Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Chicago’s Secondary Stations: Little Engines That Could…And Should by Robert Munson

This is part of the series North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable or Not?

To describe how central stations can help us evolve toward sustainable transportation, this series uses a middle category called “Economic Engines.” This category stimulates its surrounds. These three Chicago stations do that job well.

Category: Economic Engines (click for all currently reviewed stations)
Consolidated Scorecard: Click to view full scorecard
Scorecard Summary:

max pnts = 100 80 Ogilvie Transportation Center     (OTC) 75 Millennium Station (MS) 70 Lasalle Street Station (LSS)
  1. A) Function & Flow
18 17.0 While OTC gets busy at rush hour, good design made this Chicago’s best functioning station. 14.0 Despite two decades of missteps between agencies of two states, the station turned out OK … except for cost overruns. 13.0 Chicago’s smallest terminus works well and METRA plans to add about 15% more passengers by adding a second line.
  1. B) Efficient Connections
32 27 It connects just OK to other transit as well over half choose to walk. 23.5 Most walk to destination or one block to “Elevated.” Bus connections are slighted; crowded at street level. 23 The building is less ped-friendly than OTC, but connects best to transit with the “El”, a subway and has a protected bus station.
  1. C) Station Synergies  
50 36 For redeveloping its surrounds, OTC is in America’s Top 5. 37.5 Surrounds are the tops; one of the world’s great urban park destinations, many office buildings and lots of mixed uses. 34.0 Surrounds to the south and west have not redeveloped as fast; being separated by expressway traffic.

Chicagoland’s twelve commuter lines constitute a system that is nearly the nation’s largest. (New York’s LIRR is slightly larger; while Metro North and New Jersey Transit, respectively, run a close third and fourth). But if we bite-size Chicagoland, we see an analogy to mid-sized cities. The first bite is that six lines terminate at Union Station, leaving six more at these three stations. Here are their counterparts in other cities.

1) Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC) terminates three lines with commuter volume slightly more than Boston’s South Station.

2) Millennium Station ends two lines from different states, as does DC’s Union Station with similar suburban volume.

3) Lasalle Street Station terminates one large line with passenger visits at just under 30,000 daily, similar to San Francisco’s Caltrain terminus.

Also strengthening comparison to other cities, Chicago’s secondary stations connect poorly to one another, creating, essentially, three mid-sized rail systems. Comparing Chicago’s three smaller stations shows other regions how to develop better stations and strengthen the national trend to improve suburban rail. Today, eleven systems in North America carry more than 41,000 passengers daily. Some 15 more fledgling lines are trying to catchup. Highlighting central stations’ future importance, there are 28 new lines in various stages of construction and engineering.

In studying some three dozen central stations, I see many similarities to these three in Chicago and hope you find the analogy useful as well.

What Do These Three Stations Have In Common?

These stations were key parts of the eleven decade transformation from a filthy, industrial downtown to a global center today. In 1900, downtown’s chaotic streets were surrounded by rail yards and warehouses. These stations’ predecessors muted this roughness and provided orderly centers. But as private passenger rail collapsed during the 1960s, Chicago’s downtown also lost its balance. Yet, plans boldly were made to rebuild all three stations. The new ones served as leverage for Chicago’s revival from the 1980s through the 2006 real estate crash and were key to transforming the downtown. A century after Burnham’s fantastic depiction in “A Plan For Chicago,” today’s downtown has a different beauty… but arguably, an equal of those drawings.

Transportation established Chicago as central to the nation’s economy. A recent book, Terminal Town, reviews how Chicago used rails. In today’s economy in which people are a key asset, ownership of passenger rails and terminals, again, is strategic.

Unfortunately, all three stations are owned by Metra; the beleaguered state agency. This challenge to Chicago’s future cannot be ignored much longer. While Illinois has fiddled away the last five decades without a management scheme capable of remaking the system into a future regional asset, all three termini, somehow, got updated.

When you consider that the 1970s and 1980s saw Chicago battling its suburbs, redeveloping these stations seems amazing. That storm and fury was transcended by a simple deal; the suburbs knew these rail lines were their assets also and, as Chicago did, that they could use the rails to revitalize every municipality’s downtown. For the last three decades, Chicago leveraged its land use authority well and turned eyesore rail yards and warehouses into vibrant blocks around all three stations; improving nearby real estate values in ways that only ambitious cities do.

Impressively, all three stations work well and OTC is close to great. Here’s how.

Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC): How Excellence Redevelops Surrounds


Main concourse adjoining tracks. Photo by the author.

Few stations treat the eye better. Also true of its predecessor, Chicago & Northwestern’s grand concourse evoked the glories of rail travel. But, it was demolished and the new concourse adjoining a 42 story tower was completed in 1984. The new concourse spaciously evokes rail glories in a post-modern setting. Reminiscent of United’s hub terminal at O’Hare Airport, OTC’s main concourse also was designed by the same starchitectural firm. But OTC makes a more important statement on a daily basis: traveling with others in efficient modes makes a better future.

Also, few stations better flow during rush hour’s crush. On the photo’s left, 16 tracks end. In the middle (not pictured to the right) are 6 escalators eventually connecting to four street exits. Also not pictured to the left, each train shed platform has stairs so commuters have the option to exit down to a retail concourse (called MetraMarket) with two more street exits. While neither concourse has a suitable waiting area, one can while away time at some 60+ stores in three distinct malls that seem to thrive on the station’s high traffic.

OTC was named for Governor Ogilvie. His leadership and staff cobbled together the deals that saved a world-class set of commuter rails while places such as St. Louis let their systems die. The Governor’s public service and this station’s quality explains why Chicago’s downtown revival has been so much faster.

A three block radial walk (map below) depicts how a 42 story tower and tracks have leveraged redevelopment ever since. Large warehouses were converted and old low-lying railroad shacks were demolished and rebuilt into a dense urban neighborhood; mixing office and residential high-rises. To address the retail shortage, the station’s ground level under the tracks was converted into the Metramarket complex (see black rectangle) and includes the destination-like French Market with two dozen gourmet food shops; making dinner easier for suburbanites and nearby urbanites alike. The French Market is not New York’s Grand Central Market, but it is America’s stations’ second best.

OTC’s scorecard rating of 80 indicates how well OTC works during its rush hour detraining of passengers to platforms and sorting them to six exits and on paths to their final destination. And OTC does all this while feeding suburbanites slices of 21st Century urban life; hopefully, so they move and add to Chicago’s downtown population which has grown by over 500% since the station was built.

Millennium Station: Destination Made, But No Second Act


Millennium’s main concourse. Photo by the author.

As this station’s metaphor, the center-point above is where the two state agencies and their separate lines meet. Follow those lines and you get to their underground tracks. Yet, redeveloping the Illinois Central rail yard and depots into Millennium Station was not simple for several reasons; a primary one being how cost over-runs of Millennium Park, its above-ground neighbor, affected this station’s construction.

More important, the station required Illinois and Indiana agencies to act like partners and mesh different rolling stock, albeit both electric since they run underground for three blocks. (Metra’s other ten lines are diesel). These and other complications created a construction zone for two decades; instead of a station that welcomed suburbanites. Eventually, the collaboration got OK and passenger levels returned after completion.

Indiana’s South Shore line has six tracks that terminate at the south end and Metra’s former Illinois Central line terminates on five tracks at the station’s north. Both sets of passengers merge into a concourse with ticketing, a decent waiting area and food shops. Efficiently, passengers distribute into three exits of Chicago’s extensive underground Pedway; allowing them to escape bad weather or connect to transit.


Millennium Station’s main entrance comes from the underground Pedway and contains most of the station’s 10 store retail corridor. Photo by the author.

An underground station, it can look like a fancy subway stop. Serving one of the city’s most intense urban areas, the station still is pleasant enough to begin one’s workday and, hopefully, make it less of a grind. With limited room for growth at rush hour, this station is what it is. The scorecard rates it at 75.

Lasalle Street Station: Some Room To Grow


On the far right of this photo of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s model, you see the train shed leading into Lasalle Station and its adjoining tall Stock Exchange Building. To its left is an expressway and considerable undeveloped land. (The other two stations have almost none). Photo by the author.

This fourth remake of Lasalle Street Station had a relatively simple deal. It involved only one bankrupt line (the Rock Island) and Metra also bought the tracks; giving it more control. Much like OTC, the main entrance depends on collaboration with one large building owner. But in Lasalle’s case, the Chicago Stock Exchange was not as accommodating. It is an over-imposing host and unwelcoming to pedestrians. While airy and utilitarian, the station itself works well enough to earn an overall rating of 70.

Lasalle does have excess capacity at rush hour and Metra plans to shift the Southwest Service and its 10,000 daily passengers from Union Station to Lasalle, increasing the station’s usage by almost one-third.


Entrance and exit to the east-west Congress Expressway. Photo by the author.

The station’s only major weakness is an east-west expressway ends under it. Eager to reach high-speeds or slow to slow down, eight lanes of traffic make it harder for urban and pedestrian life to develop. This division makes the station’s south side less desirable to live and work in and has been much slower to develop. This is changing as its parking lots are being built into condos and apartments. While Chicago is adding streetscapes for urban fabric, the expressway is hard to hide.

How Can These Good Stations Contribute In the Future?

Each should connect better to transit. While they average about 44% of their passengers who walk to their destinations, the finite number of jobs in each station’s pedestrian shed means that most new commuters are more likely to first want improved transit connectivity. This is more true at OTC, where only 33% of riders walk. To encourage transit transfers, OTC passengers should be able to enter the ‘L’ at the same level they detrain. But with ceaseless inter-agency bickering, de-trainers must go down to the street and up to the ‘L’ whereas a simple passage on the same level would encourage train passengers to use rapid transit.

Also, all stations could improve transfers to standard buses in little ways… if some agency had the authority to force Metra to obey the law and participate in the CTA’s Ventra universal card. (An agency with a future would even subsidize the transfer of train passengers to CTA buses and ‘L’).

When the downtown Bus Rapid Transit starts in 2015, lousy transfer policies start getting better. BRT ties together Union Station, OTC and Millennium with several other key stops downtown. To visualize how the BRT works, here is a downtown map with rail termini as the large blue blocks and BRT as the double-red line.

As big an improvement as this promises to be, BRT in a congested downtown such as Chicago will only provide temporary relief. BRT is no replacement for an integrated system. (Chicago has twice failed to build an urban circulator). Agencies that squandered time and taxpayer goodwill, now, must resort to the BRT stopgap.

Even if achieved, improved connections only will cause the rush hour crush to grow. Now near capacity, the quality of two station’s commute deteriorates with increased ridership. Often touted as panacea, a West Loop Transportation Center (WLTC) that through-routes Union Station and OTC will make greater efficiencies, improve rush hour capacity and speed travel between suburbs. But, a WLTC is highly improbable under Metra’s regime and its poor supervision by Illinois’ RTA.

Besides, the WLTC only marginally helps the core problem: Chicagoland’s lines are radial and bring everyone downtown; causing congestion. So a strategic solution would use rails to bring commuters to Chicago’s employment centers that are not downtown.

For example, many south-side Chicagoans and suburbanites work at the west-side medical district, one of the world’s largest collection of hospitals. The former Rock Island line easily can be connected to a new medical district station two miles west of Lasalle. If successful, that train eventually could be connected to O’Hare Airport; also a non-9-to-5 employment center that requires better train service. And with service in-between the medical district and the airport, other employment centers will be stimulated.

If Metra cannot start this strategy quickly, we should organize a way around it.

Chicagoland should consider how trains increase service and stimulate redevelopment in other global cities. London’s Thameslink started in the late 20th Century. It was so successful that redevelopment around its stations now stretches from the once run-down St. Pancras area for three miles through London’s center and across the river (follow the yellow line) to the much more forlorn surrounds of Elephant & Castle. While hard to see in my photo, the six stations in this three miles, on average, have redeveloped over 50% of their surrounds. (The St. Pancras foreground shows new construction as the lighter shade, whereas renovations remain the darker shade).


Model is in the lobby of the London Building Centre.

As further proof of how trains stimulate redevelopment, note the purple through-line running left to right. The purple is Crossrail; still only mid-way dug. Thameslink’s success signaled to developers that the surrounds of Crossrail stations also are sound investments. Both through-lines have stimulated London’s building boom; one that rarely has been seen by a western city since the industrial era. Such is the leverage generated when suburban rail through-routes and becomes urban rail.

On a relative basis, Britain’s passenger rail system seems flexible; being nationalized, ossified and, now, has had operations privatized. Unfortunately, we live under Uncle Sam’s feeble, federated and seemingly unresponsive transportation laws. This allows Metra to be controlled by suburban mayors who tend not to view rails as a metropolitan asset. Stopped by this regime, Chicago needs a new strategy before it can benefit from London’s example. However given that Illinois laws recently allow public-private partnerships (which have similarities to London’s laws), we should explore how trains can redevelop urban areas. Using an asset to metropolitan benefit leads to sustainable transportation.

Getting To “Should”: Lessons for Sustainability

Mid-sized American cities want what these three stations have. All three stations function well at peak hours and help redevelop their surrounds, the key goals of this series’ Economic Engines category.

But, all three have limited potential to serve as a symbol that pulls their train system into a sustainable future. Chicago’s “little engines that could” — owned by Metra — might improve service with a few small steps, such as improving connectivity to transit. But even if Metra were to be reformed into an adequate agency, these improvements only push the stations past their rush-hour capacity and, thus, still are not on a path for sustainable transportation.

To maximize trains’ potential, strategies must increase off-peak travel and serve employment centers other than downtown. Through-routing can increase ridership and stimulate redevelopment outside of downtown. But these strategies are unlikely to emerge under an outdated, scandal-riddled agency that appears to have lost its social contract with passengers and taxpayers.

So that trains can help inspire the confidence needed to attract new public and private capital to redevelop targeted areas, this series in 2016 will explore how Chicagoland’s agent for sustainable transportation “should” operate.

Robert Munson lives in Chicago and can be reached at robertmunson@earthlink.net.

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Los Angeles Union Station: Looks Great And Works Well, Too! by Robert Munson

This is part of the series North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable or Not?


