[ Today and Tuesday I’m kicking off a series by Robert Munson that reviews North America’s train stations. Entries will be posted periodically as Robert writes them. Today is the set up followed by Philadelphia, and many more analyses that should surely get people arguing – Aaron.]
Before cities waste more time and money fumbling, let’s first describe how train stations should serve the 21st Century.
This series will shows how economics and politics can merge to make central stations into centerpieces of sustainable transit in major North American cities.
Of course, we have to start with the politics we’ve got. This is not encouraging… at least on the surface. But despite today’s low points, we should recall how civic movements preserved stations nationwide. Fearing Penn-like debacles in hometowns across America, stout hearts now have preserved 32% of Amtrak stations by putting them on the National Register of Historic Places. This great success repurposed many rail stations as community institutions. While many are barely kept alive as reminders of the prospering people we used to be, many stations today also could help our nation benefit from good transportation economics again. Stations should signal our national intent, much as they did early in the 20th Century; called by some as the American Century.
But, face the facts: our politics restrain the benefits of transit. Civic efforts to save a building are no match to change the outdated transportation agencies we keep alive despite their strategic failures to serve citizens, businesses and taxpayers alike. In analyzing Penn Station, we see its biggest flaw is faulty governance. This series explores how this problem is common to other cities and, then, prescribes how each locale can redevelop its station into its centerpiece for sustainable transit.
Today’s flurry of plans to improve central stations are either insufficient for the future or, worse, will repeat past failures. If efforts in transit towns such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco are fumbling, then car-dominated cities have a slimmer chance of success. But, their chances improve when they take steps — even modest ones — to remake the rules for land use and transportation so transit systems can compete on a level playing field with the car.
What Makes A Station Sustainable?
In this series, I review several central stations in North America to start defining a sustainability for transit that goes beyond helping the environment – one that also aids economic growth and helps achieve fiscal balance. In addition to a narrative, the analysis of each station details a scorecard that I adapted from an article titled “History and Prospects of the Rail Station” by Chris Hale from the February 2013 “Journal of Urbanism.” My adaptation is structured on Professor Hale’s three integrating principles; although the most heavily weighted principle also borrows from the concluding lessons of the seminal book The Transit Metropolis.
For “Effective Connection”, 32 points can be awarded. This includes good design such as how welcoming entrances are. But over half these points are given for efficient transfers with buses, light rail, metro, taxis and cars. Bike facilities are nice. (To disclose my biases, surface lots are not nice and get zero points.)
For “Station Synergies”, 50 points can be awarded for a variety of criteria including vision, leadership, proximity and integration to pedestrian sheds of the CBD, transit agency competence, station business strategy, integrating transit cards, reasonable transfer fees, and trying to level the rules by correcting the underpricing of automobile travel.
If you’d like to see the detailed scorecard, here is one as completed for Philadelphia.
To organize the individuality of America’s diverse train stations and learn the similarities in their evolution toward sustainability, I propose four main categories. After the below introductory paragraphs, each category will have an example analyzed in a subsequent article that will be accompanied by its detailed scorecard.
A. The Likely Sustainables. While most cities plan to reutilize their central station, these places are actually doing it well. These stations serve compact cities and these economic advantages will help their transit system achieve fiscal sustainability in, let’s be realistic, the next two decades. Example: Philadelphia’s Center City stations.
B. The In-Excusables. Some stations should be leaders in Category A, but they have a fatal flaw. While serving relatively good transit metropolises (by American standards), these stations have one obstacle (often lousy politics) that blocks them from fiscal sustainability. Example: Chicago Union Station.
C. The Economic Engines. These stations are leading their systems to boost downtown economic growth; but, they must overcome long-term obstacles before their transit systems can get on a path of fiscal sustainability. These are usually neighborhood problems such as poverty. These regions (or often sub-regions) have long-term plans to coordinate their land use and mobility practices, but realistically they lack the tax revenue to attract private capital on good terms for the public. So if economic growth generates greater farebox revenue (instead of more cars), then this creates capital for public investment. Example: Newark Penn Station.
