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How getting picked up from the airport became such a congested mess

The new pickup system at LAX caused confusion and massive traffic in its first week.

Passengers at LAX use the new passenger pickup lot for Uber, Lyft, and taxis
Los Angeles International Airport created a separate pickup lot to divert ride-sharing and taxi pickups away from terminals.
Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Jeffrey Blanton avoids picking up Uber and Lyft passengers at Los Angeles International Airport at all costs. Some ride-hail drivers, he says, would circle around the gridlocked terminal roadways, hoping the high demand for rides would financially offset their wait.

Not Blanton. He drives about 30 hours a week and would never voluntarily camp out at the dreaded airport. An hour-long wait to pick up a rider means an hour without compensation — a waste, in his opinion, of time and money.

“I know I’m in the minority of drivers who think this way,” he tells me. “But it all boils down to how much I’m going to generate per hour.”

Blanton, who’s been driving passengers since last July, only ever comes to LAX if someone requests to get dropped off there, which happens about 10 times a week. In this case, he might pick up a person or two on his way out. But with the airport’s new rules, which require ride-sharing vehicles and taxis to wait at a separate pickup lot for travelers, Blanton will most likely steer clear of “that mess.”

Ride-sharing platforms have drastically changed how travelers get picked up at airports — for better and for worse. Within the past decade, on-demand services like Lyft and Uber have reduced the need for taxis while contributing to congestion at already-crowded hubs, which are choked by the constant influx of cars. It’s not just the fault of these services: Air travel is at an all-time high, and infrastructure-wise, airports are not equipped to handle it.

Airlines transported 4.3 billion passengers around the world in 2018, an increase of 38 million compared to the year before. Most American airports are not constructed to handle the massive crowds they currently attract; the last major US international airport (Denver International) was built more than two decades ago.

Stuck in a cycle of congestion, airports are looking to divert ride-sharing traffic away from primary pickup zones, which traditionally service private vehicles picking up friends or family and the occasional black car.

In theory, diverting traffic seems like a viable solution to airports’ age-old congestion problem, which has only worsened as more and more travelers rely on ride-sharing apps. The reality on the ground is that change can be chaotic — and complicated — even for what appears to be a necessary fix.

Airports are diverting ride-sharing traffic away from the terminals to tackle congestion

“We’ve grown by millions of passengers, but we haven’t added even one foot of curb,” says Dan Gallagher, director of aviation business and finance at Boston Logan International Airport.

In June, San Francisco International relocated all ride-hail pickups to the top floor of a parking garage, which created confusion, longer wait times, and backups during peak arrival times.

LAX rolled out a similar plan on October 29, requiring travelers to ride a shuttle bus to a separate pickup lot for ride-sharing vehicles and taxis. Boston Logan also reserved a pickup area for Ubers and Lyfts in its central parking garage, which will expand to passengers arriving from all terminals by next week.

On October 29, the first day of LAX’s change (dubbed LAXit, kind of like Brexit), the Los Angeles Times reported that it took travelers an average of 10 minutes waiting for, boarding, and riding the shuttle to the ride-sharing pickup lot.

Add on an additional eight minutes to get a taxi or an average of 18 minutes for travelers getting an Uber or Lyft. (People have disputed the average 18-minute wait time on Twitter, with some saying it took around an hour to reach their cars.)

That might not sound like too big of an inconvenience, but all hell broke loose: Drivers were confused about the new system, disabled travelers criticized LAX for its lack of accessibility, and people grumbled about the gridlock and wait times on social media.

Some travelers were urging others to take a shuttle to the hotels from the departures level and call a car from there to avoid the traffic. And while the airport apologized for the “unacceptable level of service” during its transition week, the future of curbside pickups will likely be more time-consuming across the board.

Airports have long anticipated congestion problems, but finding a solution takes time.

“People are going to have to understand that as airports get busier and busier, they’re going to become less convenient, especially the larger airports,” says William Rankin, a professor at the Florida Institute of Technology with 29 years of airport management experience.

So why did airports wait so long to implement these changes, years after acknowledging how congestion is a problem?

