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It’s Time to Relax About LAX-it

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nobody likes change, not even me.

So when I heard last month that Los Angeles International Airport would ban curbside pickup by taxis and rideshare companies, requiring arriving passengers to walk or take a shuttle to a remote “LAX-it” (that’s pronounced “L.A. exit”) parking lot to find an Uber, I reacted the way a lot of people do to such changes: by whining on social media.

But I was wrong. LAX was already getting worse, and so were many other airports. Rising passenger volumes, the relative inefficiency of app-based pickup in the airport context, and (in some cases) airport construction projects mean airport roadways are overtaxed with too many cars. Even if you don’t fly to L.A., you should expect a solution like LAX-it to be coming to some of the airports you pass through. And maybe, as LAX refines its much-criticized new system for arrival pickups, your favorite airport will even learn something that makes your arrival less painful.

The painful but correct insight underlying LAX-it — which, to be clear, is nothing more than a repainted satellite parking lot where you take a shuttle bus to meet your Uber or Lyft or taxi — it that we, the airline passengers, don’t just experience congestion. We are congestion. If we want to get out faster, we will have to be the change we want to see at the airport. That may sometimes involve riding a shuttle bus.

If you follow the #laxit hashtag on Twitter you’ll see the ongoing garment-rending over this change, but I took my first trip through the LAX-it on Sunday and it was … fine? I walked out of Terminal 4 at 12:33 p.m. and was in the backseat of a Lyft pulling onto Sepulveda Boulevard at 1:04 p.m. Half an hour to leave the airport campus isn’t great, but traffic jams (caused in large part by Uber and Lyft congestion) often made it time-consuming to leave the airport under the old curbside-pickup system. Kicking so many Uber cars off the airport roadways has made it possible to dedicate lanes to shuttle buses and remove passengers from the terminal area rapidly.

“We have achieved many of the objectives we set out to,” says Michael Christensen, who oversees operations and maintenance for Los Angeles World Airports. “The thing that needs improvement is performance in the peak periods, which are typically the evening hours.”

Specifically, it’s the exit part of LAX-it that the airport authority has been working to improve. Christensen says they have generally been meeting their goals that passengers should wait no more than three to five minutes for a shuttle at the terminal, and arrive at the LAX-it lot an average of 10 to 11 minutes later. (My arrival on Sunday met these benchmarks: I got a shuttle within three minutes and got to LAX-it eight minutes after that.) But they have not always been meeting the “stretch goal” of wait times of no more than five to ten minutes to board a car and leave LAX-it.

To that end, effective today the airport has enlarged the LAX-it area by 50 percent, creating more lanes and more pickup spots in an effort to improve throughput and shorten lines. With this enlargement, the lot now has two separate entrances — one for Uber cars and taxis, another for Lyft cars — which is a change that airport officials hope will reduce negative traffic effects in the surrounding area.

Christensen also acknowledged some initial “breakdowns” on disabled access. Airlines are only responsible for escorting passengers with mobility limitations to the curb. With rideshare and taxi pickups no longer happening curbside, the new protocol is supposed to be that passengers with airline wheelchair escorts are escorted to seats on ADA-compliant LAX-it shuttle buses; then, when the shuttles arrive at the LAX-it lot, they are greeted by LAX-it staffers with wheelchairs who escort them across the step-free LAX-it lot to their vehicles. This is a procedure that requires a number of different people and organizations to do their jobs correctly, and on the first day, LAX-it had a wheelchair shortage, which Christensen says they have now resolved.

All of which is to say: Change causes problems, especially initially, and some people will be more severely affected by those problems than others. But change is also sometimes necessary. In this instance, as passengers have switched away from taxis and FlyAway buses toward more convenient and better-priced app-dispatched rideshare cars, the traffic on the airport roadway was getting worse and worse. And with an impending construction project (which will include finally linking the airport to Los Angeles’s light-rail system) set to temporarily take away 30 percent of curb space at the airport, the pickup system was going to have to change in a way that meant less pickup activity at the curb.

And change is a learning opportunity. When that major construction project is complete in 2023, LAX will face another decision about how people should arrive and leave the airport. When there is an automated people-mover connecting LAX terminals to parking and rental cars and a Metro station, will there be enough of a reduction in traffic to the terminals that it’s possible to move Uber and Lyft and taxi pickups back to the curbside? Or will the people-mover be convenient enough that it makes sense to move pickups away from the terminal curb permanently? LAX hasn’t decided yet, and the decision will be based in part on their experience managing LAX-it over the next few years.

Part of what feels ridiculous about LAX-it is that it’s just a parking lot. It’s a parking lot with paint and canopies and food trucks and a zillion airport and rideshare employees shepherding passengers around, but it is nonetheless a parking lot. It is not high tech. It does not feel like it should be a key transportation solution for a great world city. But the rudimentary nature of LAX-it also makes it flexible and adaptable. The airport was able to greatly expand the facility after just a week because it essentially just had to repaint the pavement.

We’re all test subjects, and that may be frustrating in the moment. But what LAX learns from LAX-it will help us get out of that airport faster in the long run. It may even have some lessons to teach other airports.

It’s Time to Relax About LAX-it