If you have ever tried to leave Los Angeles' airport by car, you know the nightmare. At 3am Tuesday, LAX implemented a new ride-hailing policy, forbidding curbside pickups. Less than four hours later, I was landing at the airport, an unwitting guinea pig in a merry-go-round of mass transit.
Up until that morning, my exit strategy had been a simple one: Step outside of departures (on the upper level) and into my waiting Uber or Lyft car. It worked rather seamlessly for me and many of the 120,000 passengers who leave the airport daily. But on this day, the routine would change: I had to make my way out onto the (lower) arrivals area, board a bus that would shuttle me to an off-site parking lot and wait for my ride in a queue of what looked like hundreds.
In all, the new exit method took me about 30 minutes vs. my typical 10. Given that I left the airport at a relatively quiet time of day, it could be much worse for other passengers. This is how it broke down, so you know for your next trip involving LAX.
7:17am: Boarding the shuttle
Designed to alleviate congestion, this new protocol mirrors what's been recently instituted at other busy West Coast airports, including in Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; and Las Vegas. But in those locations, the pickup zone is in walking distance.
Not here. LAX is stymied by its infamous horseshoe-shaped Central Terminal Area. The so-called LAX-it lot, the new place to get in your ride, is outside the CTA. If you get picked up at Terminal 1, the horseshoe's end, you must progress through all eight terminals, dragging you farther away from your destination before you get closer. My seatmates, European travellers on their first visit to the States, had no idea what they were in for.
7:20am: On the move
Starting from Terminal 3, we waited three minutes on the bus before doors closed and we started moving, making one stop along the way to pick up folks at Terminal 4 - technically, further from our end point - before exiting the CTA.
While arrivals remains the more congested level, departures is never a dream. It is divided into inner and outer lanes by an intermittent series of wide concrete medians, which have traditionally had the effect of feeding traffic into a game of Plinko. Before the morning of this new system, airport management tried to alleviate some of this.
Walking to the lot, by alternative, could require twice that much time as you navigate busy sidewalks and several crosswalks on your way out of the CTA.
Still, LAX officials insist this is preferable for some passengers who can. "If you're in Terminal 1 or 8 (on the ends of the horseshoe), you're far better off walking," explains Keith Wilschetz, deputy executive director of operations for Los Angeles World Airports.
7:31am: Arrive at the LAX-it log
In all, I was pleased to find that the shuttle stopped only once, for less than a minute, along the way. According to Wilschetz, this is how it should be in the new system. The longest holdup en route was a traffic light at a busy intersection guarding the entrance to LAX-it. Rolling in, I checked the stopwatch on my phone: 10 minutes and 27 seconds since stepping on.
7:32am: The strategy of ordering a car
Once within the LAX-it lot, I found myself at the centre of a curious spectacle. The pickup lot seemed to be lined with as many news vans and local reporters as it was with departing ride-hailers.
Once I ordered, my Uber ride came preloaded with a 10-minute ETA. I would later learn from Wilschetz that the optimal time to request your ride is actually right when you collect your bags inside the terminal. On a busy or rainy night, this is an risky gambit, however. Lining up your shuttle arrival with that of your incoming driver is destined to incur added wait fees from your ride-hailing app.
7:43am: In my ride
At least one person was pleased with the new arrangement: my Uber driver, Maria. She avoided being led astray by confusing signage and misleading road markings that ensnared many of her fellow drivers throughout the during the new protocol's first day. Drivers from competing services, for example, were forced to weave through one another as they approached their designated pickup lanes. Wilschetz vowed that some of those issues will be addressed during this first week.
For its part, Uber has updated its app to include extensive mapping and launched a PIN technology so that riders will be matched with their proper drivers in the chaos of the pickup pen.
There is another, pricier loophole, though. Order the Uber Black or SUV option, and you can, in fact, get picked up curbside for a hefty premium. These luxe alternatives typically cost more than double the standard fare. But they are the only services still granted access into the CTA.
7:45am: Exiting the airport
Overall, I got off easy. A Tuesday morning in October is an especially light period of travel at LAX.
For people who'll be arriving during the evening rush, prepare for that learning curve to be dauntingly steep. "The new LAX rideshare situation is a total disaster," tweeted Arash Markazi, a sports columnist with the Los Angeles Times. "My friend waited 70 minutes and the person he shared a ride with waited for one hour and 40 minutes."
LAX officials acknowledged they are still sorting things out. "We have made a number of adjustments throughout the day, including to signage, wayfinding, traffic routes, and staffing," the airport tweeted Wednesday.
Add in the construction that's in and around the airport, and the ride-pickup scenario will probably worsen before it gets better. Until the completion of a planned people-mover into the CTA in 2023, the only consolation prize is the conspicuous presence of food trucks spread across the LAX-it lot. We can see it: Bottlenecks, chaotic queues and confused commuters - but, hey, there's tacos.
Brad Japhe is an LA-based travel writer.
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