D. The Environmentals Only. These stations are not expected to do more than help their region meet federal clean air standards, a low standard for environmental sustainability. To reach higher levels of sustainability, these stations need another path because two strategic obstacles block them. First, Category D stations usually have a very small chance of contributing significantly to their sub-region’s economic growth; basically, too few people use transit to reap real economic benefits. Second, Category D stations have virtually no chance of leading their transit systems to fiscal sustainability; typically because there is too much sprawl and too much subsidy for autos and too little political will to change any of this. These stations appear to constitute about half of the 50 noteworthy stations being considered for this project. Because that is such a large number and because they are mostly Sunbelt cities that I have not studied in sufficient depth, these will be covered in the future.
Why Analyze Stations? Because They Symbolize The Public’s Deal For Transportation
The Golden Era of rails created many of America’s most inspired civic buildings; symbolizing the public-private partnerships that built the key transportation technology of the world’s leading manufacturing economy. Their deal was simple: Uncle Sam gives corporations the land to build the world’s best railroads to move the materials and people. The deal stuck: we became history’s fastest prospering nation. That smartly-incentivized deal trumpeted its success by building the last generation of great stations, most designed between 1905 and 1929.
That partnership crashed into the Great Depression. Think of its replacement as the New Deal. Passenger rails and their stations were not included as this mid-Century deal evolved in the 1950s to foster a consumer economy that heavily sold cars. Our car culture is still fervently loved by Middle America.
Today’s efforts to revitalize stations are stumbling badly and costing more than we seem to have. To succeed, efforts must be accompanied with new rules for a deal that allow stations and transit to serve as tools to promote economic growth for households and communities.
Clearly, the rules for a 21st Century transportation deal will be far more complex. Unlike the 19th Century, the land already has been given away. Nor can today’s governments who are perpetuating the car culture be trusted to institute new transit taxes. Nor should we trust them; having become broke and, now, probably lost the consent of the governed… or, at least for now, taxpayers.
Because stations can serve as symbols for transit to help supplant the auto addiction, redeveloping stations are important testing grounds for transportation’s 21st Century deal. How stations evolve and get applied to individual cities and metropolises certainly makes for interesting challenges. But developed well and using inspired placemaking, these stations might even win back enough of that love from America’s middle class.
Use Analysis To Overcome Obstacles Strategically
To varying degrees, most stations reviewed in this series have a common obstacle: the experience outside of the rail car is, let’s say, uninviting. There is no need to repeat here the litany of how the bankruptcy of commuter service and Amtrak’s lack of imagination has reduced rail station quality to sad, low levels over the last five decades.
However, there is a Simple Solution: Design stations so they are great places.
Elevating stations as a priority results only when public and private investment increases in the central station, its network and their surrounds. This goal must out-smart the persisting tendency for city centers to move from stations and toward non-transit suburbs. While there are many causes, most relate to government’s outdated laws discouraging real estate entrepreneurs from arresting decline by using the economic advantages of compact redevelopment near transit.
My proposal for more Sustainable Stations is a synthesized consensus more than it is anything new: compact and mixed developments multiply the types, times and volume of passengers that use the station’s network. While “Urbanophile” readers and planners largely agree that Transit Oriented Development is necessary, doing it sufficiently cannot happen when governments are broke and our laws remain lousy… or, at least, our institutions still work against redevelopment.
When not on its track to sustainability, each city needs to develop new leverage — its specific deals — to make transit into a priority that can start to supplant our costly dependency on cars.
Having achieved its goal of saving stations but not achieving their economic viability in many cities, the national movement to save stations can use this series to re-strategize its participation in helping create vibrant central stations that maximize the growth of its surrounds and transportation networks. Preservationists can integrate more fully with the broader civic movement that needs to advocate for and protect the huge public investment needed to update transit and put it on paths to fiscal sustainability.
In developing this paradigm, the next article will introduce you to “The Sustainables” by analyzing one of North America’s great success stories: how through-routing has helped Philadelphia use transit significantly better.