connection-activated civic squares

A few days back I asked for examples of connection-activated civic squares, public squares that serve as both a symbolic and functional heart of the community, but where people connecting between transit lines form part of the square's activity.  I was looking for a real-world example of something like this, which is a design for a (non-existent) square in Surrey, an outer suburb of Vancouver:

  Surrey Central Plaza-1

The idea arises from the desire to have bus-rail connections happen in an interesting urban setting, rather than a typical suburban bus interchange that features an area where only bus passengers would be. 

First, I should answer this comment

Isn't the idea to reduce transfer penalties, not to deliberately increase them for other ends? Getting off the train on a cold, stormy night, I think I would resent being made to animate an otherwise deserted public square – running 200m for my bus, with my umbrella blown inside out, dodging puddles. Even worse if it was on the way to work in the morning!

Indeed it is.  I always want connection walking distances to be as short as possible.  The square above is 100m wide, so maximum walks would be no more than that, and that's not out of line compared to what you'll do in tunnels in many of the great subway systems of the world.  But I'm not sure that walking across a square is more onerous than walking along corridors or tunnels, so long as there's some reasonable alternative in bad weather.  And of course the urban designers are always telling us that visual interest makes walks feel shorter.  When walking along a typical subway tunnel lined with shops, I feel reduced to the status of consumer.  I would much rather walk across a square on a nice day.

One reason that these arrangements are unusual, and that I should have noted, is that they require buses to be organized in an inverted couplet.  In a country that drives on the right, you would expect that a westbound one-way street would be north of its eastbound partner.  That's the way two-way streets normally divide.  In this Surrey proposal, we set up the car traffic to do that but the buses to do the opposite in contraflow lanes.  That's how we got the bus stops to be on the square rather than across the street from it.  This is a great trick in situations where you already have one-way couplets of streets.  It gets buses out of traffic and puts them with their doors facing each other so that they can stop at opposite sides of a square (or even just at opposite ends of a pedestrian street or lane). 

(Portland's transit mall is a famous example of an inverted couplet — the northbound street is west of the southbound street — and if the Pioneer Courthouse Square were one block further east, it would be a spectacular example of a connection-activated square.  The mall couplet does help create an effective square at PSU Urban Center Plaza, where the mall and the streetcar intersect.)

It was quickly clear from the reader suggestions that really large connection-activated squares have to be in pretty big cities.  Even there, size can be a problem.  Note how Lyon's Place Bellecour, below, is reduced in width by a bit of landscaping.  The whole block is 250m x 170m, but the trees reduce the purely open space to about 100m wide.  At that, it's still the largest clear square in Europe, says Wikipedia.  There's room for two soccer fields in the remaining open space, three if that guy on the horse would get out of the way.

Place bellecour lyon

Place Bellecour does have a bus stop facing onto the square on the east side, but the main east-west bus movement is east on the south side, west on the north side, which in France puts the stops across the street from the square.

Many readers pointed to Berlin's Alexanderplatz, a vast and intense area that includes Berlin's iconic tower, the Fernsehturm.  Alexanderplatz is technically the northeast part of this image, but it's all intimately connected.


The interaction here is between rapid transit ("U") at the center of the image and tram and bus lines.  One of the tram lines extends northeast and northwest from just south of the rapid transit station.  As I recall some of these trams turn to stop alongside the station (so are not activating the plaza) but others do not, so some people do walk across parts of the plaza.  Also relevant are buses on both the far northeast corner of the image and on Spandauerstrasse, which is the street cutting across the southwest corner.  Greater Alexanderplatz is a series of spaces where the interaction of transit and urban life is quite intricate.

A clearer big-city example is Syntagma Square, Athens.  It's about 110m on a side, and seems to work well, though Google is a little fuzzy there:


Syntagma has an underground metro station on the east side of the image, including entrances right into the square.  Buses are organized as a couplet, and in this case, it appears to be an inverted couplet so that the buses open into the square, but I can't quite be sure.  The Athens Tram also terminates there.  The position next to the Greek parliament building ensures that the square is a symbolic center of the city and nation.

Several readers suggested Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, UK.  I had in mind hardscaped plazas, but this one is interesting as an example of how much transit work a grassy park with a fountain can do.  It's about 120m x 90m at its widest points.

