San Diego Airport Tries To Solve Their Public Transit Problem — With A Crosswalk

I am an huge proponent of connecting airports to mass transit. If done properly, public transportation can streamline the arrivals and departure process for travelers (I love the bag drop at the Hong Kong central train station, for example). Even a mediocre mass-transit solution can help calm traffic and provide alternatives to taxi cabals, so I’m generally a fan.

Living in San Diego, the airport transportation situation is especially frustrating. While Southern California is progressive in many ways, airport transit is not one of them. Our airports were built for a different era, and Southern Californians love their cars, so while we have one of the most conveniently located airports, it’s annoyingly difficult to get in and out of.

  • The rail line skirts the airport, but there aren’t any stations near the airport
  • The lightrail/trolley follows the rail lines, but again — no stations near the terminal

You can of course take a bus, but most people end up in cars, and traffic on the one road going in and out of the airport is nearly always an adventure.


So when I saw on the news this morning that the San Diego Airport would soon have a connection to the trolley, I was really excited. “Finally,” I thought. “they’ve come up with a way to extend the trolley line to the terminal! Tourists will love that!”

Yeah, not so much.

The new “trolley” “solution” at SAN

Via the San Diego Union Tribune:

The key to the plan is making it easier for travelers to walk.

Well golly gee! That seems like what people are generally looking for in their airport transit. Walking!

The project includes walker-friendly improvements on Palm Street at the Pacific Highway intersection. It includes wider sidewalks, a handicap-accessible ramp, and a new crosswalk. A telephone pole will be removed, and road markings will be repainted. The project stretches a little more than a city block. [emphasis mine]

Okay, so…you can do a lot with a city block. This does not seem like a lot.

To give some context, here’s the area we’re talking about in comparison to the airport:


And here’s the imagery of the current setup:


And of course, the “new crosswalk” doesn’t actually take you to the terminal. It’s not like the epic skybridge at SeaTac that takes you between the light rail and the terminal.

Nope, it just goes to the new (read: under construction) rental car center:

From there, they can snag a free ride via a shuttle typically used to ferry people from the airport’s economy parking lot to the terminals. They can repeat the process in reverse when coming home.

That suggests this option is geared towards locals (which is laughable, no one I know takes the trolley other than to sporting events), but the process would look like this:

  • Drive to the nearest Park and Ride location, as the trolley doesn’t actually go anywhere near where San Diegans live
  • Pay $2.50 per person to take the trolley
  • Walk a block or so
  • Board the airport parking shuttle to the terminal

I mean…

For business travelers going to the Convention Center (which is a large percentage), the process is similarly obfuscated. Is anyone realistically going to haul from their hotel, to the trolley, to the shuttle, when an UberX or Taxi is about $9, and will take half the time?


I won’t, and I want to take mass transit to the airport!

Bottom line

While I applaud the planners for trying to find creative solutions, this doesn’t seem like something particularly useable, especially for the $600k+ price tag.

I’ve walked to the airport before, but guarantee I’m in the tiny minority. The vast majority of San Diego tourists are families (with luggage) and convention goers (with luggage). I just don’t see how this is compelling to either group.

What do you think? Would this setup encourage you to take the trolley from San Diego airport? Or is it too little too late?


  1. You may not take the crosswalk and the shuttle, but many budget travelers will, and more importantly airport workers, some of whom are low wage and actually ride the Trolley, will. If you look at the current ridership of the 992 (airport bus) many of the riders are TSA screeners, restaurant workers, and other people wearing their work uniforms.

    Having to ride a shuttle bus to rail is not the end of the world and is done in many cities around the US and the world. It would be nice to have a fancy people mover, but then you’ll have to pay fancy people mover prices, like that $6 one way fare to go the three miles from Oakland Airport to the Coliseum BART station or $5 for Airtrain from JFK to the New York City subway. I’ll take a free bus, thanks.

  2. @ calwatch — Agree that there’s no need for fancy people movers, but would love to see an actual connection to the transit lines versus this, which seems rather cobbled together. I take the 992 often, and if you’re coming from El Cajon or other further out areas, I guess I don’t see the difference between an hour on the Green line with a walk and a change to a shuttle, versus an hour on the Orange line and a change to a bus.

  3. Great post. You wonder who the shitbirds are that think of these things sometimes. Seoul, Korea *just* finally extended their amazing high-speed rail to the airport as of this year. I believe, by volume, Incheon(ICN) is the most trafficked airport in the world. The fact that they built Incheon 10-15 years ago or whatever 25 miles outside Seoul and then opted for a slower, separate train option to limp people to Seoul where they have to transfer to HSR if they’re going to anywhere else in the country is just simple awful execution. If you can’t afford a real solution, don’t waste your money.

