Archive for aerotropolis

Airports and transit

Airports are public infrastructure.  Even if run by private organizations, they are typically on government owned land.  Their purpose is to facilitate the flow of people and goods to and from a city.  Thus, they are similar to roads as well as transit systems.

Baffling is how many airports — particularly in North America — are poorly served by public transit.  You need to use a private car or taxi to reach most airports — or an expensive shuttle service.

For many business people and tourists hauling luggage, a taxi is the easiest option.   Those traveling for work can “expense” the cost.  Many tourists simply consider it part of the upfront costs of reaching a destination along with the airfare.  Many of these people will still use shuttles and taxis even if public transit exists.

But airports are more than conduits that allow business people and tourists to travel — they are work places.  Thousands
of people work at the major airports of big cities.  Many have no choice but to drive to work.  Some can take transit if they work day shifts and don’t mind long waits.   But often, transit doesn’t serve airport destinations easily.

The Greater Toronto Airport Authority is now appealing for better transit to serve it’s employees.   As Toby Lennox, VP of Public Affairs for Pearson International Airport recently stated to the Toronto Star newspaper:

“We do not have good enough TTC access for employees.”

“As Pearson airport will be expanding, we need to draw on new pools of employees.” 

“It is simply not good enough to have every single one of these employees jump into a car.”

The taxi-driver and shuttle lobby is often a contributor.  In some cities the airport serves as the largest source of taxi revenue.  Moreover, the airports themselves make money on parking.  If workers and travellers could get their easily on a metro or frequent bus service, many would use it.

But the airports don’t belong to airport authorities or to taxi companies.  They belong to the citizens whose taxes built it and who elect governments to regulate them.   They need to be connected to the urban transit system.

A final thought: there has been much talk lately about the ecological footprint of air travel.  While this won’t reduce jet fuel consumption, airports could be much more environmentally responsible if everyone — workers and travelers — had the option to use transit.

The Importance of Airports

For a city to attract and retain corporations with national and global ties — as well as talented people to work for them — efficient, functional airports that are easily reached will be increasingly important. MSNBC recently listed the 10 easiest airports to reach in the United States (according to and they include JFK, Chicago O’Hare, San Francisco International and Boston Logan. The ranking is based on how easy it is to reach the airport via mass public transit — and not other factors like on-time departures, lost luggage incidents, or the time it takes to clear security.

Other types of rankings are important.  JD Power has a set, which ranks DFW best for overall satisfaction (and having lived in Fort Worth, I’d agree that DFW is a great airport for getting in and getting out, as well as for changing planes).  But don’t try to take transit to or from the place, and cabs have very high fixed rates.  Skytrax offers ratings and reviews.

An airport is a gateway to a city. If the airport works, it becomes easy and pleasurable to visit the metropolis for business or pleasure. And when it doesn’t….some may not come back.

My family recently had the experience of arriving at the Denver airport 2.5 hours before our flight — and missing it. Check in lines were an hour long. Security was then another hour. And then we had to navigate the trains and walks from security to the terminal with a toddler and stroller in tow, which meant waiting for elevators. We loved our vacation in Colorado and were otherwise impressed with Denver as a city with a great, downtown and central core area, good restaurants and lots to do. But based on that airport experience, we won’t be returning anytime soon. Locals suggested to me that this experience was “business as usual” at Denver International. Unless my experience was an anomaly and the locals were wrong, Denver’s political and business community is going to have to address the deficiencies of this relatively-new airport to continue to grow as a new economy business centre.

The importance of airports as global business hubs is now being recognized globally. In some parts of the world, entire cities or at least fully-functioning suburbs (with office space, industrial buildings, and residential and retail districts) are being built around airports in a phenomenon known as the aerotropolis.

But even without being an aerotropolis, a city’s airport is a first impression — and a last impression. It facilitates face-to-face communication, strikingly important to generating innovation. And airports allow global companies to establish operations in multiple cities and have certain managers and executives move seamlessly between locations.
City halls and business leaders rarely have much control over airport operations — which are typically controlled by independent commissions that report to regional or federal bodies. This may have to change.

Judging a City by its Airport

First impressions are important. We’ve all heard that one thousands of times. But we also know that sometimes you can’t judge a book by it’s cover — to add another cliche. Airports are often the first point of contact with a city — are they an accurate read on what a city has to offer?

Journalist Tyler Brule addressed this recently in the International Herald Tribune. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he suggests creating an Airport Quality of Life Index (AQOLI) as a counter to the various human resources consulting firms “best places to live” and “best quality of life” indexes.

He looked at London and New York: Heathrow versus JFK. Well, if you had to decide on whether to stay in New York or London on the basis of those two airports, you’d be on the next flight out. My more limited observations of these airports mirror his jet setting experience : they’re generally crowded, understaffed, unclean, inefficient, and exhausting. New York and London, especially London, are great places to visit — albeit expensive — with lots of interesting neighbourhoods to wander, tourist attractions, and reasonable transit systems for getting around. They’re also financial hubs and economic energy centres for the world. Their airports don’t do the cities justice in my opinion (and Brule scores them low on an AQOLI index).

So, the airport-as-indicator-of-the-city theory doesn’t hold for New York and London. But these are older cities, and the airports are older too. With so many things, it’s harder to retrofit and renovate to new modern standards than to build from scratch.

What about other airports? I thought about a variety of airports that I’ve been through in the past few years on several continents and you know, a lot of them did accurately reflect the city and the country.