Piccadilly gardens manchester"

This is clearly a major tram+bus terminal, with lots of space taken up by end-of-line storage as opposed to just stops.  That's part of why the transit operations seem to dominate the space to a degree that urbanists are likely to find objectionable.  Note that the main pedestrian links between connecting services are paved paths across the gardens.  The landscaping is a nice way of saying "this is a park, not just a transit interchange," even as the paths serve the interchange volume.

Last among big-city examples, I'm intrigued by Insurgentes station plaza in Mexico City, which is in a roundabout roughly 120m in diameter. 

Plaza insurgentes mex

Note that the red buses appear to cycle the circle in a contraflow lane, i.e. clockwise where all other traffic is counter-clockwise, so that they open onto the central plaza.  (UPDATEI am now advised that they are operating with-flow, counter-clockwise, but in their own lanes, and have doors on the left that enable them to open onto the plaza.  The two silver-roofed structures are their main stops).  Obviously, this is a massive bus-rail connection point.  The red buses are from the city's Bus Rapid Transit system.  This is certainly enough pedestrian volume to activate a space, and indeed it looks as though some kind of merchant activity is going on.  But of course a roundabout is inevitably more of an island than a heart, as you'll need to go underground, through the subway station, to cross safely to any part of the surrounding district.

But when we step down to smaller cities, or to outer locations that aren't major transit hubs, the successful squares are quite a bit smaller.  Several readers praised Mont Royal station plaza in Montréal.  The subway station is on the west side, with bus stops on the east and north sides.  This looks like a case where terminating buses are actually looping around the square. 

  Mont royal, montreal

But it's only about 50m wide.  Many readers suggested connection-activated squares on this scale, often in secondary nodes of big cities or in suburban areas, especially in Europe.  Many such squares were mentioned, but Stockholm's Odenplen is typical.  And even in North America, small open spaces, usually  less than 50m on a side, are common at some subway stations; Vermont/Santa Monica station in Los Angeles and the two Mission BART stations in San Francisco come to mind.  Another example, at a simiar edge-of-downtown scale, is the PSU Urban Center plaza in Portland, which handles interactions between an inverted couplet of north-south buses and an east-west streetcar.  The open space there, too, is less than 50m on a side.

So to sum up:

  • An obvious larger design point is that civic squares have to be scaled to their catchment area.  The bigger the city and the more central their role in it, the bigger they can be.  For squares that aim to serve a smaller suburban or neighborhood node, the squares are smaller, usually less than 50m on a side.  The plaza we sketched for Surrey (at the beginning of this entry) was probably too big.  Place Bellecour in Lyon a totally open space of 200x100m with only a statue as furniture, probably is too big.
  • At all scales, these squares can work as multiple-purpose plazas while also serving transit connections, and there seem to be many examples of these two functions supporting each other.
  • Inverted couplets are rare but work well with public squares.  The inverted couplet is a key unappreciated feature of the Portland transit mall. 

Thanks to everyone for contributing to this adventure!  I'm sure there are many other great examples I haven't mentioned. 

This work is important to me because many designs for great highrise urban nodes at rail stations collide with the needs of connecting and terminating buses, and it's often tempting to push the buses away.  These examples, at a range of scales, capture how transit connections and urban life can happen in the same place, and indeed support each other.  Links to other great examples are welcome!

15 Responses to connection-activated civic squares

  1. Miranda March 26, 2011 at 5:12 am #

    In theory Rodney Square in Wilmington, Delaware fits the bill. But the location has it’s problems. The city is considering moving the transit hub, and a lot of citizens and city business owners are (rightfully) up in arms about the proposed new location.

  2. Rational Plan March 26, 2011 at 5:44 am #

    I’ve searched the UK and there hardly any. There are plenty of bus stations or interchanges, which considering the weather, the best have the passengers sheltered and heated. But none in civic plazas. Almost no British railway station has a large square in front of it, they tend to be right up against the street.
    Almost no British city has a grid and nearly all bus routes go to the main town centre. In larger cities some bus routes may go through suburban town centres and their bus station on the way to the main city centre, but most bus stations are points of termination and not connection. They are not pulsed like american cities. But most large urban areas in Britain have large suburban rail networks that operate all day, so a lot of cross metropolitan travel will involve changing between them.
    You are more likely to change bus routes in the suburbs if you need to get to another suburban destination.