  4. Yeah, I don’t think I will be taking the crosswalk + shuttle any time soon. It’s disappointing there isn’t a better alternative to get right to SD Airport, but a Trolley extension would have helped some.

  5. Wrong. It’s a great investment for $600K and I think airport employees will use it as well as some travellers from downtown/Mission Valley and UTC area once the trolley is extended. Some may not realize that the employee parking lot for SAN is across from the Sheraton on Harbor Island so they already have a long walk/shuttle ride. This may be very convenient for airport employees.

    Sure, an upgraded intermodal CA HSR/Amtrak/Coaster/Trolley station near Washington St. with a people mover to the CONRAC and then under the runway to Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 would be great but that’s a billion dollars and a decade in the making. Make that $100B+ and decades away for the HSR part.

  6. What business traveler takes public transportation to or from an airport? I never ever taken public transit on a business trip, nor spoken to anyone who ever has unless for some reason taxis or Uber was unavailable. If I worked for a company that mandated public transit I’d seriously be checking their financials to see if I had a pay check coming the next week. If your lifestyle dictates needing to take public transit to an airport, it’d be wise to seriously consider spending your discretionary money on something other than flying in an airplane.

  7. 5 years after the completeion of the light rail there were plans to bring the light rail to the airport, however, the taxis companies weren’t keen on the idea, so 20 yrs later we still don’t have light rail to the airport!! This has to tell you something…

  8. @Robert I always take transit if it’s safe and convenient when travelling on business. Expenses hit my budget and the bottom line but more importantly it is much more sustainable in every sense of the word and often much much quicker than taxi or car service.

    My most recent overseas trip proved to me what a waste of time cabs and cars are. I was picked up by the Emirates limo service to get to my hotel and it took 3 times as long to get to my hotel as the RER would have done. Then the next day my cab from Massy to CDG cost 120 Euros when the train would have cost 7 and took and hour when the train would have taken half that. I’m still kicking myself I don’t have the cab my vendor booked me take to to the train station, not the airport. (Also kicking myself I didn’t twist the arm of our travel agents about exploring budget airline options from ORY so I don’t have to trek across to CDG in the first place)

    My time is too valuable not to take transit.

  9. And as a coda, pretty much everyone in our company from the CEO down takes the train from our North Sydney office to SYD. If you take the train can be in the lounge sipping a cold one before someone in a cab has even got off the harbour bridge. Ditto for Melbourne, and that’s a bus albeit one with a dedicated lane on the freeway.

    I have no issues with the financials of my company, the highest revenue and profits in our sector.

  10. @Ed: Sure, but CDG’s situation is a bit of an outlier. We always take the RER/metro because it eliminates traffic jams from the equation and, as you say, ultimately saves time. If I’m remembering correctly, the AMS train setup was pretty good, too.

    But in the US, for example, I can’t think of a single major destination where I’d use public transit on a business trip. Except that once from the Loop to ORD in rush hour. Or maybe a few times at DCA. I’ve done BOS but never on business.

  11. @Robert – This NYC business traveler does. Unless I’m flying in/out of LGA, the LIRR/NJT is more predictable and almost always faster.

    Tiffany, you are not the only one who walks to/from SAN 🙂 If I have time, I will enjoy a nice stroll, as the walk downtown is beautiful and a great way to destress after a long flight.

    I gave a small chuckle at your comment about So Cal being progressive…I guess it depends where you are and your point of view 😉

  12. To be fair it can be a challenge in the US. The only places I use transit with any consistency are EWR, JFK, SFO and DCA. Taking the blue line or chancing the Kennedy expressway from ORD – 6 of one half a dozen of the other, id rather pay the CTA fare. The airport transit situation in the US is terrible and should be a help of a lot better in a first world country,

    Really I want to challenge Robert’s assertion that any company that mandated transit should be questioned about their long term viability, which is ridiculous. Our travel policy says that public transport is preferred where it is a ‘safe and convenient’ option, which I think is a sensible. Down here we do have good options. Which is not to say i don’t take cabs; I always use one between my home and the airport because it takes 20 minutes vs over an hour by transit because there is nothing direct,

  13. I’ve taken public transit twice in the past year from the San Diego Airport to my hotel. I had to ask at the information booth at the airport how to get to the stop, but I didn’t find it difficult. Both times I had to change buses downtown. No big deal. I like the challenge of figuring out public transportation when I go to a new city. I find it interesting, also, to see the type of people that ride the bus. In some cities, like Seattle, a large portion of the population takes the bus on a regular basis. In other cities, you can tell that the only people that take the bus are the ones with no alternative. For me, taking public transport adds to the experience of being in a new city.

  14. The city needs the balls to push the taxi union aside. Connecting the light rail would be fairly easy and cost effective.

