Monday, June 29th, 2015

Viva Havana!


Photo by Scott Beyer

With pending changes in US-Cuban relations, there’s been a flurry of attention turned towards Cuba and Havana. I want to highlight a few articles on the topic. Firstly, Scott Beyer posted a two-part series over at Market Urbanism. It’s part policy analysis, part travelogue, and his large numbers of photos are a must-see.

His first piece is “City of Scarcity.” Here’s an excerpt:

I found myself unable to buy basic things. For example, during my first night in Havana, I didn’t realize–until it was too late–that the B&B landlord had not provided toilet paper. In America, this would be a glaring oversight, but in Havana, I would discover, is normal. This forced me to navigate my neighborhood at 3am, offering pesos to the many teenage boys still standing outside, to bring out “papel higienico” from their houses. Every time I tried this, they would each explain, in rather comical fashion, that none was available. Finally I found a teenager who spoke passable English, and asked him how this could be. After sending his little brother in to find something, he explained that “in Havana, toilet paper is a delicacy–like chocolate,” and that most residents don’t just have any sitting around. So how did people cope?

“Here in Havana, we have a saying,” he quipped. “We say, ‘Cubans have a good ass. Our asses work for all kinds of paper. Toilet paper, newspaper, book paper–any kind of paper’.”


Photo by Scott Beyer

His second piece is called “Stagnation Doesn’t Preserve Cities, Nor Does Wealth Destroy Them.” He uses the example of Havana as a counter-point to the anti-gentrification narrative in which investment in a city destroys is character.

Instead, she claims that these groups are “destroying” the city. She is thus spouting the same myth that is advanced about historic preservation by urban progressives, who seem to think that wealth and gentrification works against preservation. But a fair-minded look at U.S. cities demonstrates the opposite. If one looks at America’s most notable historic neighborhoods–the Back Bay in Boston; Capitol Hill in DC; the French Quarter in New Orleans; much of northern San Francisco; much of Manhattan and northern Brooklyn; downtown Savannah; and downtown Charleston–a unifying feature is that they have great residential wealth. Meanwhile, there are numerous cities—Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland—that have a similar number of historic structures. But many of them sit hollowed-out because of decline.


Image via the Guardian

Meanwhile, the Guardian also ran a take on the city, calling Havana “one of the world’s great cities on the brink of a fraught transition.” It’s very different to say the least.

Nowhere have these changes been more apparent than in Cuba’s capital, and Havana today can be a jarring collision of the antique and the nouveau. While I was there, the Havana Biennial was bringing in cutting-edge artists and art dealers from all over the world – yet turn the television to one of the state-sponsored channels and one is immediately transported back to the time of Soviet-era propaganda, of shrill declarations and low production values. In contrast, Venezuela’s TeleSUR (now accessible to Cubans), which generally maintains a line favourable to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and his allies (of whom the Castros are two), is positively electric and full of flashy visuals and news from the outside world.


Photo by Scott Beyer

Last Spring, City Journal ran a piece on the city by Michael Totten called “The Last Communist City.”

Even employees inside the quasi-capitalist bubble don’t get paid more. The government contracts with Spanish companies such as Meliá International to manage Havana’s hotels. Before accepting its contract, Meliá said that it wanted to pay workers a decent wage. The Cuban government said fine, so the company pays $8–$10 an hour. But Meliá doesn’t pay its employees directly. Instead, the firm gives the compensation to the government, which then pays the workers—but only after pocketing most of the money. I asked several Cubans in my hotel if that arrangement is really true. All confirmed that it is. The workers don’t get $8–$10 an hour; they get 67 cents a day—a child’s allowance.

