Intersection redesign in Utrecht (2)


Is Nederland een paradijs? Deze vraag is misschien een beetje extreem, maar van de perspectief van een Amerikaanse denk ik dat–tenminste voor fietsers is het als een paradijs.

Originally posted on BICYCLE DUTCH:

In this post a second look at a recently reconstructed intersection in Utrecht. In the first post about this reconstruction I focused on the differences between the before and after situation. In this post I focus on how people cycling (and walking) use the new intersection in more detail.

Child on the Marnixlaan crossing

The new intersection has improved the situation so much that it can be used by young children on their bicycles much safer than before.

This reconstruction underlines again that building infrastructure is about choices rather than available space. The cross sections of the four streets leading to the intersection already give some information about these choices. The one-way cycleways are narrow but at least the minimal width of the CROW recommendations (2 metres) was observed. Even though that width is recommended for less than 150 cyclists per hour during rush hour and it seems pretty sure that there are more people…

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Improving American Rail, part 5: reclaiming our train stations

If you are standing in downtown South Bend, IN, located about a mile and a half from the campus of the University of Notre Dame, and you look south over the city you can see in the near distance a curved roof adjacent to a rail embankment. The structure is the city’s old Union Station. Now defunct it is repurposed to house data centers. If you take the train to South Bend however, you will disembark at one of two stations–the South Bend Airport station or the Amtrak station–both are located in two different parts of town west of the city center; both are a number of miles from important landmarks. No passenger trains stop at the old centrally located Union Station.

In so many cases, this is the reality of train stations in cities all across the country. Old stations, often built-in a palatial styles or at the height of the Art Deco period, stand empty or defunct only to have trains stop at places far outside of town along desolate and meek platforms. In so many cities, contemporary stations have nothing more than the most basic amenities and few could be called centers of civic life or economy. There are grand plans for the reinvigoration of passenger rail in the United States. California is pushing ahead with plans for a high-speed rail line connecting north and south as are Florida and Texas. At a smaller scale Michigan and Illinois are doing the same thing in the Midwest. But the larger conversations seem to stop where the trains do: the stations. A world-class rail system is the product of good service, comfortable and convenient rides, but also great stations. But as far as I can tell, only a handful of stations are getting the attention they deserve.

I spent a good chuck of time writing about the significance of revising Union Station in Chicago, which is disproportionately important because of its location at the center of both the national and Midwest rail systems. The attention Union Station needs is well deserved, but we don’t want a rail system that is like a crown with one real jewel in it and a bunch of faux plastic diamonds surrounding it. Train stations are one of the places where passengers most intimately interact with a rail system. Stations are where the city greets these intercity systems. They also provide malleable ways to begin taking on the massive project of rebuilding a transit system that was lost long ago. They offer more than one use in one place, and that is an immediately tapable characteristic, one which may more easily garner private and public funds.

Unfortunately, we are no longer a home of universally good or great train stations. In so many cities, even where the old head houses still stand, contemporary train stations have transformed into shells of their former selves. Take St. Louis for example. The current intercity train station and transit hub is the Gateway Multimodal Transportation Center. The stop is nothing more than a pedestrian bridge and a few platforms squished between a double-decker highway and rail yard. Interestingly though the old Union Station (an historic landmark) is right around the corner. Although it has been converted into a multi-use complex, it has the capacity to be reinvented as a rail station, one along a potentially bustling passenger rail corridor. It is certainly a more visible structure and location and incredibly more aesthetically pleasing experience.

This map shows what passenger rail connections currently look like in South Bend, IN. The current services (South Shore Line and Amtrak) stop at different stations 1.5 or miles (as the crow flies) outside the city center. These distances are longer when actually routes into town are considered. If the services were re-consolidated at the city's former Union Station, passengers would disembark a 10 minute walk from Downtown.

This map shows what passenger rail connections currently look like in South Bend, IN. The current services (South Shore Line and Amtrak) stop at different stations 1.5 or miles (as the crow flies) outside the city center. These distances are longer when actually routes into town are considered. If the services were re-consolidated at the city’s former Union Station, passengers would disembark a 10 minute walk from Downtown.

