There’s curbside chaos at DFW Airport — thanks in part to the surge of Uber and Lyft

Dallas-Fort Worth Airport is experiencing curbside chaos outside its passenger terminals, with too many cars jockeying for limited space as motorists try to pick up arriving air travelers who need a ride to their final destination.

Officials at the world’s fourth busiest airport say much of the gridlock is caused by the growing popularity of Uber and Lyft. Those companies, who weren’t even legally allowed to pick up fares at the airport until 2015, now make up 23 percent of all automobile traffic at DFW, officials say.

But rather than try to chase away all those drivers for Uber and Lyft — or any other technology-driven company that may offer such services in the future — DFW Airport is embracing them.

Starting Sept. 8, the airport is taking the first of several steps designed to make more room for services such as Uber and Lyft to pick up their passengers at curbsides. On that date, no one — whether it’s a private citizen or Uber/Lyft driver — will be allowed to park at curbside unless their passenger is present and ready to get in the car.

Anyone who attempts to stay for more than about a minute will be shooed away by an airport employee. The idea is to keep the terminals’ ground-level curbsides clear for motorists — whether they be Uber drivers-for-hire or ordinary folks — who can get in and out quickly.

The changes are likely to be shocking for motorists who are accustomed to parking curbside and staying as long as they want. But the changes are necessary, one official says, because market forces are quickly altering the behavior of air travelers — many of whom clearly prefer so-called “transportation network companies” such as Uber and Lyft.

“They (Uber and Lyft) are a market disruption that is occurring, and it’s driven by the customer,” said Ken Buchanan, DFW Airport executive vice president of revenue management. “If they were not performing a good service the customers would not migrate to them the way they are.”

Uber Lyft DFW Airport 01
Passengers wait for rides and load luggage at one of the DFW terminals. The increasing use of ride companies Uber and Lyft have DFW Airport terminal rules regarding curbside dropoffs, pickups and taxi services changing. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

Unpacking the chaos

The curbside chaos really doesn’t start with Uber and Lyft. Instead, it begins with the ordinary North Texans who use their own vehicles to pick up colleagues and loved ones at the airport.

On any given day outside terminals, everyday motorists can be seen parked outside the terminal, some checking their phones to kill time while waiting for an air traveler to arrive. Other drivers temporarily abandon their vehicles, perhaps putting on the hazard lights before walking inside the baggage area in search of someone. Still others grow impatient with the crowded curbsides, so they double-park in a middle lane, gridlocking traffic behind them.

Add Uber and Lyft to the crowded curbside conditions, and its’ a recipe for chaos. But at least the Uber and Lyft drivers, who typically communicate with their customers by mobile phone, know exactly at what gate their fare is waiting, so they can get in and out quickly.

DFW Airport wants to encourage private citizens to get better at moving just as quickly when they come to the airport to pick up an acquaintance or loved one.

The quick access to airport customers is helping Uber to grow into a more business and tourism-focused service.

“Uber strives to give travelers convenient, reliable, consistent and affordable transportation options at airports — all with the same quality of service riders expect from Uber across the globe,” said Travis Considine, an Uber Texas spokesman.

A recent study by the Economic Development Research Group found that 16.8% of Uber trips in Texas are for business travel, and 12.6% of Uber trips in Texas are taken by out-of-town visitors.

Officials from Lyft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More about the changes

So what is a motorist supposed to do if they can’t park at curbside to wait for an air traveler to arrive?

One option is to go into one of the parking garages, which are outside each terminal. The first few rows of parking spaces are for one-hour parking, and DFW is adding 1,200 one-hour spots to help ease the burden as motorists get used to the new rules.

Also, the airport recently opened a cell phone lot just outside the north entrance, where drivers can park and safely call the traveler they are waiting for and make arrangements to meet at a specific time and place. Longer-term, DFW has plans to add a cell phone lot to the airport’s south end as well.

The airport also may eventually add amenities to the cell phone lots such as restaurants or coffee shops, to give motorists more ways to pass the time while waiting for a traveler to arrive, Buchanan said.

For those who want to catch an old-fashioned cab ride, taxi queues will be moved to the lower level of the parking garages. The change may upset some taxi drivers, who are accustomed to picking up fares at a curbside taxi queue, but cabs now represent only 3 percent of all airport traffic, down from 6 percent a few years ago, Buchanan said.

Most other shuttle services will be moved to the lower level of the garages as well. The airport will improve painting and lighting in the garage lower levels, to make them feel less dungeon-like, officials said.

The airport also plans to improve “wayfinding” signs, to make it easier for travelers and motorists to get where they want to go. In all, DFW plans to spend about $5.9 million improving its infrastructure for passenger pickups, spokesman David Magana said.

The changes will be welcome for travelers such as Farhan Ali, who recently used Lyft to travel from DFW to his Richardson home after returning from a trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., with his wife and toddler.

“It’s a matter of convenience,” Ali said before climbing into an Audi driven by his Lyft driver.

As for the curbside chaos, Ali took it in stride.

“I kind of expect it in a city as big as Dallas,” he said. “But it’s good to know they’re doing something about it.”.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson