Take the ‘E’ Train
By A.D. Freudenheim  

28 November 2004

A few weeks ago, I returned from a trip and arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The trip was fine, I arrived on time, and because I had not checked a bag, I was at the head of the line for a taxi into Manhattan. Once in, however, I sat in the taxi for a more than 90 minutes, as it worked its way back from Queens into Manhattan – and despite the flat fare of $45 (plus $4 bridge toll, plus tip) – the length of the trip and its $60 cost were both infuriating. The drive from JFK to home is not more than 20 miles; that works out to an unappealing and expensive $3 per mile. Even though this was not the first time that a trip to JFK has taken so long, I swore that next time would be different.

I believe in public transportation and typically do not take taxis, because they are expensive and also, as with my airport trip, because traffic in New York can be so awful; for most trips, subways are more efficient in every way. So, when I scheduled a trip to London over the Thanksgiving holiday, I decided to try the new AirTrain service built last year to connect New York’s subway and the Long Island Rail Road to JFK’s terminals. According to the web site set up by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which developed the AirTrain, a trip from Midtown Manhattan – i.e., Penn Station – should take 60 minutes, from train to airport terminal. Cost: $5 for the AirTrain itself, and $2 for the subway.

It has been possible to get to JFK by subway and bus for years. The subway, the more efficient of these two options, required a long trip on the ‘A’ train, and then a wait in the corner of a JFK parking lot for a shuttle bus to make the rounds between the terminal and the subway. It worked, but from my home on the Upper West Side, the trip could take as long as two hours to get to the JFK stop, with another 15 or more minutes to reach the airport. Cheap, considering the $2 subway fare, but time-consuming and, at times, frustratingly slow even for a subway.

How did AirTrain do? Quite well, actually, taking 60 minutes from Times Square to Terminal 4 at JFK; over all, the trip was 90 minutes door-to-door from the Upper West Side, including a short walk to the C train to Times Square, a change at Times Square to the ‘E’ train, and a transfer to the AirTrain at Sutphin Boulevard in Queens. A couple of snags: it should have taken 10 minutes less, but this particular ‘E’ train made local stops for part of the journey through Queens; moreover, another five or more minutes could have been saved on the AirTrain itself, which at times seems to move more slowly between terminals than one might be able to walk the same distance. Still, having budgeted two hours, I was pleasantly surprised at the speed of the trip, and was able to relax, read a magazine, and listen to music – knowing I had time ahead of me, instead of sitting frustratedly in a cab. AirTrain is also a bargain at 35 cents per mile.

There are a few things that AirTrain is not. It is not a direct train from one of Manhattan’s transit hubs, like Penn Station or Grand Central Terminal – which is what it should be. Considering the size of New York, and its role as a financial and cultural center, it is a shame that AirTrain does not function like London’s Heathrow Express, which goes direct from the airport to Paddington Station in about 15 minutes. (The Heathrow Express is not cheap at $25 one way, but is much cheaper than a London taxi, and competitive in price and speed with a hired car.) Nor does AirTrain offer all the amenities its web site promotes, such as the ability to check in for one’s flight at the AirTrain terminal rather than the airport itself. But this is not really necessary, and would surely be an impractical and expensive operation to manage (and in London, where this was once offered at Paddington Station, it has since been discontinued).

Living in New York is all about compromise. Rich and poor New Yorkers alike must make adjustments on a daily basis: from transportation to noise to shopping for food, it is nearly impossible to live an Ivory Tower life in the City. Avoiding the subways will cost you money and, probably, time; taking the subways will force you into close quarters with the people of New York, a feeling many find (sadly) uncomfortable. And surely, where AirTrain is concerned, there is a cost-benefit analysis that may discourage business travelers with expense accounts, not to mention a nuisance-benefit analysis to scare off families with many children and even more luggage; this is probably as it should be. Lastly, for the tired and travel-weary, navigating the ups-and-downs of New York’s subway may be the least appealing option, particularly for first-time visitors.

It does not matter. New York City has the best public transportation system in the U.S., and is at the center of the East Coast’s broader public transportation network. But much like Amtrak’s problems developing a competitively-priced rail system between Washington, New York, and Boston, New York oddly lacks the integration of airport systems that would make public transportation successfully and efficiently complete. The AirTrain system has room to grow, in the scope of its services and in the cost to consumers: even if the Port Authority tripled prices to $1.05 per mile, direct service to New York’s biggest airport would still be worth the price.  Better for the City, better for the environment, and better for travelers. If the Port Authority continues to do its job, then AirTrain represents more than just Queens-based airport access – it should look like the future for New Yorkers and visitors alike.[1]

[1] And I should add that this can – and should – be accomplished without the additional spending being discussed for the 2012 Olympics. See my article, “Game Plan,” from 9 February 2003.   Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.