Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great, Part 2 – Raising the Bar on Design

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.

Bus Shelters

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”.

Bus Liveries

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:

Subway Entrances

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.

L Stations

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.

The Hague

This station was designed by Rem Koolhaas

Rotterdam – Wilhelminaplein

Valencia, Spain

Santiago – Cristobol Colon

Santiago – La Cisterna

Valencia, Venezuela – Monumental Station

Kaohsiung, Taiwan

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.

More Chicago

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great
Part 1: Building the Vision
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design (this post)
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It
Part 5: Getting It Done

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)

Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation
Cities: Chicago

33 Responses to “Chicago Transit: From Good to Great, Part 2 – Raising the Bar on Design”

  1. Lynn Stevens says:

    For rail stations, I think lighting is one of the easier places to start and create big impact.

    With our bus shelters and downtown subway entrances, I think the mayor and those out to please him are just too Euro-centric.

    As I was reading I was wondering if you advocate for sameness in bus shelters, subway entrances, etc. across the city as you advocate for sameness in light poles. I prefer some uniqueness, but that could maintain some feature of continuity, such as the lighted line indicated what color line the subway entrance feeds.

    Greater Greater Washington had a recent post on D.C. Metro (subway) design.

  2. ardecila says:

    The point you made about Arts in Transit was a good one. As with everything else, money drives the program, with the costs split between the FTA and the City of Chicago. Since none of CTA's own capital funds are used for the Arts program, there are much fewer pressures on cost-control.

    The status quo for CTA and Metra is to use the in-house architects at large engineering firms, who keep costs in mind through the entire design process. This often results in very watered-down design, but at a reasonable cost that allows CTA to stretch its limited capital funds further. The architect selection is also hugely biased, since there are revolving doors between those large engineering firms and government agencies like the Tollway, IDOT, CDOT, CTA, and Metra.

  3. ardecila says:

    (in addition to the previous post) The low cost of these firms' designs is probably the only reason that there isn't outrage over this practice, as pragmatic Chicagoans encounter so much corruption that they only perk their ears when tax money is being wasted or laws are broken.

    Also, I would like to point out that station design is not all about Architecture (w/capital A). Small things can and do make a huge difference in the user experience. The DC metro is a good example of this. Its original stations, designed by the Chicagoan Harry Weese, are serious examples of Brutalism, but they were incredibly simple and cost-effective, and provide a pleasant user experience through train-arrival signs, little flashing lights along the platform edges, good climate control, and even excellent cleaning (by CTA standards…)

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Lynn, generally I favor standardization. It has a number of benefits:

    1. It significantly reduces unit cost in most cases since you are buying/building in bulk.

    2. It creates a sense of design identity for the city.

    3. It is a reassurance to users who aren't confronted with new designs to navigate all the time.

    However, there is no need to be puritanical about it. You can have a standardized base design and still do one offs or tweaks. NYC has a standard bike rack and also some art bike racks, for example.

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    ardecila, I agree with everything you said except that the resulting designs are low cost. The cost of even a random Metra station is very high. Just extending canopies at Fullerton and Belmont is $5.7 million IIRC. I plan to address costs in the next installment but in my view we are spending way too much on stations and line expansions today and should be able to take a lot of costs out, enabling us to reinvest in quality of design.

  6. Anonymous says:

    This is a great post and series; thanks for doing it.

    I do disagree though, with regard to the bus shelters. The other cities' you highlight will look dated and ugly in a few years while Chicago's will be effective albeit slightly boring.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    I disagree that design is important. Moscow Metro has magnificent art, but many other successful subway systems don't. The Tokyo subway pictures I've seen are plain and utilitarian. The reason those systems are the world's top two subways isn't art; it's that they were constructed as networks for getting people from any point to any other point, and that the local and national governments made efforts to develop around rail rather than around freeways.

    In both cities, the subway maps don't look like the downtown-centric L. In Moscow, there are multiple radial lines, plus one circular line enabling quick transfers from one line to another without entering downtown. In Tokyo, the system is configured as a network, with multiple north-south and east-west lines, serving multiple downtown destinations, and two separate circular lines.

