Is Infrastructure Still about “Awe”?

Allison Arieff in the New York Times thinks the problem with our infrastructure planning is lack of “awe”:

[Dave] Eggers’s proclamation that the Golden Gate [Bridge] is beloved because it’s outrageous and weird may fly in the face of just about everyone’s attitude about infrastructure, but it also gets at exactly what we should be feeling about bridges and tunnels.


American infrastructure is deferred home maintenance on a massive scale. We just keep putting it off until something major — and often catastrophic — happens, and then it ends up costing twice as much as it would have had we taken care of it proactively. This is a bad strategy — yet it’s the strategy that seems to define United States infrastructure.

There is no awe. There are issues of structural integrity. There are mind-blowing cost overruns. Accidents. Sinkholes. Problems with bolts.

The first design proposed for the Golden Gate was, writes Eggers, “the strangest, most awkward and plain old ugly bridge anyone had every seen … people compared it to an upside-down rat trap.” (Here is what it looked like.) The public demanded something better — and they got it.

A century later, we’ve lost our collective faith in the power of great projects like the Golden Gate, not to mention our trust in the government to fix a pothole on time and on budget, let alone create an inspiring bridge. How can we restore that faith in possibility?

I’ve lived in cities with awe-inspiring infrastructure (San Francisco, Sydney, Vancouver, Paris) but now I’m based back in my original hometown, Portland.  And Portland is the perfect riposte to Arieff’s obsession with awe.

Portland is “awesome” but not the least bit awe-inspiring.  If you want to gape at the spiritual grandeur of human works, strike us off your list.   Our monuments, bridges, and major buildings are all modest and even gentle.  Many are beautiful but none are magnificent.  Our city is so human-scale that we just don’t need to build very big things.  For some related reason, we also have no need for a dramatic, soaring tower with a rotating restaurant and observation deck.

We don’t need the tower, because we have hills and mountains.  Portland manifests a particular reaction to a natural setting: not the desire to compete with it by creating infrastructure of comparable grandeur, but a humility toward it, a happiness that comes from dwelling in its shadow, and letting it give us all the awe we may need.

Nature now awes us in another respect: We’ve been warned to expect an appalling earthquake in which thousands of us would probably die, because our infrastructure isn’t designed to survive it.  Of our 12 river bridges, for example, only the newest one is pretty assured of not collapsing (a second is now under construction.)  Countless brick and concrete buildings and highway ramps are likely to go.  Arieff dismisses the small mindedness of “problems with bolts,” but bolts are exactly what’s going to kill us.  Telling Portland to spend money on awe instead of bolts could be a pretty direct threat to our lives.

The bigger lesson of Portland is you can build a great city by learning to take pleasure in the actual functioning of things, and the resulting liberty and happiness of people.  Pioneer Courthouse Square, for example, is pleasant but not awe-inspiring, and the real reason to love it is that it’s so massively useful for all kinds of happy and liberating purposes.  In our better moments, we feel that way about our transit system.  Function, especially when it engenders liberty and opportunity as functional transit does, can be a higher delight than awe, and a more durable one.

The other problem with awe is that it’s so often about the power of some people over others.  Versailles and Imperial Vienna are awe-inspiring, but the awe has a purpose: to make you accept your place in a hierarchy of power and privilege.   The medieval cathedral was a gathering place (like our civic squares) and an honest monument to human spirituality, but the awe you feel there is also meant to make you defer to the authority of your local priest and the Pope.   Awe and intimidation are the same thing in slightly different light.

So perhaps we should be suspicious of awe, with its reverberations of power and grandiosity.  Delight and pleasure are are better aesthetic selling points, but at our best, as in Portland in its better moments, even these things arise from functionality, safety, usefulness to vast spectra of people.  And the infrastructure that best does all those things may not be awe-inspiring, in the same way that Portland isn’t.

