Transit, stations, and placemaking: stations as entrypoints into neighborhoods
Note that the introduction and the conclusion have been significantly expanded since this entry was first published. Hence the change in the publishing date.
I have been meaning to write about this issue again since I got back from Seattle, but GGW beat me to the punch, with their entry, "Metro stations should be more individual."
Although my take is broader and more comprehensive, I agree that Metro stations need to be more grounded in place and that the subway system and its stations need more "localization."
Right: graphic showing the concept of the integrated public realm framework. David Barth and Carlos Perez, AECOM.
The ideas derive from the concept of an "integrated public realm" (a concept developed by parks planner David Barth) and are captured in this entry, "Arlington County's bus shelters and a public realm framework of quality" plus more generally in the entry "Transit and placemaking," a piece from 2011 which jumps off from issues around the NoMA Station ("NoMA revisited: business planning to develop community") and the suggestion--too late it can't happen because of defects in DC's design and planning regime--of repositioning the ground floor of the NoMA station and the adjacent walkway to an arcade-like environment.
Transit systems are civic architecture, not just conveyances
We should recognize that a transit agency's primary function is to move people--it's a conveyance--while acknowledging the civic role in this function and leveraging stations and stops not just as connection points where riders enter and exit transit vehicles, but that in turn, stations and stops are civic places too, even if that element of transit infrastructure often has been ignored.
In the early part of the last century it was typical for there to be postcards of railroad stations, and these cards communicated the importance and prominence of stations as entrypoints into the city as well as the station's role of bringing people together.
Even if local transit systems for the most part aren't fronted by such grand buildings as Union Station in DC, or Grand Central Station in New York City, the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, etc., today's transit authorities accomplish important functions and are vital to a community and key to local economic development.
-- Hagley Museum Railroad Station Digital Archives
-- Railroad Station Home Page, postcards
The DC subway system was designed to take suburban residents to their jobs in the city
The transit infrastructure was never intended to build and strengthen neighborhoods, nor to enhance the specific places where stations were constructed. It was designed to get suburban commuters into the city to work, and back home in the evening.
1965 planning map for the Washington subway system. Note the legend: "Rapid Rail Transit for the Motorist."
Transit stations are the "crossroads" of a neighborhood
What is complicated for a transit agency is that the "meaning" the stations possess isn't solely focused on the transit function and connection.
Stations and stops have meaning within a city or county at multiple scales depending on the nature of the connection: block; neighborhood; neighborhood commercial district; major activity or employment center; district/sector; city; county; metropolitan area; and region.
For the most part, people are concerned with a station or stop in the context of their neighborhood/district. Stations--railroad, subway, light rail, and maybe streetcars (and some cities have higher level bus-oriented stations too, DC specifically does not)--are the places where neighborhood and the transit system intersect and come together. So the station takes on a "crossroads" function, and becomes a neighborhood level public square.
Transit stations in neighborhoods end up being the single most visited public place in that community--more than a post office, library, or school.
But right now, you can't even put in a bulletin board about community events in a Metro Station. On the other hand, station grounds aren't parks either, and a community (this is an issue in Takoma now) shouldn't expect that WMATA manage stations as public parks.
The transit agency has no control over the "meaning" of a station as a key element of a neighborhood's public realm, but they do have a responsibility to acknowledge this role, and should work to satisfy some of those expressed needs that communities have with regard to the station's role as a key civic place and community crossroads.
Transit infrastructure as branding and other functions
Wouldn't it be cool if the walkway next to NoMA station had been conceptualized as an arcade? Left: Nickels Arcade, Ann Arbor. Flickr photo by FarzinPhoto.
My writing on this topic has focused on transit infrastructure, marketing, and wayfinding in terms of bus stops (my blog entry "Making bus service sexy and more equitable," and these influences, the out-of-print report from Cleveland, Transit Waiting Environments, plus the EMBARQ report, From Here to There: A creative guide to making public transport the way to go) which state that stations and stops are key for two reasons:
Right: graphic from the Wall Street Journal on the amenities associated with the implementation of high quality bus rapid transit services.
