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Making Tracks

Openness and transparency are operative words as cities look to improve the comfort and convenience of transit stations and maximize their ability to spur economic development.

December 01, 2004 |

More than a hundred years ago, when the ribbon was cut on North America's first subway line, in Boston (1897), and seven years later in New York, nobody cared about "openness" and "transparency" as chief requirements for the stations. Even today, these words probably don't come to passengers' minds on Boston's T or New York's subway and elevated lines.

But they are without a doubt the predominant themes in new construction and renovation of mass-transit rail stations. And if you're not yet on board with these concepts, the train may have already pulled out of the station on prospects for future rail station work.

Use of clear and translucent glazing and curtainwall, clerestory windows, and skylights to introduce natural light into stations — whether above grade or below — provides a "natural characteristic that is relevant to the comfort level of riders," says Tony Gonzales, VP and office leader of HNTB Architecture, Los Angeles. Clerestory windows and skylights are focal points in the design of two of the four stations on the new Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway line that opened in June 2003 to serve San Francisco International Airport.

The Skidmore, Owings & Merrill design awaiting the go-ahead for the transformation of Manhattan's old Farley Post Office into the new Penn Station (the original McKim, Mead & White station was demolished in 1963) heavily emphasizes the use of natural light and open space, with a towering glass atrium and large skylights retrofitted into the structure "to bring as much light into the building and platform level as we could," says Ross Wimer, AIA, design partner in SOM's Chicago office.

In Boston, the newly completed renovation of the T's Blue Line Aquarium subway station runs under a 150-foot segment of the Central Artery roadway project and Boston Harbor on its way to Logan International Airport. Built in 1904, the station, which was dark and constricted and hadn't received a significant renovation in 70 years, is now brighter and more spacious and welcoming to T riders.

Ellenzweig Associates, Cambridge, Mass., doubled the length of the train platform and carried through the curved form of the original vaulted ceiling to the larger east entrances and brand new west entrance to the station. The station's new aboveground headhouse entrances and elevator systems also are made of glass to allow the public to see inside them before entering.

"When people get underground, they get nervous," says Harry Ellenzweig, FAIA, design principal of the firm that bears his name and a 30-year veteran of rail station design. "You want to make things as open and friendly and as well lit and visible as possible." Riders getting off the train at the Aquarium stop can easily see the escalators and elevators leading up to the mezzanine and instinctively know where they need to go, he says.

Creating large volumes of space helps people feel comfortable and "allows us to create clear paths of travel," says Robert Davidson, FAIA, senior VP of STV Inc., New York. The firm designed the three stations that comprise the new AirTrain-JFK Gateway Terminal light rail line connecting subway and commuter rail trains in Queens to John F. Kennedy International Airport. The line opened in December 2003. Prior to joining STV this July, Davidson spearheaded the AirTrain project as chief architect for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the line. He says the trend is borrowed from European high-speed rail lines, whose stations emphasize volumes of space, light, and clear paths of travel.

The extensive use of glass enables passengers changing from the MTA New York City Transit platform at the AirTrain's Howard Beach station to see the AirTrain station and "move seamlessly" into its terminal, Davidson says.

In Singapore, the city's Land Transport Authority took the idea of openness to the extreme by urging SOM, architect for the new 270,000-sf Changi Airport subway station, to keep a 650-foot-long pedestrian bridge, which connects the station to airport terminals at each end, free of obstructions, making it one of the longest clear-span pedestrian bridges in the world. Clad in translucent glass, the bridge's surface is internally illuminated throughout the entire length of its surface, serving as the principal artificial light source for the station.

Although the station platform is below grade, two 130-foot-tall glass-box atria at either end allow penetration of natural light into the station's four levels. The atria also provide patrons views of the airport's opulent tropical garden, says SOM's Wimer.

Having few obstructions also helped SOM plan a station that relies more on intuitive wayfinding and less on signage. This is important for the airport, says Wimer, because it serves a multilingual population. The same can be said for tourist cities like Las Vegas, whose new monorail system opened in July with seven stations connecting gaming resorts and the city's convention center. Most users of the monorail are unfamiliar with rail transportation and only use the system for short periods of time, so intuitive wayfinding is crucial.

Balancing openness and security

The increased security need to manage the flow of people in and out of stations can "run counter to making stations more seamless and integrated into their communities," says J.F. Finn, project director for the Las Vegas and Santa Monica, Calif., offices of architect Gensler. "You don't want to put a big blast wall around a station, but it needs to be designed in such a way that enables an agency to control the public entries."

Transit agencies now need to know who is in their stations, says Laura Ray, assistant general manager of infrastructure and capital program management for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). "In the past you could maximize the free flow of people," she says. "Now you have to restrict the flow."

Finn, whose firm designed four of the seven stations for Las Vegas's 4.2-mile monorail system, says owners are requiring projects to be more enclosed. "But the enclosure has to be much more transparent," Finn says. As a result, rail stations are being designed with higher roofs and vaulted ceilings, to admit light while still being covered.

Enclosures are important in reducing fare evasion, as cash-strapped transit agencies transition to automatic smart-card fare collection systems. During the decade that design for the new $450 million Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station at Secaucus (N.J.) Junction evolved, its fare collection system went from a bank of 14 ticket windows down to zero in favor of automated ticket vending machines. Access to the multilevel rail transfer station, which links 10 of New Jersey Transit's 11 train lines, is controlled by fare gates located throughout the 300,000-sf station's main Rotunda Level, into which five train platforms feed, says David Hawthorne, project manager for Brennan Beer Gorman/Architects, New York. Although the need for the fare gates complicates the notion of seamless movement, Hawthorne says it's necessary to ensure riders pay their fares.