Photo of welcome desk looking into the grand waiting room on the right and the former ticketing hall on the left; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Let me recap the theme of this series: to compete against the car and win over commuters, stations must ease connections between modes. How LA does this matters, nationwide, for it helps build a strategy that breaks transit out of today’s trap of red ink and taxpayer dissatisfaction. Transit’s case ultimately is economic… and often too technical for the public. LA proves this. To solve both challenges strategically, let me sketch the big picture and put station planning in the economic perspective of there being no money; so, it must be earned.

  • Enhancements for passengers also should give taxpayers value.
  • Taxes are leveraged if car usage fees also are raised to help pay for enhancements.
  • This starts to level the field for overall transportation subsidies and makes transit choices rational in each commuter’s time-cost equation.
  • Each commuter’s rational choice of transit also increases farebox which bumps the public’s investment in transit toward fiscal (operating) sustainability.
  • This creates the positive cycle that eventually earns sufficient public investment for transit systems.

This June 6th, revisions to LA Union Station’s (LAUS) long-term plan were released. On balance, they improve what is already quite good. The flurry of questions about the Plan need some quick transcendence so LA can refocus on its startling transportation transformation whose plot-line is really about reducing the car’s role as the culture’s pig. LA Union Station’s plans are an important supporting role.

Score: 70 (click for full scorecard)
Category: Environmentals Only (click for all currently reviewed stations)

The Sizzle: Why Good Looks Really Matter

What is most important about LAUS is it reminds me that good looks help… particularly when competing with the allure of cars.

Graced with good makeup on an elegant frame, LAUS is perched in the 4th spot on my list of America’s best-looking grand stations. (For the record… the others are Grand Central, Philly’s 30th Street, and DC’s Union Station.) Their good looks correlate to their having this series’ best scorecards for functionality and integrating different modes.

And if you doubt the value of good looks, consider Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago’s Union stations…and how they got ugly. As policy came to favor cars, these stations’ owner (the nation’s largest railroad) entered bankruptcy and creditors forced a hasty sale of both stations’ air rights. This resulted in demolishing their good-looking, spacious concourses in the 1960s. Both stations since have functioned poorly; unable to expand as ridership grew. Both have the worst scorecards in this series.

LAUS fortunately learned the lesson. Now owned by the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, LAUS has started improving its looks. And its functionality correlates well with the best stations.

Those previously-mentioned neo-classical piles were finished by the 1920s. LAUS opened in a different era in 1939. LAUS signaled that railroads had transitioned their trademark to Moderne design. Yet the beauty of LAUS blossoms by blending this early modernism with the region’s historic native and Mission accents. If you search out the refined and exotic, LAUS gives you this eye candy.


Attached to LAUS, the formerly famous Fred Harvey restaurant was a destination for star-gazing. While underutilized today only for banquets and occasional film and photo shoots, this hall is being renovated as a first step to making the station a destination again. Photo via herecomestheguide.com

To complement the above serene scene, the LAUS waiting room manages to be both grand and intimate; welcoming all to the nation’s capital of entertainment, glamour, sun worship, and, even, mid-century modernism. In visiting over five dozen central stations throughout the world, I have yet to find a waiting room that I prefer more to sit and contemplate different cultures as the reason why I travel. It helps to sit in a great chair.

Great waiting rooms welcome and make good-byes better. In sum, this waiting room glorifies train travel.


Waiting room. Photo by the author

Seventy-five years later and countless appearances as a film backdrop to tell personal stories, LAUS endures as cool, yet intimate, highlighting memories and marking milestones. Perhaps this explains why America’s most-populated county chooses this station as a primary destination for wedding photos.


Photo via Furious Photographers Blog. See Furious Photographers main web page.

This photo emotes me several ways. At a transit point of entry, we see two former immigrant families having arrived at America’s larger destination: adding dynamism, owning a piece of the pie and, we can imagine, prosperously so as small entrepreneurs. Better yet, we are achieving the transition from the industrial era’s melting pot to President Carter’s vision of “a beautiful mosaic.” This photo celebrates LA’s diversity and exuberance… at a train station… in the city that celebrated cars like nowhere else. Consider this photo as a metaphor for the metamorphosis to sustainable transportation.

And this point is worth remembering: these people — and ten million like them — will pay taxes to LA’s transit resurgence and are helping exceed ridership goals on many of its lines.

The Steak: How LAUS Works Well

For integrating transit modes, LAUS coordinates well eight transit modes well within two portals connected by a passageway, albeit long. All playing nice are inter-city rail and bus, suburban rail and bus, urban bus and BRT, and urban light rail and a subway. As an example of how good Angelenos have inter-connectivity, consider where it is worst. Chicago’s Union Station makes its customers walk three blocks (add bitter cold four months a year) to enter the nation’s second largest rapid transit system, while urban buses add to the chaos of the station’s streets, creating a hostile environment for the station’s most used mode, walking – often with luggage.


Happy to be back in LA, the author took this photo from the East Portal that looks into the central passageway connecting, after 180 paces past 12 tracks, to the light rail and, then, 120 more to the historic station.

While the above mural pays homage to those people who will pay taxes and fares for generations, this central view also captures how efficiently LAUS integrates transit’s modes. If this were part of my daily grind, I’d enjoy passing through this glorious sunlit space. Built in 1995, the East Portal is becoming one of my favorite post-modern pieces anywhere.

Behind where I stood for this photo, there are 9 urban and suburban bus berths in an efficient circular pattern that is outdoors. (Unusual environmentals for a bus station.) Passengers are guided from the passageway through the portal’s lobby and under the bus circular via a garden-like arroyo; complete with fountains to climb stairs into the circular’s center to wait at one of the nine berths.

Ten paces to my left is an artsy entrance to the subway terminus for the Red and Purple lines. (A second entrance is in the historic station). LA’s most-travelled Red Line starts here and runs through Hollywood while the Purple Line serves close-in parts of Wilshire Boulevard, LA’s chief commercial corridor.

Straight ahead in the photo are 12 tracks; 3 are for Amtrak trains, 7 more tracks terminate six Metrolink lines and 2 through-route Metro’s Gold light rail line.

Four hundred feet to the left is the El Monte Busway station that serves as a center for LA’s growing Bus Rapid Transit ridership.

So roughly within an average of about 100 paces, an overwhelming majority of commuters can connect to the next mode in their commute.

Moving LAUS Forward

I’ve described modal connections briefly so you see my summary: LAUS works well now. While there are claims of passageway congestion at rush hour or minor problems in bus operations that drive the Plan’s grand changes, LAUS’s most important goal is to get on a fiscally sustainable path.

For example, Metro’s data (page 13) project a mere increase in LAUS bus traffic of 1.5% per decade through 2040. Despite conventional buses being marginal to transit’s growth, the revised Plan wants to build a consolidated bus terminal within a decade.

For now, I suggest setting aside mid-term plans and get the short-term right. Staring at the mid-term gloom of insolvent governments, LAUS should do the small things that get the short-term right. I propose four tactics:

  1. Better utilize the current building
  2. Make through-routing more economical than where it’s heading
  3. Propose that Amtrak build its own station in the longer term
  4. Create a redevelopment structure for the station and its surrounds

1. LAUS should show it can “walk” (utilize the current building) before it tries to “run” (invest in a new building.)

LAUS is the last successful major station built in North America. Seventy-five years later, we have forgotten how to build these. Besides, we are broke. It is too early — and perilous for taxpayers — to dream too big right now. Here are three simple steps to show taxpayers that cost-effective improvements will help LAUS passengers enjoy their experience so they want to return.

a. Make a public campaign around improvements and use it to explore themes for LAUS as LA’s latest, best urban center.

Comments about the revised Plan indicate the public’s skeptics are on the offensive. In part, this is because capital proposals — in general — are suspected of being tax hikes. But, the larger part is LACTMA has narrow marketing goals.

Among recurring weak marketing, an example was during my third study visit (March 12, 2014.) Workers were restoring two of the three large public spaces: the former Fred Harvey restaurant and the former ticketing room. Done by May 3, the station’s official 75th birthday celebration, the restorations are first steps in the spiff-up so LAUS can evolve toward a destination. Yet, I saw no sign telling this to passengers. Because I like rooting around, I did find a list of cosmetic improvements on Metro’s website.

Since this involves public monies, there should be a prominent Schedule Of Future Improvements that gives passengers a clear picture of the changes. Put posters wherever relevant. Assume people want to know what is happening to their station. And instead of the 75th Anniversary being weighted toward the past, the PR team missed an opportunity to test themes for future campaigns.

To compete with the best, the global center of LA could learn from London. Read this message to patrons of a Underground station in a poor neighborhood. A simple sign can make Angelenos believe their temporary inconveniences are part of something big.


Photo by the author

If the Mayor of London (a Conservative) can show concern to the inconveniences of poor people, then LA’s adoption of a better customer attitude can be an early stepping stone to transit economics that work as well as London’s.  

b. Make a suitable Light Rail entrance.

The conversion of the platform closest to the historic station to light rail should give reason to pause. The Gold Line light rail is projected to have 47% more riders by 2040. This is one-third more growth than LAUS will get from the far more expensive and capital-intensive subway extensions. So if the Gold Line is so economical and important to the future, why does it have such an un-inviting entrance below?


Only two signs indicate the Gold Line entrance/exit before ascending to the platform. Note how the lightly-used elevator dominates the station. Author’s photo.

Instead of almost hiding the entrance, why not announce it with anticipation by using a gold signage theme starting at both ends of the passageway? And where are the signs indicating when the next Gold line train leaves? Metrolink lines have them.


Why not put a second Gold Line entrance/exit here? All other platforms have two. Photo by the author

To counter the impression that I am a LAUS partisan, these two photos capture one of LAUS’ few design botches. All train platforms were designed in the 1930s to have two entrance/exits that flow passengers into this passageway. Instead of a second ramp to the passageway, the Gold Line got the above wall. The Gold Line station is the only major addition to LAUS in this Century and it is a botch. I’d like to know why this wall can’t be broken and the platforms above re-extended to make a second, better entrance/exit to the light rail system.

Once they get this correct, I’d feel better about LACTMA using tax money to convert the passageway into a spacious concourse as now proposed in its long-range Plan. In fact, use the remake of the Gold Line station as a way to prove to the public that a new concourse will end up as a good investment.

c. Upgrade the passageway and install moving walkways.

LAUS rush hour crowding is laid-back compared to Manhattan’s Penn or Chicago’s Union stations. Nonetheless, increasing traffic at LAUS could crowd the passageway within two decades. Instead of the proposed concourse, consider a cost-effective solution: within a year, a moving walkway could help handle rush-hour capacity. Prominent in sprawled airports, moving walkways would tell rail passengers they’ve got status.

I propose putting the moving walkway between The Gold Line and historic station. Visualize this using the Signage Plan photo for improvements proposed (below.)

Don’t forget marketing…. Imagine this passageway with some simple cost-effective decorating (with color-coded signage based on modes) indicate that LAUS is a unified station serving all modes better? This type of strategic decorating also can start testing LAUS themes as a daily urban destination that people want to go to.


Photoshopped, this is the proposed decoration of the passageway that should be completed soon. For details of Metro’s Wayfinding and Signage project, find this photo on page 21.

As it gets the small things right, LACMTA’s Board should get a healthier fiscal perspective on long-term proposals to enlarge the passageway into a concourse. For sustainable transportation, better trumps bigger.

2. Make through-routing more economic than where it is heading

While suburban trains mostly support suburban lifestyles, greater efficiencies are key to accelerating cures for suburbia’s auto-dependency. Suburban rail Metrolink’s six lines terminate at LAUS. Along with Amtrak’s Surfliner, they are projected to double their LAUS passengers by 2040; making it the best mode to bring in suburbanites to show-off LA’s burgeoning urbanism. Run-through tracks (LACMTA’s phrase) claim to improve efficiency by 40% and shorten average travel times by 8 minutes and much more for transfers. Through-routes are absolutely essential infrastructure that is long overdue.

Last year, LACMTA proposed a comprehensive Southern California Regional Interconnect Project (SCRIP) that called for eight run-through tracks. They wanted to start construction by 2017 with budgets of $350M. But, initial bids came in high. Today, the revised Plan acknowledges only 4 tracks for the same price. This must be explained.

Despite its power and competence, LACTMA is not in a strong position to through-route completely. LACTMA’s focus is to expand LA County’s Metro, instead of distractions from the awkward 6 county collaboration running MetroLink. With no strong authority for regional collaboration and SCRIP’s scope halved, strategic marketing helps LACTMA here, too. If it rewards those lines that generate the most revenue by through-routing them first, LACTMA turns a blundering cost-overrun into a viable plan to maximize public monies while eventually completing the original eight through-routes.

This creates a dynamic in which suburbs compete to plan for more Transit-Oriented Development. The necessity to through-route — and its expense — can be turned into a contest to redevelop more compact TODs. This principle of faster pay-back seemingly exists already in LACTMA’s investments to improve train stations and TOD within LA.

Instead of trying to bury the sourness of half as many through-routes, shifting to principles of economic and fiscal sustainability could win the metropolis its biggest long-term victory against the car.

3. Propose that Amtrak build its own station.

LAUS will evolve better if it has fewer requirements imposed on it by Amtrak. Those of us who see how Amtrak shares central stations know it is not the best collaborator. Amtrak has different needs than commuters and this often creates unnecessary problems. Many examples at LAUS and especially elsewhere prove Amtrak adds unnecessarily to the complexity and costs of busy stations.

The most visible example that LAUS commuters grasp is Amtrak vehicles create flow problems for the other 99% who do not need a truck to carry their luggage.


Commonly two or more of these trucks meet Amtrak trains. This is not altogether an invasion of pedestrian space, but does not show much respect for it either. Photo by the author.

Amtrak complicates the confusion in the mixing concourse between the tunnel and historic waiting room. Amtrak parks its luggage trucks there so they can shoot down the tunnel. These trucks show, in little ways, how Amtrak throws its weight around.

To avoid sticking LAUS updates with Amtrak-related costs and delays, I suggest that enough of LAUS’s large site be given over to Amtrak to build a station to its specs. Even though Amtrak’s role in the highly contentious High Speed Rail is not known, the revised Plan puts the High Speed Rail station to the east of the East Portal; establishing that inter-city service, at least, can be separate. Good start.

