Free idea: Redesign the airport arrivals pick-up zone

At most busy airports I’ve been to, traffic outside of Arrivals is pure chaos. That seems like an entirely avoidable failure of planning and architecture, and a fixable problem.

I’ve travelled far less than many people, but have visited enough large, busy airports to notice a pattern. A traveler’s first meeting with a country or city is often utter traffic madness immediately outside Arrivals.

New York’s JFK is the first one that comes to mind when I think of congested and dysfunctional arrival curbs, but it’s hardly the only airport with this problem …

In the grand scheme of things, this is pretty trivial. So much so that I’ve hesitated to put this into words. But it also seems like a problem that is trivially easy to prevent when designing an airport — and only slightly harder to fix once it’s already built — so why not …


It starts immediately after customs: Disoriented and confused by the noise, the crowd, and the unfamiliar signage, many people don’t even make it out of the building before falling victim to the chaos.

Unsuspecting tourists are preyed upon by sketchy, unlicensed drivers that go after them like sharks attacking a sinking life raft. Coming at them from all sides, grabbing hold of an arm or a suitcase, luring its owner away with a “special offer”.

It’s a scam, of course, but to the unconfident traveler, even following a dishonest guide may be preferable to walking alone into the pandemonium outside.

Taxi queue at LaGuardia. (Not the best illustration of the problem. If you have a photo that illustrates the chaos better, and that I can use here, let me know.) Photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

There, the waiting line for a licensed and legal cab is already a mile long, and they’re only loading people into two or three cabs at the time, so the line seems to be getting longer by the minute.

Meanwhile, drivers from ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft and others inch along, scanning the curb for the passengers they’re supposed to be meeting. Once they spot their ride, they try to squeeze into a space barely wide enough for a motorcycle, and stop at an angle that blocks at least two lanes of traffic, making it impossible for those behind to leave.

In the middle of all this, there are a dozen pedestrians at any given time pushing their luggage carts straight into traffic, trying to herd their extended family safely through the madness, to the short-term parking on the other side.

There may or may not be some poor schmo in a uniform around, tasked with maintaining some semblance of order. But if there is, they’re busy giving bad directions to a steady stream of people trying to find a particular bus or shuttle.

Suggested alternative

It doesn’t seem all that hard to come up with a better solution, so it’s disappointing that better solutions are so rare.

Let me suggest one that isn’t all that different from what airports already do in other places — like at security, immigration, or baggage reclaim — or what traffic engineers do at highway toll booths.

The pickup zone outside of arrivals, redesigned. Click to magnify.

This is just a sketch, but you get the idea …

There are only three or four lanes in and out of the area (and traffic is already sorted by type), but stopping there is prohibited and impractical.

Instead, they split into a dozen or so minor lanes that — by design and regulation — are the only places suitable to pick up passengers. They are designed to allow for brief stops without blocking too much other traffic.

When people exit the airport terminal (at the bottom of the sketch), they don’t have to cross traffic to get anywhere. Instead, they walk straight into an underpass*, where they filter into different areas, depending on what kind of transport they’re after.

There’s an area for taxi pick-up, with curb space enough to fill at least eight cabs at the time without making it too easy to cut in line. That should reduce turn-around dramatically and get people on their way much faster.

There’s a similar area dedicated to ride-sharing apps, so drivers know exactly where to find their passengers. And, of course, areas for shuttles and buses, so passengers know where to find their transportation.

The layout eats a bit into the typical location of short-term parking, but not so much that it isn’t still easily accessible through the same underpass.

Annoyingly trivial

This is just one idea. Any decent architect could improve on this, or come up with something much better. But that is exactly why it is so infuriating that I don’t see something better at all airports.

I find it a little annoying that I even felt I had to put this into writing. Then again, it’s nowhere near as annoying as trying to locate the right Uber at JFK …

*) Even if it’s too late and too expensive to build a pedestrian underpass at your particular airport – or do any new construction at all – it’s still possible to improve on the status quo with a bit of conscious planning, clever use of handrails and fences, and fresh road marking.