1. Transit infrastructure brands transit: through design, condition, quality, and maintenance, they communicate whether or not a communicate values transit and sustainable mobility, or merely considers transit service to be a social service for the poor. Modern BRT systems, such as in Cleveland or the York Region of Toronto execute this idea the best. See "Better bus (rapid transit) service revisited".
2. Transit stops and stations are key marketing touchpoints: bus stops and shelters not only communicate that transit exists and is available, they provide information that people can use, whether or not they are at the stop. In general, the opportunity to leverage Metro subway stations to market transit and/or sustainable mobility is mostly wasted.
But this argument continues to expand into a more complete framework:
3. Transit stops and stations should better integrate within neighborhoods: since 2006, with the commencement of planning for the implementation of the DC bus shelter contract with Clear Channel, I have made the point that transit shelters can also be utilized and better connected to neighborhoods, through the incorporation of historical information, and/or artistic elements, and/or neighborhood information, and/or retail district information.
Note that most neighborhoods don't have the resources to put information into the bus shelters. The business improvement districts tend to do this, but I think Adams Morgan BID does the best job locally, although I have to say that the Mount Pleasant merchants group has just introduced similar signage that is even better.
In Baltimore, the MTA does a decent job of providing information within bus shelters. And the Walnut Street bus shelters in Philadelphia are specifically arty (pictured above).
4. Transit stops and stations should, when practical, interpret and present transportation-transit history: the Center City District in Philadelphia does this, and here and there transit systems elsewhere do it to. Baltimore MTA has interpretational signage in old trolley waiting stations on Charles Street and in Catonsville, and along the light rail.
The transit authority in Lancaster, PA has great interpretive information presented at their main bus station in Downtown. Back in 2005, Tri-Met in Portland had history panels posted in buses, comparable to ad panels. The Silver Line "BRT" in Boston has an extensive system of interpretation kiosks.
Right: transit history interpretation sign in Lancaster, PA.
Note that the DC Heritage Trails cultural interpretation signage program includes transit history as part of their presentations on neighborhood history.
And I think that DC could do a great job of providing historical interpretation panels in the existing trolley waiting-turnaround stations on Connecticut Avenue NW and 14th Street NW.
5. Transit vehicles can be an element of city/urban design and branding (extending the first point that transit infrastructure brands transit): Montpellier, France, which positions itself as a city committed to being design forward, had Christian Lacroix design the livery of its light rail vehicles ("Design as a city branding strategy").
Right: Image from the website of the local government, the Agglomeration of Montpellier, France.
6. Transit vehicles can be an element of transit marketing: the Pittsburgh bus system probably does the best job of putting messages on buses that promote transit. But other systems do this as well. MTA in Baltimore has a great bus with a more "urban-market" message of "Rollin' with MTA."
Left: Port Authority Bus, Pittsburgh, with this ad message: "There's the church, with the steeple. Here's the bus, with all the people," making the point that buses carry a lot of people.
WMATA and revisiting transit and placemaking
And with the hullaballoo about WMATA's imperious destruction of independent plantings at the Dupont Circle station ("Metro threatens Phantom Planter with arrest if he tends his Dupont Circle station flowers," "Metro rips out Phantom Planter's flowers at Dupont Circle station" Post), complaints about WMATA's implementing of some interior changes at the Bethesda Station, to make the station more usable, especially in terms of lighting ("Metro Chooses Bethesda Station To Test Future Design Concepts," WUSA-TV), and the negative response by some historic preservation interests ("Past is present: Metro's historic ride" op-ed by the director of the DC Preservation League in the Washington Business Journal), plus my observation of some Sound Transit practices and their contrasting approach of making light rail stations entrypoints to neighborhoods, I thought it would be worth revisiting the topic.