If I were on LACTMA’s Board, I’d move that Amtrak decide where it wants to build its concourse based on the latest plan. If Amtrak demurs, at least it might play nice in someone else’s house.

4. Create a redevelopment structure for the station and its surrounds.

Easier said than done! It will take a decade for a suitable development organization to finance its first deals evolving LAUS from an isolated transit center into LA’s newest urban center. LAUS’ extreme isolation is unique among major stations.


The red-tiled roof is the land-marked LAUS with its exquisite Waiting Room running left to right. To its right starts the 270 pace passageway; tunneled under the north-south building (probably demolished for a bus station) and continues under the tracks to the semi-circular East Portal (currently the main bus station and larger subway entrance.) The tall building lording over the complex is the HQ for LAUS’s owner, LACMTA, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.   Photo via WikiMedia Commons.

LAUS is quasi-barricaded from its surrounds. Foremost is the ten lane Highway 101 as its southern border. Further complicating the 1/4 mile pedestrian shed is large swaths of urban desolation. Almost half of it is warehouses, train yards and a cemented river. Much of the rest has a few government buildings, seemingly plopped without more purpose than filling up land given a bad reputation by its former industrial uses. The only residential was built recently on LACMTA’s site, and many of those units will be sacrificed to the proposed bus station.

The 1/2 mile radius continues this limited mix. As a positive, this larger ped-shed includes City Hall. Its civic center park remake indicates LA is understanding how to make walkable urban areas. Also boosting its fledgling urbanity are the destinations of Chinatown to the north and Little Tokyo to the south; each being the next stop on Metro’s Gold Line. The dashed green line below is the 1/2 mile radius.


Map from Metro’s Community Linkages Study for Little Tokyo

The mile radius has more of the same: warehouses, rail yards and cemented river. Walkable grids get mangled by merger ramps from two Interstates. Residential redevelopment gets complicated by public housing projects and other under-served neighborhoods.

But adding an important positive, employment (other than government) is provided by two medical centers. More important is how Central City East (just south of Little Tokyo) is quickly gentrifying with young people who are active participants in the first generation to use transit more. Information Age workers are replacing the winos on the former Skid Row. But in sum, urbanity still is not yet healthy in the surrounds of LAUS.

Integrating LAUS can be sped-up because LA’s land use laws are changing. To improve transit ridership, Mayor Villaraigosa started experiments with ordinances to make LA more compact, particularly along corridors. He seems to have done a good enough job that the momentum of a comprehensive corridor code probably can continue without his leadership. While important in remaking LA’s picture of itself, these ordinances still only have produced more leaps of imagination than bounds into sustainable urban redevelopment. The surrounds of LAUS may be LA’s key test of its ability to leap.

Even if physical and land use obstacles are overcome, another strategic obstacle is organizational: transit agencies are cumbersome partners to private redevelopers. Despite its strengths, Metro still proves the rule and its parent, LACMTA, seems to avoid solutions. Two years ago, a Public-Private Partnership and the fad-ish “value capture” scheme were proposed during LAUS’ initial long term planning. But, both were dropped from the 2013 Master Plan. This is inauspicious… and hard to understand since LACMTA owns 45 acres — plus air rights — and influences much more that could produce a great urban center. LACMTA must set-up a practical process to develop effective public-private ventures if it expects LAUS to evolve into an urban center. If as great a businessman as Mayor Bloomberg has to face failure at Penn Station, LA’s chances seem slim without innovation.

Amidst the abundant efforts nationwide to revive central stations, integrating them into an urban fabric is a common challenge to many Sunbelt municipalities. Most know that if they do this right, other factors for transit can more easily sync. A workable framework for redeveloping economically around LAUS does much to enhance LA’s example for Sunbelt cities. But, that leadership also must develop fiscal responsibility. Maximizing the assets it has — its current station in particular — is key to minimize operating costs in a new, fiscally sustainable regime.

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

New York Penn Station: Taming the Beast by Robert Munson

[ This week Robert Munson returns to his look at North America’s central train stations with a look at New York’s infamous “beast” – Pennsylvania Station. He picks up after his look at the “beauty” that is Grand Central Terminal – Aaron. ]

This post is part of a series by Robert Munson called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not?


Showing the grandeur of the original Penn Station (destroyed 1963), this main waiting room approximated the volume of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Solving New York’s Perennial “Penn Problem” Starts Now

Surpassing the great stations of Europe, Penn Station showed how America would lead the 20th Century. Epoch-making innovation and entrepreneurial risk built tunnels under the Hudson River and directly connected America’s main metropolis to the other commercial centers of a vast, resourceful economy that emerged via the advantages of a great rail network. Penn Station celebrated that achievement by evoking Rome’s style from that previous great Republic.

But, America’s metaphor soured. In comparing the 1910 Penn Station to the 1964 version, eminent architectural historian Vincent Scully famously wrote: “One used to enter the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

Penn Station’s road back to greatness will be long. This article provides this early step: analyze the Penn Problem frankly and suggest why current agencies cannot develop solutions. We start that step and put Penn in the context of this series by comparing its scorecard to New York’s success story.

Score: 60 (see full scorecard, with side by side comparison to GCT) – compare to Grand Central Terminal’s score of of 81.
Category: The Inexcusables


Photo by the author as he scuttles in at 11PM to Amtrak’s concourse… feeling Penn’s pain.

Grand Central shows us what happens when good stations are preserved. But if they are lost and replaced by a bad design, then updates won’t work either. Instead of the original, elegant Penn Station, commuters today get a transit rat-hole because government failed to protect a pivotal public asset. Updates to Penn’s commuter concourses and platforms since have been too little, too late, too costly and would never work well anyway. Given Penn’s inflexible design, updates could never accommodate growing commuter demand. Twice as many riders pass through Penn today than was the intended capacity of its 1964 design. Penn’s “curse” is that good money gets wasted because its updates cannot solve the core problem of poor design and poor governance.

Why such a mismatch persists in America’s largest transit metropolis is a lesson for many cities. While Penn’s scale is larger, its root cause is similar: failed transportation policy. Transit’s failed governance gets complicated by insular train operators. This historical concoction traps many central stations, particularly Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago’s Union Station. Un-trapping both using today’s tangled agencies will take decades of dedicated civic effort to change how transportation is organized and invested in. Have we got decades?

Penn’s problems are a New York legend perpetuated by escalating irritability. Instead of recounting those stories, this article focuses on defending its key suggestion: if a new strategy for ownership is not clarified within a few years, then a new authority must be created to resolve the Penn Problem.

The Big Picture In-Brief: Ownership Is The Core Problem

Compare this photo:


Penn’s Amtrak reception area decked-out for the holidays, photo via Flickr Photo Sharing.

with this one:


New Jersey Transit concourse at Penn Station, photo via Wikimedia Commons.

It is self-evident who owns Penn Station. Amtrak customers have a reception area, a coach-class waiting room with chairs and escalators down to platforms having a decent width. Almost one-third of passengers on the Northeast Corridor trains also qualify for the very comfortable LoungeAcela to wait, work or sleep in. While this Corridor by far is Amtrak’s most important, Amtrak still only has less than 10% of Penn’s non-subway passengers on an average weekday.


Photo taken by the author while waiting for his Long Island train. To the left are a row of perhaps two dozen fast-food stands. To the right are minimally responsive ticket agents. Trapped in the middle waiting for a mid-day track announcement, I see why New Yorkers have so much practice complaining.

For the other 90%, Penn Station treats commuter rail passengers as if there were a cattle class. NJ Transit and LIRR commuters get packed into stand-up concourses (no chairs) and anxiously await their track to be announced. Not unlike a prod, the board flashes which track and there is crush down into a narrow platform to get a seat next to someone who is not an obvious complainer.

To pile on the insults, the people whose fares and taxes will pay for the new station are the ones who suffer this daily saga. In this weird realm of disservice, why should passengers trust New York and New Jersey? Advocates for better transit must ask: what kind of “deal” are governments giving citizens to reward their doing the right thing and minimizing car usage?

To answer those questions, let us return to the point at which Penn became destined for transit hell. But, let’s make it easier to stomach by using the best analogy. Like Penn, Chicago’s Union Station primarily served inter-city travel in the first half of the 20th Century. Similar to the original Penn, Union Station’s air rights were sold hastily in the 1960s to appease Penn Central’s creditors.

Since then, both stations have had buildings above that abused the intent of air rights by scrunching the growing number of rail commuters for decades. Amtrak owns both suburban commuter stations. But because Amtrak has a national purpose, suburban systems get short shrift. Both stations, theoretically, have state agencies with power to solve these problems. Historically, no agency has proven itself.

Chicago’s often-proposed central station is the nearby West Loop Transportation Center. (Amtrak would keep its home in Union Station.) This Center could help convert outdated commuter systems to 21st Century standards that include through-routing. As with Penn, Chicago’s Center is no closer to reality… and largely for the same reason: existing governments cannot produce progress.

Consider The Proposed Penn Station Redesign

The Alliance for a New Penn Station, a joint project of NYC’s Municipal Arts Society and the Regional Plan Association, recently proposed solutions that can resolve the core problem. Entitled “Penn 2023”, the Alliance analyzes the problem well, then seeks to solve the ownership problem by proposing that Amtrak have a separate building called Penn Station South (below).

In critiquing this proposal, I count about a dozen quibbles. Most boil down to an impossible situation: Penn has too many passengers coming into too small a site and no current authority can sort out the resulting chaos of tracks and concourses. But as a positive step, the Alliance is to be commended for implicitly addressing the core problem of ownership by drawing three separate terminals and spreading the congestion.

As an outsider, I can be more explicit: Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and LIRR (MTA) should all have their own station. Furthermore, the tracks should be managed by an uber-authority responsible for through-routing.

It is all that simple.

But of course, simplicity’s virtue can often be its vice. Understand the owner’s dilemma. While Amtrak’s weight is great, it can’t solve a mistake it inherited in the 1970s. At various times and planning stages, Amtrak has been in-and-out of the proposal to convert the Farley Post Office into Moynihan Station (building 3 in the drawing above). Some $267 million was spent in planning and preliminary construction, about 85% paid by Uncle Sam. With no future funding source, the Moynihan proposal, again, appears stalled.

Amtrak’s solution to a nearly impossible situation also is simple: admit that its small customer share does not warrant suffering Penn’s huge headaches and, instead, should develop a station to its specifications nearby.

Amtrak should be happy. It has Uncle Sam to give it the easy way out.

Quite a separate matter is the New Jersey/New York nexus. It is all mixed up in Penn’s air rights. Madison Square Garden owns them. The Alliance sent a message last year when it convinced the City Council to limit MSG’s permit to ten more years, hence “2023” in the study’s title. Yet, MSG has a major investment and many expect MSG to fight to protect its rights. Lengthy lawsuits employing brigades of the profession’s finest……and the Penn Problem persists.

So, let’s be practical and leave aside for now any further speculation in this article of building 4 above, “A Reconstructed Penn Station.”

Next, let’s see the scope of the problems so how we, finally, can honor Senator Moynihan properly.

The above photo was taken on Labor Day 2013 during my annual trek to the U.S. Open. I compared this to the sign in 2009. Little changed of substance. Of the nine politicians, who fights for commuters? Of the seven agencies listed, who has a credible plan to fund the station?

Mayor Bloomberg, the biggest advocate for rezoning the station’s surrounds, also spent five years trying to make real estate deals pay for the station. He has been replaced by a new mayor with an agenda of redistributing wealth – and not to suburban rail commuters. Andrew Cuomo has had over three years as Governor to make this a priority fix. But, he has done little more than his predecessors who had much less power.

Three months prior to my photo, the Governor put the Port Authority in charge to restart the Moynihan conversion. Since the sign does not even acknowledge the PA as ‘de facto’ developer, it helps confirm the PA has no believable plan for this complicated real estate deal. What’s more, the PA increasingly is seen as a patronage dump that cannot fulfill its original mission of building infrastructure. This leads some observers to start calling for its breakup. Today, Penn appears to this outsider as a hot potato passed between creaky agencies, each unable to advocate a future vision.

Another clue of Penn’s ‘ad hoc’ rule comes from the green ARRA sign. Federal money paid for 85% of Phase 1; yet no agency used this free money to produce leverage for Phase 2 funding. As is true nationwide, metropolitan New York’s dependency on Uncle Sam has no future as a strategy for transit capital.

Beware The Wooden Nickel

Into this vacuum comes a new concept called “value capture” that, so far, seems to be funding part of the nearby Hudson Yards subway extension. This is at the heart of the MAS Penn proposal and offers a sign of fiscal hope. The scheme’s short explanation is transit raises the value of real estate (more true in Manhattan than elsewhere). In turn, increased building values will generate higher property taxes that the transit agency can borrow against to build now.

I am a skeptic of depending on this funding source for several reasons. First, this is the largest station in the western world and requires lots more money than a subway station. Worse for the City, it already was a struggle to get nearby landowners to agree to the value capture for a subway. It is a fair guess they will view a scheme for Penn’s rebuild as a double tax.

There also is an ominous Big Picture: value capture needs a decade-long track record of paying bondholders on-time. But, municipal bond markets are nervous about ominous clouds of pensions and insolvency nationwide.

Furthermore, squishy funding hurts the private landowners’ equation. Knowing there is not enough money to finish the suburban stations, landowners around Penn won’t invest enough either; further reducing value capture’s contribution.

Not Easy: Find A Way Out Of No Way

A credible plan must solve these big picture problems around governance and funding. Simultaneous with those changes, the transit agency cannot just put a pretty hat on top of 100 year-old platforms. Three new stations should have a complete update to 21st century transit standards that include through-routing, easy transfers, and tightly integrated mobility systems. This requires big-time money and an authority that can break transit’s old ways.

20th Century authorities cannot implement 21st Century standards. The metropolis’ polyglot of outdated authorities took over failed railroads and, now, have failed even to maintain the old system in good repair. Without money to first fix the systems New Yorkers already got, it is highly unlikely new stations will get built.