Let us create affordable and inclusive delight wherever we can find it, but let’s be sure that advocates of function are in the room, reminding us of the urgent human rights and ambitions that only functional infrastructure can support.  Appeals to awe, in particular, are not how we build that room.  Historically, awe’s purpose has mostly been the opposite: to keep people outside, mouths agape at the magnificence, while their betters plan their destiny.

Reykjavík: Adventures in Subarctic Urbanism (Part 1: the Photos)

I recently returned from a week in Reykjavík, Iceland, working with staff of the regional association of municipalities on the frame of a future public transport plan.  It was an opportunity to meet with key elected leaders – including Reykjavík Mayor Dagur Eggertsson and public transit authority chair Bryndís Haraldsdóttir – for a conversation about what they want public transit to be, and what choices might follow from those goals.  I also ran a two-day workshop for municipal and national transport staffs, to help them explore their options for their transit future.  (There was also some time off to ruminate on the landscape; those musings are on the personal blog, here.)

Part 1 of this post is a photo-rich tour.  Part 2 talks through some interesting transport issues.

Greater Reykjavík is dramatic urban landscape, all perched on ridges or gathered around fjords.  As in any European city, there’s a walkable historic core, attractive to tourists but still intensively lived-in by the locals, and with plenty of cranes on the edges signaling even greater density in the future.


But despite the European forms, urban history is on a more North American scale. Although the very first Norse settlement was on this spot, in 870, it was another 900 years before anything urban began to emerge.  So the inner city urban structure is mostly 18th-19th century, and the buildings are mostly from a range of 20th century styles.  (The hilltop church, too, is 20th century.)


It can seem a little austere sometimes, partly because so much of the greenspace is hidden behind buildings, along laneways.



And here are some classic waterfront photos reminiscent of Vancouver.


Note the cyclist’s shadow; at 64 degrees latitude, the beautiful qualities of evening side-light last for much of the day.


That giant tennis ball floating in the harbor seemed a perfect bit of whimsy.  It’s a park, with a military history.

Further out, much of the city is high-density but car-oriented:  Residential towers grouped at some distance shops and services, so that even though you live on in a tall building, you need to get in your car to buy a liter of milk.   This is the view from the 20th story conference room where we held our staff workshops.  This particular office tower has a freeway offramp directly into its parking lot, but the area is so riven with high-speed roads that it’s difficult for transit to navigate without lots of awkward backtracking – the “be on the way” problem.

IMG_6294 inverted

The white tower in the distance in the upper right of that photo is that modern hilltop church in the old city.  You’re looking across most of the urban area in this image, so you can sense its compactness, its topographical complexity, its extensive greenspace, but above all, its density.

In Part 2 (the Words) I’ll talk more about the transport issues.


urban designers are from mars, transit planners are from venus

Just got home from the Congress for the New Urbanism Transportation Summit, which is trying to formulate transportation policy and advice from a New Urbanist point of view.

Over the last decade, the CNU has made great efforts to form a coherent view on transportation.  The organization's core has always been an architecture and urban design perspective that is very much about placemaking, and only secondarily about movement.  Much New Urbanism is about slowing everything down in urban environments, and while the goal of increased urban density means that ultimately travel distances are shorter, slower movement can also mean reducing people's ability to get where they're going.  For example, much of the idea that transit should be slower (e.g. Patrick Condon, Darrin Nordahl) has roots in early CNU thinking.  This in turn can feed the perception (unfair but not totally unfounded) that the pastel people in a New Urbanist rendering are more a hermetic cult of utopians than free actors in a complex society who need to get to meetings on time.

Initially, transportation — specifically highway engineering — was CNU's number one enemy, and this conflict still generates some of the best drama.  The summit this year featured a conversation between an AASHTO representative — representing the view of State Departments of Transportation — and a New Urbanist transport consultant, in which common ground was sought but lines in the sand were clearly drawn on both sides.  

