A Manhattan Marvel, Penn Station just before the long good-bye.
Central stations are storehouses for a nation’s great moments.
Stations also say much about the quality our daily civic life.
Unique as a building-type, stations make a wide range of civic statements that go beyond merely the quality and efficiency of how we transport people.
Built in the first-third of the 20th Century, America’s central stations did much more than welcome inter-city travelers. Supporting the first half of the 20th Century’s most dramatic moments, station usage peaked during the war effort that saved democracy from fascism. Stations were common meeting grounds that forged “The Greatest Generation.”
Stations also played a more abstract role as key infrastructure. Trains took raw resources scattered across a vast continent and integrated them into an economic powerhouse. Stations supported America’s ascendance as key transfer points that reshaped industries and built them into history’s dominant economy.
In the second half of the 20th Century, this wealth manifested as sprawling metropolises. While some central stations served suburbanites’ daily train commute, most fell into disuse. Except for New York’s Grand Central, stations were not updated well.
Station decline ended in the 21st Century, but progress is frustrated. Eight of the ten largest U.S. regional train operators are fumbling to update their central stations. Most suffer decade-long delays due to lack of authority, ridiculous cost over-runs due to incompetence or corruption, and inadequate funding due to short-term governance.
Serving as pivot points to support how previous generations grew a continent into the world’s greatest industrial power, today’s central stations offer us a different opportunity to shape a new future, possibly a comprehensively sustainable one. Today’s civic focus on updating central stations implicitly tries to tap this opportunity. By understanding today’s frustrations and, specifically, how mobility modes should converge on the central station, fixing stations properly serves as a microcosm for how sustainable metropolitan transportation can emerge.
Central stations are a micro-message of the macro-message articulated in “The Metropolitan Revolution”: cities serve as our key economic engines. Today’s central stations should welcome the information economy’s employees to their central business district. Station quality directly impacts how they get transported to other regional centers. Central stations help reshape sprawling metropolitan areas into more compact ones with fewer choke points.
The above book from The Brookings Institution reinforces my generalized takeaway after studying stations intensely for several years: we must transfer the required transportation and taxing authorities from state government and refashion them to make mobility better for each metropolis.
If a city can update well its central station and surrounds, it contributes a symbol to define its metropolitan revolution because transportation is one of the most obvious regional services. As transportation gets rebalanced at the metro level, the region will control a key asset for redeveloping their land and tax base for the sustainable era.
Trains and their stations are a primary theatre for cities and their suburbs to collaborate better. Station updates can accelerate your city’s transformation from automobile dominance to a more fiscally-balanced and economy-supportive mix of modes. But before this writing project describes how each of these stations can help achieve those benefits, let me state the project’s chief conclusion: we ultimately must govern transportation better and use trains as a coordinated tool to redevelop cities and suburban centers.
I just packed a lot into one civic building… and a writing project. But this challenge of rebuilding stations — the places were journeys begin — will play an important role in stimulating America’s psyche of opportunity to redevelop cities for the new era.
The first stage of this inquiry into central stations revealed too many clues that transportation is governed poorly. These clues bop around in the eight articles I posted through 2014 on “The Urbanophile.” (Thanks to Aaron Renn, you can still link to the series; since it made the cut when he winnowed his blog’s archives.) This series tested the emergent policy abstraction called “sustainability” by applying it to central stations. That link shows how I categorized stations according to four steps toward sustainability.
As each station’s performance was reported and scored, it became obvious to me that updating problematic stations was unlikely unless 20th Century agencies also evolved from separate monopolies into an integrated system of mobility’s modes. To understand this mutual evolution better, the Inquiry’s second stage — that this essay introduces — modifies the framework into what I call the 4Ms. To start exploring each, I repeat them from this Introduction’s title: “From Marvels to Mix-ups to Make-overs to Masters.”
In analyzing these stations that center America’s major commuter lines, the obstacle to improving stations was transportation’s authority was too weak and outdated agencies were flailing and failing us. Failure’s most obvious evidence is the repeating attempts to update two of our three most important stations, Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago’s Union. Not only do these two hell-holes dehumanize travel for employees in the nation’s two most important commercial centers, but agency efforts always postpone the obvious need to through-route. Through-stations are already the 21st Century standard. Through-routing improves the efficiency of transit and, consequently, redevelopment more than any single public investment. Yet those benefits are blocked by the agencies that control central stations.
