Aesthetics and Usability

New York is spending multiple billions of dollars on two signature projects in Lower Manhattan of which the more expensive (PATH terminal at $3.8 billion) has no transportation benefits and the less expensive (Fulton Street Transit Center at $1.4 billion) has small transportation benefits. This has led Stephen Smith and Ben Kabak to posit an opposition between spending on aesthetic design and spending on good transit, leading a few irate commenters to declare that they don’t like ugly transit and that design matters. In principle Stephen and Ben are right and the commenters are wrong, but the main issue involved is broader, and somewhat different.

The first observations I made of the photos Stephen provides is that the example he gives of ugly transit, Shinjuku Station, is in fact quite aesthetic. It has nothing on any average Mediterranean city, but neither does Grand Central. From the photos I’ve seen of Shinjuku, and my best recollection of staying one night in the area ten years ago, it looks fine from street level. The opposite is true of PATH’s Calatrava terminal, which looks like a monument to the architect more than a useful train station for ordinary passengers.

What passes for great design, in other words, is not based on normal street-level impressions. It’s based on how things look in drawings or aerial photos and on the ability of the project to act as a monument. Medieval cathedrals were designed to be big to make the individual feel small compared to the greatness of the institution that built them; the same is true of modern signature train stations and downtown revitalization skyscrapers. The Twin Towers were not designed for high office capacity; the commercial floor area ratio on the site of World Trade Center was 10, compared with 33 for the Empire State Building. They were designed for urban renewal, and thus looked much better from the air than from the ground; the same is true of the Calatrava terminal.

More in general, this relates to what I said about London and how it looks better on a map than on street level. This is less about aesthetics and more about usability, but the general argument is the same.

Grids, clockface schedules, and simple fare systems all have this benefit that occasional users, or regular users going outside their usual train line or neighborhood, can easily grasp what is going on. Living in ungridded Tel Aviv, I knew how my own neighborhood’s street network looked like; similarly, a colleague who reverse commutes from Boston knows the timetable of the trains useful to her. The supposedly beautiful schedules or street networks that planners come up with aren’t as usable.

The conflation of usability and aesthetics can easily lead people to think that spending billions on an iconic train station has any benefit except to Calatrava and his company. A commenter on Second Avenue Sagas even mentioned Apple as an example of design-based success. In reality, the iPod is easier to browse than any MP3 player that came before it, leading to success at a time when Apple’s brand was in the gutter; and unlike the BlackBerry that it displaced, the iPhone has games and customizable apps and a touchscreen that everyone other than me seems to like. It’s those devices that form Apple’s core product, measured by operating income; the Mac, which is based purely on design and brand, is a niche.

So the question is what usability-oriented spending could have been done in Lower Manhattan. This is of course purely academic. Like the original World Trade Center, those post-9/11 projects have never been about the needs of users, or even about simple aesthetics; they’ve always been about agency self-aggrandizing. But for $5.2 billion, they could have done a lot to build a Hoboken-Fulton Street-Flatbush tunnel and run RER-style service (at European construction costs, they could’ve built the entire tunnel and had change to spare; at New York construction costs, probably not). They could’ve integrated the fares between PATH and the subway, instead of having each agency seek an incompatible smartcard standard (Cubic for PATH, the ISO standard for the MTA). Instead, they spent about a billion on improvements for pedestrian circulation at Fulton Street and burned the rest of the money on the altar of starchitect aesthetics.


  1. EngineerScotty

    While this is a different issue than the construction of veritable Taj Mahal’s that you describe (TriMet’s facilities are generally spartan–and frequently too much so), out here in Oregon (and in many other states) we’ve got a “1% for art” law, requiring that one percent of a project’s budget typically be spent on art, often commissioned from local artists–that hardly anyone cares about, other than the artist getting the payday. Well, except when the art is embarrassingly bad, such as the stone tablet containing an incorrect rendering of pi in the Washington Park MAX station, or the (since removed) “chained-up dragon in Portland’s Chinatown that thoroughly offended the local Chinese community.

    While I’m all for the arts, including some public support thereof, these programs annoy the heck out of me–if for no other reason than the art produced is seldom any good.

    • Alon Levy

      Honestly, I don’t mind 1% for art programs, in principle. I’d mind the quality of what’s produced, of course, but it’s a different matter from spending one third of the Fulton Street Transit Center budget on an above-ground edifice, or paying Calatrava to design a world-class-in-New-York PATH station.