So the CNU's efforts at leadership in transportation policy are a very important move.  Groups at the conference worked on issues such as cycling, functional street classification (sexier than it sounds), and the conversation of highways to boulevards.  I was in the group dealing with transit networks.

We spent much of our time thinking about the mutual incomprehension that plagues the relationship between urban designers and transit planners.  This issue is at the climax of my book Human Transit, where I look at famous examples of cases where supposedly transit-oriented developments were located in places where efficient and attractive public transit was geometrically impossible.  

Phil Erickson, of Community Design + Architecture, made two of the best points:

  • Both sides of this incomprehension engage the other too late in the process.  As a transit consultant, I can certainly attest that I'm always hired too late to fix a development's transit problems, which were usually locked in at the stage of site selection or conceptual design.  I suppose you could say that transit agencies engage development too late, though ultimately it's the responsibility of a planning process to decide when to invite input from whom.
  • Both sides assume that the other is more flexible than it is.  As a transit planner, I often suggest some adjustment to a development that would make transit vastly more effective, and am told that's not possible.  On the other hand, it's routine for a developer to assume that this bus line can just make a deviation to serve a development, without considering either operating cost or the effect on other customers trying to ride through that point.  Placemakers' demands that transit be slowed down on a certain segment raise the same issues: operating cost and reduction of a transit line's usefulness for through travel.

In the same "Mars/Venus" spirit, here are a couple of other reasons that this relationship is so hard:

  • We are literally working in different dimensions:  Urban design is mostly about places.  Transit planning is about corridors and networks.  Transit planning can do little at a single site; transit functions only when you think of a whole long corridor — made up of many places and situations — as a unit, and even better when you think of networks comprised of corridors and interchanges.  One place where urban design and placemaking can work together with transit planning is at the level of the whole-city network, which is why integrated regional planning of land use and major transit corridors is such a crucial task, one that few North American urban areas even try to do.
  • We live in different timescales.  Urban design is about something that will be built and completed.  Transit planning is about eternal operations. Transit planners may seem distracted by the love of building something too, but ultimately, it's all about service, which means operations. So the two sides tend to talk past each other about costs in particular.  The urban designer and developer are watching one-time capital cost, but the transit planner cares about eternal operating cost.  Developers often throw a little one-time money at a transit service, e.g offering to subsidize the first five years of operation, but the wise transit agency knows that sooner or later, the developer will be gone and this service will become their financial problem, especially if it's a service that they can see is unlikely to perform well.  

It was fascinating to watch this discussion, and to be a part of it.  Many more useful things were said, and I may pick up on a few of them in future posts.  Meanwhile, the first step toward overcoming a divide is to really understand why it is so pervasive, and that requires both sides to think about their deep assumptions, and why different assumptions follow from the nature of the other party's work.

A followup, based on comments on this post, is here.

paris: “the bus stop of the future”

Now that Paris has bus lanes on almost every boulevard, we can expect their transit agencies to continue investing and innovating around their frequent and popular bus services.  Today we get "the bus stop of the future," where designer Marc Aurel has packed in every convenience that will fit in the space, plus a few more.

Paris station de bus du futur 1
Paris station de bus du futur









Yes, it's still a bus shelter, but the idea is to make it both more useful and more of a social space.  People may come here for a range of things other than catching the bus, so that social interaction and the life of the street intermix with waiting to produce a more vibrant, interesting, and safe environment.  It's the same principle by which transferring passengers can help activate civic squaresFrom Bati-journal (my rough translation):

This experimental station at boulevard Diderot is not just a place to wait for a bus. Covering an area of ​​80 m2, it was designed as a multi-purpose public space … .  Here you can buy a bus ticket, get information about the neighborhood, have a coffee, borrow a book, play music, recharge a phone, buy a meal to take away, rent an electric bike, stay warm while eating a sandwich, or set up a bag on a shelf to do your makeup.  Variable light adjusts for day and night conditions. This project will also be the first urban test of materials and technological innovations … such as ceramic furniture invented by Marc Aurel, and a sound design integrated into the fabric of furniture …

