Airplanes, Subways, and Buses

February, 2015

Lincoln/Washington/Berlin -- Over the last month I've been in these three cities, each of which leaves much to be desired when it comes to getting to and from their respective airports by public transportation.

When traveling accompanied, I often use private cars or taxis to go to and from airports, but when traveling alone I like to check out airport connections to trains, subways, and buses. A few years ago I was a member (and for two years, chairman) of the Rockville, Maryland, Traffic and Transportation Commission and got into the habit of traveling public transportation routes and connections of all kinds.

Lincoln seems to have no connection between its airport and public transportation. If there is such a connection, it's well hidden. Many people in Lincoln don't even use the local airport, preferring Omaha, an hour away, with its better airline connections and lower prices. A private shuttle operates between Lincoln and Omaha for people who don't drive to and from the Omaha airport.

Washington has three area airports, National, Dulles, and BWI. I prefer to use National whenever possible because it is on the Washington subway's Yellow Line. National also has non-stop flights to Omaha. Another reason to take the subway: parking at National is expensive and the lots are sometimes full. There's nothing like trying to catch a plane only to be greeted by an airport parking "Full" sign.

No Washington area airport has good airline connections to Berlin. One might think the de facto capitals of North America and Europe would have direct flights between them, but this is not the case. (Stavanger and Houston, yes; Berlin and Washington, no.) Among the one-stop choices are National to Newark to Berlin, or BWI to London to Berlin, or Dulles to Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Munich, London, or elsewhere (even Istanbul), then on to Berlin. I've tried many of them from Dulles, the latest being Copenhagen.

Dulles is not well connected to public transportation. Last week I arrived at Dulles from Copenhagen and it took me nearly two and a half hours to get to my destination in suburban Maryland via a shuttle bus from the airport to the subway's Silver Line, then a transfer to the Red Line. But this was during rush hour. One consolation: I was not in a vehicle on the infamous Washington Beltway, which may have taken almost as long and is surely more dangerous. Another consolation: I was able to help two young, non-English-speaking Japanese women navigate the public transportation system and get to their destination in downtown Washington.

Berlin's airports are wholly inadequate, in part because of the legacy of Berlin's administration under the Four Powers Treaty from the end of the 1940s into the 1990s. Each sector of the city had its own airport: Gatow for the British, Tempelhof for the Americans, Schönefeld for the Soviets, and Tegel for the French. Gatow is now gone and Tempelhof is no longer in service. The German government has tried to expand Schönefeld, but it has had so many opening issues it's become a national scandal. Maybe it will be ready in 2017. Which leaves Tegel.

Tegel is not connected to Berlin's extensive U-Bahn, Tram, or S-Bahn systems. The route from Tegel to my place in Kreuzberg involves taking the 128 Bus to Osloer Strasse, taking the U-Bahn to Kottbusser Tor, and then either walking or taking the 140 Bus to Mariannenplatz. It takes an hour. A taxi takes thirty or forty minutes. But one big advantage of taking public transportation in Berlin is price. For less than the cost of a taxi fare, one can buy a seven-day public transportation pass for all of Berlin, a great deal. Looking for something to do in Berlin? Just ride the double-decker buses through the neighborhoods, or take the trains through the great stations that echo history.

It's poor transportation planning not to have airports connected to trains and subways. Dulles, which was to be the airport of the future for Washington, is now losing passengers to National. Even BWI, outside of Baltimore, has MARC and Amtrak train service into Washington and is becoming more popular than Dulles. It will be years before Metro's Silver Line reaches Dulles. Berlin has the excuse of once being a divided city, but it is taking far too long to replace Tegel with the better connected Schönefeld.

In the meantime, it's good exercise and quite a geography education rolling the luggage across multiple systems of public transportation.