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Alon, for good or ill, Chicago is an exceptionally core-centric city.

    I don't per se think you need a system with good architecture to achieve good patronage. BUT, in Chicago, what I am talking about is building demand to spend money to invest to make the system more functional. I propose that one way to do this is to inspire pride in the system and a sense of community ownership and identification with it using good design. In short, it is a means to an end. Though of course it is pleasant in its own right as well.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    New York is even more core-centric than Chicago. Tokyo is core-centric as well: its central ward, Chiyoda, has 880,000 jobs in 12 km^2. However, in all three cities, most people don't work in the CBD; Chicago is atrocious at moving people from a non-CBD area to a non-CBD area on rapid transit, New York so-so, and Tokyo very good.

    The problem with community demand is often results more than pride. New Yorkers are proud of their subway, but perceive the MTA as corrupt and inattentive to their complaints, a perception that isn't helped by the fact that capital projects drag years longer than they have to and cost too much (e.g. Second Avenue Subway is now projected to cost $1.6 billion per route-km; in Tokyo, the two subway lines built this decade cost $350-400 million per route-km).

    Chicago suffers from the same political problems as New York. It also has built rapid transit inefficiently, focusing too much on low-density regions – as these maps show, the L extends further out than the subway in New York, Moscow, and Tokyo, while providing less service connecting the denser neighborhoods to one another. In short, it's an urban commuter rail network, good only for getting people to and from the CBD. This is not what subways are best at – on the contrary, the busiest stations in many cities (e.g. Singapore, Shanghai, Toronto, London, arguably even New York) are not in the CBD proper, but in centers of retail or key transfer points.

  10. ardecila says:

    If you're using the new 35th Street station as your basis for the claim that new Metra stations are overpriced, then you actually supported my point.

    The 35th Street station was not designed by a Chicago engineering firm, but rather by Gensler, the same firm responsible for the upgrades to the 35th St overpass on the Dan Ryan. Oddly enough, they have a reputation centered around "design-on-a-budget". They're also responsible for much of Block 37, so they're 0-for-2 in Chicago so far…

  11. Eric says:

    Seriously our transit system sucks. Buses and trains aren't even actually scheduled. Signs say things like 'every 8 – 20 minutes.' Construction / repair is constant and you are worried about what the signs look like! It's insane.

    You are talking about CTA uniforms when half the employees sit around and do nothing 90% of the time. Station agents can't tell you what stops are closed or open. Security is abysmal. From what I can tell the 'rail customer assistants' job is to walk over to a RFID chip every hour and stick a reader up to it and go back to their little hut. That's all! They don't even take out the trash, there is a separate group of employees for that.

    Some of our trains and buses don't even run 24 hours. Working the night or weekend shift in the city is a nightmare. The blue line right now is horrid and on weekends, with the shuttle buses, it can take 2 hours to get from O'hare to downtown. Whole areas of the city are without service at all. The far south side might as well be in another state. Being concerned about aesthetics when the system is as badly managed as it currently is is laughable.

    The Brown line was supposed to be complete last winter. They even put up thank you signs! They are still closing stations every weekend! If it wasn't for stimulus funds there is a good chance whole lines would be shut down within the next 5 years. Every year there is another funding problem and threats of service cuts. How can you possible rationalize spending one cent on design?

    You talk about people have pride in the system… how about the system actually functioning at an acceptable level?

    This is a city that wants to host the Olympics?!

  12. Anonymous says:

    The problem with this is that these designs are extremely of this moment in time.
    The city can't afford to change bus stations every time styles change.
    Once these colors, patterns, and use of materials are no longer of this moment in time, this structures will be dated and quickly become eyesores (plus add lack of maintenance).
    Chicago's design is simple; a bus stop is a functional structure and should be done in a simple timeless fashion so the city doesn't have to go about redecorating bus stops every ten years.
    These fashions are extremely faddish, they pay no attention to how the structure will age, and in time will give the city a dated look.
    There are many things that simply should not be canvases for art projects.

  13. Brian says:

    Is it really fair to compare the CTA with transit systems outside the US. regulatory, transportation, and legal systems conspire to prevent investment in transit, to an extent not found in the rest of the world. This is not something that can be fixed on a local level. Compare the CTA to any other US city transit system outside of NYC and it looks pretty good.

  14. Matt says:

    To those saying that the modern station/shelter designs around the world will look dated in a few decades, well of course they will. But if the design is done well, even if its of the moment, it will be looked upon favorably for years to come. We're essentially proving that point by copying 100 year old design aesthetics to make everything look "retro". The problem with that is that it is seen for what it is: a knockoff, a cheap cartoon of what the real thing once was. We dont live in the 1800's, we live in the 21st century. Our design sensibilities should reflect that. And if its done well, in another 100 years people in other cities will be knocking those shelters off too.

    Switching gears slightly, the biggest flaw to the new L stations is the fact that they completely ignore the fact Chicago is a cold weather city half the year. Rather than band-aid solutions such as ineffective heater lamps, why are we not building canopies across the track to actually encapsulate people from the elements? I know there are some stations on the green line which did this, and they work great. Furthermore, it goes a long way to creating a sense of "place". I realize that takes more money, but unless global warming really kicks into high gear, we're still going to be in this situation for a long time. And if we're going to devote the hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild our infrastructure, it would have been nice to see it done right.

    And Eric, despite the CTA's flaws, I will give them credit where its due. They have come a long way to improving the system as a whole. New technologies like Bus Tracker allow riders to know in real time where their bus is from their cell phone. There are still a lot of things that need to be addressed, and you have some valid points, but its not all doom and gloom as you make it out to be. Riding the L today is like night and day compared to years ago.

  15. Robert Munson says:

    You stir so many thoughts, that I have trouble keeping my comments short. So I will contain myself to only four!

    One for each in this series…

    1) Design is important as a statement about the importance of transportation alternatives, but is secondary to its key problems.. which is is economics and politics.

    The CTA's Manager for rehabbing stations led a tour that I was on. And he and probably the CTA know the importance of design for making customers feel good about taking transit. The shortfall, as you point out, is money.

    2) I agree with most comments on your first piece. It is correct that the lack of demand helps explain why the CTA can't go from "good to great".

    Agencies are not good at selling the benefits of transit (which is chiefly economics, time & money.)

    Parenthetically, thanks for talking about Hi-Speed Rail. But my new answer (since we last exchanged over this)can be put in salesmen lingo of "Know when to sell the sizzle and when to sell the steak."
    HSR is sizzle, it is feel-good about our transportation technology. It is something we have to do for our egos, like put a man on the moon…. but it does not solve the transportation problems we face within cities and our daily lives.

    Mass transit is the "steak," the meat and potatoes that must be sold to the American public that transit agencies are so woefully un-good at.

    And while design and marketing are important, they are only tools in the struggle of changing how the economics of transportation is rigged against transit… as you and many comments have said.

    So how do we change the economics? In answering this, I don't want to pre-empt your 3rd & 4th articles (after all, this is your show.) But I also can't constrain myself… so pardon my elbows.

    Because your blog doesn't accept more than 4,096 characters, I make my remaining two points on another comment.

  16. Robert Munson says:

    continuation of previous comment….

    3) I suspect that your 3rd post will talk about Supply as the other side of the economic equation. And the lack of competition makes agencies inefficient (as your readers have said and know from experience.)

    But the inefficiency is more related to the lack of competition because the CTA, at its core, is a monopoly. We have too few transit alternatives that are reliable on a mass scale.

    Competitive Alternatives need to be developed. And possibly the opportunity to create competition can happen during the planned upgrades over the next decade… should Chicago get the Olympics.

    A key source of invention will come from the private sector. The folks at Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council know this and have made public-private partnerships as one of their key strategic pieces of legislation. They know well their strategy.

    But even more important, alternatives need a level playing field. And nothing levels the field better than raising the gas tax to what our European counterparts have. If that big "if" happens, many transit alternatives will emerge and have a chance to compete…. and be particularly helpful for suburban cities.

    Without the level playing field, transit alternatives are just talk.

    Which brings me to my speculation about your last article.

    4) The politics of tying together all these strains of transit change.

    I liked Brian's point about the political economics being rigged against transit. We need to follow all the positives on this point.

    Federal policy is adapting itself to sustainable communities… or so is the intent of the Obama Administration. Local leaders are starting to implement Transit Oriented Developments on a significant basis.

    Unfortunately, these positive developments have a road-block called the State of Illinois. I say this level of government is probably two years away from being declared legally "dysfunctional" (as California's seems to be now.)

    The way around the incompetence in the Legislature is to focus on an agency in each metro area set up by the feds, called an MPO. If feds give MPOs the power to trump state stupidity, then we might be able to develop a political economic system that supports mass transit.

    Getting Americans out of their cars and using alternatives is neither easy nor an abstract good. It is becoming an absolute necessity.

    And gratefully, a conclusion….

    1) Design is important because it says that transit is important.

    2)Demand for transit does need better agency marketing.

    3) Supply of transit alternatives depends on making it possible for the private sector to offer competing systems.

    4)And for politics, tell the Obama Administration that an MPO end-around State DOTs is the best use of tax dollars.

    Thanks for your patience !

  17. Desmond says:

    It would've been interesting to see some of Montréal's metro stations in your very comprehensive examination of the importance of infrastructure design as a statement. It's by far one of the most distinctive subway systems in North America.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I doubt any CTA schedule just says "every 20 minutes" I think they usually give the schedule once the train or buses start coming every ten or twelve minutes.

    The CTA is a lot better than it was in the late 90's.

    The CTA's busiest station is 95th, one of the farthest from the CBD, all of the buses go there. I'd suspect that most cities' busiest station is not in the CBD, since most lines would have closely spaced stations down there.

    As for design, Aaron seems like he's trying to inspire people to feel like they own the CTA (same as those ceasless TV shows and public art things remind Chicagoans that we own the lakefront) so they'll demand better service over the long haul.

    As a propaganda point having some signature stations might make sense.

    Encapsulating people from the cold is not going to work on the L, you have a box hanging in the air with four sides exposed to the cold and open to the air on the other two. If there's a way to keep the cold out of that draw it up and put in on _your_ blog. Check out Polk some time this winter it's no big help.

  19. Alon Levy says:

    Anon, the cities I know of have their busiest stations just outside the CBD, or within the CBD but in a center of retail rather than office work. New York's busiest subway station is Times Square. London's is King's Cross-St. Pancras, which is located somewhat to the north of the financial district. Singapore's is Orchard, a cluster of malls at the entrance to the congestion charge zone, about 2 km west of the CBD; although the CBD stations, Raffles Place and City Hall, are also the main transfers, they're less important for retail. Shanghai's busiest station is People Square, again a cluster of malls; the station in the rising CBD, Lujiazui, has little ridership outside rush hour.

  20. Chicago Dan says:

    Design is important, simple as that. Your kidding yourself if you think that any design will always be timeless and not one day become an eyesore. Even though you cannot quantify it, good design and good architecture has a profound impact on every aspect of not only the lives of people who directly interact with the bus/train/L station everyday, but also of those visiting. Say someone comes to town for a few days, and decides to take public transportation around, and he/she sees VE stations that haven been updated since the mid 80's, buses and train that look like they could be in any other Midwest town. Even though it's very subconscious, if this is the majority of what they see, they will go home with the impression that Chicago is very "Okay. Nothing special. NOW TOKYO! That's a great city!"

    I know that's a bit of a hyperbole, and I'm in no way saying that one ho-hum ride on the red line is going to stifle the experience of a non-Chicagoan. The fact does remain that we live here and we have the luxury of time to get to know all the wonderful in's and out's of Chicago. Someone here for a few day's isn't that lucky.

    Think of it this way, if you go on a first date, do you want the other person to show up in overall's, a lame 80's haircut? Sure it's utilitarian, but where is the thrill, the panache. People want to be ROMANCED when they go to a new city and I wouldn't mind being surrounded by good design every day.