In transportation’s Big Picture, today’s caricature of governance will continue haunting us with dysfunction and debt. To reshape government (a Herculean challenge), we need a symbol signaling that change is possible. This project proposes updating stations as a first step in making metropolitan transportation networks in which services mesh. Because station updates are usually made more difficult by either a lack of authority or it being in the wrong agencies, stations at least serve as our target that illustrates the Big Picture.
Most of North America’s 29 metropolises operating commuter rails have made some effort to update their stations. The few that have updated their stations well usually have innovated their governance and, often, have earned sufficient taxpayer support. So the correlation between correct updates and reform seems strong. But this inquiry’s findings are that most large American cities cannot overcome antiquated transit agencies… unless taxpayers fund and monitor an agency of change.
Upon recognizing my project must deal more forthrightly with political obstacles, the postings stopped during 2015 while I thought through a more likely strategy. Responding to America’s reality, this project’s next stage (this website) will propose sweeping changes in transportation’s governance and funding. This also requires a new deal for commuters and taxpayers who must invest in stations that center transit in the emerging metropolitan regime.
This website proposes a new synthesis after its analysis of what works and what does not. Let’s start with the good stuff: when we knew how to build great, functional civic spaces.
Author’s photo during her 100th birth year of the Grand Dame and workhorse, 2013.
How Marvels Work. The main concourse of Grand Central Terminal (above) set a high, majestic standard for the many other cities who built — and aspire to build — beautiful stations that say “Welcome.” One source boasts that GCT has over 22 million visitors a year; making it one of the most visited attractions in the world. Many come to gaze into the ceiling’s constellations; as if to marvel at the awe of Creation.
Back on our planet, remember that GCT was a real estate deal. It still is; which largely explains why it continues to succeed. This Marvel also sets a standard for how terminals function. A Marvel of how engineering and human behavior mix, GCT also is huge. It has 67 tracks with wide platforms that handle packed trains well on two underground levels. GCT then gives passengers many options to flow efficiently (and gracefully by New York standards) into six subway lines or rise to the main concourse and its constellation; inspiring travelers to gird Midtown’s streets and arrive at their final destinations.
While none are as large or majestic as GCT, other central stations work like Marvels. Philadelphia’s three Center City stations connect via through-route (a key Master ingredient.) That same reason can help a mid-sized station in a struggling town, Newark’s Penn Station, punch well above its weight. These American Marvels were built in the 20th Century’s first three decades, supported by the profits of real estate deals.
A more common collaboration were deals worked out between competing rail companies. Called “union stations,” they usually consolidated passenger terminals next to rail yards shared with freight at the edge of the central business district. Messier than the quality Marvels above, Union Stations still collectively shaped the public purpose of making centers that enhanced mobility.
But, the glory decades faded fast. The second half of the Century saw rails and their deals decline as the auto and airplane captivated America’s mind, decentralized mobility, and sucked in huge taxpayer subsidies that de-stabilized transportation in ways that we do not seem to know how to correct today… even where rails made towns such as Chicago.
Reflecting consensus, this photo from Chicago’s 2012 “Master Plan for Union Station” shows how workers and taxpayers feel squeezed in the concourse. Not fixed in the 1991 renovation, today’s attempts again are frustrated by disjointed governance.
Why Mix-ups Matter. My city’s largest central station takes commuters doing the right thing and punishes them by squeezing them through a hell-hole. I call it “the CUS-ed Experience.” It starts when de-boarding into a 90 year old trainshed with ridiculously uneven pavement, narrow platforms, ongoing complaints of diesel exhaust and the increasingly frequent surprise of concrete falling from the shed’s roof.
The photo above continues the CUS experience in the passage from the concourse out to the street where the confused melee continues, crosses congested bridges and does not calm for usually a few blocks. Overall, the CUS experience reflects an inability for agencies to work together and, basically, respect passengers and taxpayers. In 1991 when CUS’ had a fast-growing commuter service and Illinois had money, this peak congestion might have been solved if an agency-in-charge understood the cramped concourse was because a skyscraper squished the concourse. (This created the Mix-up.) But instead of proper authority doing the right thing, political expediency insisted on pouring substantial renovation money into a rat-hole that, 25 years later, is a busier rat-hole.
This poster child for dysfunction in transportation’s governance is owned by Amtrak. CUS’ owner has only 10% of CUS’ daily passengers. The 90% commuters are Metra passengers; an agency supposedly supervised by Illinois but, de facto, has its authority decentralized by the region’s 240+ suburbs. This weakens the agency so much that it cannot contribute to correcting CUS, where six of Metra’s eleven lines terminate.