      • Nathanael

        Well, the other 2/3 of the Fulton St. budget is absolutely necessary. So there’s that. And the Fulton St. edifice is also rentable commercial property, so should be viewed as a commercial venture.

        The only unjustifiable part of Fulton St. is the “oculus”.

        The Calatrava station is a complete ridiculosity, of course, but it was never a transportation project — it was a 9/11 Memorial Project, and we all know how rational THOSE were. (Reflecting pools, yeah. Real great use of space. And the 1776 ft tall tower, just to be AMERICAN, who cares whether there’s the demand for office space.)

  2. Alex B.

    I think it’s important to state that design does matter (the iPod-Mac comparison is an interesting one). In DC, the Metro’s vaulted stations were considered extravagant, but the design was not merely aimed to extract awe from riders. The train room vaults provide for clear sight lines to the mezzanines, they make exit from the platform an intuitive process, possible without the direction of signage. The vault walls are separated from the platforms themselves by a small moat to provide for indirect lighting and also to keep surfaces out of range for graffiti. Blind corners are rare, the openness helps make riders feel comfortable and safe.

    All of these things are more or less standard considerations nowadays, but it’s worth noting the value of these design decisions.

    • Lawrence Velázquez (@larryv)

      With the Apple comparisons being thrown around, it’s instructive to remember something Steve Jobs himself said: Design isn’t how something looks, it’s how it works. The Apple of today is successful because very large numbers of people really do find its products enjoyable and easy to use. Its software and hardware tend to minimize user-facing complexity. And its high profit margins and oft-derided aesthetic elements are enabled by a ruthlessly efficient back channel that is unrivaled in the technology industry. (Some would assert that Apple’s entire renaissance is the result of this back channel.)

      So I find it ironic that people are presenting Apple as an example of aesthetics for its own sake, when Apple’s real principles—design in service of the user, and operational efficiency—seem to support the opposing viewpoint.

    • Alon Levy

      That, to be honest, I don’t have a problem with. I don’t want to justify it on the nebulous grounds of light and air, but high ceilings do matter in a large, crowded space: witness how large lecture rooms at universities tend to have high ceilings, and the largest are often built like an auditorium – and this includes even ordinary spaces, rather than monuments like libraries. By all means, let’s build future stations with high ceilings and clear sight lines, and if it can be done cheaply (which is apparently not the case at Fulton Street) even retrofit existing stations. But this does not require rebuilding entire stations from scratch for billions of dollars, or, at least, that’s not the biggest priority for the money Port Authority is spending on the PATH terminal. Nor does it require finding nearby buildings, located a block farther away from the CBD, to house a new train station in so that it can be named after a local politician.

      • Nathanael

        Penn Station badly needs the extra space. It would probably be better to knock down MSG and rebuild a train station, but the Moynihan/Farley design was designed when that wasn’t considered an option.

        Honestly, of the three projects you’ve criticized, both Fulton St. and Moynihan Station would provide substantial real benefits — only the Calatrava PATH station is a pure boondoggle.

        • Alon Levy

          Penn doesn’t need that extra space all that much – not to the tune of $2 billion. It’s a crowded train station for sure, but it’s no more crowded than, say, Gare de Lyon. Or Times Square. And if it’s that crowded, they should kick out the back offices that are clogging passenger circulation space, or even the concessions; about half of the lower concourse’s floor area is used for those functions rather than for passenger circulation.

          • Nathanael

            Yes, the Amtrak/NJT section is worse than the two stations you mention. I’ve been in all three. Perhaps you’re hanging out in the LIRR section? If they could overcome the LIRR/Amtrak/NJT turf wars, they could probably make some real improvements, this is true. And if we can figure out how to do that… I’ll be amazed.

            Where do you think they’re going to put the back offices if they kick them out? A bunch of them (Amtrak luggage handling comes to mind immediately) have to be directly connected to the train station, they can’t just be dumped in Jersey. That’s actually PART of the Moynihan plan, moving Amtrak office space into the building.

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t think most of them are baggage handling and similar functions. But if they have to be close, Amtrak should rent space at Madison Square Garden or another office building that’s still very close to the station. The net present value of the rent has to be less than the cost of Moynihan.

          • Nathanael

            Wait, correction — you said Gare de Lyon, I haven’t been in Gare de Lyon, so perhaps you’re right that that one’s worse. I was thinking of a different station (sigh).