  15. UberX and Lyft are now permitted to pick up at the San Diego Airport.

    Tiffany, do you ever go to any of the San Diego Flyertalk meetups?

  16. I’d like to see a Decobike station at each terminal, them baskets are almost big enough to hold a carry-on. Tiffany, I noticed you left out the 992 bus, which for $2.25 I’ve found convenient enough if going downtown.

    What SAN really needs is a regular shuttle to LAX!

  17. Ha Ha. As I started to read your post I was thinking that when staying downtown SAN, I usually just walk.
    Not as in a block or so to catch a bus line, but as in from airplane seat to downtown hotel bed.
    Yea, I’m strange like that 🙂

    Then I got to the comment from @Robert
    Different stroke for different folks. I’ve never understood how people think that what works best for them is how the entire world operates. As others have mentioned, for most cities I feel the mass transit option is much better than having/hiring a car.
    As for his comment “spending discretionary money on something other than flying in an airplane”, I was chuckling at myself just a couple of weeks ago when I had a business/pleasure trip to downtown Austin. I paid “A” class (discounted First) airfare and decided to splurge on a stay at The Driskill. And rode the city bus to/from the airport and hotel. I guess I see value in spending more for a comfortable multi hour flight and overnight stay, but for a 20 minute ride the difference just isn’t enough to justify the cost. I guess that’s why it’s called “discretionary money”, I can spend it any danged way I see fit.

    Back to SAN, when the weather co-operates (which is what, 98% of the time ??) it is a very pleasant walk for someone who enjoys walking. The hardest part is getting between the terminals and the sidewalk along the bay. Obviously, I plan my flights to be daytime, which is easy to do since I’m only coming from PHX.

  18. travelers today are willing to explore alternative options. I agree that SAN really does not have a convenient solution with crossing Pacific Highway to get to the trolley. While the bus can get you there, the need to always connect downtown means additional time. You can almost always take public transportation overseas (rail/metro in LHR, AMS, MUC, FRA, MAD, ZRH, HKG, BKK, SYD, JNB, YVR, YYZ or GVA or a bus in BCN, CDG, HEL, ARN, MEL, NRT) and in the U.S., SFO, ATL, ORD, MDW, EWR, DCA, DFW, SEA, PDX. It’s better for the nerves and the wallet when stuck in traffic, and you see more sights, mix with the locals.

  19. SAN has been a disaster for years, corruption, inscompnedant management to say the least. I have for years flown out of there, thankfully I know use PDX. The shuttles, taxi stand for Terminal 1 is absurd. It all goes back to years and years of bad management, just ask anyone that has lived in SD.

  20. After visiting SD and taking public transportation for a week, I can add that the SD transit system is clean, I mean literally clean, they power wash the station pretty good. This in contrast to Portland OR’s transit system, in a state that is supposed to be more “green”.

    I do agree with the poster who said that in SD the only people who ride public transportation are the ones who have no choice.

    On a more positive note, I did max out all of my Amex Smart&Final offers on 8 cards, all on public transportation, while visiting some nice places like Oceanside. We do not have Smart&Final in our state.

  21. @Ghostrider – Lots of improvements in the past few years that you might not be aware of. Terminal 2 West is one of the nicest airports in the U.S. right now (bright, open, lots of seating). Terminal 2 East (AA) has been expanded to provide much more seating and dining. The two level roadway has helped improve pickup/drop. The CONRAC will give much better freeway access so I think most people who rent cars will be happy even though the shuttle ride will be longer. Terminal 1 does need a lot of work but I don’t have issues with the taxi/shuttle queue.

  22. I live downtown So I take the city bus to the airport, only takes about 15 minutes. So the transit works for me, If i’m running behind an Uber to the airport in normally under $10.

    I used to use the trolley for work, but only because I live downtown and it took me to a stop right next to my work.

    San Diego reader meet up anyone ?

  23. I’m in North San Diego county, and I’ve gotta say, a convenient Coaster connection down to SAN would be amazing. Having seen how easy it is to hop on the Narita Express to get to Tokyo from Narita – no traffic, no stopping at other places on the way like a hotel shuttle bus does – I would absolutely love to have the same option here. Instead I either have to pay a lot between $8 and $15 bucks a day to keep my car, or I have to beg friends or family for a ride down. I can’t imagine why ANYONE would take anything other than public transit when it’s as convenient as NRT’s. SEA’s train is pretty great, too, especially with the connection to the Convention Center being pretty accessible.

    You know what else would be amazing? A convenient connection from the Northbound Amtrak that actually gets you to LAX from North County in a reasonable amount of time. I hate fighting LA traffic to get to the airport.

  24. This is a little off subject but we will be in San Diego week after next. Any suggestions from the locals for don’t miss sights, restaurants, etc?