    There is a saying: Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Well, if Chicago wants the job of a high class, international city, then it better start dressing like it.

    As a designer I agree that I'm biased towards good design, but I'm willing to donate my time ideas and services (3d, web, broadcast) FREE OF CHARGE to any project that has to do with elevating civic design.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Alon, are those ranks for busiest stations in terms of turnstile counts or turnstile plus in station transfers?

  22. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Matt, I think you nailed it. Much of the design we treasure in Chicago is design of a time period. There is only one truly timeless style, the classical style, which has been used throughout the west to anchor ourselves in that great 2,500 year arc of western history. But we can't do everything in that style.

    I certainly agree that we don't want to just jump on a fad. But to create great design that is not ashamed to be part of the early 21st century isn't such a bad thing either.

    I'd rather have good design that is of our time than mediocre design that attempts to be "timeless" by engaging in pastiche.

    While I think CTA L stations are generally lacking in passenger amenities, I don't think things are terrible today – they could just be a lot better.

    Also, note that several of the stations I showed are in fact surface/elevated stations that happen to feature full canopies.

  23. Alon Levy says:

    Chicago Dan, imagine the same tourist you mention in your comment, but in New York. He'll see stations that haven't been cleaned since the 1970s, but he'll still use the subway. The same is true in any other city – tourists use the subway when they consider it safe, and when it does a good job of shuttling them from their hotels to the attractions they want to see.

    Public transportation is not supposed to be art. It's supposed to be transportation. When it offers residents the best way of getting from where they live to where they work and shop, people will use it. When it doesn't, they won't.

  24. AmericanDirt says:

    What you said about standardization is interesting, particularly in light of the Metro design of Washington DC. Clearly you were typically referring to installation-level streetscape features such as bike racks, bollards, or street lights, but the planners of DC Metro applied macro-level, construction-level standardization with Harry Weese's subway interiors. You might not be fond of the word "timeless", and 35 years is a bit premature to form such a judgment, but thus far the DC Metro has endured remarkably well without appearing particularly faded or outmoded in appearance. This is all the more surprising because it appropriates so many Brutalist architectural gestures, which is almost uniformly despised by the general public in every other above-ground incarnation. People take care of the Metro too: strict enforcement helps, but litter or vandalism is almost unheard of, and certainly not visible to the casual user.

    That said, standardization of design in DC Metro poses a serious problem in that its relentless sameness impedes navigability. Even a seasoned metro user will never be able to tell the difference from one station to the next without signage. Unless the passenger is following every motion or listening intently over the intercom to the announce, he or she has to try to read the signs whizzing by at each station as the cars are slowing down. And if passengers are stuck at a point where a column is blocking the signs, they will often have to peer out the subway car or ask a neighbor what station they are in. It's not a transcendent problem (most cheaply solved by greater density of signage), but definitely an annoyance.

    Perhaps standardization is typically best left to installations.

  25. Harmon says:

    All good and well, but I'd like to start with a simple requirement: all transit designs should be based on the simple fact that in Chicago, we have Bad Weather – snow and rain.

    Uncovered stairs into subway stations don't recognize that fact. "Shelters" which don't shelter very many people, whether for buses or on el platforms, don't make much sense. Buses which aren't built to handle our increasingly potholed streets, but which are so long that they block intersections and crossways, are enemies of a grid based street system.

    Get the function right first. Then worry about pretty colors and nice shapes.

  26. Alon Levy says:

    Rain and snow can be mitigated. Moscow is colder in winter than Chicago; Singapore and Hong Kong are wetter than Chicago.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Chicago's L system is tolerable but you are so correct that in oreder to be world class it needs serious attention to detail. Problem #1 is the CTA. It needs to be dissolved and replaced by a regional agency cordinating the city and suburbs. As it stands, the CTA is stuck in a 1950's political patronage cycle that cant be ended within democratic machine controled Cook county. Theres no competition to the status quo politicaly here.