Note I do understand some serious WMATA concerns with regard to safety liability with regard to the plantings at Dupont Circle.
Image of the Henry Docter planting project at Dupont Circle from NBC Washington.
The key issue is that architecturally, the WMATA system evinces all the problems I excoriate in writing about starchitecture.
For the most part, such buildings are more like art and sculpture and the site and building design purposely disconnects and holds at arms length the community and the built environment that lies beyond the lot lines.
-- Docomo webpage on the architectural design of the WMATA system
-- the section of this WMATA case study on architecture covers the issues too, from Metro Cincinnati
Yes, Harry Weese designed the station interiors to be very specific and with a design consistent across the system, with vaulted tunnels, etc. ("Harry Weese, 83, Designer Of Metro System in Washington," obituary, Washington Post). But the stations were never designed to connect to and enhance neighborhoods or the community outside of the station. Inside, despite the vaulting they are dark, the concrete looks dingy, etc.
Still, this self-referential internally-focused architectural attitude shapes WMATA's placemaking culture to this day. In short, there isn't much of a placemaking culture, a recognition that transit stops and stations have a role to play in quality of life.
(Note however with regard to bus stops, except for bus stops on WMATA station sites, bus stop sites are controlled by the local jurisdictions, not WMATA.)
The light rail bridge in Tempe, Arizona has an architectural lighting treatment. Flickr photo by Bogmol-Ron.
For example the canopy program for WMATA subway stations could have incorporated site- and neighborhood-specific artistic elements but doesn't. (I am in the process of writing a proposal to incorporate architectural lighting elements into these canopies.)
But there are other missing elements.
Right: this page from the 1978 WMATA Ride Guide for L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station lists area businesses.
For example, there aren't community information boards at Metro Stations. Maps at Metro stations don't denote community commercial districts--it's seen as promoting for profit businesses, even though they do show strip shopping centers (but not individual businesses) on station maps in the suburbs. (WMATA doesn't list supermarkets on bus and rail maps either. Pittsburgh does.)
For the most part, Metro doesn't allow vendors to set up on station grounds (partly this is because the spaces are constrained and they are concerned about unsafe conditions) which can be a placemaking element. Retail, when potentially viable, hasn't been integrated into stations. WMATA bus shelters on station grounds don't incorporate advertising, which reduces revenue available for upgrading the bus shelter experience.
Another element is that WMATA could better monetize air rights above station entrances in dense areas, which would provide better conditions upon exiting the station, and potentially could support community uses. But that is a topic for another entry.
I was shocked that people were shocked that WMATA wasn't supportive of guerrilla gardening at Dupont Circle. WMATA is very much a bureaucratic government organization shaped in very specific ways. Plus union contracts make it almost impossible for "volunteers" to provide "services" to the system that would otherwise be accomplished by paid workers. Bottom-up initiatives of any sort are pretty much discouraged.
Sound Transit. While I didn't take many photos of their light rail stations, there is no question that the Seattle system's light rail stations are more purposefully designed to integrate the transit system and its infrastructure to the neighborhoods in which stations are located. They are not quite but almost welcome centers to the neighborhoods.
(By contrast STM in Montreal does allow market stores and garden stores to be placed on the grounds of Metro stations. And in Mont Royal, there is a visitor center on the grounds of the station, but it is not part of the station entrance, it is a separate structure.)
Like the suggestion in the GGW entry, the Sound Transit stations incorporate site-specific art, although it is not as gutsy as the public art program run by Tri-Met in Portland (see "When people don't have experiences, site visits are the way to go") as executed on the Interstate/Yellow Line.
And while not perfect, there is clearly a desire to connect and integrate each station within the neighborhood and its built environment, in support of neighborhood revitalization efforts (the latter has happened for the most part independently of concerted WMATA efforts within DC, with the exception of Petworth, where WMATA sold part of the station property for an apartment complex, and this project has accelerated revitalization on Georgia Avenue in significant ways).