There are examples of major improvements though: in Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul, major overhauls and minor changes to transit organization within the cities were implemented to turn heritage train stations into multi-modal transit and civic centers serving Amtrak, local rail mass transit systems, local buses, and intercity buses. This included modernized facilities and better connected services in a more centrally located station. In the case of Denver’s Union Station the project included and award-winning new train shed. I’ve talked about this before in the context of how important it is to have both a functional and aesthetically pleasing environment.

These are wonderful examples of how cities have taken it upon themselves to reinvent and reclaim their passenger rail stations. At a national level though, a system of best practices, recommendations, and financial incentives to reclaiming old stations can be utilized to push forward a significant part of the national invigoration of passenger rail that from my perspective is being overlooked, but has the potentially to be one of the easier and more manageable aspects of this.

The goals should be to 1) get control of these properties or in cases when heritage stations don’t exist anymore, get control of prime properties for a new train station. This leads in to a series of related goals. The stations or sites should 2) be turned into mixed private-public places with the aim of being civic centers with opportunities to connect to travel options, but also shop, or lease office space. Many European train stations retain the feel of a classic train station while also employing these other elements. Plans can be implemented even to develop the commercial spaces first before the trains arrive to create some use and simply wait to build out platforms. These sites could even become centers for farmer’s markets and art fairs or dance parties and pop-up night clubs. The most important goal is 3) to consolidate services at one station to create easy intermodal connections and bring in a high number of passengers. This isn’t always going to be possible (like in Chicago or New York), but in even in places like tiny South Bend this could make a difference. In this example, consolidation would connect South Shore Lines to Amtrak and provide easier more centralized access to South Bend and 12 plus trains in and out of South Bend in each direction daily. Consolidation alone would make a huge improvement especially if combined with other intermodal connections.

Saint Paul's Union Depot was reclaimed as a multi-modal transportation center with bus, train, and LTR services and was designed with expansion in mind. This includes new local and commuter transit routes, and intercity high-speed rail routes.

Saint Paul’s Union Depot was reclaimed as a multi-modal transportation center with bus, train, and LTR services and was designed with expansion in mind. This includes new local and commuter transit routes, and intercity high-speed rail routes.

Incentives should be made to reinvest in old stations. This could be federal or state grants covering the costs of renovations, priority advertising services for private businesses that donate money to the project, financial aid in the construction of new transit systems that connect to the stations, and increased financial aid to services that voluntarily consolidate services in one station. Speciality grants or long-term aid could be given to taking back old stations previously repurposed for non-transportation uses, like the St. Louis Union Station. Over time, the funds raised from taxes produced in stations and fees on businesses and services using them would hopefully help fund further additions, expansions, and/or renovations.

There are so many ways we can be reimagine, reclaimed and reuse our old train stations and build new ones. New train sets, reconstructed tracks, and better governance is important to improving rail in the United States, but the train stations are really important too and in some ways the most important element of this process. They are the faces of the rail systems and really the infrastructure most people will actually experience on a daily basis, even those not using the system. They also have the ability to function as new community and economic centers in struggling downtowns and city centers. We can’t expect rail to become a viable option and fuel economic change and become competitive transit modes in cities if the stations we have are retained in their sub par form. Too often they’re small, unattractive, and too far from the city centers to be accessible or have a meaningful impact on communities.

A new plan for stations needs to take social, economic, and logistical concerns into account. A plan that defines best practices should be adopted. Incentives to implement it should be identified. Our train stations should be a collection of gems woven into a larger infrastructure system. Some station designs have popped up in localized master plans and the new Denver Union Station is a great example of the possibilities the future holds for American passenger stations. And considering the attention that project got, I think it is safe to say stations are important and should get attention now rather than later.

Rethinking nature for more joyful experiences

My friend recently posted this picture on his blog:

Rethinking Nature

As I looked at I recognized how whimsical nature is. If we really break down what things in outside are we see that in reality those things are a mix of strange, silly, and rather profound. It provides a renewed sense of nature’s important role in our lives. The natural world provides us the best entertainment around, but it also reconnects us with the fact that we are as much a part of it as it is a part of our lives. A forest affects our human existence as much as we do to a forest.

We need to continuously look for the amazing things we might find outside, because quite frankly that is what we need to do to form an appreciation of the natural world and hopefully a sense of responsibility for its health–and ours as well.

