NEW YORK -- At the conclusion of a conference with architects and planners not long ago, I was in an ozone-saving mood. The easy way to catch my 5:30 p.m. shuttle back to Boston was to jump in a taxi, but no, I decided, this city's transit system can surely get me to the airport.
Three hours later, my shoulder aching from a garment bag that seemed filled with bricks, I added an entry to the mental checklist: Don't try that again.
In Europe, taking a train to the plane is a given. The train from Amsterdam pulls right underneath the terminal at Schiphol, and rapid transit is just as easy to catch from Charles de Gaulle to the stellar Metro system in Paris. The same is true at Heathrow, Hamburg, Copenhagen, and Zurich.
The United States has been slow to embrace direct transit access to airport terminals. But that is changing.
The biggest news on this front is in San Francisco, where the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) extension to the airport opened in June to rave reviews, joining the Red Line in Portland, Ore., and the Green Line in Los Angeles in car-free efficiency. On the East Coast, trains will soon be leaving every five minutes from Penn Station in Manhattan to the Jamaica Center-JFK station, a nice mirror image for the 15-minute ride on Amtrak or New Jersey Transit to Newark International. Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., figured out the beauty of this system many years ago. Taking a train to the plane is also possible in Oakland, St. Louis, and Cleveland.
But the LaGuardia example is a reminder of how most airports are still accessible only by car, taxi, bus, or limousine -- and how alternative modes of travel are actually discouraged.
How badly did it go, stepping out of the Hyatt at Grand Central Station that day, when I ignored the idling queue of taxis? Those absurd tests in reality TV shows come to mind.
Hopping on the No. 7 line to Queens was a no-brainer, but one glance at the transit map and I was consumed with doubt. Did the dotted line symbolizing the Q33 bus lead to the Jackson Heights stop at 74th Street, or at 82nd? A smudge, no doubt from people touching the map and wondering the same thing, obscured the answer.
No ''transfer here for LaGuardia" announcement and no signs with little plane symbols on them; I rolled the dice and got off at 82nd Street. Descending from the elevated tracks and into the sounds and smells of Jackson Heights, I stood at a trademark blue-and-red sign for the bus, only to be informed by a helpful passerby, who had spotted my garment bag, that the bus to LaGuardia actually stopped around the corner -- over at an unmarked spot.
More doubt. Was it Q33, Q47, or Q48? The driver of the first bus waved me off -- no LaGuardia stop on this route. Three buses later, a plane symbol could be spotted behind the front window. No seats, and approximately 5 million stops for red lights and passenger pickups. The diesel workhorse made slow, wide turns down narrow neighborhood streets and around double-parked cars, pulling up at LaGuardia with a final surprise: Only certain buses go to the Marine Air Terminal, where my Delta shuttle had long since departed. Stranded at the main terminal, I had no choice but to -- you guessed it -- hail a cab for the final leg of my frustrating journey.
A number of cities and airports are working to make that typically circuitous, demoralizing trip a thing of the past, like smoking in restaurants. The best systems have features that are the exact opposite of the LaGuardia experience.
Rule number one: One mode of travel is best, straight to the terminals without a transfer. This is what transportation planners call the ''one-seat ride," and it's especially important for people with luggage. Transferring from the No. 7 to the Q33 is a worst-case scenario, but even the switch to a shuttle bus at an airport station is problematic. If the transit cannot go to the direct vicinity of the airline counters, people-movers or circulators on fixed rail or in guideways are a must.
The other key factor is whether the airport connection is a subway or commuter rail, or its equivalent. There's a huge difference between trains that leave every hour and a subway that comes around every 10 minutes -- the frequency of service that planners call ''headways." If you have to sit down and puzzle over a schedule, chances are you will hop in a car or cab -- especially as the time crunch intensifies in the current era of preflight security screening.
So what are US cities doing to create the anti-LaGuardia system? The undisputed leader at the moment is San Francisco, which recently opened its version of a one-seat ride to the airport. Rider reviews have been very positive on this half-hour trip on the Dublin/Pleasanton line, part of an ambitious four-station extension by BART. The airport station is at the departure level of the international terminal; the United Airlines counters are a short walk away. Access to other terminals is available via an extensive people-mover system. For a region notorious for traffic jams that can occur at any time, the rail link is already well-loved.
