What A Real Transit Rail System Looks Like: The Station

May 30, 2012 61 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Since the decline and almost total destruction of the American Passenger Rail Network in the 70s and the demolition and dismemberment of the interurbans and streetcars in almost every city across the continent during the 40's and 50's the memory and easy familiarity with an interlinked network of passenger rail systems has almost completely faded. In fact, for most Americans, the only images they have of passenger rail systems, and subways in particular, are Amtrak, the New York Metro, the San Francisco BART, and maybe some of the system in Chicago. Not a very inspiring bunch. However, most of the rest of the developed countries have quite wonderful passenger rail networks. They are clean, efficient, cheap, run on time, have as many as 20 or even 25 trains an hour (one every three minutes) during peak periods, and everybody from all income levels uses them. This is not a utopian fantasy, it is normal life for most people -- which they take for granted along with other modern conveniences like clean running water and working sewage systems. Join Nate Lewis, economist and urban theorist as we have a look at some of the passenger rail elements and components of the rest of the world, starting with a photo essay of The Stations.

If you haven't used a real rail based transit system, that runs at least ten trains an hour all day, on time, then you probably don't know what it's like. It is like electricity. It's just there, and it works. At ten trains an hour, there is a train every six minutes. You don't have to look at a schedule, you just show up and, within an average of three minutes, you get on the train.

And the stations themselves have a tendency to become a part of the culture, look and feel of the daily city life.

A real system connects people to destinations that they want to go in a city.  It connects cities to the suburbs, exurbs, and small towns that surround it, and it connects cities to other cities.

There are several elements that all real passenger rail systems have in common, and one of the most iconic elements is the design of The Stations.

Here are some shots of nicer stations from around the world:

T-Centralen Station, Stockholm. photo via flickr

Westfriedhof Station, München U-bahn photo via flickr

Candidplatz Station, Munich photo via flickr

Georg-Brauchle Ring Station, Munich photo via flick

Bilbao Metro by foster+partners

Iidabashi Station, Tokyo by makoto sei watanabe architects

Komsomolskaya Station, Moscow photo via flickr

Komsomolskaya Station, Moscow photo via flickr

Museum Station, Toronto by diamond+schmitt architects

Drassanes Station, Barcelona by on-a arquitectura

For more incredible photos of station designs check out the source of these amazing photos at http://www.designboom.com/weblog/cat/9/view/8346/subway-architecture.html.  Brilliant and beautiful work from a great website!

I like Komsomolskaya Station best, followed by Iidabashi Station.

However, rail systems are not really something to fetishize about. They should just work, like plumbing. It isn't necessary to be as decorative as the examples shown. Just clean and functional is fine -- unlike New York Metro subways, which are dirty and dysfunctional, and about as much fun as dirty and dysfunctional plumbing.

While beauty and interesting architecture make any public place nicer, the real advantage of good passenger rail is not that we can oooh and ahhh about the station decor, but rather that it gets us to Point B efficiently, and enables us to live in a City without a car. In other words, urban passenger rail allows us to have a really fabulous destination, and a fabulous lifestyle in many ways.

Trains and densely populated, vibrant cities go together. You can't have one without the other. You can try, but you will fail. A train system in Suburban Hell is almost useless, because you have to drive to and from the train station. A Vibrant City without a train is impossible, because you will need lots and lots of parking--and the parking destroys the density and vibrancy. (Exceptions can be made for small towns near a train station, where you can literally walk everywhere in town, and which could be served by a bus that goes to the station.)

Bicycles, electric cars, scooters, Segways, whatever: not gonna work as the total solution. You can have these things in addition to a good train system, but not as the alternative. What you'll find out is that, if the train system is good, you don't need all this other stuff for basic survival anyway.

These days, In cities where it is possible to build underground, or necessary to go through hills or mountains, it's easy to make subway systems because we have amazing tunneling machines, which will bore a train-sized hole like a giant rock-eating worm.  Have a look at one of these babies.

So, no excuses.

The next element in our train system is the proper integration of the train within the city. This is another point at which the typical U.S. solution is a total disaster.

The typical U.S. solution is to surround the train station with acres and acres of free parking.

This is Westport Station on the New Haven line, east of New York City. My old train station. This photo is about 800 meters across.

See the free parking everywhere? (In this case, it's not actually free.)

Even if you did work up the courage to cross that burning plain of asphalt, there isn't anything to walk to. Obviously, you need a car.

This is the Vienna/Fairfax-GMU station, part of the Washington DC train system. This photo is 800 meters across.

It is a perfect example of WHAT NOT TO DO. The train station is in the middle of the interstate, and surrounded by square miles of parking and Green Space and mega-roadways. There is no Place to go to. The first thing you think when you step off the train is: "Damn, I need a car!"

There are 157 acres of land in this photo. When you step off the train, you have immediate walking access to 157 acres of nothing. There's no There there!

The better solution -- assuming that we are aiming to create vibrant cities, where we can live without owning a car, or at the very least, have only one car which is used every other weekend -- is to surround the station with all the highest-value property.

A common Japanese solution is to put the supermarket right inside the train station. That way, you can do your shopping right after work, with no fuss whatsover.

All the best offices, stores and restaurants are as close to the train station as possible, so we can walk there from the station, and where there is the most pedestrian traffic. Plus, you also try to put as many apartment buildings there as you can, so you can easily walk to the station in less than ten minutes. So, in front of the station, there might be a little bus stop, dropoff point and taxi stand, and perhaps a little bike parking lot, but little or no automobile parking.

The larger train stations often have full-size department stores also right inside the station.

This is Gakugei Daigaku Station, on the Toyoko Line, which runs southwest out of Tokyo and ends up in Yokohama (thus "To-Yoko"). I used to live near here.

This photo is about 400 meters across, or about a 200m radius from the station. What you see here is all within about a three minute walk from the station. This is a really nice neighborhood, with an immense amount of fun stuff going on.

First, notice that there is no parking. There is some bike parking, and also some bus stops. Look at the enormous amount of stuff that is within a three-minute walk of the station! It is, as a Traditional City should be, 100% Places.

This is the Vienna/Fairfax station again, near Washington DC. This is the same scale, about 400 meters across. You can see that there is absolutely nothing you can walk to in this area, except your car. (The buildings you see are parking garages.)

This is Gakugei Daigaku station again (the "A" mark), but we have pulled back a bit. The photo is now about 1500 meters across, or about a 750 meter (about half a mile) radius from the station. You could walk from the station to anywhere in this photo in ten minutes. We can see that there is now an utterly colossal amount of stuff that we can access with only a ten-minute walk. This photo covers about one square mile, or 640 acres.

Looks like grey mush, like a vibrant Traditional City should! Generally speaking, the more grey-mushy it is, the better it is.  That grey mushy area represents people and shops and streets.  Bikes, windows, conversation, mailboxes, places to hang out, meet and experience the daily life of the city.

If you want people to be able to live without automobiles, you have to make it easy to get from the train station to wherever you want to go on foot. This means you put all the good stuff right up against the train station -- even build it into the train station itself if possible. When you step out of the train station, you want to land right in a wonderful pedestrian Traditional City environment, not a parking lot wasteland.

In short, you want to pair your train system with vibrant city design. They go together like peanut butter and jelly.

The view when you step out of Gakugei Daigaku station. Doesn't that look like more fun than 157 acres of asphalt and Green Space?

It is!

Article and Graphics by Nate Lewis
Review and Edit by Stephen Dare

Nathan Lewis is the principal of Kiku Capital Management LLC, which manages a private investment partnership.

He was formerly the Chief International Economist and Global Strategist for firms providing investment research to institutions.

His book Gold: the Once and Future Money was published by Agora Book Publishing and John Wiley in 2007, and is now available in five languages.

He has written for the Financial Times, Huffington Post, Nikkei Business, Daily Reckoning, Japan Times, Daily Yomiuri, Pravda, Asian Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Worth, and other publications.

His groundbreaking work and research can be found at his website: New World Economics.  http://www.newworldeconomics.com/