Many are the praises that have been sung about traveling in America. Whether it’s the complex network of airlines that fly you hither and yon across that vast country or the Tera-acres of tarmac laid out in three-and four-lane ribboned homage to that great god Detroit that tie the country together from sea to shining sea, it’s hard to find a people as mobile—or as joyous in that mobility.
Leaving aside that their public transport is execrable—even in the densest metropolis—that bikes and lanes for them rare (although Philly does rate an honourable mention in this department) and that suburban sprawl is their unifying lifestyle, travel in the States is still an exciting experience even if not suffering James Dean delusions in a top down Mustang on a stretch of blacktop that could be a still for Thelma & Louise.
And then there’s Philadelphia International Airport.
Having driven across the States from Point Reyes CA to Bar Harbor ME, from Port Townsend WA to the Rosarita Beach Inn in Baja and paid dues along most of US93 the Backbone of America that puts Route 66 to shame, I’ve clocked a quarter million miles on their roads.
Over the last few days, I’ve even made sense of navigating the hopelessly entangled largely signpost-free mess that passes for a road network in South Jersey where a blizzard of intersecting state ‘highways’ blast sometimes two sometimes eight lanes straight through otherwise sleepy wooded neighbourhoods. You will find a bewildering variety of junctions—some with turns, some with lights, some with neither—linked by roads that grow and lose lanes at a frenetic pace and the occasional right-angle junction where you must brake/accelerate between 0 and 55 in about 10 yards. Or die.
But when you come to PHL, you find a driver’s Bermuda Triangle, a Gordian Knot of swirling lanes that sweep you past just about everywhere but where you want to go. Try LAX and broad Century Boulevard leads you from I405 past three terminals, then back past three terminals onto the boulevard. Couldn’t be simpler. SFO and you have a similar loop but this time circular on two levels from 101. But PHL? YOU try to describe it:
Starting at the red marker shown and going right, there is the usual sequence of terminals A through E but there the logic ends. Approaching on the Delaware Expressway (Interstate 95) from North or South, there are signs for Arrivals and Departures but heaven help you if you choose the wrong one or if you are looking for, say, a specific car rental or a specific hotel. Mulitstorey car parks obscure all information about terminals and so, often as not, you find yourself at the end of options faced with I95 N or S and precious little else.
Choose N and you get entangled in Philadelphia Naval Yard when trying to find a return route; choose S and it’s much simpler—other than a 6-mile round trip to the next exit. It makes you think of the Sopranos—someone with the concrete contract for this airport would not be satisfied with less than 10 unnecessary miles of lanes and flyovers included in the over-engineered design. But if Fat Tony padded the concrete contract, whichever Don subcontracted for signage showed no respect and was sleeping with the fishes before he could deliver: if there’s a minimalist style of signs for airports, PHL is the model.
Approach from the S and you actually cross four bridges, two of which take you over I95 and back for no obvious purpose. Approach from the N and the separate ‘exit’ ramp is actually a three-lane motorway that parallels I95 for over a mile for no obvious reason before sweeping into a single lane on a bridge over—you guessed it—I95.
Car rental return is grouped, logically enough, with Departures. But it doesn’t say that at first. Then, in the middle of impatient two-lane traffic doing 50 you have to keep an eye out for the right entry gate as they flash by on the left, with no indication which is coming up next. Oh, and where it says “Enterprise” on a sharp and unexpected left turn, it should also say ‘Alamo’ and ‘National’. But doesn’t.
But, at least there are signs for returns. Pity the poor sod just rented their car and found the exit gate where some polyglot-but-none-of-them-English mumbles something from the depth of his kiosk and raises the barrier. You turn left because there is no option and then spend the first peg of you gas tank exploring the sweeping Soprano bridges of the area, crossing and recrossing I95 with no clue as to how to join it. Occasionally you will see a filter lane that seems to go the way you want but it is protected by stern signs that say it is “For Commercial Vehicles ONLY”. And so you orbit on.
You may only be going to an airport hotel. The Marriott is cheek by jowl with the high-rise parking. But the rest hunker along S Governor Prinz Blvd or Bartram Ave. Indeed, you can see some of the higher ones as you cross I95 for the seventeenth time. But signs there are none and I have a crisp $10 bill that says you will be on I95 N or S at least once before you get within spitting distance of your hotel.
For my money, unless you were born here, by far the most relaxing way to fly to Philadelphia is to skip it and go to New York instead.