I'm disappointed they didn't include an art gallery with some durable lendings from the Louvre, on the model of Louvre-Rivoli station

But seriously:  This is what a major bus stop or station might look like if you really, really valued buses, and also value the principle that uses of the street should be intermixed so that they contribute activation, interest, and safety to one another. 

wellington: a sensible tourist on the cable car

This blog rarely goes on about interesting transit vehicles, since my main interest is in getting people where they're going in whatever vehicle makes sense for the purpose.  But while working in Wellington last month, I made early morning ritual of climbing to the Botanic Gardens summit just west of downtown, and on one such walk I took some time to admire the cable car


"Cable car" generally means any vehicle attached to a cable that provides the locomotion.  The car has no engine, but an engine of some kind is moving the cable.  The cable can be aerial (gondolas, aerial trams) or underground (San Francisco cable cars) or it can just lie on the surface in a special guideway, as in most funiculars.  Wellington's is essentially a funicular: it runs in a dead-straight track up the side of a steep hill.  The two cars are fixed to the ends of a single cable, connected at the top, so that they move in counterweight fashion, one car rising as the other descends. 

Unlike most funiculars, though, it has more than two stations — five in fact.  At Talavera station in the exact middle, tracks widen out so that the cars can pass.   Everywhere else the cars share one track, but with two separate rollers for the two cables:


(In this case, the presence of just one cable means that one car is below us, the other above.)

The spacing of the other stations is limited by the design or the system, because when a car is at the station one up from the bottom, the other is stuck the same distance below the top.  In Wellington, even spacing of stations — not always ideal for local geography — ensures that both cars are at stations whenever they stop.

But enough with technology fetishes.  Why is this thing useful?

Easy: it's a straight line, running at high frequency, through high density, where competitors are at a disadvantage.

Cable cars (aerial or surface) can make sense in settings where you want a straight line up the side of a steep hill — especially if there's no straight road that a bus could follow.  That's exactly what the Wellington line (marked by the five yellow pins) is:

   Wlg cable car stns 1

The terminal stations are Lambton Quay in the heart of downtown and the Botanic Gardens summit.  There's demand everywhere on this dense hillside.  Botanic Gardens station offers a level walk into the fairly dense Kelburn district to the southwest, while Lambton Quay is right on the Golden Mile, where buses come every minute or less to take you north or south through downtown, and beyond. 

The other stations are Victoria University, one down from the top, Talavera in the middle, and Clifton, one up from the bottom.  Victoria University's campus is visible on the south side of the above image.  It has its own bus services, but it's a short level walk along a terrace to its station.

And while climbing this hill is something I might do as early morning exercise, it's understandable that you might want an alternative to that.  The climb is 120m of elevation gain in only 612m of horizontal length, a grade of nearly 20%.

But the real reason I thought to write about it is the interesting feature observable at the top.

DSC00110The vehicles themselves are designed for their constant slope.  The floor is always parallel to sea level while the car's structure is tilted 20% from the floor, to match the grade.

As a result, it's possible to open the car on both sides and produce a level boarding from the surrounding ground.  Where the car dwells at the top, as in this image, you can even walk right through the car as though it were part of the sidewalk.

I'm always interested in ways to make transit feel more continuous with the pedestrian realm.  I long for buses with precise docking for absolute level boarding — not just to eliminate the delay of wheelchair ramps but also to create a feeling that the bus is a moving piece of sidewalk, that you are not leaving the street to crawl into an oppressive enclosure.  Local transit won't really feel effortless to use until we have this effect.

So that's why this image appealed to me, so much that I even indulged some uncharacteristic technology-fetishism.  Because the effect in this picture in important, and if I need a cable car to get it, I'll take a cable car.


