Train stations more fun than bars?

As more urban Americans go carless, development projects scrap the train station of the past to build multifaceted transit hubs.
Written by Sonya James, Contributor
Penn Station in New York City

Going carless is rapidly gaining cultural cache. How you get from point A to point B reveals a lot about your character.

Are you driving an SUV? A Vespa? A fold up commuter bike? A Smart Car? A rickety Velospeed from 1978? Your Grandmother's Toyota Camry?

It could even be said that "for better or worse, transit is coming to be seen as one more urban consumption option, a lifestyle choice almost as defining as buying a car was 60 years ago."

And that's precisely what Will Doig, the Dream City columnist for Salon, argues in the great article, Commuting to Disneyland.

Doig unravels the move toward blending transit and public social spaces, seen in various development projects across the United States.

In Minnesota, ground has already been broken for what's being called “an open-air version of New York’s Grand Central."

Plans for the Minneapolis Interchange. Courtesy Knutson Construction/EE&K a Perkins Eastman company.

Even if this title leans toward exaggeration, the Minneapolis Interchange plans to build bars, restaurants, a hotel, an office building, an outdoor promenade, and elevated green space called the "Great Lawn" - all as part of a "transit environment".

What is a “transit environment”? First off, it’s not just trains. It’s heavy rail, light rail, buses, streetcars, subways, bicycles, pedestrians, all integrated into a single multi-modal hub. Second, it’s an activated space, with shops and restaurants (not just kiosks and food courts, but stores and restaurants you’d want to hang out in), live performances, art, parks — a true public gathering space. Finally, it’s integrated into the city, less a soaring monument to transportation than a celebration of urban life — and in the more ambitious efforts, a small city in itself.

Plans to expand New York’s Penn Station into the Farley Post Office have many, including Doig, scratching their head. The upward of $1 billion dollar project will not increase rail capacity - the proposals focus on commuter experience in the station.

Rendering of Moynihan Station and surrounding area, Moynihan Station Development Corporation.

It’s “an example of how the whole transportation planning system has broken down,” said former Amtrak president David Gunn. “It was controlled by a bunch of rich developers.”

Case studies like this complicate the move toward multifaceted "transit environments". Somehow the point - to provide better transportation options - has been lost.

But that's not to say projects like the Minneapolis Interchange and the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco will not be hugely successful in creating dynamic new spaces in a shifting transit landscape.

"A spectacular transit hub, even an expensive one, can be well worth the cost," writes Doig.

San Francisco’s newest transit hub, Transbay Transit Terminal

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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