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Airport links, quality of life and place promotion

By Brian Doucet
August 1, 2009

In 2000, Peter Eisinger wrote an article called Building the city for the visitor class: the politics of bread and circuses, where he stated: “Building a city as an entertainment venue is a very different undertaking than building a city to accommodate residential interests” (p. 317). While he was referring to large iconic property-based developments and mega-events, this idea can be applied to many different types of urban activities, including large infrastructure projects. Infrastructure can take many forms of course, can achieve many different objectives; a large project can help to unify the city and bring a better quality of life for its inhabitants. Or it can further reinforce the social, economic and spatial divisions within a city under the guise of the relentless pursuit of urban competition, place promotion, and an appeasement towards business executives.

One type of infrastructure project which, depending on how it is built and operated, has the power to have both types of impacts is an airport rail link. In my hometown of Toronto, there is a considerable amount of discussion on not only a link to the airport, but large transport infrastructure projects in general. While many of the other light rail proposals are laudable, particularly for bringing good quality public transit to under-served areas, the airport link, while still under discussion, is leaning towards a project which will have little or no benefit to the majority of inhabitants of the city and being primarily concerned with ferrying business elites to and from the downtown.

Airports are, of course, vital places to the modern urban economy. Not only do the connect cities to the rest of the world, but they are increasingly destinations in and of themselves; thousands of people work at airports, and many hotels and conference centres have been built in their vicinities. Therefore having good quality transport to allow people to get there easily and affordably is a necessity in a modern city.

There are three main types of airport rail links. The first is those which are part of the existing urban transport network (ie the airport is just ‘another stop on the line’). Chicago, Madrid and Washington are examples of this connectivity. The second, which is often similar in characteristics to the first, is where airports are connected to national rail networks. This can be seen in Frankfurt and Amsterdam, where the station is not only used by those frequenting the airport, but is also a major rail junction for medium and long distance passengers. Both these types of rail links work well because they serve a wide variety of people: employees, tourists, and business executives. This is because there is no special distinction in terms of fare for using the airport stop. They become integrated into the existing transport network. As a result, a large segment of the urban (and in the case of the Netherlands, national) population stands to benefit from such infrastructure. The goal is to create an airport link that serves many different groups of people. It may take slightly longer to reach the downtown, but more parts of the city become opened up to the airport and the line even acts as a local service for people living along it.

The third type of airport link is those which are dedicated routes, separate from the city’s regular transport. The airports around London (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted) all have such links. They do offer some advantages compared with the first type, primarily their speed; by operating as a more-or-less direct link from the city centre to the airport, they can whisk passengers to their destination far quicker than lines which are part of the existing rail networks. This makes them popular with business people who are very time sensitive. However, the price to pay for that speed is an increased fare. As a result, they price many other users of the airport (non-business travellers, employees etc) out of being able to take advantage of using this service. The goal of such a fast link is more geared to urban competition for business and investment and place promotion than it is quality of life. As a result, its spatial and social influence is rather limited.

While an expensive fast link may make sense if there are other options to get from the airport (the Heathrow Express was opened many years after the existing Underground was connected to the airport), it does not make sense, when thinking of urban quality of life and the provision of municipal services, to have this as the first and only connection to the airport. An airport link should be affordable enough so that employees can take the service, and stop frequently enough so that it connects with other major junctions and destinations along its route. This then allows more people in the city to profit from it.

While many cities are having to make this choice, Toronto is now at a crossroads with its public transit infrastructure. There will be considerable investment in rail projects in the coming decades. Many of these lines will benefit lower-income and under-served parts of the city. The airport line, which is proposed to be operated by a private company, will be the true test of the city’s goals and ambitions. Current plans are calibrated towards attracting business elites travelling to and from the city centre. The fare will be significantly higher than the existing transit, and there will only be a very limited number of stops.

In the end, it will be the local population, particularly those living near the line, who will not be able to profit from it both because they will be priced out of using it, and will not be able to access stops which do not exist. Returning to Eisinger’s idea from the start, it is clear that large infrastructure projects built for a visitor class do have the potential to create distinct winners and losers in the ideological battle between quality of life and place promotion.


Eisinger, P (2000) “The politics of bread and circuses: building the city for the visitor class,” Urban Affairs Review. 35(3) pp. 316-333.