How urbanist visionaries can muck up transit

Architects and urban visionaries play an incredibly important role in a leadership-hungry culture.  They have to know a little bit about almost everything, which is hard to do.  But for some reason, certain segments of the profession have decided that the basic math and geometry of transit isn't one of those things they need to know, even when they present themselves as transit experts.

To see what I mean, I encourage you to watch this short video from Gensler Architects in Los Angeles.  It's a concise summary of all the crucial mistakes that you'll need to confront in much "visionary thinking" about transit.  (If Gensler takes down the video, read on.  I've inserted enough screenshots from it that you can follow.)


[NETWORK_LA transit from tam thien tran on Vimeo.]

The five most common "visionary" mistakes about transit, all on display in the video, are:

  • Disinterest in costs and efficiency.   Visionaries do need to set aside cost and efficiency for part of their brainstorming phase, because by doing so they might come upon an idea that's efficient and affordable in a completely new way.  But they don't have a coherent idea until they've brought those factors back in, at least at the level of order-of-magnitude reasonableness. Sadly, some urbanists scoff when I use the word efficiency, assuming that this means I've lost touch with human needs, aspirations, aesthetics and values.  In reality, efficiency means how much of those good things you can have in a world of limited resources.  Even in the arts, we speak often of the efficiency or economy with which an artist achieves an aesthetic effect.  (The Gensler video, for example, is efficient in displaying all five of these fallacies in only five minutes.)
  • Fixation on transit technologies as though they were the essential distinction between different  mobility outcomes.  For more on this, see here.
  • Confusion about scale.  In transit, if it doesn't scale, it doesn't matter.  Because visionary thinking often focuses first on a prototype – a tiny example of the hoped-for transformation — it often goes too far without thinking about scalability.  Sure, this cool idea works in one suburb or in one cool building, but that says very little about whether it would work in a whole city.  Gensler's particular error about scale is … 
  • Confusion about "flexibility," a dangerous slippery word.  Gensler imagines that a demand-responsive style of transit, in which you make a request on your phone and the transit system somehow deviates to meet your personal needs, is scalable to a vast, dense city where the transit system is already very crowded much of the time.  More on this below. 
  • Ignorance about what's already working, leading to premature demolition fantasies.  If you already hate buses, you won't have much interest in understanding why so many people use them.  Like many urbanist visionaries, Gensler doesn't appreciate the very high ridership and efficiency of the existing transit system across the core of Los Angeles. This allows them to jump to the conclusion that the system should be replaced instead of incrementally improved.  (Tip:  Prematurely dismissing the relevance of something that so many people clearly find useful is an excellent way to sound elitistregardless of the nobility of your intentions.)

So watch the Gensler video if you can, but you can also follow along via my screenshots and comments below.  You'll see these mistakes again and again in the urban visioning business.

0:27 Gensler states the question as "Get LA on transit HOW?"  No argument with the question.


0:51  Transit is divided into a set of vehicle types, and these types (light rail, metro, bus) are confused with "methods" of transport.  For more on the absurdity of treating bus/rail distinctions as primary, see here.


0:53  "We have only these methods.  What if we added more?"  An interesting question to which transit experts (and economists, and engineers) have a very good answer.  The more competing systems you establish in the same market trying to do the same thing, the less well any of them will function, and the less investment any one of them will justify.




0:56  They now begin to analyze vehicles in terms of distance, sustainability, flexibility.  What's missing?   Cost!  Efficiency!  Some things are just wildly expensive relative to what they deliver.  Darrin Nordahl has already been down this path, evaluating technologies by discussing only their supposed benefits.  That's not evaluation, it's either aesthetic rumination or marketing.  (Neither of those are bad things, but they have to be identified as what they are.)


1:20.  They talk about distances but their graphic is talking about speeds.  These are fair for personal modes but absurd generalizations for the transit modes. When your notion of "rail" conflates light rail, heavy metro rail subways, and 70 mile-long infrequent commuter rail, the word "rail" means nothing relevant about speed or travel distance, or any other transit outcome apart from capacity.  (Note that the earlier claim "we have only these methods" implies that these three kinds of rail are the same thing in every way that matters.) 