  25. Unfortunately Tiffany, excellent mass transit links to/from airports around the world often get stymied by powerful special interest groups (usually taxi cab lobbies and airport owners who make a killing on motor vehicle parking in the airport jurisdiction).

    When decent mass transit links to the airport are available, it’s often akin to a miracle. Even when mass transit is available to the airport, it’s often got problems and usually quite expensive for what it is (compared to similar services not beginning or terminating at an airport).

    Yet, despite all this, a high quality mass transit airport service really positively impacts on customer satisfaction levels and increases tourism numbers. Sadly a case of the few preventing decent options for the many (even if it ends up providing a better experience for drivers thanks to reduced traffic congestion).

  26. I feel like one of the two main problems with adding a public transportation option to the airport is that SAN is both too convenient to downtown and the local population is too spread out and diffuse. The local population is likely to already have a car, so even if they live far away, its just not going to make sense to go out of your way just to take public transportation when you are already driving anyways (and stupidly public transportation decisions in sprawling Western US metro areas are rarely made by prioritizing the needs of those who don’t have cars). At the same time, the airport is so close to downtown and the major business area of San Diego that having a convenient cheap public transportation system to there isn’t that urgent of a need when Uber or a cab to the airport costs $10-15 at most.

    One could argue Phoenix has both a spread out local population AND a conveniently located airport, yet they are making a convenient public transportation option. But the airport isn’t quite as close distance-wise to stuff as SAN is, and more compelliningly the light rail actually serves major suburban population centers like Mesa and Tempe. Add to that the fact that the light rail route was already planned to go right by the airport, and Phoenix Sky Harbor’s spread out layout made having a train connection between the terminals make some amount of sense already, and you can see why it worked there.

  27. @dotty Go to Oscars Mexican Seafood (there are several locations) and order anything. Also, remember to move over for faster vehicles on the road 🙂

  28. Tiffany – this is a well thought through analysis and write up. Disregard those with shortsighted comments (looking at you @Robert).

    After visiting many cities domestically and internationally, one thing that really elevates the travel experience is being able to hop on a train from the terminal and head off into the city. When we were in Joburg 5 years ago for the World Cup we got on the newly built Gautrain to get to Sandton and were very impressed (Gautrain is a whole other subject that I won’t tangent off of here). It’s almost a given that this option will be available at airports in Europe (Venice Marco Polo gets a pass as they have water buses and taxis!). Contrast that with Denver and there are many other cities we’d rather visit unless we decide to rent a car (rail connection on the way though apparently).
    In fairness this pieced together solution is at least something – albeit just a bandaid to the fact that the trolley is so close but yet so far away. High in creativity but low in providing a real mass transit solution. It would be nice if the hundreds of thousands of annual convention visitors could hop on the trolley at the airport and be downtown in 7 minutes (tens of thousands for Comic-Con alone).
    This is one major reason why the “America’s Finest City” moniker for San Diego is flawed. With the T-2 enhancements the San Diego airport is very classy. Give people (locals and visitors alike) the chance to hop on the trolley from the terminal and I think many would find it hard to argue that San Diego IS among the best cities in the country, if not the best.

  29. I am a business traveller and I take public transit to the airport everywhere it is available. It beats the stuff out of sitting in traffic…Minneapolis and Cleveland and DC and Atlanta and Philly…soon in Denver. Apparently not too soon in SAN. I never understood why the train doesn ‘t go to LAX.

  30. I am a San Diegan who takes the trolley daily and I am one of many who actually live by the trolley and use it as my primary source of transportation. We actually made our decision on where to live based on our proximity to public transportation so we could sell our car, it has been 1.5 years and it was the best decision I made. To state that no one lives by the trolley simply is not true; it goes through two of the largest residential areas; Downtown and Mission Valley. With the downtown population at 40K and expected expansion to 90K, the role of the trolley is increasing in many of our lives. I am always hearing people say “the trolley to nowhere” but somehow 120,000+ people daily are taking is somewhere. I usually hear these comments however from someone who chose a cookie cutter house in a planned community in the suburbs who avoid the urban core at all costs. I agree the airport plan is a band aid and we need a real trolley link to the airport and the communities on the other side like the Midway district. Will I take the new proposed link, sometimes, if I am not in a rush, it will probably be faster than the 992 as there will be no traffic on the dedicated roadway. I have a tendency to take the 992 bus when returning since I am not in a rush and I avoid the $16 cab ride to Little Italy which is a rip off and most of the cabs cringe when you ask to pay with credit.

  31. I think this will not work in the closest time, unfortunatelly! It would be so convenient. Every time I get to San Diego Airport I have to take a taxi. Usually I use, it is rather cheap and fast. I think all citizens would be happy, if this problem would solve!

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