    • Stephen Smith

      I know it’s a commonly head belief that the huge vaulted caverns were “worth it,” but I disagree. Maybe for the big transfer stations, but for the others, I’m not so sure. (Granted, I’ve looked but never found any real cost comparison, so I’m not even sure what exactly the tradeoff was. All I found was an article from Railway Age saying that the engineers wanted the cheaper option but one of those busybody federal commissions that DC is so fond of pushed hard for the vaulted caverns and got them.)

      Also, one of the reasons Washingtonians may feel this way about the architecture is because they’re forced to spend so much time sitting around looking at it. But I’m sure most people who trade shorter headways or more capacity for not-so-extravagant stations.

      • Alex B.

        Well, shorter headways is predominantly an operational cost, while the Metro station vaults will last (with only moderate maintenance) for many more decades (conservatively). I’d also note that many of the stations involved excavating a great deal of that space anyway.
        Sure, the engineers wanted a cheaper option, but that’s the whole point – cheaper doesn’t mean better. There’s a value to design. It’s difficult to quantify, but it exists.

        • Stephen Smith

          Shorter headways are an op cost if it means hiring more workers to drive trains, but in the case of DC Metro, it’s actually a capital cost, since it would mean getting the ATO back up and running, installing some platform gates, and going driverless.

  3. Andrew in Ezo

    A comment left in the original Forbes article makes a good point- in the U.S. large station designs arise from a political process (desire for monumental architecture, iconic symbols) while in places such as Japan, the designs arise from an economic process (elimination of non-revenue producing headhouses, maximization of air rights). Even at stations in Japan where aesthetics and iconic symbols are being promoted (the rebuilt Tokyo Station and Osaka Station), the urban renewal is being done in conjunction with expanded commercial space in the form of luxury hotels, department stores, underground shopping arcades and movie multiplexes.

  4. Eric

    I believe most of the expense at Fulton Street was used for straightening out the maze of pedestrian tunnels that made transferring between subway lines time-consuming and hard to figure out – providing a big benefit for riders.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, Ben says it’s two-thirds of the cost. The question then is whether $1 billion for straightening the tunnels, rather than, say, improving signage, was a good investment. My guess is that if the MTA thought it was, it would’ve proposed similar investments for Times Square and the mainline Penn Station, instead of just doing this at the one station for which it could get money by crying 9/11.

      But I have no trouble separating the costs detailed into a marginally useful $1 billion and a useless $4.2 billion, as I did in the first paragraph of the post.

      • Nathanael

        The $1 billion, in addition to straightening out the passageways, also provides ADA accessibility for 4 out of the 100 required “key stations” on the MTA’s ADA-accessibility list, IIRC. It was pretty much the cheapest way to do this, and the MTA has *no choice* but to provide accessibility. Besides which it’s a good idea anyway.

        Penn Station already has ADA access (though they’re being forced by lawsuit to add a second elevator, since there is only ONE currently). Times Square had ADA access provided through a very complicated and expensive set of retrofits — I suggest you look up the total price tag some time.

        • Beta Magellan

          The cost of retrofitting older stations to ADA-accessibility—especially subway stations—is a major driver of renovation costs in older cities. It’s definitely slowed the CTA’s modernization process, since they’re only allowed to do so much refurbishing before they’re forced to include an elevator. The fact that a lot of the CTA’s island platforms are too narrow to meet ADA requirements is another big issue, and one of the big reasons they’re considering either completely rebuilding the north side ‘L’ or putting it in a new subway (the other being water damage to the embankment).

  5. Danny

    200 miles of CTrain.

    When people act like this isn’t a big deal, they have no concept of money.

  6. Andre Lot

    I think a major issue is to distinguish merely artistic options (like the Calatrava’s T-rex spine) or those that are based on enhanced functionality like mezzanine vaulted subway stations, integrated tunnels – open plans in general, which facilitate movement -, climate-controlled and weather protected passageways and platforms etc.

    • Nathanael

      Yep. The Calatrava is a poster child for bad design, as it will have approximately the same functionality as the current “temporary” station, at several billion times the cost — and won’t even be much of a commercial attraction.

      The other projects all have much more claim to functionality.

      • Nathanael

        (OK, I exaggerate, I know the current station did not cost $4. What’s the real multiple for the Calatrava over the “second temporary”, 20 times?)

      • Adirondacker12800

        The headhouse will have the same functionality. Big chunk of the cost is the mall they’ll be building under the stegosaurus and the connecting concourses to Fulton Transit Center and the Winter Garden.