Likewise, if you think buses have an ideal distance, you're unclear on the role of local buses vs Bus Rapid Transit vs long-haul expresses, all of which are very successful in Los Angeles.  Gensler imposes a "technology first" frame on the data, thereby concealing almost everything that matters about how transit gets people where they're going.

In transit, the real speed distinctions within transit are usually not direct results of technology.  Speed is the result of how often you stop and what can get in your way.  See here.





2:00.  Staggering incoherence in comparing input (bus service) to an unrelated output (total ridership including rail).  What's more, the numbers are misleading.  Per the 2011 APTA Fact Book, Los Angeles MTA has America's 3rd highest total boardings and 2nd highest total bus boardings.   In the context of its starved resources and the vagueness of public support for it, the Los Angeles bus system is working brilliantly.

2:26.  Here is Gensler's biggest mistake:

Gensler 1

Gensler 2

Which of these two networks would you rather travel on?

Gensler has mistaken metaphor for logic.  They think that "liberating" bus routes has something to do with liberating or enabling people.  The idea is barely explained and totally incoherent. 

Today, in our supposedly "inflexible" system, you'll find a bus going down a major boulevard with maybe 60 people on it.  Some of them want to go somewhere straight ahead, some want to go to somewhere ahead and to the left, some want to to somewhere ahead and to the right.  Fortunately, they are in a high frequency grid system, which will take all of them to their destination, either directly or via a connection to a north-south line, probably by a path similar to what they'd have followed if driving.  So this huge number of diverse people making diverse trips are all moving toward their destinations on a reasonably direct path.  This is the extraordinary power of the high-frequency grid.  So instead, Gensler proposes bus lines should twist and turn just because somebody with an iPhone wants them to?

Personal technology has great opportunity to better inform us about all transit services, and it can transform the convenience of transit at low-demand places and times, by influencing the operations of low-ridership, low-capacity services, such as demand-responsive buses and taxis. 

Quite possibly, personal apps will allow demand-responsive service to replace some low-demand fixed-route buses, which is fine with most transit planners.  Those low-ridership buses run mostly for social-service or "equity" reasons, and if there's a more efficient way to do that, I expect many transit experts would be all for it.  It would let them concentrate on the high-ridership, high-capacity services that can achieve a great deal of personal mobility and sustainability, very efficiently. 

Successful high-capacity frequent transit needs to take on more of the rigidity of subways, in order to spread the benefits of subways (which we can't afford everywhere) more widely.  That means it needs to be even more frequent, reliable, legible, permanent, and reinforced with infrastructure investment.  Fortunately, within limited resources, many transit agencies are now trying to do that.

The video is full of entirely laudable and familiar green ideas, but then we get to this …

  • 3:23  In Gensler's Los Angeles, every transit trip must be reserved.  Do you really want to have to make an appointment with a single vehicle and driver, because that's the only way to make any use of all the buses swarming around you on unpredictable paths?  Or might you prefer a simple frequent transit corridor where so many buses are coming all the time, in such a predictable pattern, that you can take any of them, and are thus almost guaranteed a vehicle soon even if one breaks down?


  • 4:20  "What if we had PERSONAL service?" they ask?  Well, the extreme of personal service would be low-ridership system in a tiny town, where the driver has time to learn everyone's name.  Is that what Los Angeles wants to be?   Or would you rather live in a city where you can get anywhere you want to go easily, starting right now, without making a reservation, and even with the option of spontaneously changing your path or destination, just like motorists do?  

To me as someone who values my personal freedom, flexibility, spontaneity, human dignity, and travel time, Gensler's Los Angeles would be a hell-world worse than Blade Runner.  Fortunately, it's also mathematically impossible.