“Maybe they want to keep it as convenient as possible for as long as possible,” Rankin suggests. Bureaucratic layers of approval and tweaking a plan can take about two or three years before a policy can be implemented, he adds.

Such is the case at San Francisco International, which planned to remove 45 percent of ride-sharing cars from its terminal roadways in 2017. SFO was one of the first airports to license with Uber and Lyft in 2014, requiring the companies to pay certain fees to operate within the vicinity.

It wasn’t until late 2017 that the airport began to closely examine its roadway congestion, says spokesman Doug Yakel. “The metric was an average speed of 15 miles an hour, but during peak periods, that average was dropping below 10 miles, which really means gridlock,” he tells me.

The airport went through several phases of diverting its ride-sharing traffic to a mixed-use parking garage, which was about a five minute walk from the terminals. Only Uber and Lyft pools (shared rides) were affected when the plan rolled out in summer 2018, but when SFO didn’t reach its 45-percent diversion target, it required all ride-sharing vehicles to use the garage in June.

Uber wasn’t too happy with the change, and even tried to get drivers to protest the change. “Throughout our discussions with Uber and Lyft, it was understood that if we didn’t successfully divert traffic, we’d relocate all vehicles to the parking garage,” Yakel adds.

But months after the transition has been in place, traveler complaints have leveled off, and the airport has improved the flow of vehicles into the new pickup area.

Similarly, Boston Logan has moved pickups — and eventually drop-offs — to a central parking garage in October. This currently only affects travelers coming from terminals A and C, but will impact all terminals by next week.

Tara von Fridrich, a Boston-based Uber driver, tells me that she typically waits for about an hour in Uber’s airport queue to get assigned a passenger and pick them up. She’s optimistic that the new pickup area might speed things up, but “there was a lot of backed up traffic” on the first day.

Later that week, von Fridrich noticed she got matched with riders quicker than if she would’ve been waiting in traffic at the regular terminals. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed as they roll it out in the later weeks, it’ll get better for drivers,” she says.

Gallagher says that Boston Logan was strategic in its roll-out of the changes. “We’d rather tweak and modify as we go rather than flipping a switch all at once and not being able to handle it all on the first day,” he says.

Passengers at LAX use the new passenger pickup lot for Uber, Lyft, and taxis
Travelers have to take a shuttle from the terminals to a separate pickup lot to hail an Uber, Lyft, or taxi.
Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The unfolding situation in Los Angeles is uniquely nightmarish. To unaware travelers and drivers, LAX’s pickup policy appeared to change overnight. And while passengers at San Francisco or Boston Logan are able to walk to their pickup destinations, those at LAX have to wait for a shuttle bus to transport them to a site roughly ten minutes from the terminals.

While the airport said there was an increase in taxi pickups, some travelers say it took around 40 minutes to hail one.

“People saw that mass of people waiting for ride share and decided to try the taxi line since appeared to be less confusing,” says Mike Eshelman, an executive who frequently flies to and from LAX. There were small canopies that barely shielded waiting passengers from sun or rain, he recalls, and very few openings if thousands of people needed to immediately evacuate the area.

An Uber spokesman says the company is working with the airport to resolve some of the early issues for riders in the first days of LAXit: “We continue to monitor the new pickup operation and look forward to continuing to work closely with LAX to provide a positive customer experience.” Lyft has not responded to a request for comment from Vox.

Despite the numerous complaints the airport has received, it’s unlikely that LAX would bring back curbside pickup. Terminal roadways, especially at crowded international hubs, have gotten too congested, and some airports don’t have the space to massively expand.

For now, diverting ride-sharing traffic to parking garages or side facilities seems to be a manageable solution more airports are considering. Whether that will be a long-term sustainable plan depends on a variety of factors: if an airport expands its roads, the influx of travelers during peak travel periods, and if people are still flying at increasing rates.

Regardless, we’re likely to hear directly from travelers whether an airport’s plan is successful or not. As LAX has witnessed this week, there’s nothing like the collective rage of stranded travelers who are trying to escape the airport.

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