LAX and the Freedom to Travel

Los Angeles International Airport.

In our nation, the freedom to travel was considered an inherent right dating back to the Articles of Confederation. But in the modern day that right is surely burdened in places like LA’s international airport.

To my astonishment, however, the burden recently lifted somewhat. A while back the airport was remodeled so it looked nice, with purple lights on columns and such, but nothing changed fundamentally in the conditions that made it one of the worst-rated airports in the nation.

However, between one trip to the airport about three weeks ago – same old thing – and a trip about a week ago, the place changed radically for the better.

On the giant horseshoe that runs inside the terminals, the lanes closest to the terminals are now reserved for public transportation, buses and shuttles mostly painted green and looking brand new.

In addition, a small army of employees with vests were seemingly everywhere, directing the river of people coming and going. And, to my utter amazement, traffic inside the great horseshoe flowed loosely, easily.

The core change is that taxis and ride-shares like Uber and Lyft are banned from the airport. The green public shuttles take travelers to lots outside the airport where the taxis and ride-shares can wait.

That change alone seems to have freed up traffic inside the airport horseshoe. Private cars and commercial shuttles, like hotel buses, still circulate but they are constrained to the lanes away from the terminals.

They now pick up passengers at islands between the near-in lanes reserved for public buses and the outer lanes used for general circulation.

One green bus says on the front panel that it takes you to the “metro” line, but alas – some changes are too huge to pull off so quickly – that line does not take you to downtown Los Angeles.

The transit authority, for example, provides online directions to the airport from Pasadena where Courthouse News is based. If you ask to go by rail, the same official website tells you “no itineraries.”

If you ask to go by bus on, say, a Saturday afternoon when this column is being written, the same official site estimates 197 minutes, more than three hours. If you then ask Google how long it takes to go by car, the estimate is 57 minutes, less than a third of the bus time.

So in practice the transportation system in Los Angeles still forces you to drive a car to the airport unless you want to sit on the bus for three hours.

The airport authority has a plan to change that, and it is now building a “people mover” that would in the next four years allow travelers to connect to a trolley line that would, after a couple connections, get you downtown. But it would be at street level and thus slow going.

The plan is ultimately shaped and limited by the vastness of Los Angeles, the enormous cost of building rail lines, and the various politicians on the county Board of Supervisors and the City Council who have their local priorities, and their votes, in the planning pot.

LAX itself remains a portrait of world humanity with faces of all hues and characteristics standing outside the terminal, freshly arrived from distant lands and now searching for a way out of the airport. They are often maneuvering huge suitcases stacked high on carts. Within the chaos, trains of airline attendants, perfectly coiffed, trim, in matching uniforms, smoothly, quickly weave their way.

The bigger idea embodied in those crowds, the wanting to see other territories on a globe where people, their customs and surroundings vary far beyond what the imagination can conjure – that is a common wish among all types of people. It is one of the weight-bearing columns that support the overarching notion of freedom.

So that part of it – the freedom to move around, travel across international boundaries, visit and see and communicate somehow with other people a long way away – is much more likely to be fulfilled when travel is made easy. Traveling with my nephews almost a decade ago, I was close to flabbergasted at how fast and easy it was to buy a ticket and get on a budget plane in Cologne bound for Istanbul.

The airport in Los Angeles has long been an expected opposite experience, with the lines and pressure and hassle inside the airport preceded by the back-of-the-mind sense of determination and dread that is required just to get to the airport.

But to my wonderment the local bureaucrats and politicians have managed to reduce the bane of Los Angeles – the traffic jam – within the airport roundabout and on the approach.

That’s a good thing. That’s progress.

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