Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Taking Chicago Transit from Good to Great, Part Two – 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. (I found most of these on message boards without photo credits. If they are yours, I’m happy to credit you or remove them at your request)

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. I believe Chicago already had them do this one as a bespoke design, and perhaps we’re stuck with them for the lifespan, but next time out – and for anything new we deploy – we’ve got to do better.

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

Note the fully enclosed station here, not just canopies.

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)

This post originally ran on August 30, 2009.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation
Cities: Chicago

13 Responses to “Taking Chicago Transit from Good to Great, Part Two – Raising the Bar on Design”

  1. Here in Ottawa, Canada, we have a sadly similar approach to urban design. It’s often functional, but quite pedestrian and unremarkable. This post has some great examples of what good design can do for a city.

    Also, there’s a good example in Toronto of how to use a transit stations nearby features to give it character. Museum station, which serves the Royal Ontario Museum, used to be a fairly typically bland Toronto subway station: http://img328.imageshack.us/img328/7269/museumincomingtrain8ol.jpg

    After a renovation which took inspiration from the museum, it now has a very clean, yet creative look: http://wvs.topleftpixel.com/photos/2008/04/museum_station_wide_01.jpg

  2. J.D. Hammond says:

    Not to toot my own horn, but as a Washingtonian, I like the design of WMATA’s current generation of Metrorail canopies. The pillboxes are boring and stifling, but the deformed waffle is both fun and representative of the system’s design ethic at its best. It’s playful, even: “Hey, look, there’s a Metro down here!”

    I don’t know that the CTA has a consistent enough design ethic that a uniform approach like that would work for them, tho.

  3. Joel says:

    I actually like the bus shelters in Chicago. Most of the subway and “L” stations are utilitarian at best, but where they’ve had the money to spend, there are some winners. A couple examples: The Library/ Van Buren “L” stop, and the Roosevelt L/subway stop.

  4. Well Paid Scientist says:

    The Pink Line has several very attractive new stations; far more imaginative and pleasant than the Brown Line’s. They are reminiscent of the Hamburg’s.

  5. Dennis McClendon says:

    The upside of having a mayor-for-life who’s very interested in design aspects is that design gets discussed. The downside is that you live with his taste.

    Five companies submitted proposals and various designs for Chicago’s new bus shelters. Four of them were relatively modern. The mayor chose Robert Stern’s rétardataire design for JCDecaux instead.

    Chicago’s subway stations were very handsome, restrained examples of late 30s Moderne design, the kind of thing we swoon over in Los Angeles or Tel Aviv or Miami Beach. They only need to be cleaned up and relighted. But pseudo-Victorian is the safer style when you go to see the mayor, so that’s what we got on State Street: 1910s entrances to a 1940s subway and 1904 IRT tilework downstairs. To see what we could have had, look at the auxiliary entrance at Lake & Wells or the handsome modernism of Logan Square on the Blue Line.

    Kreusi bought a book on European transit station design and threw it on the CTA architect’s desk during the Brown Line planning. But they were scared to death of ADA hassles, maintenance headaches (bare galvanized metal banisters?), and cost overruns, so the project ended up run by the engineers and accountants.

    Oh, and J.D., the Washington Metro stations were designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese.

  6. Ed Sanderson says:

    If the US government cared as much about rapid transit in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia as it did about maintaining eleven aircraft carrier groups (not carriers, groups) and being the world policeman, perhaps we too could have stunning subway/elevated stations. Can’t wait until you explain how you would pay for all this design excellence.

  7. Wad says:

    Ed, for modern station, the design is embedded into the project construction cost.

    For L.A.’s rapid transit services — rail as well as busway — Metro’s policy is to allocate 0.5% of project capital costs to station art.

  8. Eric O says:

    I love this post. I’m glad you mention things like the uniform, livery, and what you can do with bolder finishes. Very few people in the design field actually think about the total “package”… what manifests the pedestrian’s experience in the end. It all manifests the soul of the city.

    Right on.

  9. Great post!!!!!!!

    Technically, what you call bus liveries are the design of the bus, not the livery. (I favor doubledeckers for reasons similar to yours.)

    I am fond of how MTA in LA has Metro Rapid and Metro Local distinctions in their livery

    and marketing of it:


    and how the Port Authority in Pittsburgh uses buses as rolling transit billboards:


    Other buses are marked in other languages and say “welcome to the area” or of important Pittsburghians.


    WRT JD Hammond’s comment, I am not sure that the Metro canopies in DC are all that great. I’d rather than the station be fully enclosed with space added above as say community meeting space, etc.

    It’s not done with the Montreal stations, but it could have been. I guess you can’t really tell from this image, it’s just the top covering of the stairs to the top. It’s of Beaudry station:


    Dennis M — (1) I am really sorry I couldn’t do that Chicago SAH tour that you were one of the presenters. (2) how about a cite on the book you mention…

  10. Pete from Baltimore says:

    I have traveled on the subways of Baltimore,Chicago,Philadelphia,Washington DC and New York City. And the one with the best style is Baltimore ,by far.It has great entrances for many of its stations.And the actual stations are very beatiful .

    Butthe Baltimore Metro doesnt really go anywhere. And Its lightly used. Whereas the Philadelphia and NYC subways are old and dingy, but are actually practicle

    I agree with MR Renn about the importancce of making ordinary things like bus stops stylish.But i think that style should take second place to good service.

    As a Baltimore resident ,i would trade our beautiful Metro system for New Yorks dingy one any day

  11. Markie says:

    Amazing – especially the Moscow subway. Infrastructure does not need to be boring! Just like roads – subways and bus shelters are too important to be left up to engineers alone.

    Pete – are you joking? I live in Baltimore and our metro stations are a joke – not only as a useful transit service but in their poor design.

  12. b.hack says:

    Have you ever waited for a bus in Chicago? May not be the prettiest, but the Chicago shelter looks like the only one in the images shown that would even come close to blocking the wind.

    Some of the other examples you show are a little mind boggling; most people probably don’t want to feel like they’re at some weird dance club or in candyland when they’re on the subway. And really, looking at the situation the city is in with its budget, school system, and crime, I’d much rather see the city pour money into the big issues at hand rather than pay some pompous jerk like Rem Koolhaas to design a subway station that would probably be in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city.

  13. I agree that the Chicago bus shelters are practical with respect to wind and precipitation, having just waited in one.

    Speaking of Rem Koolhaas, he did design a Chicago subway station and it’s not in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods…


    My love for it is quite limited.

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