In the midst of reading John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay’s definitive and thoroughly interesting book entitled Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, I began to ponder some of the surface transportation ramifications of this megatrend. In particular, those impacts taking place in areas surrounding existing airports. A historical geographic review of airports across North America shows that as airports have grown in economic stature, the local expressway system has often been reconfigured, redirected, or rebuilt to reflect this new economic paradigm.
During the golden age of limited access expressways (1950s thru 1970s), innerbelts were reserved for the downtown core (such as Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Columbus, Nashville, Portland, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and many others). Meanwhile outer belts (or ring roads) were designed and/or constructed around complete cities [such as Indianapolis (I-465), Houston (I-610), Atlanta (I-285), Columbus (I-270), Cincinnati (I-275), Washington (I-495), Fort Wayne (I-69/469), Jacksonville (I-295), Fort Worth (I-20/820), Baltimore (I-695), San Antonio (I-410) and Charlotte (I-485)].
However, a newer phenomenon is the unintended (or perhaps intended) formation of beltways (or “skybelts”) around an entire airport or aerotropolis realm itself. While these loops may not currently consist of a single moniker or numerical shield (they will eventually), they are indeed the urban beltways of tomorrow, thus providing easy and quick access to and from the aerotropolis for passengers, freight, employees, rental cars, and a plethora of ancillary services.
Here are existing examples of “skybelts” in North America with the limited access beltway contributors identified:
- Atlanta (Hartsfield) – I-75/I-85/I-285
- Baltimore (BWI) – I-97/I-295/I-695/SR 100
- Chicago (O’Hare) – I-90/I-290/I-294
- Dallas-Forth Worth – I-635/SR 114/SR 121/SR 161/SR 360
- Kansas City – I-29/I-435/SR 152
- Newark (Liberty) – I-78/I-95/US 1
- Orlando – SR 417/SR 528/Florida Turnpike
- Phoenix (Sky Harbor) – I-10/Loop 202/SR 143
- Piedmont Triad – I-40/I-73/I-840/SR 68/Bryan Parkway
- Pittsburgh – I-376/BR-376/US 22
- Richmond (uc) – I-64/I-295/I-895/Airport Parkway
- St. Louis (Lambert) – I-70/I-170/I-270
- Syracuse – I-81/I-90/I-481
- Toronto (Pearson) – 401/407/410/427
- Twin Cities – I-494/ SR 5/SR 55/SR 72
(uc) – under construction
One finds it hard to imagine a future scenario where more airports will not become completely encapsulated (and insulated) by these multi-lane “skybelts” of economic nirvana that are dotted with hotels, restaurants, offices, warehouses, flex space, shopping centers, and a myriad of other non-residential land uses serving the dynamic aerotropoli of tomorrow. Here’s an image of possible highway connections around and near Dulles International Airport including a proposed “skybelt” (Route 606) around the airport itself.:
Beyond the purely economic aspects of this paradigm is a secondary reason alluded to in the previous paragraph – insulation from NIMBY’s and room to grow. The “skybelts” are essentially multi-lane concrete buffer strips that give the airport breathing room to transition into an aerotropolis while also minimizing the potential downside impacts on residents of neighboring communities. In some instances, namely Chicago, this could (repeat could) in the long-term result in the nearly complete disappearance of existing residential communities within the beltway formed by I-90, I-290, and I-294. Those may be fighting words among the Northwest Chicago suburbs, but stranger things have happened.
For urban planners, the dawning of the aerotropolis age provides many opportunities and challenges that will impact nearly every specialization within our profession. The trick for each of us is to find the happy medium somewhere in between the promises and the pitfalls.