Where this was most evident was at a light rail station under construction on Capitol Hill in Seattle. From the bus, I had seen "a mural" painted on the fences of a construction site, but didn't think very much about it.
Later, I walked through the area and was able to examine the site in much greater detail.
I was truly surprised to discover that the various art and cultural history interpretation projects displayed on the walls were part of the light rail construction site. It was authorized and encouraged by Sound Transit! I don't think this would ever happen with WMATA.
Not reaping the value of transit infrastructure in placemaking and revitalization significantly reduces the ROI (return on investment) and multiplicative development power that a transit network can provide--as proven by the success of transit-oriented and transit-adjacent development in DC and Arlington County--which in many respects has been happenstance in DC and more purposefully achieved in Arlington.
I do believe that if we begin to define overtly the civic role of transit infrastructure in terms of architecture, connection, and the public realm, than it becomes easier for a transit authority to acknowledge its importance and incorporate achievement of civic functions within the organization's planning goals and objectives.
At the same time we have to recognize that the foremost function of a transit agency is its role as a mover of people to and from various places around the metropolitan area.
To finance the incorporation of civic functions within transit infrastructure, especially stations, perhaps non-transit fund sources are required.
Leggett Remains 'Optimistic' About Silver Spring Transit Center."
At the same time, localities have to acknowledge that transit infrastructure has broader roles, as branding, as community crossroads, and they shouldn't try to value engineer and cheapen every possible element of it, in particular how it looks.
A good example is the Silver Spring Transit Center. Irrespective of all the construction defects and the contentious process involved in trying to fix them ("Foulger-Pratt: county fixes for Silver Spring transit center ill advised," Gazette), the station was never designed to be very attractive. It's just a big ugly parking garage for buses.
Also, the Red Rose Transit Authority in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania created the Queen Street Station, which is also much more attractive than a typical bus station.
On the other hand, the Lancaster station accommodates significantly less bus traffic than is required in Silver Spring, so it is much easier for them to lessen negative impacts (buses are big and noisy) and take on a smaller footprint.
Still, it is unfortunate that Montgomery County didn't take more care to make the Transit Center more attractive, commensurate with its role as key civic architectural element of one of the county's major conurbations.
With regard to WMATA, in order for things to change, we have to better articulate what the issues are. This entry is a step forward toward such a discussion.
Sound Transit Photos
King County Metro doesn't have advertising in bus shelters. But they do allow the shelters to incorporate locally produced art. Often the drawings are related to the neighborhood in which the shelter is located. In addition the glass panels of the shelters have an artistic treatment.
Exterior, Beacon Hill Light Rail Station, Seattle. The bus shelter incorporates public art. Artistic panel stamping is visible in the sidewalk. Guidons reflect a textile theme, which is incorporated in an art work on the station walls, and were based on textiles provided by area residents during the station design process.
The Beacon Hill Station also has site-specific plantings. (cf. the Dupont Circle Station debacle.) Granted they are maintained by the transit authority.
While this tourist wayfinding kiosk in Seattle was not produced by Sound Transit, this kiosk has also been installed at some light rail stations, providing information to tourists. (MTA's light rail stations in Baltimore no longer have accurate area maps posted at the stations.)
Mural on construction walls at the Capitol Hill light rail station site. It's not even the most arresting of the murals painted there, but I can't seem to find/maybe I deleted the photo of the most astonishing of the murals.
A mural element listing qualities that Seattleites identify with.
Panels on the neighborhood's history and Seattle's development over time, at the Capitol Hill light rail construction site.
One construction mitigation tactic is the support of a local information website, and advertising its existence in a panel on the construction site wall.
Ironically, given the recent WMATA experience with plantings, one of the exhibits on the construction walls explains how to use wooden pallets to do vertical gardening.
Note that Sound Transit's logo is imprinted on the information panels.