Take China. Modernizing fast with a new (or renewed) entrepreneurial spirit. The airports in Shanghai and Xian reflected this. They were clean, efficient, and modern in appearance and function and very spacious. We also went to Urumqi, on the western frontier near the old Soviet Republics, and that airport was smaller but seemed underutilized, quietly efficient, and very reminiscent of frontier regions of North America that receive a lot of government money and with nothing else to spend it on, create a nicer airport with especially funky conveyor belts (Whitehorse, anyone?). The rest of Urumqi seemed similar — a little overbuilt and over modern for what and where it was.

By contrast, the Islamabad airport is absolutely stereotypically a reflection of what it’s like to travel around the city and Pakistan generally. New attempts at security create bizarre dysfunctional and inefficient lines and chaos without providing much sense of safety. Every passenger is accompanied by a dozen family members to see them off, create a mob scene and traffic congestion with honking horns, even at 3 AM. There’s lots of human energy and excitement both with hangers on and the staff at the airport, but it seems to lack some leadership to channel it into productivity.

It was a contrast to fly from there to Dubai. There, the airport is a perfect reflection of the city: everything to grandesse, every modern airport convenience imaginable, great efficient staff from all over the world likely capable of helping you in almost any language. Incredible shopping while you wait. Extravagance and comfort. And the city is the same way: extravagant (several ice hockey arenas and an indoor ski hill !), international, modern with great shopping for all budgets, but especially the rich.

Dubai and China airports seem to reflect the image the country wants to portray: modern, global, and economically successful. They are designed as a deliberate first impression.

Islamabad’s just is. And London and New York’s airports pre-date a concern with first impression: they’re from the 60s most likely and the modernist “purely functional” era of industrial design.

I don’t know what first impression newcomers to Vancouver receive: but when I get off a plane to the dimmer lighting, earth tones, and the sound of waterfalls a sudden relaxation comes over me. Maybe I’m glad to be home, or maybe that reflects a laid back west coast attitude. Please tell me if you recently visited Vancouver for the first time, via the airport.

An Aerotropolis and Business Location Decisions

With all the talk of Aerotropoli becoming important satellite cities – or even hub cities — I’ve been pondering the ways they will impact business location decisions.

My initial thought was that businesses needing the quick access to air cargo facilities would be the main drivers of demand for space in an Aerotropoli. Medical instrument preparation companies, electronics assemblers, fresh food distributers, etc.

But, then I thought about how corporations make location decisions for secondary facilities (customer service centres, R&D labs, back end support, even software development teams). Senior management from head office often wants to be within 30 minutes of the airport — and of an airport with good connections to their head office city — so they can visit efficiently. Therefore, many “knowledge economy” companies and service firms could be good candidates to lease office space in an aerotropolis. Senior management could fly in, have an important two hour face-to-face meeting with local executives, and fly home all within an 8 or 10 hour day.

Now that I think about it, being at an Aerotropolis could be great for a start-up company trying to attract clients and partners. Either representatives of the prospective clients and partners could fly in, or start-up executives could fly out easily and quickly. If the potential partner firms were also in Aerotropoli then their executives travel days and time away from the office could also be reduced.

The Aerotropolis has definite potential as the world’s commerce becomes more dependent on trade, not only in goods but in ideas and brainstorming delivered face-to-face.

The Coming Age of The Aerotropolis?

“Airports will be as important to business location and urban development in the 21st century as automobiles and trucks were in the 20th century, railroads were in the 19th century and seaports were in the 18th century.”

John Kasarda, quoted on Real Estate Journal website

Airport-centred-cities — or Aerotropoli — are receiving increasing buzz in world trade and economic development circles and increasingly in the mainstream. The New York Times magazine called “aerotropolis” one of the new buzzwords for 2006. (Thanks Ben for blogging about the article.)

According to a recent article in Fast Company magazine, the value of air cargo has risen 1395% over the past 30 years, four times faster than the total value of world trade, which is up 355%. Air cargo has become one of the backbones of the new globalized economy. Many manufacturers rely on just-in-time delivery by plane as well as truck or train. Being located near an airport is becoming so important that the old real estate mantra of “location, location, location” is being refined for many commercial and industrial companies looking for space. It is now “access, access, access” — access to an airport.

The idea of building an Aerotropolis — an entire planned city around the airport as a central feature dates back nearly half a century. But it is only starting to gain traction in the 21st century — perhaps because cargo trade is reaching a global critical mass.

Intriguingly, it is rising Asian countries and urban regions that are experimenting with this “technology” first. Thailand will soon open the first phase of it’s $4 Billion “Suvarnabhumi” or “Golden Land” project that over the next 30 years is scheduled to become a planned city of 3.3 Million people serving 100 million passengers a year and even more dollars worth of cargo. The planned urban area outside of Bangkok will have ring roads supporting factories, office buildngs, and residential communities for the millions of workers expected to relocate to the area. Hotels and convention centres as well as a golf course or two will complete the community.

Dubai World Central is also under construction and is expected to house 750,000 people and will cost $33 Billion. The extravagances now associated with anything Dubai (oil money gone wild) no doubt will make this project a global icon with many unique luxuries.

In North America, struggling economic regions are starting to look to the Aerotropolis as a potential saviour. Detroit and Hamilton Ontario are two cities that have faced economic hardships in recent years, but sit in the heart of the North American manufacturing belt. Because most North American cities located airports in distant suburbs of major cities, some have room to expand and build an aerotropolis around an existing airport — including Detroit and Hamilton.

However, do voters want an aerotropolis? covering up what’s currently agricultural and greenspace with a concrete jungle might not appeal to all. And will North Americans want to live in an aerotropolis with airplanes coming and going 24 X 7?

There are so many questions surrounding this topic — as well as intriguing forecasts to make. More blogs on this in the future….

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