  3. Chris M March 26, 2011 at 8:25 am #

    Jarret – The Piccadilly Gardens example is one that I know well and it’s interesting to read the perspective of someone who’s looking at it from outside the city. While what we have now is a lot more practical than what was there before (a sunken garden difficult to cross/intimidating at night), because the Gardens are now an interchange, civic square, public garden and shopping space all rolled into one the common view in the city is that they’re worse than what was there before; presumably because the space fulfills none of those roles as well as a dedicated space would. This leads me to suspect that while what you’re propsing is sensible, it might not always be popular.

  4. Beta Magellan March 26, 2011 at 8:33 am #

    Most American hubs are very small—FWIW, I thought of the young Pritzker Park in Chicago as a possible entry, but it’s ncredibly tiny:,+IL&cid=0,0,10419148275107431010&sqi=2&ll=41.877502,-87.627908&spn=0.002021,0.004544&t=h&z=18
    It has a lot of the characteristics of an effective urban transfer hub—two heavily-used rail stations (one elevated, one subway) open directly onto the park while another entrance is only a block away. A number of heavily-used bus lines stop here, and it’s near some major universities (high-rise campuses), library, and the southern end of one of Chicago’s main shopping streets.
    Although it’s definitely a well-used space, especially in summer, but besides its size the other reason I didn’t submit it at first is that I don’t get the impression that it’s really used for transfers that often. For el-subway transfers, I get the impression that most people transfer further north (where, for one of the subway lines, there is an entirely enclosed multi-level interchange station), and during the afternoon rush hour southbound commuters looking to transfer will also hop on buses further north in order to get a seat. So, even though Pritzker Park’s an effective urban space with lots of transit, I think people usually end up making their transfers elsewhere.

  5. Brian March 26, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    At Insurgentes the BRT is not contraflow but has left hand side doors. It’s an advantage of dedicated BRT stations that such a rail innovation can be adopted.
    On the other hand, contraflow lanes for transit are the rule more than the exception on busy streets in Mexico City. Many examples available if you need some.
    Also in the Insurgentes photo the blacktop is raised about eight meters over the plaza which is not obvious from overhead. It reduces street noise, allows a ring of shops underneath (quiet enough inside for some book shops) and at-grade pedestrian crossings to the surrounding neighborhood. The at-grade ped crossing straight north is to Génova, a long and very busy pedestrian avenue at the heart of the popular Zona Rosa.
    The mid-plaza tents are temporary and used for a dozen weekend fairs each year. Usually the plaza is open and the retail is located underneath the blacktop circle.

  6. Carter R March 27, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    Hey Jarrett,
    I’ll throw another one out there: the Metro Rail station area on the northeast corner of Wilshire and Vermont.,+Los+Angeles,+California&ll=34.06217,-118.291023&spn=0.001049,0.004823&t=h&z=18&layer=c&cbll=34.061784,-118.29147&panoid=dNy006XVfD9xaMa8qftfTQ&cbp=11,34.71,,0,-2.2
    It’s sort of a weird space, as the plaza is surrounded on three sides by a large TOD, but it’s always active with pedestrians, as people are walking from the northeast corner of the plaza from the Metro station entrance to the southwest corner to pick up the popular Wilshire Rapid bus (720) or the Vermont Rapid (754).
    Eyeballing it on google maps, it’s look to be about 200×100 feet.

  7. Daniel Howard March 29, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    There are several subway and bus connections to be had across Union Square Park in Manhattan . . . for me the typical use case is a great spot to meet a friend coming from a different transit line and then heading off on foot to the nearby movie theater or to any number of restaurants and shopping opportunities. I think that most of the subway connections can be made underground without leaving the system . . . as payment systems become smarter people have more of an option to stroll through a nice park on a pleasant day, or stay in the underground tunnels when it is raining.

  8. Scott March 29, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    Sorry for the late response. Placa de Catalunya in Barcelona has connections between bus, rail and a large array of bike share. An interesting commentary to make would be that I believe all of the bus routes stop adjacent to the plaza rather than on the plaza side of the street forcing people to cross to make connections, after they figure out which adjacent block they need to be on. It is a very important plaza and is where all or most of the night buses connect which is important because the rail service is not (was not in 2007) 24 hour.