    Conversely Metra, even with it's 1996 webpage LOL( which btw is so simple it could also be called genious for ease of use ) is a world class regional rail service. I just took a Metra UP west train from DuPage this morning. Made it downtown in 25 min. Door to door was about 40 min. Mind you traveld 20 miles. Whatever Metra is doing – the CTA should copy. Ive lived in Conn. and traveld to NYC on the Metro North line and I have to say Metra might have it beat.

  28. Alon Levy says:

    I don't get this adoration for Metra. It gets 300,000 riders a day, which, by global standards, is puny; compare Berlin with 1 million, or Paris with 3 million. Both of those cities have done work connecting their various suburban lines, so that it's possible to go from suburb to suburb without changing trains; they have also configured line length and station spacing to be useful for inner suburbs and even urban neighborhoods. Conversely, Chicago's commuter rail system feeds into multiple terminals downtown without connections between them, and is only useful if you're going to the Loop.

  29. ardecila says:

    Yes, Alon, Metra's only good for one thing: suburb-Loop travel. Its riders almost exclusively are making this trip, though, so they are satisfied with how well Metra serves their need (albeit with some gripes – station parking/overcrowding). I personally think they ought to run shorter trains more frequently at off-peak times.

  30. ardecila says:

    Also, Urbanophile, it is a wonderful coincidence that a rendering was released for CTA's new station at Morgan/Lake on the Green and Pink Lines.

    Unlike the Brown Line renovations, this station's design is not constrained by historic-preservation concerns, value-engineering, or pesky community organizations.

    Admittedly, the rendering is small, but it appears to be a decent design at first look that is a sleek and modern addition to an emerging and trendy area.

  31. simple says:

    Alon, I agree wholeheartedly with your comments on the value of creating a rail system that does more than shuttle people to a concentrated core and back. Also agree with your comments on Metra. The best I can say for Metra is that they're experts at managing expectations. The least busy CTA rail route has more than four times as many trains per day as the busiest Metra line — yet somehow there are still people that say "CTA should be more like Metra"! Really? Is one and two hour gaps between off-peak trains really something CTA should try?

    But in the end we do have to work with what we have. This is why I think the CTA Circle Line idea is such a good one. With a few relatively short sections of connecting track and less than a dozen new stations — almost all of which are CTA-CTA or CTA-Metra transfer stations — we can finally break out of the "all paths must go through the loop" mindset that has dominated Chicago rail transit since 1897. It's a great place to start. Not insignificantly, the Circle Line is also roughly the same circumference as other famous circles, including London's Circle Line and Osaka's Kanjo Line, and only slightly smaller than Tokyo's Yamanote Line. Over time it could start to radically redefine how rail transit serves Chicago and make the existing lines start to function as a true network — rather than simply a collection of 20 radial lines that happen to have central termini clustered within a mile of each other as things are today.

  32. Anonymous says:

    The Pink Line has nicely designed stations, some decent public art too, nothing amazing but a lot better than the Brown Line's.

  33. VivaLFuego says:

    It really does come down to whether there is the political will to appropriate the money for good design. As others have mentioned, the Pink Line stations are all of a rather striking and creative design (I'm not a huge fan on functionality/maintenance grounds but I give credit for trying something interesting and new).

    Even on the Brown Line, I would direct you one stop over from Addison, to Paulina, where the stationhouse received almost no "value engineering" from the original proposal and turned out very excellently. I was really impressed. If you look at earlier renderings of the Brown Line project, each station would have had many more unique elements throughout the platform and stationhouse areas, which were simplified and standardized to save money. The stations that got hit the worst were the Addison/Irving/Montrose/Damen package.

    So to the extent there's a cultural issue here, it's really the political culture – rather than pay to do it 'right' from a design standpoint, the default is to cut costs, so we end up with Addison-Brown Line. It's very little to do with corporate culture at the CTA or in the architect/engineering contractors hired to do the stations.

    Here are a few flickr photos, though I encourage you to check out the station yourself. For an outlying neighborhood station (i.e. not a downtown or intermodal transfer 'flagship' station), I'm really impressed at the overall quality of the design and the way it both integrates the existing context (diagonal street, steel L structure) with classical transit tile and references to what is becoming a CTA motif of granite flooring and placement of art installations.

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