MARTA's Ray says gate location and egress are important considerations, especially in an intermodal environment. The installation of a pilot smart-card fare collection system at the agency's newly upgraded Lindbergh station required closing off an intermodal bus pathway with stainless-steel architectural fencing to prevent people from entering without paying. "You don't want the station to look like a prison, but you have to restrict access," he says.

The more efficient a rail station is as an intermodal connection — linking to automobiles, bus service, other trains, and airports — the more convenient rail transportation becomes, the more likely it is that people will ride the rails.

It's all about convenience, says HNTB's Gonzales. "In San Francisco, it's not easy to get to the airport [by car] because of the traffic," he says. The new BART line is "an easier way to travel."

Branching out three miles from the Transit Authority's busy transfer terminal in Jamaica, N.Y., the Howard Beach AirTrain-JFK Gateway Terminal light-rail station provides a fast, convenient link to JFK airport. It replaced a bus terminal in Queens, where passengers headed for JFK had to schlep their bags up and down stairs and through a long corridor to catch the bus.

Ensuring efficient and seamless connections between modes required greater interagency cooperation. Rail stations and railroad rights-of-way are often owned by different entities, and design team needs to consider the effect the design and choice of materials will have on the construction process and construction team's ability to secure the necessary approvals from the various agencies. When building over an active railroad right of way, obtaining approval to shut down a line is difficult and usually permitted for only short periods. "Construction staging and phasing are formed according to how the buildings are designed, and the trains are always running," says STV's Davidson.

At Singapore's Changi Airport rail station, the issue for SOM was how to provide the transit agency with an iconic design without upstaging the airport on whose grounds the station was located. "The size and configuration of the atria was the result of working with both the transit agency and the airport," says SOM's Wimer.

Stations anchor mixed-use

Community involvement is affecting the function and aesthetic of rail stations. Agencies are striving to integrate them more into the community, incorporating artwork and other details in the hope of increasing ridership and using stations as catalysts for economic development in and around the station, says Gensler's Finn.

To maximize the economic development that typically follows the construction of major transportation facilities, says STV's Davidson, transit agencies are working with communities to create transit-oriented developments (called TODs), which typically involve public/private partnerships in the construction of mixed-use developments at or near rail stations.

In California, Gensler designed three TOD-related stations on the Pasadena Gold Line light rail system, which opened last year. "For a long time, dedicated rail corridors acted as a barrier in some communities," says Finn. Agencies are seeking to re-establish rail stations as community hubs. "It has brought vibrancy back to rail station design, and having private-sector participation is helping agencies get there financially," says Finn.

San Francisco's BART recently developed a facility standard intended to figure rail-station integration into community development and land-use planning, says Tian Feng, BART's district architect. The standard addresses commercial, residential, retail, and industrial development of the station and station area, Feng says.

But the mix of uses doesn't stop there. The Los Angeles Unified School District is incorporating a new middle school into a transit development and is considering others, says HNTB's Gonzales.

In Secaucus, N.J., only nine minutes by train from Penn Station, New Jersey Transit's 28-acre Lautenberg transfer station is the base for 3.5 million sf of office and lodging space. Five towers are planned for the site, including one 40-story office, three 20–25 story office towers, and a hotel.

Upgrades to MARTA's Lindbergh station in Atlanta, such as a longer platform, additional parking, and a road that spans over the station, were made in anticipation of growth on the line, says the agency's Ray. Plans for a mixed-use public/private development include office towers, condos, an apartment project, and a hotel.

Location is the key in designing rail stations for current need and future development. Urban stations are designed with access for pedestrians, bicycles, and buses, while suburban stations focus more on automobile access. Integration with the community at AirTrain-JFK light rail's Jamaica station meant providing a street entrance for pedestrians to the station's atrium terminal and an arcade-level bus stop.

But as TODs become more prevalent in the suburbs, outlying stations will start to look more and more like their urban counterparts, says Feng.

Station aesthetics and the materials used in their construction are functions of the surrounding environment, says Ted Haug, principal in charge of design for Legat Architects, Waukegan, Ill. The firm has designed new and replacement stations for Chicago's METRA commuter rail, which built a significant number of "basic-box" stations in the 1960s, many of which are now worn and outdated.

Stations in established town centers, such as the Oak Park Avenue station in suburban Tinley Park, which opened in September 2003, take their design cues from visual markers in the surrounding area. The station's classic stone-clad European design, with its outdoor café, restaurant, and observation tower, have made it a popular venue for special events. The design of another METRA station in suburban Franklin Park, located in an area comprised of pre-engineered, big-box corrugated steel industrial buildings, is expressed through the use of more steel, glass, and concrete, Haug says.

For Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, "projects are propelled by the Central Artery, station integration, and ADA compliance, before expansion," says Barbara Boylan, AIA, the MBTA's design director. Renovation projects, such as the Aquarium Station, customarily reflect the city's red brick and stone buildings.

In contrast, stations on the T's new Silver Line along the South Boston waterfront (the second phase of which opens this month) feature a modern look. The undulating lines of the World Trade Center station evoke the waterfront. "We had a clean slate," says Boylan.

The South Boston area is ripe for future development and the Silver Line extension is expected to spur it. Farther out "on the line there's nothing there but parking lots," says Boylan, so station designs are not so encumbered by the constraints of the surrounding environment.

BART's South San Francisco station "takes on the personality of the owning agency," says HNTB's Gonzales, incorporating ample amounts of stainless steel, brushed aluminum, tile, and concrete. "BART is considered a modern system, so we wanted to take a modern approach."

Whether their design is more a reflection of the community or the owning agency, rail stations are once again making tracks, sometimes borrowing from the past but always looking toward the future and how better to serve rail passengers. "If it's safe, comfortable, and user friendly, you're going to have more riders riding," says Boylan.

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