Sunday, August 30th, 2009
This is the second installment in my series on building demand for increased transit investment in Chicago. Part one was “Building the Vision“.
You must at least skim this article to the end to check out the photos of transit stations from around the world.
Imagine a public transit system that was a source of pride to its community. A system that was so great people would actually take their out of town guests just to see it. What would that do for Chicago? When people take pride in something, when they have a sense of ownership in it, then they want to take care of it and see it thrive. They are jealous of its upkeep. This is one of the emotions we have to inspire to make Chicagoans stand up and demand more – and more money – for transit.
To do that, we need to up the ante on design – by a lot. This might prompt one to ask, “How can we afford to spend even more money we don’t have?” But I firmly believe that better design does not have to mean spending more money. I’ll return to the topic of cost later, but it is worth remembering the words of Daniel Burnham in his Plan of Chicago:
As a rule, the general aspect of our suburban [train] stations is not pleasant. They should be bright, cheery, and inviting in a high degree. More study, not more money, is needed for this work. Let the architectural schools and societies take up this topic; it demands artistic imagination as well as skill. Let the man who undertakes this problem think of the hundreds or even thousands of people who must habitually use the given station, and let him do his utmost to bring into being for these people something that shall be a joy to them. A delightful station conduces cheerfulness as a man goes to work and as he comes home, while a shabby or neglected station produces the opposite effect. [emphasis added]
Or in the words of former Curitiba Mayor Jaime Lerner, father of that city’s famed busway system – which incidentally carries more riders than the CTA: “If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget.” Good design isn’t just about looking pretty. It also involves meeting the other needs of the project, and among them are the budget. Good design can embrace constraint, and budgetary constraints is one of them.
Great Design – Millennium Park
Speaking of great design, here it is:
Millennium Park is a fantastic, world class design. It should come as no surprise that consequently it is hugely popular, a must-see tourist attraction for the city, and has become almost an icon of the city’s transformation for the global age. Look at where Chicago is attracting the world’s notice in its built environment today, and you’ll see examples of great design like Millennium Park, the Koolhaas student center at IIT, and the Modern Wing.
The problem with these is that they are obviously very expensive showpieces. The ends up sending the message that good design is for special occasions and special places only. And it reinforces the notion that good design must be a budget buster. But the mark of a great city is not in how it treats its special places, but its ordinary ones. Lots of cities have hired starchitects for major buildings. But what have they done beyond that? Chicago has always been a city that got it on the importance of the everyday urban spaces in which its citizens live. And indeed, much of the design of things at present is competent and workmanlike. Things like bus shelters, street scape improvements, bike lanes, etc. have really improved the livability and attractiveness of the city.
But other cities are going beyond that.
To be direct: in many respects Chicago, for all the great things that are happening, is falling behind on the design front. This includes its public transit system. Chicago needs to take a look around, figure out how to up the ante, and get back in the game. By starting – right now – to change the game on design, Chicago can put down a marker of a new, ambitious attitude towards its transit system, and start building that community pride and sense of ownership that will lead to the demand for more investment.
The rest of this post will compare what is being done in Chicago transit design with what is going on around the world. I think you’ll agree that while we not doing bad, we could be doing even better. Please keep in mind, some of these items are actually not under the CTA’s control in Chicago.
Here is the bus shelter Chicago is currently installing:
About the best that can be said for this is that it’s not offensive. It does its job in a nice, background way, but certainly doesn’t inspire.
Here is the new San Francisco bus shelter:
Its polycarbonate roof is made of 40% post-consumer recycled waste and contains photovoltaic cells that store power by day to illuminate it at night and also feed power back into the grid. The steel frame is 75% recycled material. These shelters even contain integrated WiFi hot spots. It is a totally custom, unique design for the city. 1,110 of these are scheduled to be installed in the city by 2013. You can read more here.