  7. Tom West

    I like your point that to regular users, nice clock-face timetabese or a regular street grid don’t matter, because you always know about the bit which effects you. That’s true, but most transit agencies want people to switch modes – and a nice timetable helps that. Similarly, when regular transit usres travel outside their normal time/route, they also benefit from a nice timtable and route structure.
    Saying something doesn’t need to impovie because it works well for existing users condemns you to never expand your userbase.

    • Andre Lot

      As I usually say, smartphones and similar resources make the need for “clockface timetable” obsolete as much as a GPS device makes, for most cases, having a street map on your car unnecessary as well. Even the concept of regular routing could be abolished in the future.

      • Tom West

        Firstty, not everyone has or wants a smartphone.

        Secondly, a clockface timetable always makes things easier for users. Why bother looking up a schedule (whether on a smartphone or in print), when you know it’s every 30 minutes at 27 and 57 minutes past the hour? (Which is when the bus near my house is). Not having to look up information always beats having to look up information for covinience.

        Thirdly, abolshing regular routing would mean users would not know how long it takes to get anywhere in advance of their trip. That makes precise planning impossible. If I have to be somewhere by 9am, I don’t want my bus wandering off on a different route.

        • Andre Lot

          The abolition or routing is a more far-fetched exercise of thought, but let’s go back to the odious “clockface” argument.

          First of all, it is irrelevant in high-frequency systems, like subway systems operating trains every 2/3 minutes.

          In other cases, what is important are timed connections. An easily done (math) optimization can prove that, given the state of infrastructure, maximum speeds, distance, stop pattern, there ought to be, for each network, a specific interval that makes routing more efficient.

          There is no scientific, hard-fact reason other than homage to the wristwatch (increasingly obsolete with youngesters btw) that justifies constraining a system to operate on a naturally divisor of 60. It’s ridiculous, in my humble opinion, to reduce interval options to 60, 30, 20, 15, 12, 10 minutes and demand all networks to be operated under one of those 6 options only, anywhere in the World. It remembers of witchcraft or superstition, like to say “buildings can’t have 13 floors, they should have 12 or 14”).

          Use of clockface planning made sense before computer power became ubiquitous. I can imagine the headache of planning a network in 1950 with manual calculators at most. Today, any good personal computer can be used to run, in a few hours, an optimization routine that finds what is the best interval for a given set of parameters and constraints in a medium-sized network. Maybe it’s 13/26/39/52 minutes. Maybe it’s 23/46/69/92. Maybe it’s 11/22/33/44/55/66. Maybe it’s 17.5/35/52.5/70/97.5.

          There is NO reason to paddle down schedules to the highest 60-divisor (as systems usually operate the fast they can anyways) just so that laziness is rewarded. It’s ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is the practice of “build to schedule” adopted by Swiss and thank God confined there, where they caged themselves into this medieval thing called 60/60/24 time based system and only build new rail projects that can reduce travel time to “fit” that artificial step-armor of 15-30-60 min travel time reduction.

          • Alon Levy

            With its rigid clockface schedule, Switzerland has had an increase in rail traffic that beats anything seen in the US recently. Passenger traffic, in terms of both passengers and passenger-km, is up 50% from 2001. It’s not seen in the major carriers in the US, not even close. This is the opposite of what we’d expect if smartphones really obviated takts: the US would see large increases in traffic coming from passengers’ sudden ability to know when the next train is coming without carrying printed schedules.

            And although Switzerland is the only country where the entire national network runs on an integrated takt, elsewhere trains run on their own clockface schedules, and do not run every 13 or 50 minutes that I know of, even when traffic is high. Japanese intercity and long-range commuter trains tend to run hourly off-peak, or hourly per stop pattern on busier lines. Japan doesn’t have the rigid takts of Switzerland or Germany, but when its trains are off-takt, it’s by a few minutes in each direction, often from skipping lightly-used stops.

            For example, consider trains from Tokyo to Odawara (click on the interval timetable link to see all trains today). There’s a Kodama departing Tokyo every :26 and :56, a pattern that persists from 6:56 am to 8:56 pm; there are a few more Kodama trains in peak periods; and there’s a Hikari at :33 every odd hour. Off-peak, the legacy Tokaido Line trains run every 10 minutes, departing Tokyo whenever the minutes hand ends in a 2, with the :32 running express; a few local runs are skipped, but the basic takt remains from 9:32 to 4:52.

          • Nathanael

            Making things easier to remember makes them easier to use. And this is the case with clockface schedules.

