20 September 2016

Why is San Jose’s airport so close to downtown?

This is Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. In the background is downtown Washington, D.C. Reagan National is approximately a 1–1.5 hr walk from the White House, depending on which part of the airport you start in.

This happens to be roughly the same as the walking time between San Jose International and the center of downtown San Jose.

What does this say about the respective cities? Not much. DC and San Jose are both cities with massive global importance, though in very different domains.

It does say something about what was in fashion when it came to urban design at the time the airports were built. SFO and OAK were first built in the 1920s and were expanded in the 1930s and 40s. Back in their day, air travel was a new and risky technology, and people didn’t want airports to be right next to cities.

San Jose International, meanwhile, was only envisaged in the 1940s. By the time it began to take its present shape in the 1950s, air travel—and airports themselves—became fashionable. Unlike Oakland or San Francisco, San Jose could have an airport right next to the city. San Jose itself was much, much smaller prior to the explosive growth of the 70s and 80s. Nowadays the airport is pretty much inside the city. Same thing with Reagan National. It was constructed in the 1940s and took its present shape in the 50s.

Later we would realize that airplanes are really noisy, airports are unsightly and it’s really hard to expand an airport after it’s been surrounded by suburban sprawl. Once again it became fashionable to build airports farther away from cities. In the 1960s DC began building a replacement for Reagan National. President Eisenhower personally chose the location, an hour’s drive away from downtown DC.

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