The maximum wage is just the beginning. Not only are most Cubans not allowed to have money; they’re hardly allowed to have things. The police expend extraordinary manpower ensuring that everyone required to live miserably at the bottom actually does live miserably at the bottom. Dissident blogger and author Yoani Sánchez describes the harassment sarcastically in her book Havana Real: “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.” Perhaps the saddest symptom of Cuba’s state-enforced poverty is the prostitution epidemic—a problem the government officially denies and even forbids foreign journalists based in Havana to mention. Some Cuban prostitutes are professionals, but many are average women—wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers—who solicit johns once or twice a year for a little extra money to make ends meet.

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Hooray For the High Bridge

IMG_1714

My latest article is online in City Journal and is a look at the restoration and reopening of the High Bridge in New York City. Part of the original Croton Aqueduct system that first brought plentiful clean water to New York, portions of the High Bridge are the oldest standing bridge in the city. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s worth asking whether, with its $61 million price tag, the High Bridge project was really needed. Strictly speaking, the answer is: No. The structure was in no danger of falling down. And, just a half mile to the north, the Washington Bridge provides a functional, if unpleasant, pedestrian crossing over the Harlem River. Yet, the High Bridge is an important part of New York history and deserves its loving restoration. Spending serious money on outlying neighborhoods that are mostly minority and heavily poor to give their residents a humane environment instead of a minimalistic one shows that New York does care about all its citizens. Great cities don’t just do great things in a sanitized downtown Green Zone for visitors. They create greatness in their workaday neighborhoods, too, with projects that speak not merely to the pragmatic, but to the human spirit. The High Bridge restoration again shows what great commercial success allows a city to do for its citizens.

Click through to read the whole thing.

Here are some additional pictures I took. First, the High Bridge peeking through the trees from the Manhattan heights. You can see both the original stone arch spans and the longer steel arch span.

Looking south:

Embedded seal in the bridge pavement with historical info. There are quite a few of these discussing various aspects of the project.

The neighbors are fans:

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Public Policy, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Replay: Global Cities Don’t Just Take, They Give

This post originally ran on April 28, 2013.

Creativity for the world or for your city gives something back – Charles Landry

I had an interesting conversation about Washington, DC with Richard Layman a few months back. One of his observations, rooted in Charles Landry’s, was that great global cities don’t just take, they give. To the extent that Washington wants to be a truly great city, it needs to contribute things to the world, not just rake in prosperity from it.

Affecting the world, often for good but unfortunately sometimes for bad, is a unique capability that global cities have because they are the culture shaping hubs of nations and world. When an ordinary city does something, it can have an effect to be sure. But things that happen in the global city are much more likely to launch movements.

For example, Chicago did not invent the idea of doing a public art exhibit out of painted cow statues. I believe they copied it from a town in Switzerland. But when Chicago did it, it inspired other cities in a way that Swiss town did not. In effect, ordinary cities influence the world usually by influencing a global city, which then influences the world. Often it is the global city that gets the credit although the actual idea originated elsewhere. Thus the role of the global city is critical. But we shouldn’t assume that all ideas originate there or that other cities can’t profoundly influence the world.

We might also think of bicycle sharing, which was around in various forms for quite a while. But it was the launch of the massive Paris Vélib’ system in 2007 (which according to Wikipedia was inspired by a system in Lyon) that made bicycle sharing a must have urban item the world over.

Similarly it was the High Line in New York that has every city wanting to convert elevated rail lines into showcase trails. New York is really the city that made protected bike lanes the new standard in the United States as well.

Beyond simple urban amenity type items, global cities can also launch profound cultural and social transformations. A few examples.

The first is from Seattle, a sort of semi-global city. It was in such a depressed state in the 1970s that someone put up a billboard that’s still pretty famous: “Will the last one leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” Yet in Seattle there was a coffeehouse culture that spawned a movement out of which came Starbucks which literally revolutionized coffee drinking in America and event pioneered the entirely new concept of the “third place.”

A lot of people like to attribute the emergence of Seattle as a player to Microsoft moving there from Albuquerque in the late 1970s. However, I think the coffee example shows that there were interesting things already happening in Seattle long before that. It was a proto-global city waiting for a catalyst.

