a long way to go, but it seems that now, just maybe, they are keeping the traveler’s experience in the forefront of their minds.

There will be a central facility to the west of LAX — an “intermodal transportation facility” — but Metro will take you right there. Not down the block or across the street but directly into a building where you can check your luggage and check in for your flight. You have arrived. A quick shuttle ride will take you to your terminal.

Stop. Another train? Aren’t we back to square one?

Not really. A post-check-in conveyance system from a central hub to the actual terminals is in line with most of the world’s major airports. We’re back to Disney again, but in a good way: Which Tomorrowland ride would be best? A monorail? A “people mover”? Individual pods sort of like the old Monsanto Adventures Through Inner Space? That has yet to be decided.

There are still many ways to go wrong with the proposed intermodal transportation facility.

Even after you have unloaded your checked bags, you’re still lugging your carry-ons, so it’s crucial to minimize the long walks, the stairs, the straining to find the monitor with the schedule of arrivals and departures. Can you eat in the new building? Can you sit there? Can you pick up and drop off passengers there? Will it become a bottleneck for thousands of passengers, a choke point that causes delays and anxiety over whether passengers and their suitcases are on the same flight?

Is it a shopping mall stuffed with T-shirt kiosks that block the harried passenger’s route from the Metro to the train to the airport, with escalators on which suitcases squeeze and teeter? Or a spacious, uncluttered, easy-to-navigate hall where stores and restaurants, if any, are visible but out of the way? Can the passenger instantly see his or her way to the next conveyance? Will baggage claim be located in the new building, and if so, will the wait be longer or shorter?

No offense, Metro, but if you’re handling the escalators, forget it. You’ve got a track record. We want ones that work. Always. Up as well as down. And LAWA, if you’re doing the signage, we’re in trouble. You need your signs to tell people where they’re going before they get there. Elevators are magnets for taggers. What are you going to do about that?

LAWA and LAX still face months of planning and decision-making, not to mention a public outreach process and buy-in from two federal agencies. For now, though, they seem to be moving in the right direction.

If the transit-to-the-airport problem is solved in our lifetime, we may yet see Disney characters greeting arriving and departing passengers, perhaps in the inter-modal transportation facility. That would certainly be a step forward from the current message to travelers, which is that they are in a city that is just a little too Mickey Mouse for its own good.