Transit also must solve its cost-overruns. New York area transit investments have been off-the-charts expensive compared to what global centers in Asia and Europe buy. For example, MTA’s East Side Access project at Grand Central was to cost $2.2 billion in the 1999 federal budget. Today, estimates cost upwards of $11 billion and will be finished as late as 2024. Worse, this exorbitant price tag does not even buy a through-route, suburbia’s track of the future.

These budget and timeline busters are multiple-decade affairs. The subway part of this same tunnel was started in the late 1960s that finally connected to its system in 2001. This spooks the public about future major projects.

Back at the Port Authority, it has made headlines with astounding cost-overruns at its post-9/11 station… along with newsy scandals such as Bridgegate. Solutions will require deeper and broader political discussion than now seen. Who leads that? Both Governors are looking for their path to the White House, while eyeing the other as a possible rival. Today has no leadership nor lasting momentum for replacing Penn.

Finding a responsible owner and funding source for the commuting stations will not get settled finally until the taxpayer agrees. Chances improve when there is a credible agency that serves riders and taxpayers alike with a whole new discipline of managing finances and timelines. That requires a new regional authority, independent of state politics.

Giving taxpayers a better deal — while necessary to get capital for transit — is not the topic of this series on defining performance standards for central stations in the sustainable era. But in future years, hopefully 2015, I will explore how regional politics is a prerequisite for sustainable transit. Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago’s Union Station will be case studies.

Only unprecedented collaboration of government agencies can make possible the fable’s happy day in which the Beauty (Grand Central) marries (through-routes) the former Beast (Penn transformed into her Prince.) But, a new agency will have to groom the Beast for this story to have a happy ending.

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Grand Central Terminal And Penn Station: Will The Beauty and The Beast Ever Get Married? by Robert Munson

This post is part of a series by Robert Munson called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.


Photo by the author to celebrate GCT’s 100th anniversary

In today’s tale, Grand Central Terminal is The Beauty. Admired also for her goodness, she touches souls in ways most civic buildings cannot. Many souls, such as this author, find her exquisite. So when our mid-Century trend of destroying beautiful buildings put GCT on the demolition list, the public’s stored-up admiration stopped her assailants. And this inspired a preservation movement across the nation. Better yet, her Beauty also runs deep with a brilliant design that faithfully works 100 years later; distributing people better and seemingly with social graces that other hubs can only wonder how she does it.

However, our storyline has a dark side. For the past century, suburban passengers — who prefer her east-side location — have been forced to ride past her to the west-side Penn Station; often adding 30 minutes to the daily commute and congesting Midtown surface traffic further.

Who would conspire this denial? As in our tale, it is Beauty’s mean sisters who run the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Railroad. And like Beauty’s sisters, these bureaucracies seemingly are statues who — to have life again and solve this problem — merely had to admit their mistakes.


Photo of Penn’s main concourse, taken by the author while waiting for gate posting for his LIRR train

Of course, today’s Penn Station is The Beast. Its ugliness is visceral and personal; defying description. Most who enter its maw sense what true ugliness does; instinctually aware of the cramped quarters and negative energy generated by masses of irritated humans. To manage their discomfort, most learn how to get out as quickly as possible. It is hard to imagine how this guy can become Beauty’s Prince.

The fable’s richest lesson tells us that transformation only happens if one changes one’s ways. Today’s real life Beast cannot transform because the governments of New Jersey and New York have self-interested priorities; unconcerned with the collaboration required for the region to benefit from sustainable solutions. Yet, some agent of the public must have the authority to bring transit into the next era.The consequences of not creating suitable authority are immediate and darken the mid-term.

As an immediate (and recurring) problem, Midtown has hellish crosstown traffic. Because trains do not connect both stations, too many commuters surface and add unnecessary street congestion. While surface congestion was reduced by making subway trains interconnect six decades ago, that vital lesson still has not been applied to interconnect suburban service.

Similarly a result of ineffective regional authority, through-routing New York suburbanites to New Jersey (and vice versa) will benefit commuters and employers. Yet, this mid-term economic collaboration is a pipedream. Analyzing each station objectively gives us reasoned premises from which to shape solutions. Let’s start with Her, the fun one.


Poster artistically depicting the glamor of Grand Central, photo by the author while riding the subway

Grand Central Terminal: The Beauty As Secular Cement

Score: 81 (see full scorecard)
Category: Likely Sustainables

When GCT was threatened, prominent architect Phillip Johnson joined the civic movement to protect it with this statement: “Europe has its cathedrals and we have Grand Central.”

Also active in the movement to save GCT, the prestige lent by Jackie Kennedy Onassis helped revive the glamor of trains as GCT established a national standard that stations could be great again. After the nation’s Supreme Court decided in favor of GCT in 1977, the preservation movement had an icon and the law to grow its success.

More inspiring and exhilarating than the finest 21st Century airports (yet without the technological building advances of the past 80 years), it is hard to understand how GCT touches the human soul while smoothly handling its daily flurry of 1 million people hurriedly going places. As a museum piece, elegant shopping mall and transit’s single most efficient infrastructure piece, GCT’s magic is completed by generating constant fascination; serving as the sixth most visited tourist attraction with 21,600,000 visitors annually.

Grand Central sets this standard for every station: to serve as a complete destination, somewhere for tourist and commuter alike to benefit and enjoy travel again.

Now celebrating its 100th year, GCT’s excellent design remains an engineering marvel; flexible enough to accommodate ten times more people today than when it was completed at the start of World War One.


Track entrance, photo by author

Excellence starts in the basement with gates to the tracks that are welcoming, elegant and functional; all promising a pleasant commute. To accommodate rush hour traffic, platforms are wide; certainly the widest I’ve seen for a large terminus. Since platforms easily become choke-points as ridership grows, this shows GCT’s capacity to adapt.


Strolling down the ramp from the dining concourse to lower tracks, photo by author

Also adding to more fluid flow, ramps move people between the main, dining and lower concourses. The walk is far more spacious and pleasant than the usual cramped escalators… and wondrously less expensive to maintain or make handicap accessible.

Great design also helps GCT fulfill retail’s formula of location, location, location. Accommodating a variety of retail shops, GCT is unmatched perhaps anywhere; possibly except Tokyo hubs that have Macys-like department stores. But no where are shopping choices more elegantly arranged than GCT. Ranging from a cool Apple Store to upscale specialty boutiques to even a store for the New York Transit Museum to fascinate the inner subway rider of people like this author. And the shopping tour is not complete without a visit to the vast Grand Central Market (below) that ranks near the top of anyone’s list of gourmet cornucopias.


Grand Central Market, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Unlike any station in the western world, GCT’s 40 stores for shopping exceeds the 36 for dining. GCT’s Dining Concourse and famed Oyster Bar plus the upper level lounges and dining rooms all combine to rival any station on the planet for quality. Also unlike the fast food dominance of other stations, GCT finds ways to offer a more healthful “grab ‘n go.” (GCT’s leasing decisions should be compared to Penn Station’s whose criteria seem to heavily favor impulse-buy foods that are fattening and, generally, lack intrinsic nutritional value; all consistent with the quality of Penn’s public service.)

Shifting from destination-making-made-easier to the general genius of Grand Central’s original design, its long-term value must be compared to today’s addition when the government builds stations. Here is the MTA’s schematic for the East Side Access project.

It will take a century to correct the obvious mistake of bringing all LIRR passengers to Penn Station and their surfacing and over-crowding Manhattan’s streets for the last leg of a commute. But, government finally is making progress. This MTA project will bring about 20% of weekday LIRR passengers into GCT. As the immediate area redevelops under new zoning laws, the influx of new pedestrians and taxi-users probably will compound today’s congestion; in some ways, defeating the purpose of the East Side Access… and causing its expense, in the judgment of history, to eventually appear as unproductive.

I offer two items as a half-time critique of the East Side Access.

First, ridiculous cost-overruns clearly make the MTA inappropriate to direct future improvements. This project to serve the public is starting to look more like a perversion of tax dollars. The 1999 federal budget had the price at $2.2 billion. Functioning as a slow motion lure that promises the public a solution, it took eight long eight years until ground-breaking; creating lots of opportunities for the politically connected to get their piece of the public’s treasury and for bureaucratic battles to work their woe.

By the time digging started, the project cost almost tripled to $6.4B and completion was projected to end this year. Now in 2013, completion has been bumped to 2019 and tagged at $8.4B, a 382% increase since politics got involved. With a performance like this, intuition tells me that we have not seen the end of this fiscal travesty.

There are acceptable explanations for some cost-overruns. But, there are no excuses as far as the taxpayers’ bottom-line is concerned. If the MTA cannot protect its funding source, the MTA should be replaced with an authority that has a core financial discipline.

If there is to be any accountability moving forward to complete the East Side Access or any current MTA project (or any future project such as remaking Penn Station), the accountability process should start this year with inspector generals of New York City, New York State, Connecticut and, possibly, the federal government making an expanded report. Better yet, a joint report will help taxpayers understand what has happened to their money and suggest ways to help restore the public’s trust.

It will be curious to see if reports indicate the lack of cooperation between MTA subsidiaries (LIRR and Metro-North) led to these ridiculous cost-over-runs. For example, why did the LIRR platforms have to go 91 feet under Metro-North’s?

As a separate item, how are these cost-overruns related to the shared tunnel on 63rd Street ? (See map below.) Didn’t that two decade construction project — starting in 1969 — also end in a fiasco in which it wasn’t useful until the 21st Century when subway connections were made ?

From this tunnel fiasco that so far spans half a century, what are the lessons from this overall lack of authority so that taxpayers can be protected in the future?

And in the Big Picture, would a through-routing strategy have made a lot of these costs unnecessary and still improve the chances to achieve the objective of reducing congestion?

But alas, all this money does not contribute to the strategic solution of through-routing. (Don’t forget, the “marriage” in this piece’s title refers, in part, to the sustainable benefits of through-routing.) Future capacity of Penn and Grand Central can be increased by trains running through it. Yet, the East Side Access project terminates these LIRR trains along with GCT’s 67+ other tracks. The future needs through-routes to contribute to sustainable regional solutions.


Drawing courtesy of Foster + Partners prepared for MAS competition and its website

Easier to grasp than this mind-boggling waste of tax dollars, my second criticism starts more micro. The East Side addition is too far below the standard of GCT’s elegant design; largely resulting from an inability to reconcile differing systems. While more passengers will be able to enjoy GCT (an improvement over Penn’s discomfort), they first get pinched (as in the red pressure points above.) There appears to be a poorly designed exit from the the East Side Access into GCT’s lower level concourse.

There is an even more serious constriction of customers seeking to transfer to the subway, the primary solution to Midtown’s street congestion. MTA also supposedly has authority to manage the subways. (On page 51 of the Foster proposal’s link above, a solution is offered; but, of course, the MTA has no money given its cost-overruns.)

So, we see yet again the weakness of MTA’s authority upon entering the subway system. Lines 4 and 5 (in the lower right corner) already are the nation’s most over-burdened. The ESA will bring some 12,000 more riders from the LIRR. And if the MTA plans to relieve this congestion by finishing the 2nd Avenue subway one long block away, I remind everyone that the Elevated was torn down and used as scrap in the war against facism… and east-side Manhattan riders have been waiting ever since.

Back to belief in today, these problematic transit connections are reviewed starting on page 31 of a study released for GCT’s 100th anniversary, A Bold Vision for Midtown. Prepared by the Municipal Arts Society, MAS has served as the primary civic organization and Guardian Angel throughout Beauty’s life. Opening yet another chapter of great public service, this excellent 65-page publication analyzes GCT. Particular attention is paid to public spaces and mobility within its original surrounds that sprung up in the 1920s. Known as the Terminal City, it remains NYC’s best contribution to the City Beautiful movement. Terminal City also is the original application of the “value capture” concept being talked about by cities today. For a relevant primer on value capture, refer to this 2012 post in “Urbanophile.” And for a longer discussion, see this recent post.

Using the rezoning of GCT’s surrounds, “Bold Vision” turns the coming redevelopment into an opportunity to evolve East Midtown. (The booklet also is a bit of a pre-emptive strike to prevent the surrounds from further reducing Beauty’s prominence.) I certainly hope MAS successfully guides and monitors deals between developers and City planning agencies to improve public spaces, streets and sidewalks to cope better with Midtown’s congestion.

But, all of these real estate updates beg several questions. First of all, why focus municipal attention on a center that, on a relative basis, works pretty well now? Instead, shouldn’t all these plans of increasing density be preceded by solving the congestion caused when commuters surface to get to their destinations?

And given that the MTA will be ridiculously over-budget and decades late in getting the LIRR to stop at GCT, should it be the agency to through-route GCT’s trains? Through-routing makes several contributions to regional sustainability. For GCT to advance in that direction, some lines need to go through.


Photo taken by author while riding the Lexington Ave subway

It is not my intent to challenge MTA’s competence. Per the photo above as an example of many improved efforts to serve the public, MTA is trying. (And relative to Chicagoland’s agencies, MTA gets an “A”.) But, here is the real question: is MTA the correct agent to solve problems economically?

Here also follow bigger questions for the sustainable era; most are so far beyond MTA’s purview that a true authority will be needed if the future is to look better than today.

But….. As beautiful as GCT is and as positive as the MAS influence on land use agencies and developers seems to be, how does remaking a 21st Century Terminal City fit into a strategy for regional redevelopment? Offering the more objective perspective of someone who lives in the nation’s second densest city, I ask: isn’t Manhattan’s problem really that it has too many people? Don’t Midtown’s insanely high land costs drive even more density that we currently cannot afford infrastructure for?

Let’s face the Big Picture. Manhattan bound trains serve its CBDs, but also congest these districts. Terminating commuter lines merely compounds connections to other transit and, thereby, raises the cost for everyone.

If our governments cannot follow a de-congestion strategy such as through-routing that European cities solve almost as a matter of course, then how can current agencies ever guide something as complex as the much talked-about goal of economically rational regional redevelopment? Fundamental to our economic competitiveness, this topic is explored in later articles. But for now, truly sustainable stations — of which GCT could lead the way — must also contribute to systems that guide rational redevelopment.