With the powers-that-be unmoved, the agency with the least authority and money now leads a new renovation. Chicago’s Department of Transportation has conducted plans for two decades; but, its good intentions lack funding and undermines its leadership.
One key difference between Marvels and Mix-ups appears in the “Connections” sheet of each station’s scorecard that you can find towards the beginning of each “Urbanophile” article. Mix-ups result from poor cooperation between agencies and providers. GCT, our 100 year old Marvel of efficiency, has subways on all four sides. CUS, our Mixed-up poster child, has the nearest stop of the Chicago Transit Authority three blocks away. (New Yorkers, it’s Ok to laugh.) But know that this hyper-dysfunction results from weak and/or misplaced authority… and those problems are reported in a dozen station’s scorecards. Indicative of a nationwide flaw, consider further Mix-up examples.
— For the inexcusable dysfunction between wealthy states, look no further than Manhattan’s Penn Station that serves some of the nation’s highest property values and centers America’s other major transit hell-hole.
— For quintessential dysfunction within one of our most competent states, Boston’s north and south central stations remain disconnected because Massachusetts has a debilitating fear of tunneling; institutionalized by the disastrous Big Dig for cars.
— And then, consider Maryland. Despite having probably the best state DOT, Baltimore’s central station does not serve the downtown. Curiously, the only serious proposal to correct this comes from a private venture seeking to build a high speed line from Baltimore’s downtown to the nation’s capital.
Detailed in forthcoming chapters, Mix-ups support the conclusion that even competent state DOTs are bad fits for metropolitan station solutions; primarily because they need real estate deals intent on building mixed-use centers and enhancing mobility, something road-building agencies have too few skills for.
“The Urbanophile” articles and scorecards analyzing stations help expose transit Mix-ups. They, most often, are caused because agencies lack the authority and/or motivation to coordinate all the players. Without a Daddy, agency sibling rivalries prevail and passengers — and taxpayers — get worse service than they paid for.
Bottomline: With no agency enforcing operational efficiency, they lose taxpayers’ trust and thus lose the critical source of capital to upgrade stations and transit.
Separated from station-building success by a century devoted to autos, cities with large suburban train systems have failed to prepare their stations to center metropolitan transportation. Worse, probably none will… if we depend on current agencies.
Compare today’s failures to history’s most economically dominant nation in which 114 union stations were built by the collaboration between private inter-city rails in the first three decades of the 20th Century. Back then, train commuting was small and inter-city passenger rail had marginal profitability. Yet private companies — most of whom were big players in real estate — made great stations. Let’s admire one of the last major station’s built using that economic model and interpret it for the nation’s potential today.
My blurry photo coveys how the exquisite waiting room of LA’s Union Station represents the unclear transition from Hollywood’s glorification of the auto as part of the American Dream to LAUS serving as symbol of the challenges facing the nascent Transit Metropolis.
What Separates Mix-ups From Make-Overs?
Answer: Taxpayer Trust… And Capital.
While Mix-ups teach us that we should reorganize the business of moving people, Make-overs, at least, have a better chance of eventually centering improved transportation. This site’s Overview “What Is To Be Done” reinforces this.
It is still too early to judge how LAUS serves as a center for LA’s transit Renaissance. Yet, this station made such a clear civic statement in the 1930s about LA’s intent to become a great city that LAUS was never allowed to slip into the Mix-up category… or be demolished as so many stations were. Still, LAUS has challenges. In the LA chapter, I explain why plans for LAUS are likely to produce a good Make-over and offers a hopeful example to most emerging Sunbelt commuter systems.
The owner of LAUS, The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (branded as Metro), is the dominant transit agency for 10 million people. While California law enables counties with more authority, Metro’s true power derives from how it is building a new social contract for transit. We see this particularly in 2016 when it positioned itself to win 67% on the November ballot; required to renew the one cent sales tax passed almost 25 years ago and increased by another 1/2 cent now.
As an example of its sophisticated marketing and steady positioning, view any of Metro’s press conferences or videos and you will see a steady stream of politicians and Metro appointees essentially, say: “You gave us money and we delivered a new transit line.” Compare this to how Chicago’s politicians lost credibility decades ago and New York’s ridiculous cost-overruns dampen claims to serve the public. But in LA, the political theatre works much better; in part because it is sincere.