We've blown up transit networks before, of course, and Gensler's vision should remind us of what was thought about cars vs. transit in the 1940s.  Like personal technology today, cars were just so wonderful for the individual that we just assumed the world could be made in their image.  (The technical term for this idea — that the world will bend to reflect my emotional needs and enthusiasms — is narcissism.)  So we made a deep investment in a car-and-highway technology that could not possibly scale to big cities.  Gensler proposes the same mistake:  Because our iPhones are so cool, they assume that the city, at every scale, can be reinvented around them.

For a more positive vision of the future of Los Angeles, one that begins by noticing the city's strengths and looking at how to build on them, see here and especially toward the end of an interview here.


beyond grey

San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) is, let's be frank, extremely grey.  Most of its above-ground stations feature vast expanses of exposed concrete, true to the prevailing modernism of the age.  (Most of the system was designed in the 1960s.)

At stations like MacArthur, where the grey station infrastructure interacts with the surround grey ramps of the freeways, one can wonder if the original BART planners were so obsessed with competing with freeways that they deliberately chose freeway-like lines and colors, especially where real freeways were nearby.  This, of course, would be competition by resemblence rather than by differentiation.  At one stage, that probably made sense.

And yes, cool grey can be beautiful, but only if there's color to throw it into relief.  Modernism sometimes drew encouragement from the coolness of classical Greek and Roman architecture, but of course the ancient world seems colorless to us only because paints, fabrics, and other vehicles of color don't survive the centuries. 

So it was fun to open my mail this morning and find this painting by Alfred Twu, reimagining the freeway-dominated landscape of MacArthur BART station with a more tropical sense of color.  Why must we go to Germany to see bright colors and strong choices in design?


UPDATE:  I can't resist highlighting a comment from jfruh:

I always think that BART is what someone in 1969 thought the future was going to look like.

If you're too young to remember 1969, I strongly recommend reviewing Stanley Kubrick's great film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1970).  When I rode BART for the first time in 1976, I felt like I had arrived in the world of that film. 

station design and virtuous society

Does the experience of gaining altitude cause people to behave less selfishly?  David Schroeder in Scientific American profiles a recent study by Professor Larry Sanna of the University of North Carolina:

Building on research showing the power of metaphors to shape our thinking, Sanna and his colleagues noted that height is often used as a metaphor for virtue: moral high ground, God on high, looking up to good people, etc. If people were primed to think about height, they wondered, might people be more virtuous?

In a series of four different studies, the authors found consistent support for their predictions. In the first study they found that twice as many mall shoppers who had just ridden an up escalator contributed to the Salvation Army than shoppers who had just ridden the down escalator. In a second study, participants who had been taken up a short flight of stairs to an auditorium stage to complete a series of questionnaires volunteered more than 50 percent more of their time than participants who had been led down to the orchestra pit.

The link between elevation and virtue, of course, is an ancient idea.  It's why universities are so often on hilltops, despite the problems this presents for cycling and often for transit.

But this specific research reminds me of my old post on the difference between end-stations and through-stations, and my visceral dislike of stations that require arriving passengers to go down into tunnels under the platform.  I far prefer those, like Melbourne's Southern Cross or Calatrava's Liège Guillemins, where arrival involves climbing an escalator to a bridge-like concourse.  The real virtue of those stations, of course, is that you are continuously in the same space throughout the arrival experience, while a conventional through-station is inevitably two different spaces — the train shed and the arrivals hall — connected by tunnels.  End-stations, of course, achieve the same thing by not requiring a change of level at all.

My question of Professor Sanna's work would be whether it matters that you are in a continuous space throughout a change of elevation, as you are in the Melbourne and Liège stations, as opposed to being transported from one space into another, as you are in the typical escalator or stair connecting platforms to an underground passage.  I get no sensations of elevation when rising from one room into another, whereas I do from climbing within a single large space. 

(via Andrew Sullivan)

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!