Another example would be the emergence of rap music out of New York City. Or house music from Chicago.

Or consider the 1963 demolition of Penn Station in New York in 1963. The wanton destruction of this signature structure horrified the city and led to the adoption of its historic preservation ordinance. This was not the birthplace of historic preservation in the United States, but this demolition played a key role in bringing historic preservation to the fore, not just locally but nationally.

Lastly, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 clearly played a signature role in the gay rights movement in America. Many pride parades today are scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the event.

Who knows what might have happened with coffee in America without Seattle. But I think it’s clear that both the historic preservation and gay rights movements would have emerged at some point anyway regardless of what happened in New York. However, the events in New York clearly provided a sort of ignition and acceleration.

How many historic buildings in America were saved because Penn Station was lost? (Think about how many might have been destroyed had the historic preservation movement emerged later).

Think about a state like Iowa where gay marriage is legal. How many people in Iowa 40+ years ago had any idea that an obscure incident in New York City would ultimately transform the social conventions of the rural heartland?

I think this shows the power of the global city. I’m sure that there are things happening underground in New York and elsewhere that right now that we don’t know anything about yet that will ultimately transform our world 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. It’s crazy to think about.

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Topics: Arts and Culture, Globalization, Historic Preservation, Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago, New York, Seattle, Washington

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Portland Mayor Charlie Hales

I was out in Portland, Oregon last week and while there I sat down for an interview with Mayor Charlie Hales. We talked about the real Portland vs. the idea of Portland, the city’s industrial base, retrofitting suburban infrastructure, and a lot more. If the audio doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

Mayor Charlie Hales. Image via Wikipedia

Here are some edited highlights of our conversation. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

Mayor Hales rejects the idea that we will have to strategically abandon infrastructure because the finances don’t add up:

My point here is that this is about political will. It is not inevitable or immutable that America is going watch its infrastructure decline. It’s a choice. It’s a bad choice to dither and do nothing. And it’s a good choice to step up and do something. And I think you’ll see more cities doing what we’re doing here in Portland. Which is to say, we’re going act locally, and then keep the pressure on Congress and the State House to do their part too.

Regarding how hard it really is to find a job in Portland:

Not hard. In fact, I think it’s 4.8% – the unemployment rate – among 25-34 year olds here – lower than New York, lower than a lot of places. We’re the 3rd greatest city in terms of college educated immigrants moving here deliberately. They move here, and then not long after, they find work. Or they create work by starting their own business because we’re a very entrepreneurial city as well. I did this in 1979. It’s not an original thing for Portland. In fact you could say it’s been happening since Lewis and Clark that we – that people immigrated here from elsewhere because they saw some opportunity here. We’ve been absorbing those people as they come to Portland. They find work. But that’s the value set of that 25-34 year old cohort. They care about quality of place, quality of life, and what they’re going do when they’re not working. And that doesn’t include, say, sitting in traffic in suburbia. So they like the idea of living in Portland, and they come here and try to make it work. And most of them do. Again, we have a better employment situation for those folks than New York City does. So it’s not true that young people come here and are stuck in jobs that they’re way over qualified for indefinitely.

About how the real Portland differs from the idea of Portland people have from the media:

Like all good caricatures, Portlandia makes fun of some things about us that are true. I mean, we do love localism, so Colin the Chicken is somebody that we would care about here in Portland. And we are relentlessly earnest about our values.

There some other ways that we don’t. We’re still an industrial city. We’re a big hands, port industrial city. We build boxcars and barges. We just cut the ribbon on the biggest dry dock in North America last weekend. So we employ a lot of welders and steel fitters and plumbers and pipe fitters, and all those hands-on trades. We build trucks here. We build boxcars. We make steel pipe. There’s a lot of traditional “old economy” industry here.