To end where we began our story….. In my personal opinion, The Beauty is doing just fine. She can age more gracefully with better streets and sidewalks. But giving her implants in the form of bigger buildings will just make her sag… or at least cause her to lose her shape… if you don’t mind my metaphor.

As for marrying her off to a Beast… we have to believe in miracles. Specifically, New York must try through-routing and other transit connection methods to relieve congestion… or else the marriage fails to improve the household’s economics. These methods are explored in the remake of Penn Station… the next article in this series on how stations can support truly sustainable transit.

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Newark Penn Station by Robert Munson

This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.


Photo from City of Newark website

A visual pleasure inside and out, Newark’s Penn Station is more than a pretty face. An excellent workhorse, this station helped save one of America’s most troubled cities. Seemingly married to a special Destiny, this station was born in spite of the Great Depression and has endured as a leading Economic Engine; pulling its city through half a Century of hardship.


Photo by Robert Munson

Score: 79 (see full scorecard)
Category: Economic Engine

Overview: Stations in this series’ third category, Economic Engine, perform perhaps the key function of daily urban life: facilitate transit systems that give a competitive edge to downtown employers and retail. This strategic goal helps explain why so many cities recently want to redevelop their central stations and, in the last third of the 20th Century, why preservationists succeeded so often in keeping alive their civic centerpieces.

To distinguish Economic Engines from the highest category (called the Sustainables), a related theory assumes that stations centering well their mobility networks also boost property values with more Transit Oriented Development. This creates a happy economic cycle for a growing middle class that uses transit more; raising both tax and farebox revenue, while creating savings from lowered household transportation costs and government road maintenance. This combination puts a network on the road to fiscal sustainability; particularly as discussed in this series’ earlier article on Philadelphia’s growing middle class that resides downtown. We should expect more of these more complete downtowns as the sustainable era emerges.

Usually with too little residential, Economic Engines are less complete and only stimulate the commercial downtown; but should improve the network as steps toward our more robust category. (While most of these correlations are good, causation is still squishy.)

Newark’s Penn Station is a good test of this TOD theory that transit is an economic enabler and stimulant. In my opinion, Newark potentially centers the nation’s largest suburban operator. (This assumes two combinations under good governance: PATH and NJ Transit technically count as one integrated system; and, Newark’s Penn and Broad Street stations are essentially one station with eight lines connected by a one mile light rail.)  Yet, Newark is only a small, mid-sized city with 278,000 residents while Long Island’s railroad (currently the nation’s largest) can serve some 7.7 million.


Photo Credit: Flickr/Dougtone

Newark’s relatively successful commercial downtown looks like a much larger city. But its chief obstacle is the City’s middle class is way too small. While having some diverse neighborhoods, Newark still has the highest poverty rate (25%) of any American city. So if Newark turns around that statistic by using its transit advantage to rebuild its middle class, it further makes the social argument for every other city to invest in its station and reinvent its mobility network. Until that happy day, other cites can be well served by this analysis of Newark’s main station and how it encourages one of the nation’s better transit systems.

How The Economic Multiplier Works At Newark Penn

This station has two key factors in its equation: design; and transit as a top priority.

A great design may not be mandatory for success, but it sure helps. If a station is designed well, its functions fall into place easier and are less costly to update. If a station functions well, it gets used more and it is more possible for a downtown to flourish. Newark proves these operational and capital efficiencies. Twice. Most improbable was the second time; occurring now.

The first time, of course, was when Penn Station was built. With a 1935 ribbon-cutting and carefully orchestrated promotion, this equal investment from the City and Pennsylvania RR promised to work well for everyone. And it still does.

The station functions well. Integrating its three levels, one walks down from the almost airy platforms into a concourse with a relatively high ceiling so it doesn’t seem as if eight tracks could have trains rumbling above you. The concourse then smoothly distributes passengers to parking, taxis, buses or the exquisite Art Deco detail of the waiting room pictured above all on the street level. The basement is a light-rail subway; a short ride connecting to universities, medical centers and the Broad Street Station. Here is the agency’s recent blueprint. (The extensive local bus station is unmarked, but adjoins Penn Station’s north wall.)

While still working well through the 1970s, Newark’s decline caught up with the Station. It has undergone two decades of updates starting with $41M from NJ Transit in the 1990s. Then in this century and largely using the above drawings, NJT teamed up with federal money (including 31M from the 2009 ARRA stimulus.)  All this brought the Station to as good a condition as could be expected; given the economic disaster of many Newark neighborhoods.

For more details on Newark Penn, visit this website sponsored by Amtrak that helps citizens preserve their stations.


Street map posted throughout ped-shed, photographed by the author.

The concourse and connection to other modes are done well (see scorecard details.) As in other good stations, improving passenger convenience and increases ridership. But, the real reward is the economic impact on the downtown. The above map captures this best. Its economic anchors are Prudential (absolutely key) and quasi-government corporations (New Jersey’s largest light and gas company and the state’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield.)  Typical of recovering downtowns, it also has government centers.

Overall, Newark’s employers are not much different than you would expect a former industrial and port town to have after four decades of disinvestment preceded by a particularly awful 1967 race riot and very rapid white flight. In brief, the downtown needs more private employers.

But, that problem is being turned around. Of the recent large scale construction in all of New Jersey, one-third is in Newark; despite the City having 4% of the state’s population and the disadvantage of its per household income being 42% less than the state’s.

There is further evidence that Newark’s transit quality is attracting capital. It has combined well with the tax breaks to build a downtown sports arena for its NHL team. (Prudential got naming rights.) Panasonic’s North American HQ was just lured from neighboring, upriver Secaucus and added an attractive high-rise to Newark’s surprising skyline. While lures other than tax breaks are used, transit is the key amenity; and Newark and New Jersey know how to use it.

Many give Prudential credit for saving this downtown. I add that it probably took the largest life insurer (whose portfolio is invested heavily long-term in real estate) to recognize long-term value of a town with a great station and good transit.

Newark equals Chicago’s 26.5% of ridership to work. And transit should help rebuild Newark’s middle class to overcome downtown’s main drawbacks: it has very few residents, sparse retail and partial amenities that residents require.

Before Newark Can Solve Its Poverty Problem, Build Downtown Residential

Newark has good bones for downtown residential. It has the second lowest rate of car ownership, after New York City.  In addition to transit, other assets should be leveraged for downtown residential. For example, four major institutions (Rutgers-Newark, NJ Institute of Technology, the nation’s largest health service university and a community college) bring some 50,000 students to downtown’s University Heights. These largely commuter colleges could facilitate more housing for students and staff.

As with many cities revitalizing its downtown using the “eds & meds” strategy, Newark knows it has to diversify; as represented in its 2008 “Living Downtown Plan” that stretches to University Heights on the west and troubled areas around Broad Street Station on the north. (Plan consultants were SOM and Sam Schwartz Engineering).

As Mayor for seven years, Newark’s Cory Booker has done much to refurbish his city’s image. In addition to imprinting many economic deals, he is a public safety champion. During the 1990s, Newark was considered the most dangerous city in America. Mayor Booker, an African-American, has been a frontline advocate for restoring public safety. This needs to continue if the downtown is to attract enough residents.  Yet continuation depends on his successor, as Mr. Booker is likely to move up as the next Senator from this state.

The mar on Booker’s legacy is he has done too little for poor neighborhoods. Because some border the downtown and are stigmatized by housing projects, this remains an obstacle. In this series on how stations lead transit systems that support a middle class, I cannot start or finish the argument that we have a welfare regime that perpetuates poor people’s plight. But, we should not forget that transit is one of the easiest ways to reduce household costs; enough so every family can save more and move up the ladder.

Unlikely to get as complete a package as Mr. Booker to serve as its next Mayor, Newark needs a strategy that persists past his dynamic persona and take its currently stymied “Living Downtown Plan” and make it a reality. Let me propose a deal for new methods of regional redevelopment. (This concept will be explored throughout this series.) To encapsulate this strategy, look at this map of the PATH.

The Port Authority Trans Hudson is the nation’s 7th largest subway system by ridership. The four small cities it serves have 620,000 residents for an impressive ratio of 3 residents for every 2 riders, highly concentrated. (The nation’s next largest belongs to Philadelphia’s subway with a ratio of 5 residents to 1 rider.) If you add the four New Jersey Transit commuter lines that connect Newark (Penn and Broad stations) to New York’s Penn Station. Suddenly, poor Newark is a very rich transit connection. As the state’s largest city, Newark should be a natural mega-hub for the New York metropolis.

My future article on New York stations uses two assumptions. First, Midtown Manhattan has too many people for transit improvements to work cost-effectively. Second, there are cheaper places to live than Manhattan. Both proven.

Newark has an under-utilized and effective transit network.  And second, Newark is an inexpensive place to live.

This begs a few questions. Wouldn’t the world’s main financial center benefit from a farm team eight miles away that already is the nation’s third largest insurance center?  And for the common sense and stability of our financial system, shouldn’t investment banking learn something from the nation’s largest life insurer that required zero public dollars to make it through the worst real estate market since The Great Depression?  And besides, didn’t banks just make its “Wall Street West” by bringing many players to Jersey City, Newark’s peer on the PATH? (Jersey City has four PATH stops.) And didn’t this expansion raise Hoboken and Jersey City housing prices to those in many parts of Manhattan? Does this make Newark the next city to expand to?

And because it is in-land, Newark would cost substantially less to bulwark against hurricane flooding; possibly a show-stopping cost for Manhattan and Jersey City?

So if all these assumptions make sense, the clincher is: what agency helps fix this match-made-in-Heaven between the first and second largest cities in the New York metropolitan area? And don’t forget the bride’s dowry: Newark has the metro’s second largest airport and it is the most convenient to Manhattan; plus, it has the largest container port on the East Coast.

I’m not done having fun with this scenario… nor laying out its logic for Newark and, by analogy, how other central stations can serve as Economic Engines. Solving transit’s problems are increasingly expensive and ineffective because of how we govern our urban areas. If we are to compete in an era of sustainability and if that model rebuilds regions with mega-centers (instead of one over-crowded midtown), then the New York metro needs to take advantage of Newark’s assets and Newark needs New York’s investments. In ways politicians obviously don’t understand, cooperation will pay great dividends to everyone. (But first, we must un-employ the turf-fighters).

Newark’s social problems won’t get solved overnight. But over-time, they must be improved as they currently use public monies very ineffectively and these otherwise could get a much higher social and economic return if invested in infrastructure. As a drain, urban poverty is a strategic obstacle that prevents transit systems from getting on a path to fiscal sustainability.

So for today… How can every city’s central station, as an Economic Engine, do preliminary work to overcome this obstacle?  Answer: we still are finding out.

But… History gives us more answers than we admit. Consider the exhibit created from a brochure promoting Newark Penn at its 1935 ribbon-cutting. This exhibit fills the waiting room’s far wall. Reading this one panel below, it is clear that the Pennsylvania Railroad saw something worth promoting and, in so doing, defined this Station’s destiny.


Photo by Robert Munson

In 1935, the City of Newark had just split the cost of building the Station. This investment tied New York to Newark’s downtown. Four generations later, it still pays dividends. This is a great public value and should make taxpayers feel good (something that doesn’t happen often enough). Newark’s Station remains a great opportunity for all types of progress. But, it is under-utilized; blocked by out-dated laws for redevelopment.

Newark Penn is an Economic Engine for the downtown that is running at, let’s say, half capacity. Who is failing to use that asset to serve public goals?  Let’s show politicians and transit bureaucrats the light. And if that doesn’t work, show them the door.

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Chicago Union Station by Robert Munson

This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.

The photo above is how I used to think of Union Station: the architecturally famous Great Hall. But as the nation’s third largest station, I always wondered why so few people were in it. Before I share the answer, please allow this summary background.

Score: 61 (see full scorecard)
Category: Inexcusable

This series’ previous post analyzed Philadelphia’s Center City stations as representing the top category called “The Sustainables;” those stations leading their transit systems toward fiscal sustainability. Other stations serve transit metropolises, but are not leaders because each has a fatal flaw. To help these flawed stations, we create a special class called “The Inexcusables.”

The Inexcusables are often trapped by lousy politics and solving each station’s flaw requires an effective governing structure. This article will expose that flaw for Chicago’s Union Station, the dominant hub in my hometown. Also typical of The Inexcusables, Union Station’s key flaws derive from mistakes made decades ago and that have not been publicly confessed; compounding the problem and raising the cost of solutions. These Inexcusable patterns betray the public’s trust and must be changed before the public invests sufficiently.

In the final analysis, the Second City’s grandest station is the center of one of the nation’s largest, disintegrating transit networks. Today, agencies are broke and don’t seem to know how to correct their mistakes.

Yet, this insolvency can be Chicago’s chance to make a new main station to lead this transit town into an era of sustainable transportation. Multiple proposals for a West Loop Transportation Center are promising, but collect dust due to lack of funding.

To understand how this condition evolved and how we can break through it, let’s start this history when Union Station was helping Chicago become the nation’s rail center.

The Best A Station Can Be: Integration Leads To Prosperity

Built by Burnham’s firm as a consortium of five competitors and led by the Pennsylvania RR (the nation’s largest railroad), Union Station tells us collaboration can serve everyone’s passengers better with easier transfers and, thereby, increase rail travel overall. In short, integrated systems lead to growth. When completed in 1922, Unions Station repeated a similar collaboration that built the central depot of the 1880s. To handle Chicago’s record-breaking growth during the previous three decades, the 1922 Station tripled capacity and innovated by terminating 24 northern and southern tracks into one convenient hub. All good… and soon-to-be-great.

Boosting economic growth, this consolidation of five companies’ terminals allowed Chicago’s Central Business District to expand; having been hemmed in by eight rail-yards and terminals. Adapting the laws innovated for New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Chicago permitted 1920s’ office buildings to be built over tracks; thus expanding the CBD and its convenient access by commuters.

The collaboration that built the 1880s depot and its replacement by the 1922 Station bookended Chicago’s ascent as the nation’s transportation center. This leverage, in turn, gave the metropolis the edge to emerge as the nation’s manufacturing center.

