Saturday, October 8, 2011

A (2003) critique of Aerotropolis

Earlier this week, Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile took a look at a new book on Aerotropolis, the idea that future cities will be built around airports. (I found it through Streetsblog.)

This is not a new idea. One of my instructors at the USC Sacramento Center was enamored of the Aerotroplis idea back in 2003. A fellow student and I were assigned a paper on "California's Airport Crisis," and were asked to include discussion of Aerotropolis. This was the critique of Aerotropolis that I wrote back then. While this was written some time ago now, I thought it might be useful to have up where people could see it.


John Kasarda, the director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina, has suggested that air transport will reshape cities into air metropolises, or “aerotropoli.”

Kasarda points out the increasing importance of air travel and air cargo shipment to today’s economy. Just-in-time production processes and global supply networks make fast access to air traffic crucial to current manufacturing. Companies that provide business services need good access to airports so they can reach their clients. Advanced telecommunications and e-commerce make sales possible in far-off areas that were previously inaccessible.

According to Kasarda, air travel is the “fifth wave” of transportation, after seaports, inland waterways, railroads, and highways. He believes that air travel will affect the ways cities develop in the 21st century in much the same ways that these other modes affected urban development in previous centuries. New development will begin to form in clusters radiating from airports. These will be mixed-use developments, including office, retail, and residential uses. Dedicated automobile and rail infrastructure will be built to provide airport access. Low density development with easy road access to the airport will provide easy accessibility, which will be the key to future real estate decisions.

Kasarda’s vision has little relevance for California and is fundamentally based on an oversimplification of the way transportation modes affect urban development. Cities are affected in two ways by transportation: where they form and how they form. Long-distance transportation primarily affects the location of development, while the city form is affected by the mode of transportation used for day-to-day short-distance trips.

Long-distance transportation affects the location of cities because the movement of goods to market is a primary activity of cities. Development occurs where it is possible to transport these goods, and at entrepot points where merchants trade: around harbors, navigable rivers, and areas where train stations and highways were constructed.

However, the form of that development has little relationship to the long-distance mode of travel. Of course, areas used directly for long-distance transportation infrastructure (rail yards, sea ports) are affected by those modes. But to the extent that the form of the city depends on transportation, it depends on the mode used for short-distance trips taken by its residents, not by this longer-distance transportation. The houses, shops, and warehouses in a city where most travel was performed by walking or in animal-powered vehicles was similar whether long-distance travel was conducted by sea, river, or rail. The advent of commonly-used public transit changed the shape of the city in the late 1800s, and the common use of the automobile changed it again in the mid-1900s. Rail for intercity use preceded the advent of public transit by several decades, but only with the electric streetcar in the 1880s did cities change their form dramatically. Unless we find ourselves in some science-fiction future where jetpacks and aircars are the norm, air transportation may shape the location, but not the form, of cities.

(In any event, the idea that transportation has come in five “waves” is profoundly ahistorical. Sea travel and river travel are both ancient. Only because the settling of the United States by urban people began at the seacoasts and moved inward can it be considered earlier even in this country; sea travel generally came later than river travel due to the difficulty of navigation in the open sea. Airplanes and the automobile were invented at nearly the same time; both were originally made possible by the internal combustion engine.)

But air transportation, unlike water transportation and to a greater extent even than rail or highways, does not dictate any particular location. An airport can be located anywhere there is sufficient flat land, and does not need access to large bodies of water or even be connected to a network of roads or rails.

Kasarda’s “aerotropoli” are supposedly about air travel, but the form he suggest they take – “Low Density Development, Wide Lanes, and Fast Movements” – point to the automobile as the primary mode of transportation for day-to-day use inside them. The aerotropolis is differentiated only by proximity to an airport from a thousand other automobile-based developments. Indeed, Los Colinas, a Dallas-Fort Worth area development cited by Kasarda as an example of an aerotropolis, is discussed in Joel Garreau’s Edge City without any reference to its airport. Sprawl near an airport is still sprawl.

The justification for this airport-centered development is the centrality of air transport to future businesses. There is no question that for some enterprises, accessibility to an airport is key when making a decision on location. However, Kasarda paints this with too broad a brush. It has always been important for manufacturing and warehouse functions to be in locations accessible to long-distance transportation, and as air travel becomes more important relative to rail or sea, these functions may locate in proximity to airports.

But other functions of these same enterprises (such as research and development, marketing, and executive functions) have other needs, such as high employee quality of life, which are at odds with airport proximity due to airports’ negative environmental impacts. For business services, the same advanced telecommunications that Kasarda cites as an incentive for airport accessibility actually makes physical travel less important as more business is done over the Internet.

What are the implications for California? It is clear that California has no special advantage for developments related to airports. An airport-related development can exist anywhere there is flat land and reasonably reliable infrastructure, and California has no monopoly on either. The functions that can most take advantage of airport proximity – manufacturing and warehousing – are relatively unimportant in California’s economy and are disproportionately impacted by California’s high labor and land costs. California would do best to play to its strengths rather than follow the aerotropolis will-o’-the-wisp.


Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday. 1991.

Kasarda, John. “Transportation and Business Forces Shaping Urban Development: The Rise of Aerotropolis.” Presentation prepared for the California Transportation Futures Conference. June 21, 2001.

Kasarda, John. “Airport-Driven Commercial Development: The Rise of the Aerotropolis.” Presentation prepared for the Owen G. Kenan Conference, Bangkok, Thailand. January, 2003.

Urban Land Institute. “Will The ‘Aerotropolis’ Replace the Metropolis? In Today's Real Estate Environment, Easy In-Easy Out Is Key Factor.” Press release. Available at “” November 7, 2002.