Another part of Portland that doesn’t show up in the caricature is…the other half of the neighborhoods that were half-baked suburbia when they got annexed into the city. And we’re trying to make them complete communities with a local economy in that neighborhood and those kind of services that you can walk to. And, oh yeah, in many cases, there aren’t even sidewalks, and there’s no neighborhood park. So, we’re spending a lot of effort and money on trying to retrofit those suburban parts of Portland, to not be physically identical to the old neighborhoods, but have those ingredients of a complete neighborhood that Portlanders like to see.

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.

Comments Off on Chicago’s Secondary Stations: Little Engines That Could…And Should by Robert Munson
Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Transportation
Cities: Chicago

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Bye, Bye, Barcelona

City Lab pointed me at this documentary called “Bye, Bye, Barcelona” that describes that city’s increasingly love-hate relationship with tourists as it starts to choke on the sheer volume of visitors, which increased from around 1.7M/yr in 1990 to about 8M in 2013. The city is now the most popular cruise ship destination in the Mediterranean, and up to seven huge ships can dock there simultaneously, disgorging their passengers into Las Ramblas or Sagrada Familia. This video must have struck a nerve as it’s been watched over 200,000 times. It if doesn’t display for you, watch on You Tube.

Here’s a bonus bridge construction time lapse. It’s from Southern Indiana where the bridge across the Ohio River at Madison was replaced by building a new span on temporary piers, demolishing the old span, then sliding the new span onto the old piers. Here’s a time lapse of the slide operation. If it doesn’t display, watch on You Tube.

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

The Changing Face Of Chicago (1963)

You’ve no doubt seen many posts already about the 80,000 vintage newsreel type videos uploaded to You Tube by British Pathé. The biggest challenge with these is that no human being can possible process that quantity of material. But it’s fascinating and you could probably spend many a day watching these things.

I’ll share a few highlights today focused on Chicago. First, one I found via Ben Schulman. It’s a 1963 video called “The Changing Face of Chicago” and can be viewed on You Tube if the embed doesn’t display.

Listening to the narrator brag about the “27 urban renewal projects under construction” can inspire perhaps horror or laughter. But what it should spark is humility. I’ve little doubt that 50 years from now, the many earnest urbanist videos and policies put forth with equally as much dogmatic fervor and certainty will be the subject of future generations’ puzzlement. My own blog may perhaps be an exhibit.

We need to have a sense of meta-narrative about progress. By that, I mean that we not only need to understand the ways in which we’ve changed or grown vs. the past, but also keep an awareness that we’re not done yet and that in the future we will have gone beyond where we are now. We should never commit the fallacy of believing we’ve reached the apex of our understanding in the present.

Whet Moser also put together a collection of Chicago entries over at Chicago Magazine.

Here’s a fun one of his from 1939 called “Chicago Cycles.”

Here’s one from 1922 (silent) of riots in Chicago with police arresting “anarchists.”

And from the some things never change file, video of a 1938 snowstorm.

There’s plenty more so search and enjoy.

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.

Monday, April 21st, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley

I was able to sit down this month with new Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley to spend an hour on such topics as Cincinnati’s incredible historic assets, its history of social conservatism, streetcars and bike lanes, the repopulation of the urban core, and more.

If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.

Mayor John Cranely. Image via City of Cincinnati.

Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

By far the most provocative thing the mayor talked about to me was his direct challenge to the idea of metropolitan government. Cincinnati hasn’t annexed territory since 1925, leaving it as a smallish, hemmed in city that is only 14% of a very fragmented region. Meanwhile cities like Indianapolis and Nashville had city-county consolidation, Columbus annexed, etc. He thinks that in a new urban era, this model of government is running out of gas and the pendulum is going to swing back the other way:

There’s a real cultural shift and renewed pride in Cincinnati. More specifically though, there are some unique advantages that we have. Think of it this way: if you took our Downtown and Uptown and the corporate base, let’s say it’s 70% of all of our major jobs and income taxpayers. If you take the same exact area and map it in Columbus, they’re going to have 70% of their companies Nationwide, et cetera, all within the same geographic area. The difference is that they have to spread that money among all of Franklin County. We have to provide for 300,000 people. And very quality 19th century historic neighborhoods that already have a sense of place and culture. And we get the benefit of, on a per capita basis, being able to invest way more in these urban neighborhoods than any of our peers because we didn’t annex.

