“Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”
Yogi Berra’s seemingly contradictory wisdom could be a subtitle for a new book about airports and the surrounding landscapes that grow up around them.
“Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next” by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, catalogs the world’s major international airports, explaining which ones work well, which ones do not, and why. Kasarda is director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC-Chapel Hill and an early proponent of North Carolina’s Global TransPark.
The authors examine the rising cost and looming shortage of petroleum and the unquestioned detrimental environmental consequences of carbon emissions and pollution. Then they argue persuasively that, not withstanding these factors, the world’s mega airports are here to stay.
Not only here to stay, but also they assert, these large airports and the urban areas that surround them are destined to be the world’s most important centers of population, employment, commerce, industry, enterprise, and creativity for the foreseeable future.
Older airports like Los Angeles, Chicago, and London’s Heathrow demonstrate how such operations can be amazing economic generators and how they are being choked by their very success.
For example, say the authors, “LAX [Los Angeles International] is a case study for how airports are incubators for trade and the cities that spring up to seize it. And then there are the side effects.”
Not only Apple but also “Intel, Hewlett Packard, Sun, and Cisco—long ago began outsourcing work … across the Pacific,” they continue. “Now they wait for airborne freighters to land in Los Angeles with the first samples of their latest holiday smash in the hold.”
Although LAX is booming, “The sprawl encircling it has calcified, and traffic on its interstate arteries…is the most sclerotic in the region.”
Still, the authors say, “LAX will get busier. Its many missteps will be mitigated but never rectified, and the crush on its crumbling infrastructure will worsen until—from a competitive perspective—it finally implodes.”
Newer airports, like those at Dallas, Denver, and Washington’s Dulles avoided some of these problems. More efficient systems inside the airport, better-planned connections to nearby businesses and surface transportation, and room to expand give them the ability to steal economic development potential from their older competitors.
Closer by, and maybe easier to understand, are the economic booms that the airports at Memphis and Louisville created. With Federal Express and UPS making these airports their principal transfer hubs, these cities became ideal locations for distribution centers of “overnight” sellers like Amazon and the warehouses of “just-in-time” manufacturers. As a result, these two cities are “in bloom” again, maybe explaining why the record crowd at the Kentucky Derby last weekend looked so prosperous.
The efficient airport operations and the attraction of related businesses at Memphis and Louisville give clues about the concept of the strange word in the book’s title: “Aerotropolis.” But there is more to it than just an airport and its city. According to Kasarda and Lindsay, an aerotropolis must be “a superconductor, a piece of infrastructure promising zero resistance to anyone setting up shop there.”
This “frictionlessness” is “the product of a whole host of attributes, many of which are invisible: tariff-free zones, faster customs clearance, fewer and faster permits, and a right-to-work workforce that knows what it is doing.”
These things and a surrounding efficient infrastructure “combine to cut costs and red tape for corporations, often at the expense of their employees and the taxpayers, in exchange (theoretically) for greater gains for all down the road.”
Where can these things be brought together? In places like China or Dubai, where decisions can be made overnight by fiat. In the U.S. and other democracies, the pathway to the ideal aerotropolis may be too steep.
And if the aerotropolis is to be the key to future competitiveness and prosperity, we may find that our beloved democracy is an expensive treasure.