No more architecture at Lane Tech… pity

Lane Tech, the mammoth high school on Chicago’s Northwest Side, is a presence in the city. Although the school’s 4500 plus student body and iconic façade complete with 6-story clock tower dominate its fame, the unique experience the school offers certainly plays a big role in the school’s legacy. Part of this is of course the massive course offerings available. In many ways, it is more collegiate than secondary and more one of a kind than any of the city’s other major high schools. The recent announcement that Lane Tech will be ending its architecture curriculum came as shocking and disappointing news. For many, the curriculum was a life changing experience that pushed them into their future professions and for others it was an endearing carry-over from the school’s days as a tech hub. Either way it is a loss for the school, CPS, and to an extent the city as well. It is a curriculum change that carries incredible symbolism and deserves the attention it is getting.

The current Lane Tech principle, Christopher Dignam, said in a statement that the program is being cut because of low attendance, the retirement of a teacher, and competition from other elective and AP courses. Indeed, the school is offering a dizzying array of courses and from a notice on the principle’s page they’re aimed at not just pushing, but shoving students into the 21st century with abandon. More power to them. Perhaps this is what helped push architecture into the realm of school history. It is impossible to claim the school isn’t being innovative or working hard to make the most of its resources or advance education in the city, however it is disappointing that the school didn’t work to creatively retain architecture as part of its curriculum.

As Krisann Rehbein points out in another blog post on the topic, the loss of architecture means fewer opportunities for students to explore different mediums of design and construction. Although the school is providing students with numerous alternatives I think the point to take home from this is that now there is one less medium, one less option to explore. It is great that students can work in 3D printing, robotics, and digital photography at Lane Tech, but for students who become inspired by the building itself or the great views of the city’s skyline afforded by the school’s location there is no outlet. The school’s diversity become ever so slightly less impressive.

Rehbein points out too how more and more schools dropped architecture as an academic option over time. A field that needs diversity got it in the student body of city schools like Lane Tech, where not only is there a wealth of academic, but also human diversity. Again, that is lost and at what cost? There seems to be a push for more and more science and technology schools every day, which is great, but this is at a loss for design and aesthetics, which we all know can inspire and ignite a fire in our souls. Engaged and driven students will no longer get an opportunity to explore the field and fall in love. A classmate of mine, Fariha Wajid, was probably one of the smartest people I knew in school. She was part of the architecture curriculum and points out in a blog post she wrote how the passion she got for the field at Lane Tech helped drive her to architecture. It is those experiences, the little funny quirks of life that lead us to our passions that get lost.

Most importantly though is the failure to remember that this is an important field. Architecture is in my opinion an oft overlooked profession that deserves more credit. There is no other form of visual expression that is more public and more integrated into our lives than architecture. Quite literally we live our lives in and around architecture. Chicagoans are lucky to exist in the presence of some of the greatest works of modern design and thought and it seems only appropriate that one of the gems of the city’s school system still maintain a program that introduces young people to the field. It is also the field where science, technology, and art all met in harmony. This is so valuable in fields that are often so distant. The future needs smart architects who will design thoughtfully in a way that is economically, sustainable, but also aesthetically pleasing and hopefully uplifting too. Lane was unique in that it offered students the chance to start young. It also offered students who might not go into architecture the chance to better appreciate the worth of our built heritage. That too is lost.

Sadly it is in loss that we often are reminded of the importance or value of things. For a lot of Lane’s hundreds… thousands of students architecture may mean nothing. But for some it was an important academic opportunity to discover something they could be passionate about. For others taking it merely as an elective it was a way to become aware of architecture’s role in society and perhaps become more engaged citizens through this medium. Citizens who care about cityscapes and the built world. For others it is a new perspective on design and a means to explore the diversity of expressive mediums. Perhaps what Lane offered was like a drop in a bucket, but drops collect over time.

Removing architecture from the curriculum of a school known for having this as a key component of its academic choices is disappointing because it gives students less diversity of choice and experience, but it is also disappointing because of what it says about societal perceptions of architecture: it is unimportant and plays less value in our lives than other topics. Sadly we must now bid farewell to architecture at Lane Tech. Hopefully, the impression it left on students while available lives on for many years to come.