Now, historically, the attitude of urbanists had been, like myself, the we’ve got to have metro government. In essence, the attitude has been, “We poor city.” We need you guys have to play Robin Hood for us. I think the shift is already underway. Now, we have more work to do but the shift is already underway that we’re going to be a better choice for the dollar value because of our historic infrastructure, our density, our diverse economies of scale. The home owner to apartment mix which looks bad at a distance but, candidly, makes it more dense in which it makes labor pools a lot easier to transport inside the city.

What we haven’t done, in my opinion, is be insistent enough on value for the dollar, because we’re spreading our dollar over a much smaller population than cities of size. So why isn’t the quality of customer service of all services of city government superior? You still get complaints today of people who say, “I live in a nice suburb and my snow is picked up immediately and it’s cleaner and my roads paved faster and less litter. Coming to a city, I can immediately tell it’s a city.” There’s no excuse for that. And I believe that we can provide a better customer service because we have more money over less people than our competitors do. Which if you think about the fact that we lost population to cities this way, people kept moving one suburb out — and I think most of us agree we’re going to repopulate from the inside out — we have more resources to invest in economic growth policies than our competitors do, and we intend to use that advantage to become the most exciting urban city in the country.

We’ll have to see how this plays out, but I think there’s something to this. When places like Indy, Columbus, and Nashville annexed all those suburban areas, they were able to capture that tax base to support the central city. Now though they are saddled supporting miles and miles of aging and decaying suburban type development that may ultimately represent a drain on the resurgent urban core tax base. To the extent that the urban core does come back, places like Cincinnati, from a municipal point of view, will get a bigger lift from it because it gets spread over a smaller area. It’s easier to turn around a small ship than a big one.

We also talked about the geography and architecture of neighborhoods like Mt. Adams, which is like a Midwestern San Francisco. Mayor Cranley likes that analogy:

As I always say, if Chicago is the New York of the Midwest, we’re the San Francisco — in fact, that’s exactly my mind is to say Chicago is the New York of the Midwest. We’re the San Francisco. Because we have the hills, the architecture, the arts, the culture, the big league teams, all the advantages of a major city with the livability of a small town. And everyone has an opportunity to be a big fish if you got that kind of ambition. And it really is. Again, we’ve proven that’s true because we’ve been able to maintain such a concentration of Fortune 500 companies which then, of course, leads to all kinds of spin-off businesses and a huge privately held company, group of businesses, that have really been family traditions that have lasted a hundred years and have really continued to come. As I like to point out, what city our size has an entire company dedicated to Shakespeare? We have a theater that does all Shakespeare. And it has full on season.

I pointed out one important difference vs. San Francisco: Cincinnati’s history of extreme social conservatism. A number of wealthy conservatives like billionaire Carl Lindner and Charles Keating (yes, the Keating Five Charles Keating) poured tons of money into anti-pornography campaigns. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt was convicted as recently as the late 90s of obscenity charges. In 1990 locals tried to ban an exhibition of explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and even put the museum director on trial for obscenity (he was acquitted). An anti-gay rights amendment was added to the city charter by citizen initiative in the early 90s. There was a race riot in Over the Rhine in 2001.