However staged, sincerity shows in this mural installed as LA got its first sales tax that launched its transit Renaissance in the mid-1990s. This mural in LAUS’ East Portal connects bus passengers to the train track concourse, the light rail and subway stations, and, then, into the vintage Union Station; unifying transit systems. Beyond mere functionality, LAUS and its mural reinforces that Metro wants everyone to know their transit options matter.
Bigger Picture still… stations and transit remind us of our social contract through the commonplace commute. The same train that helps a million dollar trader get home also helps the immigrant janitor get to work in a suburban office building; both are motivated by America’s myths. Of the ten largest U.S. metropolitan areas, LA might be advancing the fastest this notion of a new social contract for transportation.
Knowing that trust with tax-shy taxpayers is long-term, Make-overs must deliver consistently to become Masters and center Masterful networks. Taxpayers have too many good reasons to be skeptical of politicians’ promises. (Indeed, I am still looking for a major American station update that stayed even remotely close to a reasonable budget and timeline.)
What Separates Make-Overs From Masters?
Answer: Reformed transportation governance
Revealing a worsening pattern of how station updates were unnecessarily expensive and/or ineffective by the agencies responsible, my series in “The Urbanophile” caused me to think through the project’s next steps. That same month, a think-tank and training institute for transit agencies, The Eno Center, published its study of six metro areas (above). Co-authored with The Transit Center, their pivotal study helped me see more clearly how stations could evolve. I soon formulated my 4Ms evolution for central stations.
As governance improves, Mastery emerges which, in turn, earns more public trust which, in turn, yields enough of their capital to update systems for the Sustainable Century. Masters are not yet found in North America (although I am most hopeful of Toronto.) Routinely, Masters are found in Europe. In this project’s last phase, we will see what their stations teach us about preparing trains and their agencies for the future.
Masters invest taxes so transit gives current and next generations the quality of life and economic benefits promised by taking those taxes. Europe enjoys that social contract. America does not; living in this moment, addicted to cars.
If you look closely, stations reveal our deals are weak. Of America’s Make-over stations, most merely made-up for the neglect of previous decades. As a higher stage of evolution, Master stations perform functions well. They use through-routes to increase ridership and, thus, relieve subway and street congestion. Their agencies coordinate to redevelop central station surrounds more compactly… along with sub-regional stations along that through-route. Europe delivers a quality alternative to the car.
This project’s final phase will try to keep foreign analogies tight to U.S. metros. I plan to start with a review of Toronto’s Union Station and the remarkable growth of GO Transit. Gleaning lessons, other chapters will review Paris, London, Germany, Italy and the Low Countries. Most their stations are Masters. Per capita passenger miles also tell the story: citizens in the 15 nations in the European Union use the train 10 times more than the U.S. To better understand how we narrow the gap, also planned is a chapter that labors under the working title of: “The EU Teaches Uncle Sam: Directives Work Better Than Interstate Compacts Or Federal Regulations.” This chapter reminds us that solutions are redeveloped sustainably at the metro level, but that accelerated change is facilitated at the federated level by sharing what works best.
Where Do We Go From Here… And Who Will Care?
The 20th Century routines for transport are re-balancing itself from the auto to more shared modes. Rails will continue to grow because they have superior efficiencies in moving people. Trains are the long-term link in the spectrum of how shared modes reduce transportation costs and road congestion.
Whether or not we leave the next generation with masterful transit largely depends on how we evolve America’s 29 metropolitan train systems and what we teach one another about how transportation works sustainably. In visually concrete ways, stations are key to how trains sync with other modes.
As for the political deal that convinces Americans to use their cars less… Well, that deal has odds better than they appear. Know that the U.S. metros reviewed in forthcoming chapters total over 61 million that can benefit from better central stations. For stations not analyzed, add another 29 million. Then add in 31 million more from the 24 regional rail wannabee metros who actively are planning or building a rail line. Total this up and some 121 million Americans have varying agreements about making trains into a regional service. This 38% of the nation will benefit if through-routed stations center trains whose purpose is to help redevelop metro areas.
This constituency deserves more than aged stations. Central stations should center systems that leverage transit’s environmental, economic and fiscal benefits. When stations show such Mastery, they reinforce the social contract with America’s taxpayers that their investment was well spent today and tomorrow.
We need to think through a deal good enough to breed ventures to solve challenges so our times are made great. For that, let’s first metaphorically give a clutching hug to the next generation. We owe it to them to improve the advantage that was passed on to us.
Photo credit: pinterest.com/deborahrode