Schlepping to the airport

Barring impractical modes of transport, such as hiring a Tibetan yak and drover, I tried every possible means of getting to and from RDU Airport over the five decades leading up to the present 2020s. What worked best in the beginning doesn’t work so well now. In fact, what works well now didn’t even exist forty years ago.

Yak photo
“This yak’s for you!”  Saddled up and ready to take you to the airport.

Over the years I have dabbled in these mobility methods:

1. Public transit bus
2. Renting a car for the weekend Friday night and returning it Sunday afternoon
3. Being dropped off and picked up by friends or family
4. Driving and parking my own car
5. Taxi
6. Black car service
7. TNC (Uber or Lyft)

What those seven have in common is rubber tires rolling on asphalt. RDU has no rail service to the airport and probably never will. Despite the booming Research Triangle, we don’t have the population density and ridership to justify the very high infrastructure cost of a light rail or commuter rail option.

The Triangle and surrounding municipalities are also—shamefully—the poster child of sprawl, meaning low residential density and car-dependency. So, it’s either rubber tires or yak travel.

Not being Chicago, L.A. or New York also means no helicopter option. We do have a couple of local billionaires in the area, but too few super-rich live in the Raleigh-Durham-Cary-Chapel Hill metro zone to have attracted a private chopper service.

I guess I could have tried walking or biking…nah, what am I saying? Nobody bikes to the airport.

Well, except at Schiphol in Amsterdam, where parking bikes is free for up to four weeks.

Biking at Schiphol
Gotta love the Dutch devotion to cycling!

RDU Airport is not that far from all the places in Raleigh I’ve lived since the 1970s: about 15-18 miles via I-40. Depending on time and day, the trip can be a breeze at 20 minutes or a slow-motion 45-60 minute nightmare of bumper-to-bumper congestion.

Point is, that no matter which of the seven means I listed above, I’m still in traffic—rubber tires rolling on asphalt.

In the early days I usually drove my car and parked. That was the 1970s, when parking at RDU was plentiful and daily costs low. Traffic wasn’t such a hassle like it is now, either.

For a few years Avis, Hertz, and Alamo at RDU were desperate to rent cars over weekends and would drop daily rates to as little as $15 for full-size cars. Even with taxes and fees, renting from them Friday-Sunday was cheaper than driving my own car and parking it all week, so I had a new car every weekend.

But even when Avis would upgrade me at no cost (as a Presidents Club member) to a big Caddy or when Hertz boosted me for free to a Mercedes, I was still driving myself, and traffic wasn’t getting any better.

Gradually, as traffic worsened, I wearied of driving, and my airport mobility preferences skewed to someone else driving.

I tried the bus, and it worked well, and still does, but the “first mile-last mile” problem of public transit meant I had to walk or get a ride to the nearest bus stop, which is within walking distance, but difficult with luggage. I still take the bus occasionally, which operates every 30 minutes, and I enjoy it. Just $2.25. And now it’s free for me on a Senior Pass. One downside: The airport buses don’t run at 4:00 AM if I have an early flight.

Taxi service over the last forty years has been sporadically reliable. Taking a cab was always good getting home from RDU because of the permanent taxi stand at the terminal.

However, getting to the airport at 4:00 AM on a Monday for a 6:00 AM flight meant having to trust that the taxi I ordered Sunday night would show up. Often one didn’t, and then I’d have to drive myself.

That led me to try the expensive private limo route, which in big cities is called “black car service.” I’ve often used black cars in places like San Francisco, and I love the luxury and comfort and reliability. Never once had a no-show. But in Raleigh the service was not always on time, which meant I was paying a 50-100% premium cost over a taxi for nothing. I don’t do black cars in Raleigh any more.

Once in a while I got a ride from my patient and wonderful wife or from a friend who would brave the drive to RDU.  Naturally, though, getting a ride was more opportunistic than routine.

Then came TNCs—Transportation Network Companies, like Uber and Lyft. I used them in bigger burgs first before trying them in Raleigh, but soon came to the conclusion that on-demand rides might be a long-term, permanent solution to getting to and from the airport. The $15 monthly use-it-or-lose-it Uber credit that comes with my AmEx Platinum Card certainly prompts me to choose Uber first, but I like both car services.

in summary, here are my 2020 comparisons of cost and convenience to and from RDU using those seven modes:

1. Public transit bus – Just $2.25 ($4.50 round trip, or free for seniors); runs every 30 minutes, but not real early; convenient drop and pickup locations at RDU; distance to and from my local bus stop is not convenient. OVERALL 2020 RATING – inconvenience makes this not a routine option.

2. Renting a car for the weekend Friday night and returning it Sunday afternoon – Weekend rates are not what they used to be, and taxes and fees can now almost double the basic rate; otherwise, very convenient. OVERALL 2020 RATING – expense makes this not a routine option.

3. Being dropped off and picked up by friends or family – OVERALL 2020 RATING – great when it happens, but certainly not a routine option.

4. Driving and parking my own car – In 2019 the RDU Airport Authority increased the daily rates at all of the airport’s parking lots. In the main parking decks between the terminals—the decks I’ve used for years—the closest spaces went from $18 per day to $22, while less convenient deck spaces increased from $14 a day to $15.  That means up to $110 for a five-day trip and a max of $154 for a week away.

Okay, cheaper than big cities, but, hey, this is Raleigh, and that’s a lot of dough to park. Especially after having to endure the horrible I-40 congestion driving my own car. OVERALL 2020 RATING – inconvenience of driving, plus higher-than-ever expense makes this not a routine option; however, this is always the optimal backup mode if all else fails.

5. Taxi – Cabs are plentiful at the terminals, and it is a short, convenient walk, even closer than the parking decks. Also reasonably priced (about $25-35 including tip to get home, depending on traffic), and I don’t have to drive myself, which is by itself worth a premium. However, getting to the airport is a crap shoot, as drivers do not always show up on time, or show up at all. OVERALL 2020 RATING – thumbs up for getting from RDU to home, but uncertainty makes this not a routine option for travel to RDU.

6. Black car service – Without using the service again I cannot affirm that pickups are more reliable than they were, but prices remain roughly twice that of taxis. OVERALL 2020 RATING – high price combined with pickup unreliability makes this not a routine option.

7. TNC (Uber or Lyft) – Not having to drive myself is a big plus. Convenient and transparent service in that I can always see on my smartphone app map whether cars are available.  So far my experience has been that even at very early morning hours like 4:00 cars are cruising nearby waiting for customer signals. Rates are almost always lower than taxis, too, about $20-25 with tip to get home or to RDU. OVERALL 2020 RATING – Cheap, reliable, convenient, and someone else is driving:  Uber and Lyft are my current preferred options to get to and from the airport.

What will getting to the airport be like in ten years? According to futurist Tony Seba, who was the keynote speaker at the recent North Carolina Department of Transportation Summit, the convergence of on-demand services like Uber and Lyft with electric vehicles and fully-automated (driver-less) vehicles will, by 2040, lead to a world in which private car ownership plummets as every person can depend on what he call TaaS (Transportation as a Service).

To understand what Seba means, I highly recommend this video from the NCDOT Transportation Summit.

Tony Seba’s presentation begins at 26:00.

What he predicts seems inevitable to me. On-demand services like Uber and Lyft are already my top means of schlepping to RDU. It will be even better when the cars are fully automated, electric, and ubiquitous.

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