This is clearly a sore point for the mayor, as he answered at length. He acknowledges the history of these things, but says things have changed radically and wants to be able to get the word out on the new attitude in the city:

I think that’s changed. You take one rather prominent issue with gay rights. In 1993 an anti-gay law was passed in the city charter which was awful, and would stain our reputation for ten years. When I was on council we had a transvestite who was murdered, and even the very conservative chief of police said that this was a hate crime. And I led the effort to add sexual orientation to our hate crime law. And that was sort of — this was 2002, I believe, 2002 or ’03, it might have been 2003. And this had only been ten years since the charter thing had been passed. Remember, the charter thing was passed in the aftermath of Bill Clinton being elected and gays in the military, that first debate. And several cities, including Denver, Colorado, passed virtually identical [language] ran by a right wing group around the country.

Here, we went on a major effort and we progressively, in 2004, in the midst of Bush getting reelected in Hamilton County 54 to 46, got the thing repealed by a substantial margin, which showed a real shift in our culture and our attitudes. And then we immediately passed — reinstated — the human rights ordinance. We immediately reinstated the non-discrimination. We passed benefits for domestic partners and many, many other things. So candidly, and this is why I think it’s so important that you’re here, we need to get the message out. I believe that we have moved many, many miles since then.

In addition, we have been incredibly progressive as it comes to civil rights and to police-community relations. We had, in 2001, a very difficult time with police and the community, the black community in particular. And we voted to invite the Justice Department in the Cincinnati to mediate rather than litigate allegations of police misconduct. And we led to the 2002 collaborative agreement — which I’m proud to say I helped negotiate — which is now held up as a role model for how to improve police community relations around the country. In fact, the judge in New York who struck down the “stop and frisk” law in New York City specifically cited Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement as the right way for the police and the community to work together.

And so I respectfully say that I understand that we have some baggage in terms of what happened in 1993 on gay rights, and we’ve had on the 80’s and 70’s…Larry Flynt… So I’m not denying that there isn’t some reason for that reputation, but it’s no longer fair.

In addition to a Harvard Law degree, Mayor Cranley also has a Masters of Theology from Harvard Divinity School as describes himself as a man of deep faith. I asked him how that informs him in his role as mayor:

I think that all of this has to be done in the context of the common good and building a society that expands opportunity. And I think at the end of our lives we’re fundamentally going to be asked did we make the world a better place for those who didn’t have as many advantages as we had and did we leave it better than we found it. A sense of stewardship. And all that comes, I think, deeply from my faith, schooling and family, values, traditions, et cetera.

And so we spend an enormous amount of time thinking about how are we going to reduce the poverty rate. One of my major planks in my campaign was reducing the poverty by at least 5% over the next four years. We are engaged at every level, re-examining the dollars that are — federal dollars that come in to the city budget that are earmarks for low income individuals and must be spent to the benefit of low income individuals — are we really getting the most bang for the buck out of these dollars?

Right now we have a cohort coming out of the Great Recession of folks who have never had high school or college degree, with kids, who have got very bleak prospects, and that is not surprisingly where those folks live tend to be some of our toughest neighborhoods. If we can, I think, rise to the moral challenge of figuring out how to not write off this entire generation but invest in job training and skill set to get them at least ready to work at low skill, low paying jobs and bring the dignity back of having a breadwinner in the family, the social dividends of that are enormous in terms of turning those neighborhoods around, those families around, the city around.

But in addition, if we can do it on a systematic basis, we can then market Cincinnati as a place for companies who want to locate with a large, ready to work population. Now, obviously, 20-30 years from now I’d love for us to have a higher education rate. I’m not saying it’s good and we just want to leave the education rates where they are, but given what we have today, how do we turn all that into an advantage and, at the same time, tackle the moral issues of poverty?

And while it’s not the same thing — a very sensitive issue, this is not the same thing — but building a more inclusive and welcoming society for immigrants and for African-American, Hispanics is also, I think, part of my faith tradition of — it does come from a history of prejudice that Cincinnati has been part of. And so we do have a moral obligation to tackle those issues but I do think from a political standpoint, it’s better — and true, not just better political argument, which it is, but it’s also true — that it’s better for all of us to have a more inclusive and welcoming city.

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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