Union Stations’ early economic triumphs are matched by its long-history of aesthetic awards. The most recent was in 2012 with a “Great Public Space” award given by the American Planning Association. This coincided with other accolades derived from the publicity around the $65 million update, mostly of the station’s Great Hall and Amtrak facilities.

Bad As A Transit Town Can Get: System Dis-integration

The way Union Station works today is similar, metaphorically, to my closeup of this clock that centers the Great Hall. (Honestly, this is no Photoshop.)

Key functions are off just enough to distort other aspects; multiplying dissatisfaction, particularly during rush hour. The causes are mid-century mistakes made when we thought inter-city train ridership would decline further and, hence, the Station could downsize. All inter-city travel lost from its 1940s peak has been replaced by commuter ridership, plus another 20% daily ridership in this century. Union Station’s concourse overflows with passengers and cannot catch up with the times. The Station that helped make Chicago the nation’s train center now holds Chicago back.

Serving as terminus for half of Chicagoland’s suburban lines, Union Station declined for the last half century; making passenger convenience worse.

For example, today’s Union Station commuters and visitors connect to a subway via an unprotected two block walk south that, as a statement on priorities, enters under the Congress Expressway. Or Union Station commuters can walk three blocks east to catch the downtown Loop Elevated. This walk is even worse six months a year when Chicago is either brutally cold or hot ‘n humid. For passengers walking to rapid transit with baggage, there is no credible way to say “Thanks for visiting” or “Welcome home.”

Telling the tale of the times that caused today’s divorce from rapid transit, Union Station had its own “L” (Elevated) stop per the 1957 photo above (Bruce Moffat Collection.) The Loop connection starts on the right, crosses the river and train-shed with the “L” stop in the parking lot. (Across the street, the existing Great Hall is in the middle of the 8 story office block with the original concourse to its right.) This neat track connecting to the CBD was demolished in 1958 to clear the block next to what would be the world’s tallest building for over two decades.

Despite the huge increase in commuters who needed to circulate during three decades of the downtown’s redevelopment boom, Chicago never replaced the “L” station and kept Union Station disconnected from rapid transit.

When considering that Union Station ridership would rank it as the 10th busiest American airport, we need to ask how many airports that large have inadequate rapid service. Since Chicago’s airports have had almost constant and continuing public investment for the past sixty years, the City’s investment priorities can only be felt as a protracted slap to two-thirds of downtown’s daily rail riders who have made Chicago’s economy work and probably contribute more than their fair share of taxes.

Union Station’s growth mostly was based on easier transfers and the high opinions of its 1922 Concourse (above shown serving the war effort.) The Concourse evoked New York’s exquisite 1903 Penn Station; yet both met mid-Century mistakes. Chicago’s concourse was demolished in 1969. Developers of the Concourse’s substitute and its high-rise office towers got their deals; but no agency got passengers a deal that respected the visual glory and artful functionality of their former Concourse.

The 1970s design of the concourse’s substitute was so bad that an extensive $23 million renovation in 1992 (by a European star-architect) could not conceal the dirt that had been done: Chicago’s former train “cathedral” had been scrunched under an office tower. Today’s concourse is little more than a passenger pipeline dressed-up as a fast-food mall. I have been jostled through the concourse during several rush hours and I still find it confusing and claustrophobic. I’m still looking for a fellow traveler whose eyes do not seem glazed over. Seeming to reflect my feelings about leaving the concourse, the photo below is borrowed from the 2012 CDOT Plan referenced below.

Municipal failure for an over-crowded concourse gets worse as rush hour passengers next are dumped into a street-level melee as they try to cross the river or Canal Street. This frequently looks like the breakdown of civil rules. Taxis, cars, busses compete for space that doesn’t exist; so they feel justified stopping in or racing through crosswalks. To avoid over-crowded sidewalks and crossings, pedestrians also get crazy; often jay-walking Canal Street and inventing new ways to defy common sense.

Overall, this break-down of order converts an otherwise safe train commute into a hot zone endangering public safety once it encounters the street.

Seeking to explain this failure in the primary job of government, I recall the field of mathematics that says human behavior is unpredictable when systems are at capacity. This Chaos Theory says things can go wrong spontaneously. The streets outside Union Station — at almost any daylight hour — proves to me the value of this Theory.

As a final sign of system disintegration, only slow, noxious diesel buses directly serve a station with 125,000 daily weekday passengers, the nation’s third largest. Since only 11% of METRA riders get on a CTA bus, it has obvious limits. Those who choose to walk get a type of gallows satisfaction because the pedestrians often move faster than fellow commuters packed into a rush hour bus.

To sum their personal experiences, transit commuters are doing the Right Thing and deserve much better. At the least, a decent deal would reward commuters with enough convenience to encourage more good behavior.

Reflecting further government failure, Union Station’s owner (Amtrak) does not grasp the collaboration of 125 years ago that led to Chicago’s growth. The Station’s largest tenant (METRA) has so many scandals it is unlikely to survive the recommendations of the blue-ribbon committee appointed by the Governor. The same goes for the Regional Transportation “Authority.” Its four decades of failed oversight has allowed system dis-integration and agency waste of public funds. And Chicago’s Transit Authority carries baggage of recurring fiscal failures and two decades of deferred maintenance.

Recognizing the uselessness of transit’s major operators, Mayor Emanuel has put in-charge Chicago’s Department of Transportation. CDOT capped off 12 years of downtown planning with its May 2012 “Union Station Master Plan.” While not as forthright as my analysis (and certainly not written in my style), The Plan is candid for a government document; which I see as a sign of hope.

After wasting a decade of grand planning when the City had some cash, The 2012 Plan is practical… now that Chicago is flat broke. The Plan details improvements today, most of which are probably affordable. And it inspires some hope that its 5 to 10 year goals of realigning and widening Station platforms will help overcome crowding and, maybe, make more probable the benefits of through-routing. But… no funding, as yet.

Finally, the Plan clearly knows a new station is required and repeats the long-term vision of an integrated West Loop Transportation Center (imagined above) that, rich in irony, could be built over the concourse demolished in 1969. The Plan also analyzes an alternate Center one block west and stretching two blocks north to the updated Ogilvie Transportation Center; thus making the economic benefits of through-routing theoretically possible for 8 of Chicagoland’s 12 lines. With commuter travel predicted to increase between 25% and 40% within two decades, this Center offers hope that Chicago transit could enter a sustainable era… hopefully closer to on-time.

With history as judge, planning promises will not overcome the reality that governments are poorly aligned and, thus, are unlikely to spend tax dollars intelligently. But this dismal Big Picture gets more hopeful when we consider CDOT’s first small step to rebuild connectivity with a Loop Bus Rapid Transit. We hope BRT, sometime in 2015, will serve Chicago’s largest downtown buildings and reconnect the largest three commuter stations with the CTA’s rapid rail.

There are reasons to side with skeptics saying that this BRT is not a suitable solution; particularly if this City continues to tout itself as a global hub while only able to implement BRT, a technology used by developing economies. But, BRT is all Chicago can afford; having lost taxpayer support by treating its transit customers for decades as second class.

How Do We Convert Dis-integration Into Sustainable Integration?

Even for someone who enjoys writing about the future, I’ve just made a tough ask here. But starting relative to today’s transportation agency dis-integration, the positives are that the Loop BRT can meet a very low standard and still be considered a success. Yet, BRT will not renew Chicagoans’ transit greatness as long as Union Station is stuck behind the times.

Chicago’s boosters cannot mask much longer their inadequate downtown transit. This will lose the city its status as a global hub. While Public-Private Partnerships are floated to fund the low-hanging fruit, use of PPPs sufficient to make a new transit center will require reducing private risk with public funds. Politicians can pretend different and commuters can hope and pray (and buy lottery tickets), but anyone serious about transit must deal with reality: that public funds are the missing ingredient in updating Union Station and its transit network for the 21st Century.

Obstacle: taxpayers have made it implicitly clear that they have lost faith in the current transportation regime fed mostly by sales taxes; having supported the regime, only to have it fail at maintaining itself in good working order… METRA disgracefully so.

I boil down this analysis to the key strategic challenge of re-integration and how Chicagoans are likely to judge future investments: did their money for the West Loop Center replace non-integrated rapid and commuter rail with integrated systems that contribute to the economic and fiscal balance that the City needs to compete globally?

Any future strategy will not work if decision-making authority still resides with agencies proven to avoid problems and whose directors are appointed by politicians who have not admitted past mistakes, nor promised to correct them.

To get on track, Chicagoans must radically restructure bankrupt agencies; and probably start anew. To raise the funds to break beyond BRT, I advocate raising public capital and investing it through an independent publicly-elected Infrastructure Board. (Watch future posts for that proposal, separate from this series on stations.) This Board will be dedicated to increasing rail travel and protect future public investment by also serving as chief advocate for reducing the radical bias and subsidy to cars.

As guardian of taxpayers’ new infrastructure capital to integrate systems and increase commuter convenience, this dual-dedicated Board could help re-organize transportation providers into a sustainable competitive collaboration and build a suitable West Loop Center. Another pipe-dream proposal? Hardly. Here is our lesson from history: collaboration twice (1883 and 1922) built stations that led Chicago’s prosperity. Both times, Chicago clearly had the ambition to be ahead of its time. Does it now?

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Philadelphia Center City Stations by Robert Munson


Philadelphia Market East Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/acetonic

This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.

In the series introduction, I divided America’s stations into four categories based on how they are evolving to sustainability. The first was “The Likely Sustainables.” While most cities have plans to reutilize their central station, these cities are doing it best. These stations serve compact cities and are using these economic advantages to help their transit system achieve fiscal sustainability over time.

How we define “fiscal sustainability” ultimately depends on taxpayers; since it is their subsidy that makes it possible for the systems to run. But for the purposes of this series on train stations, fiscal sustainability means that a particular central station has led its transit system on to a path that can reverse the four decade trend of rails requiring ever more public subsidy.

According to this series’ current scorecards and analyses, there are five to seven stations in this category and most will be described during the balance of 2013. For today, The Sustainables are represented in this post by an analysis of how through-routing connects Philadelphia’s three downtown stations.

Philadelphia’s Through-routing Triumvirate: 30th Street (Penn), Suburban & Market East Stations Help To Approach Europe’s Standard For Commuters

Score: 84 (see full scorecard)
Category: Likely Sustainable

Summary: For transit towns struggling to improve their network, Philadelphia teaches them that through-routing helps make most things better. Connecting the legacy lines of Philly’s two main commuter rail companies has increased ridership and helped improve downtown real estate. If boosters of other cities cry “unfair advantage” because Philly gets evaluated with three connected stations instead of just one, my response is: connectivity is the key to sustainable stations and its subtleties create special rewards.

What Transit Is Supposed To Create: The Synergy of Passenger Convenience and Higher Real Estate Values


Three commuter rail stations connected by the dashed horizontal black line that runs one block above the main subway, the blue line.

A useful theory to test is whether Philly’s transit innovation has been fostered by good urban bones. Starting with the 18th Century walkable grid laid out by William Penn, this narrow land between two rivers — called Center City — prospered using boats, the young nation’s first mode of transportation.

The grid also helped the next mode as it helped Philly develop more densely around rail stations. Eager to spread this new mode to outlying areas, Center City annexed the rest of Philadelphia County before the Civil War. Philly’s foresight gave it a three decade lead before annexation sprees in New York and Chicago caught up. Also, Philly’s suburban rail consolidation seems pioneering: with the Pennsylvania RR (Pennsy) and its rival Reading RR overtaking their competitors before other cities’ rails did. With only two spheres to consolidate in the 1980s, SEPTA’s takeover emerged better.

But Philly’s lead truly widened with the first through-routing of a major U.S. metropolitan commuter system. In October 1984, the Center City Connection opened, a commuter tunnel connecting the Reading stub terminal to the Pennsy system. Simultaneously, the new system converted from dirty diesel to quiet electric, though at the loss of some diesel lines. As recognition of this strategic investment, The American Society of Civil Engineers could barely wait for early results and, in 1985, gave this tunnel its top infrastructure award.

Since making this investment to integrate into one system, the tunnel’s impact clearly is positive. Center City’s residential population has grown by over 50%: making it the third most populous downtown in the U.S. (Most residential is not shown on the model below because it is on the left of this westward view of the model.) Also, Center City employment numbers have rebounded and compete better with suburban job creation.

This model looking straight up Philly’s transit corridor shows centuries of integrated planning. From Market East station in the middle foreground (next to SEPTA’s red-blue logo); then carry your eye up the street to the next logo (on Love Park in front of Suburban Station); then cross the river to the monumental 30th Street Station. Completing this tight transit corridor, the main street running just to the left is Market and has street cars and a subway.

And what are the economics of this corridor?


Philadelphia Suburban Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/ireneillee

Real estate values around Suburban terminal have improved consistently since it became a through station. Tied together with underground passages to the station, there are 11 buildings of Penn Center, plus Comcast Center. Together, they average 33 stories. Since the 1980s, 86 stories have been fully renovated equalling those un-renovated stories built in the 1960s (50 years is a normal life-cycle before a major renovation.) Over 164 stories have been built anew in Penn Center. In 2006, the redesign of the centerpiece Suburban Station was completed; improving HVAC, waiting areas, retail, passenger flow and the 20 commercial stories above (called 1 Penn Center)… all earning it an Energy Star rating.

Only one-half mile from Suburban Station (but a world away from office work), the former Reading Terminal has been redeveloped as the main Exhibition Hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. A touristy, mid-scale mall of almost 120 stores, called The Gallery, adjoins the new Market East Station at the end of the commuter tunnel.

After suffering decades of disinvestment, this area also has benefitted greatly from the 1984 through-routing. The Convention Center successfully got through most of its second phase expansion despite a deep real estate recession. The Gallery has stabilized through the upheavals in retail anchors and the station’s overall success has given Amtrak reason to consider it as its preferred stop for high-speed rail.

Making greater passenger convenience, the Commuter Tunnel integrates the former Reading (5 lines) and Pennsy (8 lines) to bring customers directly to each others’ stations without the hassle and cost of transferring. Through-routing clearly contributes to sustainable downtown redevelopment around these three stations.

