As Americans ditch cars for transit, airports seek new ways to find space for walking, biking

The biggest problem for travelers who choose airports over some of the best public parks in the country is the narrow and crowded spaces. Places like North Carolina’s Thompson Pines Regional Airport, or airports around the country such as Washington Dulles, Westchester County Airport or those in Philadelphia and Washington D.C., struggle to find space for walking, biking and running.

But this is changing as airports across the nation are seeking new uses for the abundant space they currently occupy. A rail system could be the answer to a number of city dwellers who just can’t seem to find room to exercise.

Related Image Expand / Contract Greene Street Bikes and Speed Skates

Local authorities across the country have been putting forward plans to take public land for this purpose. Hayesville Beach is being developed on a 22-acre public parking lot, designed for public biking, walking and running, while commuter rail systems in New York and Washington, D.C., like Metro and the Long Island Rail Road, are spurring similar projects.

“If you think about areas that have surface parking lots that you really would like to get a little more urban, if you’re working downtown or you’re a visitor coming down the street, you would like to have at least that option. Whether that’s exercising your legs, or just getting around a little bit more with minimal traffic,” said Meredith Melton, who runs the nonprofit Landuse Alliance.

The idea isn’t without precedent. Eastern Air Lines, founded in 1914, was the first airline to pioneer air travel for the public. Many of the plots they purchased throughout the 1930s, for example, were dedicated to infrastructure planning.

“The airport could generate so much money … and solve most of their problems but their buyers, they were greedy. They bought land that was zoned for farming and the airport takes it over in one fell swoop and it takes a lot of pressure off the city, providing some economic return to the cities,” said Tim Flannery, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Richmond.

Related Image Expand / Contract The University of Richmond in Virginia is trying to use its unused land for land projects. (Google Maps)

While almost any locale can be used as a transit park, as great as it might be for getting people from one place to another, it may not be practical.

“It’s a transportation tool. What they do is they’re basically converting land into mass transit, and the equipment that goes along with that means that there has to be wider bridges and other bridges that have to be built than you might ordinarily have and traffic is much more extensive,” Flannery said.

That same story has been told for some time in Baltimore, where the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) is working on a solar powered rail station in Reservoir Hill. The project is intended to create jobs in the area and connect riders to the airport in a new way.

Related Image Expand / Contract After the Mass Transit Authority is done building a solar-powered railway station in Reservoir Hill, it could have ample space for cyclists. (Google Maps)

“They’re providing to the community an infrastructure that allows them to use land in a different way,” said John Bailey, Executive Director of Baltimore Gateway Alliance. “Putting solar power in the rail system … is saying, ‘We know you’re going to be using mass transit.’ It’s bringing the place that is meant to be a transit center to a transit center.”

The stations at Reservoir Hill and North Carolina’s Thompson Pines Regional Airport are expected to open in 2020, bringing a new, environmentally sustainable use to the area.

“The only way to do this is to introduce it piecemeal or try and implement as a separate project, or as part of an airport master plan that the developers might have,” Bailey said. “Having another layer of intervention that encourages people to use transit as opposed to private vehicle is a benefit.”

Fox News’ Michael Signorile contributed to this report.

Follow Neal St. Anthony on Twitter: @nealstanthony

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