Big Apple, a sculpture by Romero Britto, greets visitors to JFK International Airport in New York.
Wally Gobetz/Flickr via Creative Commons License Big Apple, a sculpture by Romero Britto, greets visitors to JFK International Airport in New York.

Like Oz, New York is not easy to get to. Arrive by car, and you will almost invariably get stuck in traffic and confusion as the tentacles reaching out from the octopus that is America’s biggest hub get entangled into a mess of roads, bridges, and tunnels as you near your destination. Rail might be a bit easier, but it’s also grosser: the regional carriers’ and Amtrak’s rolling stock and stations often smell like toilets and don’t look much better. With bad luck you might also wind up in the converted mental ward called Penn Station. Flying could be the worst option: Even if you survive the indignities of modern airplane seating, you arrive at one of the three airports that rank first, fourth and fifth on Travel & Leisure’s list of worst airports in this country. And, once you’re there, getting into the city subjects you to all the un-pleasantries of options one or two.

But don’t despair: Believe it or not, it might get better. Governor Cuomo, joined by no less a New York-airport-hater than Vice President Biden, announced a competition on Oct. 20 to make those airports, and their respective links into the city, better. That would include a complete, $2.3 billion reimagining of La Guardia’s central terminal as well as moving most of the air freight out into the boondocks to alleviate JFK’s airside congestion.

JFK Airport's TWA Terminal and tram.
Hal Dick/Flickr via Creative Commons License JFK Airport's TWA Terminal and tram.

I am not holding my breath. I bet you that, if it is ever realized, the La Guardia central terminal will be a version of all the other bland, fast food-filled limbo spaces around America. Given its site—and the fact that Delta and American will be in their own wings—it will still be a mess. We seem to have neither the will nor the ability to make beautiful airports anymore, at least in this country. Solving the transportation problem will be even more difficult. If you look at how many decades and billions it has taken to put a subway up Second Avenue, and how impractical the last big fix—a train from JFK to a failed hub in Queens—has been, I do not foresee something like Pudong’s Maglev, or even a dedicated lane for express buses into Grand Central, happening in New York. (There is talk of ferries. Please.)

Visitors to New York's airports are greeted with signage, but not, as Betsky points out, great architecture or infrastructure.
John M/Flickr via Creative Commons License Visitors to New York's airports are greeted with signage, but not, as Betsky points out, great architecture or infrastructure.

The City and State should notice all the ways in which things have been getting better incrementally, and build on them. The introduction of Fastpass has made the bridges and tunnels easier to navigate. Car services like Uber and Lyft have cut down the taxi lines and made the rides better. These are fixes for the relatively wealthy; we should extend them to those with lesser means through jitneys and by just improving existing train service in the way the subways have been getting better.

La Guardia Airport (LGA), Delta Terminal
Luis Jou García/Flickr via Creative Commons License La Guardia Airport (LGA), Delta Terminal

At the airports, airlines such as Delta have made remarkable improvements. Delta’s terminals at both La Guardia and JFK have turned into sleek and modern oases where you can plug in and tune out (though there are still too many blaring televisions) while enjoying remarkably gourmet food. The same thing has happened at Grand Central Station, though the public waiting areas are still a bit grim. And, by the way, since the TSA got serious about its Trusted Traveler program and expanded it to just anyone who can be trusted (meaning, most of us), those awful lines are not so bad.

Delta Sky Lounge.
Mark Nakasone/Flickr via Creative Commons License Delta Sky Lounge.

What I think we should do with the $8 billion is not spend it on new buildings or transportation infrastructure, but on innovations and renovations. Study and learn from how people actually move and use transportation. Make it flexible and break it down, rather than sizing it up. Subsidize small-scale, easy-to-use, and comfortable public transportation into the City. Upgrade the commuter trains and renovate Penn Station (rather than spending billions on a new station next door, as the current plan is and has been for decades). Encourage the airlines to follow Delta’s example and renovate their terminals with good taste and decent design.

Utopia might be an all-new set of airports, each one unified and logical, instead of divided into their capitalist turfs of different airline groups; fast and affordable public transportation into the city; and the abolishment of cars altogether in Manhattan. A proposal by Jimmy Venturi to amalgamate La Guardia with Rikers Island and connect it to a “vertical hub” in the Bronx is certainly intriguing. But since none of that will actually happen, let’s not spend a vast amount of money on what will, without fail, be mediocre fixes. Let’s be street smart and tactical, and let’s have some fun—with, and by, design.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.