Farther north in the crunchy Pacific Northwest, the city of Portland, Ore., which relies heavily on a light-rail system to get people around a dense metropolitan area ringed by an urban growth boundary, also made sure that there was a swift connection to Portland International Airport. The Red Line extension, which features low-slung trolley cars that make it easy to roll luggage on board, is now part of an extensive light-rail network in this region considered to be the cradle of smart growth.
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the new Green Line doesn't go to Los Angeles International Airport, exactly; just when it could head straight for the terminals, it inexplicably veers south to Redondo Beach. But you have to give Angelenos credit for having the Green Line at all, in a region ruled by the automobile. The light-rail line, completed in 1995, runs down the median of the Century Freeway. The tedious part comes at Aviation station, where passengers must descend to a lower level and catch a shuttle bus to the terminal.
New York is also making strides, with the exception of LaGuardia. After decades of false starts and bad planning, the AirTrain to JFK, on Long Island Railroad tracks, is set to open this fall. The key difference here is what happens when passengers reach the Jamaica Center-JFK station -- instead of the cumbersome terminal bus, they can make an easy crossplatform transfer to a new light-rail circulator to terminals. The AirTrain links to the city subway system (the A train at Howard Beach, the E, J, and Z trains at the Jamaica station), and is a project of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which also runs the AirTrain to Newark International Airport. Newark is a model train-to-the-plane system, taking all of 14 minutes and making full use of an extensive people-mover system.
A few places on the East Coast established the transit connection long ago. Step off your US Airways shuttle at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, cross the street, and go up a flight of stairs, and the Yellow or Blue lines are there to whisk you into the district. There are lesser transit connections to Dulles (Orange Line to West Falls Church and then the Washington Flyer shuttle, which claims to run every 30 minutes) and Baltimore-Washington International (Green Line to Greenbelt Metro Rail station and then the B30 express bus, every 40 minutes). But the way those Metro tracks cozy up close to the terminals at Washington National -- it's irresistible, even with D.C. cab fares as cheap as they are.
Other metropolitan areas love their airport transit so much, they can't get enough of it.
O'Hare is a classic on-the-outskirts airport, but hopping on the Blue Line to Chicago's Loop has long been an attractive option. The Chicago Transit Authority has long attracted riders who don't want to risk the infamous expressway backups; now Metra, the regional transportation authority's commuter rail service in the Chicago area, wants to launch a $1 billion expansion to establish rail service that would link 100 suburbs with O'Hare.
Atlanta is another fine example of airport transit in what is otherwise a sea of sprawl. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority boasts of an ''efficient, no-hassle connection" to Hartsfield on the South Line, with a train station in the main terminal building near baggage claim.
Philadelphia has commuter rail at the airport -- you walk right over the tracks on your way in from many gates. The service is pretty much every hour, and although slightly more frequent at rush hour, it's not quite as attractive as a subway. Another small complaint: the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority makes it hard to figure out schedules, where to go, where to pay for a ticket. Spell it out, and they will ride, many transportation planners believe.
Distance from terminals and not mode of travel is the problem at Boston's Logan International Airport. The Blue Line stops a half-mile northwest of the terminals, requiring a schlep onto a pokey terminal bus. The proposed Silver Line, a bus rapid-transit system, will make it possible to get on a vehicle at South Station and go to terminals, but until then, it's a classic case of so close and yet so far.
Beware: Assessing train-to-the-plane systems is habit-forming. You can feel like quite a nerd trying to figure it all out. In most places, if you ask about rail transit from the airport to downtown, they look at you as though you're from Mars, or worse, from Europe. Last fall, an inquiry upon landing in New Orleans prompted that look. The streetcars might run in New Orleans proper, but it's strictly taxis and shuttle buses to get across Lake Pontchartrain. Feeling planet-conscious again, I bought a $10 ticket for a bus that stopped at eight hotels. Peering out the window, I inspected the highway median, and wondered if a light-rail system could be accommodated there.
Anthony Flint can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.