Rounding-out the trio… One mile west of Suburban is the model of how to honor rail’s past and invent the future. Unlike many other cities, Philly kept its jewel, Penn Station. Finished in 1933 by Burnham’s successor firm, Penn Station’s grand neoclassical exterior blends well with an exquisite art moderne interior with aesthetics reflecting Philly’s transit innovations. Owned by Amtrak, it was renamed as 30th Street Station. But its owner has kept every bit of the original grandeur; making it a joy to visit and even relax.


Philadelphia 30th St. Station. Photo Credit: Flickr/afagen

As grand and gorgeous as this station is, real estate redevelopment along the Center City mile between 30th and Suburban stations has improved dramatically since through-routing. Looking on this model from 30th Street towards the CBD, south of the tracks now has 60% more floor space than 30 years ago and nearly all of it is updated or new. North of the tracks, more than half of the buildings have been renovated. An urban wasteland also has been transformed on 30th Street side of the river. The sleek, glass tower to the Station’s right (in the photo) is The Cira Centre — also designed by a star architect’s firm (albeit 100 years later than Burnham). The 29 story tower now serves as commercial anchor to the area; built above an ugly railyard that many earlier proposals had failed to conquer. A more sprawled anchor is nearby University City; hosting campuses for Drexel and Pennsylvania universities and Philly’s largest medical center. This area was in particularly bad shape thirty years ago.

Fit all this into the big picture and Philly is relatively more transit-friendly than its larger rival, Chicago, which has similar per capita transit usage but no commuter through-routing.

Suburban Station borders Love Park, where young and old lovers come to encourage their relationship and be photographed under the iconic LOVE sign. Since Suburban is has the greatest traffic, the Park also has a Visitor Center that looks up the diagonal of the Ben Franklin Pedestrian Mall and museum campus; somehow capturing urbanity’s best. As I walked through at lunch hour, a rapper in the Visitor Center bandshell was singing about his struggles with and love for his father. When I absorbed all this and entered the best commuter station I have ever seen, the uplift was too multiple and I wiped my watery eye.

How Philly’s Transit Could Improve: Reinvent SEPTA; Find New Funding

I agree with Aaron Renn’s 2012 post: “Philly’s commuter system has the greatest potential in the US to create a system on a par with the European standard; without major investments.”

SEPTA has been better than most region’s agencies at integrating commuter rail well with subway, light rail and busses. SEPTA even has revived trolley lines. A key example for the entire system is these modes integrate tightly within a block of these three stations.

Despite accolades from me and others, SEPTA still can improve on the road to fiscal sustainability by increasing ridership and lowering costs. Criticized in this “Transport Politic” post, SEPTA is not doing the simple, inexpensive innovations such as clearer map and signage that highlights the advantages of through-service. Also in SEPTA’s takeover from Reading and Pennsy over three decades ago, a bruising strike derailed an opportunity to bring commuter-rail up to rapid-transit labor efficiency standards. Instead, SEPTA has adjusted to fiscal realties by reducing services; and in other ways, doing little to contain the cost side of the equation.

As for Philly’s future transit improvements, refer to this “TP” post. While the proposed innovations focus on Center City and giving the public the most bang-for-their-bucks, some proposals seem suitable as Public-Private Partnerships. But PPPs still will require new public dollars. As a funding innovation, targeted special transit assessments in Center City might be worth a try for specific projects that show quick results.

I conclude with a telling anecdote about how SEPTA runs an integrated system and has flattened the rail hierarchy. At 30th Street Station, I was told to use my Amtrak ticket to get to the other two downtown hubs. After I expressed amazement that one rail system would not take advantage of an opportunity to collect again, the suburban conductor clued me in on a key to SEPTA’s success: “You have come into our system and our job is to get you where you need to go.”

I was so simultaneously startled and refreshed, I had to take a deep breath to recover before I could say to the conductor “Thank you.”


Photo Credit: Flickr/ddyates

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? by Robert Munson

[ 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.

Which of these encourages you to travel by train? New York’s former Penn Station was cathedral-like, an elegant concourse and suitable setting for life-long memories. Above, witness today’s concourse; so over-crowded you feel as if you could be trapped in a pen and cannot get out.

Symbolizing how America would lead in the 20th Century, Penn Station outdid Europe’s best. Then sixty years later, Penn Station became a metaphor for American transportation mistakes. In 1964, short-term economics demolished it. Ever since, the substitute has aggravated New Yorkers daily. They repeatedly have planned to make another station worthy of the world’s greatest metropolis. But, these civic campaigns lurch from one unnecessary obstacle to the next as the entropy of our government demoralizes all but the most stout of heart.

Overview

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 “Functionality & Flow”, 18 of 100 points can be awarded for two internal station criterion: platform protection, safety and passenger flow; and secondly, concourse flow to shops and exits, or waiting areas … and, generally, trying to make the station somewhat pleasant amidst the rush hour crush of humanity.

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.

Station Categories

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.

But, here’s the rub: we cannot afford the greatness of Grand Central anymore. Yet, each station can still be great for their town by contributing to its economic growth. To get beyond pretty places, our notion of Sustainable Design must prove how stations and transit serve Americans better than cars. Since cars are fast becoming unaffordable to more and more households and cities, transit advocates have our key economic opportunity to leverage.

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.

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Chicago: The Daley Deals by Robert Munson

Politics + Projects = Planning……And The Deal Beyond Daley

Chicago has trouble beating its rap portrayed in the popular media these days. So do the Daleys. Three books give a balanced description of what The Daley Years got done, focusing on the son’s service as Mayor from 1989 to 2011. By reviewing these books in context, this essay suggests that two key tasks in completing Chicago’s transformation — revitalized poorer neighborhoods and improved transit — requires sacrifice from taxpayers and a new deal.

Richard M. Daley was raised in a bungalow. Historians theorize his father intentionally choose this home to evoke Chicago’s Bungalow Belt, that all-encompassing crescent (in red above) stretching just outside the city’s early industrial neighborhoods; protecting contiguously from the city’s south shore through diverse western neighborhoods to the edge of the northern suburbs. Built in the teens and Roaring Twenties, the Bungalow Belt almost filled the city to its limits; as if to say how Chicago would be a city of separate neighborhoods. It serves as one of Chicago’s richer metaphors; ranging from a simple haven protecting families from the daily grind and reaching up to the Big Picture representing The American Dream.

This Belt reveals how most manufacturing-based cities built their second generation residential neighborhoods; segregating filthy factories from the homes that are the primary reward for working in those factories. The story of these cities’ neighborhoods span a century: from their rapid growth ending abruptly in the Great Depression and followed by decades of decline. Some of these neighborhoods participated sketchily in the recent urban resurgence that ended in today’s lingering real estate depression.

As the weakest link, Chicago’s Bungalow Belt is a focus of future challenges and we will return to it at key points in this essay.

While interpreting the importance of these three books and drawing analogies to your city, I suggest a city’s size is less important than the patterns of how politics guide projects and how they come to resemble long-range plans…if we do things right. Since Chicago partially completed some long-range plans, other cities also get take-aways from these books.

Politics

First Son: The Biography of Richard M. Daley
by Keith Koeneman
University of Chicago Press, April 2013

The first biography on Chicago’s recently retired mayor of 22 years, “First Son” is an important book for two related reasons. First, Daley’s positive impact on American cities will become clearer as historians such as Koeneman assess his legacy in balance. Chicago’s media trivialized Daley’s reign; neglecting to explain sufficiently how the city improved and the tough choices a mayor must make. Also beyond mass media, historians will sort out how much of Chicago’s progress resulted from the market redeveloping undervalued land and how much came from Daley’s strong will.

Chicago’s storyline changes starting with this book. Now, historians will build upon “First Son” and explain how Richard M. Daley surpassed even what boosters hoped for when he became mayor in 1989. He was the central force in reversing rapid decline in the nation’s largest manufacturing center and converting it into a global city. He started by righting government in the wake of bitter racial battles and attacked policy failures in housing and education. After cleaning those stables, other feats prepared Chicago for the new century; showing there was life after post-industrial calamity.

When someone such as Daley exceeds where many other mayors have fallen short, urbanists should understand why. This first biography helps give us perspective that other histories will develop further: Daley’s impact on other cities and national politics. My top example lists Daley as one of the most notable Democratic politicians to grapple with what I call a “taxpayers’ silent rebellion.” Daley repeatedly stated that taxpayers wouldn’t pay more and his goal almost daily sought to improve efficiencies so taxpayers got better value. Also sketching the Big Picture of the nation’s evolution, historians will notate how Daley’s advisors became the President’s and started a federal urban policy more suited to what I call the “sustainable century.”

The second and corollary importance of this book is its impressive details that break down the superficial image that Daley was all-powerful and replaces it with the chaotic crazy-quilt of uncooperative demands that are driving Chicago — and most cities — into insolvency. While reading through this book’s array of political intrigue, I am amazed that Daley achieved what he did.

This book confirms for me that local government does not have the integrity or tools to lead a broad-based revitalization that includes cities’ bungalow-like belts. Given the complexities and institutional intransigence that we allow to infect our local governments, cities currently cannot evolve to their potential.

Hence… urbanism’s potential also is undercut if it does not help reform and simplify governments for sustainability.

Beyond the scope of this book (but hopefully not beyond the next history written), broken governments best explains why Daley did not get some things done. Having spent his authority on politics’ myriad conflicts without achieving reform, Daley could not cure the City’s fiscal condition.

My take-away from “First Son” reinforces what I’ve said in other pieces for “The Urbanophile”: Rahm’s campaign promise for fiscal sustainability only overcomes intractable insolvency if we return to the populist truth: “everyone does better when everyone does better.” Only when citizens believe they have a chance to more forward, will they pay higher taxes and, then, the City can pay its bills and meet obligations. While Daley’s service is an overall triumph, the inability to reform antiquated politics left Chicago peering at a potentially tragic precipice.

+ Projects

Chicago From The Sky
by Lawrence Okrent
Chicago’s Books Press, 2012

If you want to see Chicago just before Richard M. Daley came to office and compare it to when he left… if you need to jog your memory about how land use evolves… if you want to see better how Chicago’s transformation has lessons elsewhere… or if the seemingly endless tedium and timeframes for redeveloping real estate needs the visual inspiration that the end result is really worth the headaches… then, you have found your book. And all that, at 49 bucks, is a deal.

As a planner and real estate consultant, the author took 200+ photo flights over Chicago between 1985 to 2010. Sorting through some 25,000 of his photos and evaluating some 3,000 postcards and the photos of others, the author organizes an excellent exhibition. Selecting before-and-after photos usually with the same angle, this urban evolution is easier to track. Blending his planner’s training and his interest in architecture, the author’s informative captions complete the significance of the selected photos. Best yet, the author maintains objectivity; not letting his love for Chicago interfere with showing redevelopment’s rocky road.

Because the most dramatic changes were in Chicago’s downtown, this book is thorough and devotes 100 pages to the transformation of the nation’s manufacturing HQ center into a global center. An additional 78 pages show the less dramatic changes — though still substantial — in several Chicago neighborhoods. However, most photos portray projects of government, universities, museums, hospitals or cultural institutions. Some 15 of these 78 pages show neighborhoods of mostly new construction; most of which are repurposed from old warehouse districts or freight yards or the horrible mistakes of mid-Century public housing. Note that these areas are pre-Roaring Twenties and are inside the Bungalow Belt.

Several reasons suggest why this book is weighted toward large corporations and institutions that do large projects: they are easily photographed from an airplane; many are clients of the author; and, most important, it was easier for the Daley Administration to do big deals because that is how government is tooled; unlike when small entrepreneurs built the Bungalow Belt.

Tellingly of its 242 pages of photos, “Above Chicago” offers only a baker’s dozen photos of the Bungalow Belt. In direct contrast to the new construction in repurposed inner city areas, photos of the Belt show small scatterings of new construction that are mostly limited to thoroughfares on Chicago’s predominantly white north side. Of course, no book can take us from the bird’s eye view to traveling the streets of Chicago’s long-suffering neighborhoods on the west and south sides. But, those streets tell us that Chicago’s dramatic transformation is not complete. Our next book helps us understand why this matters and, partly, why these neighborhoods got left behind.

= Planning

Planning Chicago
by D. Bradford Hunt and Jon DeVries
Planners Press, 2013

Here is what this book helped me synthesize: Richard J. Daley was a master planner; and 45 years after Chicago’s last Comprehensive Plan in 1966, his son had done enough deals that the old man’s plans, roughly, got done. I consider this one of the great team efforts in the constant struggle to remake cities for the new era.

“Planning Chicago” details the evolution of planning in Chicago from the creation of the Department of City Planning in 1957 and describes several decades of key decisions. All types of planning activities are reviewed including central area plans, neighborhood initiatives, city industrial policies, and transportation. The narrative is accompanied by over 100 graphics including maps, plans, and photos.

For these and other reasons, this book deserves a review by itself. It is so rich in its detail and so broad in its critique of Chicago’s planning and the implications of its prescriptions run so deep, I regret only having space to summarize three key points that feed this essay’s bottom lines.

1. Incomplete Redevelopment Has Consequences: A Weak Tax Base. Reinforcing my conclusions from the previous two books, this third book rounds-out the analysis that the Daley-led redevelopment of Chicago is not complete. This book distinguishes clearly between how Daley made the downtown look good (Millennium Park, streets with more planters and trees) and that the consequences of superficiality show up elsewhere… and often.

Look at the chapter on “The Lost Decade” and its analysis of Chicago’s weak 21st Century economic statistics; of which population and job losses are prominent. While downtown deals make great photos, many neighborhoods and the city’s mass tax base often were neglected. Illustrating this growing weakness, page 270 shows income change during that first decade.


Note that most red/pink census tracts (where there were significant income losses) and the gray tracts (no significant change) dominate the Bungalow Belt. (Compare to the adjacent red rendition of the Bungalow Belt if you wish a tighter correlation.) While all the significant income increases (green) are achievements due Daley’s leadership, these neighborhoods are unlikely to pay the tax and fee increases required to close the huge holes in the City’s budget.

As its multi-benefit, redevelopment reduces both social costs to citizens and social service expenses in the City budget. This book understands practical value, transcending the intractable argument between downtown boosters and neighborhood equity advocates.

