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Rows of cars are lined up at an airport pickup parking lot with people holding luggage standing in long lines to access them. Signs that say Uber are seen in the background.
With LAX-it, the airport took what is still a very inefficient process—matching people one-to-one with rides in cars via an app—and simply moved it farther away from the airport.
Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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LAX-it won’t improve until LAX embraces mass transit

Long waits will only get shorter when the airport truly prioritizes shared transportation options

For the past week, LAX passengers using Uber, Lyft, and taxis to leave the airport have been kicked off the arrivals curb and directed to an offsite lot to meet their rides. Now officials say they’re expanding the lot by 50 percent to increase capacity and reduce long wait times.

That might result in less colorful language being used to describe what airport officials have named LAX-it, but it won’t fix the real problem.

LAX officials have taken some great strides to speed up buses and shuttles, including adding the city’s first red-painted bus-only lane. But LAX-it will remain a pain for ride-hailing passengers, especially during peak hours, until the airport is made less car-dependent overall.

With engineering and regulatory changes that prioritize shared transportation options, LAX-it would work, says Juan Matute, deputy director of UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, who spent some time surveying the operation on Monday.

“If they can’t implement these here, there’s a lot less hope for the rest of LA,” he says.

Over the last few years, the roadways for dropping off and picking up LAX passengers have become increasingly gridlocked, including the central terminal loop, known to savvy travelers as the “horseshoe.” Anyone attempting to leave or enter the airport, no matter what transportation mode they chose, has had to endure excruciatingly long waits and frustratingly slow speeds, especially during peak travel hours. Booking an Uber and Lyft at the curb could take up to 45 minutes.

As the groundbreaking of the new people mover loomed, it was apparent that the airport would have to reallocate precious curb space in order to start construction. Ahead of that change, LAX officials had a remarkable opportunity to encourage passengers to switch to more shared and sustainable transportation modes by promoting and expanding the many public transit options that serve the airport. But officials did not take advantage of that opportunity.

Now the electric LAX-it shuttles are moving swiftly, but ride-hailing is not. That’s because airport officials took what is still a very inefficient process—matching people one-to-one with rides in cars via an app—and simply moved it farther away from the airport. (Waits for taxis have almost always remained shorter.)

On the horseshoe, things are going swimmingly. The shuttles serving the LAX-it lot are running every to two three minutes, according to LAWA. That lane, along with moving the ride-hailing vehicles offsite, has resulted in a 15.3 percent reduction of vehicles overall, according to LAWA data, speeding up travel times on the arrivals level by 6 percent.

That’s sped up the departure level, too, by an average of 34 percent, according to Michael Christensen, deputy executive director of operations and maintenance for Los Angeles World Airports. “It’s something we keep reminding folks: Your Uber ride into the airport, and especially to Terminal 4 and beyond, you’re going to make it in less time on that leg of the ride where you really want to be on time.”

This proves how efficient bus-only lanes are, and should serve as a model for the rest of LA as the city makes decisions about prioritizing higher-capacity, lower-emission modes of transit.

But what’s happening at LAX also has an important lesson for the rest of the city. Beyond carving out dedicated bus lanes, LAWA hasn’t made a concerted effort to improve or expand the public transit options, which now zip around the horseshoe, making them a much more attractive option for travelers.

Most notably, there’s been no additional service added for the FlyAway buses, which provide curbside, non-stop service to Union Station, Hollywood, Van Nuys, and Long Beach for $8-$9.75 each way.

“We have a lot of demand for it,” says Christensen of the FlyAway, noting that the LAWA board has seen “several presentations” on adjusting service, including adding more capacity to specific routes. LAWA would not provide FlyAway data for the past two weeks, but a spokesperson shared data that showed an overall ridership increase of 9.4 percent from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2019, even as some routes like Westwood and the Expo/La Brea Station of the Expo Line had been discontinued.

With buses and shuttles moving swiftly through the terminal, Matute sees much more potential for LAWA to expand and promote the FlyAway, which he says could “eliminate all these headaches” created by LAX-it. “They should be pushing it more, especially when it promotes such good alternatives,” he says.

But the FlyAway is all but invisible in the LAX-it communication strategy. When passengers emerge onto the arrivals deck, the pillars are plastered with information about where to meet Ubers and Lyfts, with a very small graphic about the FlyAway posted at the FlyAway’s designated waiting area. There is no detailed information for the free shuttle to the Green Line or connections to the airport’s own city bus center, which serves not only Metro buses, but also buses from Santa Monica, Culver City, and other local cities. Even on the LAX website, you have to dig for this information, which is not shared on the LAX-it information page.

A bus plaza with a bench and ticket vending machine sits empty under a bright blue sky while a bright orange city bus idles in the background.
Unlike the LAX-it lot, the airport’s city bus center, which is used by many LAX employees, doesn’t have shade structures or amenities like free water and food trucks.
Juan Matute

Meanwhile, LAX is tweeting out frequent updates on the wait times for Uber, Lyft, and taxi rides without regularly mentioning the alternatives. The best information about the other transit options available for airport arrivals are coming from Metro’s social media, not from LAX.

Christensen says LAWA is aware of these problems. “We’ve picked up on that whole issue of visibility,” he says. “There’s been a lot of discussion about that.”

Done right, LAX-it could be a great opportunity to test how LA could reduce vehicles overall, namely because LAWA isn't required to run those changes by the city. A state decision granted the airport special powers, meaning LAX doesn’t need to get approval for land-use or enforcement decisions on its own property—like adding a bus-only lane, for example.

If the airport were to become a testing ground for an LA transportation system with fewer vehicles, the next step would be to start tolling private cars to use the central terminal horseshoe, says Matute, much in the same way that the city is beginning conversations about congestion pricing. This would also impose a surcharge on luxury ride-hailing services like Uber Black and Lyft Black, which, under current LAX-it rules, can still pick up at the curb.

Even with the first-week hiccups, Matute is optimistic about the airport’s ability to make the changes necessary to achieve its stated goal of fewer cars and smoother trips.

“This is dictatorial fiat for transportation,” he says. “I’d like to see it go well.”

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1 World Way, Los Angeles, CA 90045

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