  9. mattwigway March 30, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    Bing Maps has better imagery of Syntagma Square (albeit from a different angle):

  10. Red April 3, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    This may be late, but I was looking at Lisbon, Portugal recently on google maps. I noticed this one plaza called “Praça da Figueira.”,-9.135488&sspn=0.14762,0.384865&g=Lisbon&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Pra%C3%A7a+da+Figueira,+Lisboa,+Portugal&ll=38.713685,-9.137787&spn=0.001153,0.003007&t=h&z=19
    From wikipedia: “The Praça da Figueira has a very uniform profile, with four-storey buildings dating from the rebuilding of the Baixa Pombalina. The buildings are occupied by hotels, cafés, and several shops. It is also an important traffic hub, with bus and stops.” From the map, this includes a supermarket, a music museum, and other shopping areas. It is home to a large statue of a king.
    As you can see on google maps, bus stops are located on the sides of the plaza. To the north, across the cobblestone street is the Rossio metro station. To the south, you can see a tram because the city’s tram station is also nearby. Luckily, it qualifies your dimensions, being 50m each side.
    If you concerned about some stations being across the street, if you do streetview on google maps, you can see that the streets hardly act as a barrier and act more as an extension of the plaza with lots of people walking everywhere since the roads around the plaza seem to be mainly limited to transit.
    Here is one view:,-9.135488&sspn=0.14762,0.384865&g=Lisbon&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Pra%C3%A7a+da+Figueira,+Lisboa,+Portugal&ll=38.714235,-9.137385&spn=0.000555,0.001503&t=h&z=20&layer=c&cbll=38.714101,-9.137456&panoid=yhBprPsCpLyn2PSNkZgzzw&cbp=12,233.82,,0,5.74
    (a tram can be seen on the far left…if you turn slightly to the right, you can view the metro station)

  11. Kenny Easwaran April 8, 2011 at 4:07 pm #

    I always find the Vermont/Wilshire plaza to be frustrating, because the entrance to the subway is set so far back. Especially when I’m bringing my bike, it’s difficult to maneuver around the people in the square, because the shops on all sides mean there’s only one place I can get out. Unless I go out the back side of the station, which has the opposite problem of feeling like a desolate, empty street, and not having major bus lines.

  12. Greg Beaumont April 26, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    Main Street SkyTrain in Vancouver is above Thornton Park with numerous bus stops and Pacific Central Antrak station on the far side of the park – does that count?

  13. Jarrett at April 26, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    Greg. Not really because relatively few peds cross the space as
    volume at the intercity rail+bus stn are low. It's also a depressing

  14. Matthew March 31, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Copley Square, Boston. The one-way roads go clockwise around it, so the buses have stops on the inner part. You connect between the Green Line and the Orange Line/Commuter Rail/Amtrak by walking across the square and another block (a little far, actually).

  15. Ted K. August 14, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    Here’s a borderline case – San Francisco’s Union Square (Map, Wikipedia). It comes close to your size parameter (1.1 hectares per Wikipedia) and has transit connections on nearby islands and corners. The controversial Central Subway project would put an entrance on the corner of Geary and Stockton (lower right corner).
    The quibbling comes from the fact that the transit connections are split ones with their other halves a block away on Sutter (e.g. 2-Clement, 30-Stockton) and O’Farrell (e.g. 38-Geary). Also, there’s a large garage under the square which increases the steel moat effect on three sides.
    Transit :
    Powell – Cable cars PH (Hyde) + PM (Mason)
    Post – 2-Clement, 3-Jackson, 76-Marin Headlands
    Stockton – 30-Stockton, 45-Union Stockton, 8X-Bayshore Express
    Geary – 38-Geary, 38L-Geary Ltd.
    Note – BART and Muni Metro are roughly three (3) blocks away from G+S (two blocks on Stockton and a block on / under Market) or one can do a straight shot on Powell.
    P.S. Our host’s 100m x 100m guideline expands to 10,000 m2 which is also a hectare (aka 2.471 acres).