Here’s a simple but effective design from, I believe, Brooklyn:
Here is a prototype design from Ljubjana, Slovenia
Bus shelters are an easy one. These are provided, for free, to the city by JC Deceaux as part of an outdoor advertising arrangement with the city. Interestingly, JC Deceaux has an entire subsidiary in Europe that does super-cool bus shelter designs for cities over there. If somebody picked up the phone tomorrow and called them up, they’d probably be very open to talking about a better design considering that they’ve done them elsewhere.
I’d suggest a design competition where we especially encourage younger, local designers to get creative and take bus shelter design to the next level in terms of functionality, amenities, aesthetics, environmental friendliness, local materials and fabrication – and of course, cost efficiency. And they should look uniquely Chicago, like they sprang forth from our Midwestern soil, not just generically “cool”.
A CTA bus:
A good, solid design. But not inspirational.
A London bus:
There is simply no more iconic bus design in the world. The double decker bus is one of the signature images evoked by the very name London. London is a perfect example of how to use the design of the mundane to create a distinct urban identity. London is not just the city of the Palace of Westminster, the Tower Bridge and the London Eye. It is also the city of the double decker bus, the black cab, the red phone booth and the bobby’s cap.
The CTA doesn’t have to go this bespoke. Indeed, even London has many single deck buses. But a more unique livery could make a big difference. Perhaps the CTA and Pace could get some local artists and graphic designers to pimp our rides? We’ve got to put the CTA and Pace livery on to begin with, so the net cost of deploying a much better livery on new buses should be low to zero.
By the way, to see one good livery, you don’t have to look very far:
Again, let’s forget the old and look at the new. Here are the special decorative subway entrances to the Red Line on State St. in the Loop:
You should click to enlarge this since there’s a more elaborate fully enclosed one in the background. These are very nice. I particular like the illuminated red stripe at the top, which is a nice touch, and the light globes on top. But again, we have a very retro, play it safe design. It’s ornate, but not distinctive. And for some reason I can’t put my finger on, this design makes me think of New York first, not Chicago.
Here are the Blue Line versions on Dearborn. Done in black and with a cleaner design, I actually like these better.
Looking elsewhere, of course, the place to look for iconic subway entrances is Paris with its Hector Guimard designed metro entrances. They define the word classic in this space:
These work in Paris not just because they are excellent designs but because, in a very real way, the embody the essence of Paris. They capture its romance and history. To walk past one of these is to be transported back to the Belle Epoque. Sundered from its native setting, these could easily end up looking cheesy.
I really hate to admit this, but Chicago actually has a clone of this on its Metra system. Here’s the entrance to an underpass at Van Buren St. Station:
Paris gives out replicas of these to cities around the world, and I believe this was one such gift. Even so, this is the sort of thing that would, if done in say Cleveland, make a Chicagoan snicker.
That’s what I’m talking about when I say these designs need to look like they sprang from the native soil. We need designs that do for Chicago was Guimard’s did for Paris, namely capture its core essence in a way that even a stranger can process.
By the way, Paris isn’t afraid to get funky too. Here’s is the metro entrance at Palais Royal. Not my favorite personally, but you’ll never forget it and I’m guessing kids love it.
If clean and modern is more your thing, here is a Norman Foster designed metro entrance in Bilbao, Spain:
It’s probably more likely you’ll end up in London than Bilbao, and Foster has a very similar design at Canary Wharf.
And check out this metro entrance in Perugia, Italy:
I don’t want to show any local transit workers here to avoid invading their privacy. But most people know what CTA uniforms look like. Uniforms have an extremely powerful affect on the person seeing them. Military organizations such as the US Marine Corps have long taken advantage of this. I have not done any real research into transit uniforms around the world, but most of them I’ve seen are very poor. Chicago should not look to them. Instead, look to the military and to military like municipal organizations such as police and fire departments. Another good place to look for inspiration is the airline industry. Here is a picture of some airline pilots:
The camera angle is even great. I’d sure trust those guys to fly me safely home.