Bottom-line: redevelopment must build a broader tax base and reduce social costs.

2. TIFs Have Consequences: Weak Strategic Action. This book’s chief criticism is Chicago slipped into ad-hoc planning. The most obvious example is the proliferation of 151 TIF districts. While well-intentioned to solve needs of individual neighborhoods, aldermanic privilege for zoning changes has given 50 alderman leverage to demand TIF deals that often do not support citywide strategies.

TIFs are now the City’s primary source of capital spending. Untested during a period of depressed real estate values, TIFs are too many eggs in an unproven basket. And not only do TIFs have a limited future to help redevelopment, they undermine the public’s faith in government since these public dollars are invested with minimal public discussion to maximize public return. While the Emanuel Administration is working on this: decisions largely are still made between the Mayor’s Office, the Alderman and the developer… with half of the money going to the private sector…. with at least some of that going back to boost reelection campaigns.

Bottom-line: citizens and taxpayers need an alternative to TIFs.

3. Debt Has Consequences: Broke Until A New Deal. The book also illustrates that the average debt per Chicagoan grew from $600 in 1991 to $2600 in 2011, or an increase of 433% in actual dollars. Servicing that debt now eats up almost 25% of the city’s budget. Fiscally unsustainable; but worse, taxpayers have to pay this debt and they won’t because they are fed up.

Bottom-line: This debt won’t be paid and government will not give taxpayers good value unless leaders produce a justification for taxpayers to invest in the future.

As convincing as this book’s argument is for Chicago to update its planning practice significantly so it can allocate limited resources better for the 21st Century, the book leaves its technical vein and addresses the clogged artery by concluding that solutions ultimately are a question of political will. Since we are responsible for this democratic semblance of government, I only can agree.

Beyond The Daley Deals: A Conclusion And A Beginning

Speaking above citizen complaints, all three books indicate that Daley left Chicago in a substantially better space than where it was headed in 1989. Yet, clearly much remains before completing this transformation. Global centers have better transit. Nor can global centers be sustained successfully if 20% of the city’s neighborhoods are poverty traps and their social problems prevent the city from balancing its books and meeting other obligations.

So for answers, let’s review when neighborhoods were balanced and people believed government would help them and when poverty was treated as an opportunity instead of a trap. Let’s symbolically return to that bungalow the first Daley built (pictured on below.)

By Dick Daley living in the predominant housing type of middle and unionized working class neighborhoods, it signaled to Chicagoans that the aspirant-to-be-mayor was one of them, he would work for them and their new social contract called the New Deal. The above bungalow at 3536 S. Lowe served as the most famous residence in the city for two decades. Then, the mayor died and Chicago entered free fall and, not coincidentally, Reagan unraveled the New Deal.

For background, Dominic Pacyga (a leading historian of Chicago neighborhoods) co-edited a book along with Charles Shanabruch, the Executive Director of the Chicago Bungalow Foundation, that was a lead participant in Rich Daley’s multi-program quest to save and update this housing type. Mr. Pacyga contributed a chapter entitled “Movin’ on Up: Chicago’s Bungalow Belt and The American Dream.” It, too, is worth a read.

As a masterful politician in his own right, Rich Daley knew the symbolism in governing with a social contract. But, he also learned in his last term how hard it is to govern well once that contract is broken. Without a deal, Daley knew that taxpayers would not step up. As such, city efficiencies and user fees were his best chance to keep Chicago solvent.

When those tactics failed and the City’s finances deteriorated into indelible red ink, much has been blamed on Daley… fairly or not. But, all would be better if Daley instead broke his mold and started his last great initiative by admitting: “We’re broke. And before taxpayers bailout the city, I promise these political reforms so that fiscal failure does not repeat.” Then, popular opinion — and certainly history — could give the praise he deserves for starting Chicago’s transformation.

Robert Munson sharpened his interest in regional planning while serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the metropolitan plan released in 2010. Out of that experience, he started the website CCC or Chicagoland Citizens Central where you can find his profile. Readers can contact him directly at robertmunson@earthlink.net.

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

SynergiCity: The Book, The Exhibit And The Prophets’ Road To Profits by Robert Munson

SynergiCity: Reinventing The Post-Industrial City
edited by Paul Hardin Kapp and Paul J. Armstrong
University of Illinois Press, 2012

Feeling as if I over-indulged in intellectual feasts, I have watched urbanists debate for a decade. They can produce a working consensus that claims the near-miracle of solving two abstract problems (often related to cities’ social and economic decline) with one repetitive effort (regeneration). But as these multi-benefits gain traction, a new problem pops up and… it’s back to the proverbial drawing board.

So it is today. The post-industrial strategies sketched 40 years ago starting with sociologist Daniel Bell have been applied successfully mostly by urbanists. As a 21st Century update, SynergiCity proposes a helpful working consensus by synthesizing environmental and economic sustainability. In important ways, this book adds to the following three categories of proof that urbanism’s multi-benefits work… but each gets challenged by new pop-up problems.

One proof is physical: bricks and mortar, often the physical rehab of run-down neighborhoods. This book chronicles how redeveloping warehouse districts in six midwestern cities created the added benefit of attracting cool, young people who have been coined the “creative” workers and entrepreneurs of a dynamic, “innovation” economy… that now sputters badly because the old macro-economic cures (deficit spending and regulation) no longer work well.

This book also adds to the second group of proofs: these dense neighborhoods have multiple environmental benefits that will give long-lasting hope to… our new century’s protracted war against global warming and scary weather patterns.

“SynergiCity” adds to the third category of proof, real estate economics: revitalizing neighborhoods with certain formulas makes them such dynamic places to live, work, play and shop that their profits can be reinvested in nearby neighborhoods … up until the worst real estate depression of a lifetime struck.

Despite reality giving me a skeptical eye, I still could read this recent book and be filled with cautious hope for the new working consensus it offers. But as the reality of running cities encroaches on my happiness, I again wonder if the urbanist movement really can prove its permanence…. before I die.

If SynergiCity offers such a secret sauce that overcomes the real-world challenges thwarting urbanism’s intoxicating ideas, it would be truly gratifying. After all, consistent profitability greatly improves the chances the high values that we attach to cities would be aggressively replicated in buildings and blocks and communities and, eventually, crises could be resolved.

Permit me to ask the impolite question directly: Is the practice of urbanism proving its theory? This book answers specifically by showing how decayed districts were converted into prospering neighborhoods. The book is convincing, too. Read this book and you will feel much better about our chances of convincing stingy people who make financial decisions.

But in fairness, their decisions are based on whether a large enough market will support redevelopment. Thus, urbanism must prove itself by raising the quality of life for ever-larger numbers of people. Recognizing this more popular story also must be told, the editors of SynergiCity collaborated with the Chicago Architecture Foundation to create an exhibit that — if you visit for 20 minutes — will help you feel-good, I hope, for a lifetime.

Dedicating a panel to one neighborhood each from Milwaukee, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, Minneapolis and Chicago, the exhibit shows how neglected warehouses were revitalized into destination districts; often mixing a few of the suitable older uses with new residential, office, and retail purposes including restaurants. The exhibit’s introduction and a partial closeup of the code describing each neighborhood’s mixing of uses is captured below.

Along with a two-panel condensation of the prototype study of Peoria in which the editors marshaled several teams of graduate students, the exhibit helps you see the patterns that led to successful redevelopment there and the other five cities. What the exhibit also captures is applied urbanism’s key: it brings out intrinsic value. If applied more widely than the exhibit’s premier examples, the process of turning neglected neighborhoods into productive purposes also could help cities survive today’s pop-up threats of mounting fiscal problems; discussed later in this review.

With the exhibit as backdrop, the CAF also organized a series of four lunchtime talks in April related to the exhibit. The first presentation came from the editors summarizing their synergicity concept. The second talk came from one of the book’s twelve essayists, John Norquist, retired mayor of Milwaukee and, now, President of the Congress for a New Urbanism. That city also offers many prominent examples in the book. The third looked at Chicago’s point-of-entry Pilsen neighborhood (also on-line). And the fourth, this Wednesday April 24, critiques Chicago’s current planning as performing below its reputation.

The Movement Has A Moment of AHA!

While these multi-media methods help package urbanism for broad understanding, the importance of SynergiCity is it deepens urbanism’s effectiveness by merging economics with environmental sustainability. While it is too early to know if a milestone has been made, SynergiCity, at least, constitutes two types of an AHA! First, it gives relief; telling urbanists they have economic proof as well. And secondly for optimists, SynergiCity indicates substantial progress in fitting a key piece in the puzzle of putting together cities for the 21st Century.

For me, this moment has both AHAs! With an improved handle on real estate economics, urbanism has a better discipline to grow to scale. Double bottom-line: SynergiCity tests the tools of urbanism and the results appear as urbanity.

The book’s two editors are architecture professors at The University of Illinois who understand how their craft, again, is thinking broadly about the building blocks that help cities operate to foster healthy social and economic systems. Also setting the Big Picture, the editors orchestrate the essayists so they collectively synthesize a working consensus about how regenerating older neighborhoods is an important microcosm to guide us as we struggle through the larger challenges posed by a new century that requires sustainability.

The book’s large stage is set with a Foreword from Richard Florida entitled “The Death and Life of Great Industrial Cities.” A review of the impressive list of essayists gives clues this may be a special book. It proved so to me. Here is how.

After the Foreword and Introduction, the editors and essay writers collaborate to describe SynergiCity as a dynamic progression through its Parts.

Part 1 sketches the broad social foundation for SynergiCity as a sustainable city suited to today’s dynamic, innovative economy. The first chapter — written by Donald Carter, one of urbanism’s lights — often uses Pittsburgh as the archetypical, transformed post-industrial city (and candidate to be dubbed the first synergicity.)

Four remaining chapters test urbanism’s tools for their capacity at physical and social transformation; focussing on the Illinois River town of Peoria. (Remember, “Will it play in Peoria?”). Also using other mostly midwestern examples, we see how transforming warehouse districts starts with preservation as a physical and economic strategy. Described well are the situational use of form-based zoning and other tools of the sustainable planner’s toolkit. Part 1 provides detailed proof that the theories work reliably enough to adapt elsewhere.

This Part’s concluding chapter was written by John Norquist, Milwaukee’s mayor for 16 years until 2004. His book published in 1998, The Wealth of Cities, still serves me as a comprehensive analysis of what went wrong; cogently describing how municipal and federal policy drove cities down. Mr. Norquist’s book also can be viewed as starting the case we today hear almost daily and SynergiCity supports: cities are the engine of the new economy. As I offer at the end of this review, failed policy and broken politics block us from this more dynamic, synergy city leading a sustainable economy.

Skirting the pop-up problem of politics and policy, Part 2 offers urbanism’s case for environmental sustainability. Because it serves mostly to reinforce what we already have had the chance to read in urban blogs, Part 2’s great value is seeing those ideas synthesized with today’s more dynamic economy.

Part 3, “Making SynergiCity A Reality,” organizes the tools of development economics with a chapter each on strategies (Milwaukee’s town-gown model), efficient methods (how Peoria got lots done without too much) and even descriptive ‘pro formas’ (financial analysis from Emil Malizia, a dean of urban redevelopment.) While all this may be covered sufficiently in the industry’s continuing education, Part 3 offers a novel package because it flows logically from urbanism’s wholistic power of transformation (Part 1) and its tightening case for environmental sustainability (Part 2.)

In brief, SynergiCity is comprehensive and tight: it shows how converting undervalued buildings reintegrates urbanism’s multi-benefits to create more sustainable communities that stimulate the emerging “innovation economy.” AHA! The post-industrial society is reinterpreted anew for sustainability!

Synergicity, So What?

While I suggest no criticism of SynergiCity, we cannot ignore urbanism’s new fatal flaw… many cities are insolvent (particularly in my state, Illinois.) Since their terrible condition only recently was revealed by more honest accounting standards, cities quite suddenly cannot provide the promised services to citizens and benefits to employees. Now amidst unyielding political confusion and fights over shrinking budgets, labor and social contracts must be remade.

Until citizens, taxpayers and employees get revised contracts they can live with, cities will bear badly the burdens caused by a two decade backlog to maintain existing infrastructure (mostly transportation and water.) Worse, attracting capital for new stuff seems very problematic; whether it is getting a decent deal from private capital, or giving a new deal to taxpayers that is sound enough that they believe in their government again.

Because most redevelopment projects use financing methods that reduce taxes of redeveloped properties below what they should be, the inner city achievements described in this book and throughout America will be even more difficult to finance in the future; given that cities now need those taxes. Nor can cities be trusted by redevelopers to support their investment and provide quality public services to homebuyers and tenants. The redevelopment methods described in this book, quite unfortunately, may not work soon… unless we chart a new course.

Today, urbanism must adapt its prescriptions to help resolve the ‘de facto’ fiscal collapse of local government.

Fixing holes in municipal fiscal hulls requires many thoughtful experiments. Consistent results eventually will win a new consent from the governed. My hope is that within a few years, new observers of the quality that organized SynergiCity will surface and their experts who currently are reinventing public services will describe how municipalities are using taxes wisely again. These future authors will have the credibility to synthesize another book that describes a strategy for fiscal sustainability; thus, recreating urbanism’s tight multi-benefit formula for the future.

If we find a strategic calm amidst today’s chronic budget battles, we will craft tools for fiscal sustainability that radically reinvent services so they are cheaper and better and grow the economy while protecting the environment. Then, the next generation will have its AHA!

But for today, let’s consider ourselves at a rest point and reflect. Read SynergiCity. Go see its free exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation that runs through this summer. (You can buy the book there, too.) Savor this satisfying moment of the synergy that redevelopers have built… and don’t worry about the next pop-up problem. Cities are resourceful enough to find cures.

In answering cities’ fiscal cry by crafting a new social contract tight enough to protect citizens and taxpayers, we will earn satisfaction… of a lifetime.

Robert Munson’s last contribution to The Urbanophile was the Chicagoism series in which he digs around at the roots of environmental, economic and fiscal sustainability; searching out common themes suitable to test an urban social contract for the sustainable century.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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