Airlines have no doubt put tons of research into the types of uniform imagery and symbolism that creates the desired effect in their customers. I think there’s a big opportunity here too – again, at modest cost since you can use the existing uniform cost as a design constraint. A change in uniform might change completely how the public perceives – and treats – our transit employees.
Chicago already has one good transit uniform example: Metra. My Chicago office has a lot of old time pictures of Chicago in it and one of them is of a couple of railroad conductors from 1910. They don’t look too different from Metra conductors today apart from wearing their uniform a bit neater. Metra is sometimes criticized for its old school operating practices. And while some modernization might be called for, in the case of commuter rail, the old school retro look works. It is a way to tap into a truly Chicago image of its days as the railroad colossus of America. Rather than sleek and modern, perhaps Metra should be trying to make us feel like a 19th century robber baron or Jazz Age plutocat. That private car they’ve got on the UP-North line is the kind of mystique I’m talking about.
Lastly, we come to the feature cities’ transit systems are known for: their metro stations. Again, let’s not look at the old, rundown stations. Let’s compare some newly renovated CTA stations to others from around the world.
Here is the entrance to the newly replaced Brown Line station at Addison:
Here is the platform:
I think this was basically a decent concept that got derailed by value engineering. The basic, unpretentious red brick could have been the type of solid, masculine image I think Chicago should be projecting, for example. But with canopies removed from scope, escalators, paint, etc., we are left with a basic working station without much in the way of passenger amenities. You can tell that these were taken last winter. Clearly, being up on that platform in inclement weather is a bleak experience.
I can say that the CTA did a great job of preserving the public art program as part of this overall project. There are some delightful pieces at the various stations that make me want to visit them.
Here is a picture of what I think is the best new station so far: the rehabbed Red Line subway stop at State and Lake:
This station is like night and day versus what was there before. Check this out, then ride south to Monroe to see the difference. Just the lighting is a revelation. Speaking of which, I love the polished metal light bands along the roof line with the embedded signing. It’s excellent. The flooring is definitely a big upgrade too.
On the other hand, the pale color scheme, apart from the red, is very timid. The use of tile mosaic patterns is also a facile retro effect. Again, it’s seems more New York than Chicago. And its a big cutesy.
People will be very happy to travel through this station, but it won’t inspire pride or passion. It won’t attract people in any way like Millennium Park or other great designs locally.
Here’s a similar version at Chicago and State.
Again, very solid – and definitely a big upgrade – but pedestrian.
Please keep these in mind as I show you a sample of metro stations from around the world. This is, perhaps, a bit unfair since non-US cities tend to treat their metro systems as civic showplaces. But maybe that’s the point. After all, Chicago aspires to be a big time global city. It’s time to check out the global competition.
Los Angeles – Highland Avenue
Vancouver – Brentwood
London – Westminster
This type of industrial motif would have worked great in Chicago, I think.
London – Bermondsey
Paris – Arts and Métiers
Lyon – Valmy
This type of design thinking would be readily transferable to Chicago – not that I’d suggest just copying, mind you.
This station was designed by Rem Koolhaas
Rotterdam – Wilhelminaplein
Santiago – Cristobol Colon
Santiago – La Cisterna
Valencia, Venezuela – Monumental Station
The famous “Dome of Light”
Moscow is famous for having the most beautiful subway stations in the world. This is but one small sample. Moscow is something that probably can’t be replicated, since Communist-era rulers spared no expense in creating the world’s most lavish system. I believe the Moscow subway carries the most riders of any city in the world.
Chicago may not be able to make its L system Paris grade, but there is a lot that can be done to improve design and start building the affection of the people towards our transit systems. Bus shelters, bus livery, and uniforms would appear to be among the easier places to start.
I’d originally intended to go straight to a concluding part three discussing how we pay for this. But with this so long already, I’ll insert another installment between now and then, talking about cost containment and other matters.
Other Transportation Related Articles
The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Competition
Transportation and the Burnham Plan
Metropolitan Linkages (high speed rail benefits case)
High Speed Rail (implementation)