            If you consider the 60/60/24 time system obsolete…. then CHANGE THAT. I have no problem with a grand change to decimally divided, or better yet hexadecimally divided, time. But as long as the world runs according to 60/60/24, with businesses opening on the hour or half hour (rather than at 9:03 and 22 seconds), the railroads should do the same thing.

            Of course if your frequencies are high enough you can run on headway and forget scheduling, but that’s rare.

  8. Frank

    As an architecture student, I have to disagree wholeheartedly. Design does matter. I don’t like waste as much as the next person, but the opposite is having buildings that are completely utilitarian and soulless.

    The same argument could be made for society as a whole. Why do we spend on things like art and music when that money could be diverted to some other seemingly more practical cause? I think it comes down to what we ultimately “want and deserve” as a society as a New York Times columnist put it so well.

    We can be utilitarian and have just perfect transit, just flashy icons, or we can be truly great and have both.

    • Alon Levy

      As I explained to EngineerScotty, there’s an enormous difference between spending 1% of your budget on art and spending one third of your budget and crucial commercial space on it.

      The other thing is that, for good design, you really don’t need starchitects. My admittedly limited knowledge of the architecture market is that it’s like academia in that it’s full of people who are good at it and consider $50,000 a year to be a good salary.

      • Frank

        No you do not need Starchitects for good design. However, I find Calatrava to be particularly good and I find this design tasteful and well done.

        Also, Europe constructs its fair share of large terminals. The TGV Lyon airport station comes to mind(designed by you know who), so does the Gare du Nord, St. Pancreas International, etc… I would be curious to see what you think of those.

        That example is more along the lines of what I am trying to say: that you can have a system that works great and looks great. After the U.S. has been on the road of “cars, cars, cars” and “planes, planes, planes” for so long it is refreshing to see that we are willing to put a little money in these facilities to show that we think our public transport spaces are just as important as our airports and highways.

        • Andre Lot


          I have nothing against good looking airport terminals, nicely landscaped highways with integrative elements, monumental train stations etc.

          However, the money spend on the WTC Transit Center blows my mind away as totally abhorrent. It’s not just a lot of money, it’s a splurge worth of a mafioso on a trip to Las Vegas.

          I think the very high emotions surrounding the site, and the events that made it special (9/11), and the timing of the building design, threw any reasonable considerations of cost-efficiency or any economic sense.

          This already affected the memorial: constant changes in design, some of them in the middle of construction, the very touchy subject of not letting anyone not pleased with the result resulted in a US$ 600 million memorial + adjacent area project. In no way I’m being “unsympathetic” to the victims, never, but it seems everyone involved in anything related to 9/11 had a free hand to spend money.

          This applied to the military response (not going to discuss it here), to the memorial construction, to the xyz unwarranted modifications of the master plan, crowned by an excessively expensive transit terminal.

          To put it another way, this is the paradox I see:
          – for merely providing state-of-the-art FUNCTIONAL elements of the transportation center, no Calatrava T-rex spine was needed and costs could be halved

          – to provide Lower Manhattan with an awesome post-modern iconic architectural monument, much more exciting things could EASILY be done with the money spent on Calatrava’s design not meant to cater for any transportation feature. Alternatives include building a “Calatrava Alley” on Battery Park with 4 of his masterpieces, each as big as the Spine and atrium of PATH, with the US$ 1,4 billion the “special” design cost Port Authority.

        • Alon Levy

          St. Pancras International looks good, but most of what I’ve seen of it is the exterior of the original Victorian-era building. See for example my photos from London. The interior of the international part of the station I only saw briefly and from the wrong side of the security barriers, but I don’t remember it as being too exciting.

          And I sincerely hope the US doesn’t start thinking of public transportation the way it’s thinking of airports and highways, i.e. as opportunities to steer money to developers, contractors, and local power brokers. I hope it thinks of it as a mode of transportation first.

          • Nathanael

            The Victorian St. Pancras is beautiful. What people forget is that it’s also *functional*.

            A bunch of the grand stations, the ones with huge vaulted waiting rooms, had huge hotels built right into them, and St. Pancras is the prime example. Others had office towers (Buffalo Central Terminal comes to mind). A very large number had dense “stay for a while” restaurant spaces, with the Oyster Bar in Grand Central being one small example. The Apple Store in Grand Central is actually a prime example of the thinking of the architects of the “temples of commerce” which were 19th century railroad terminals. A big open waiting room, direct access to platforms, *and* direct access to hotels, restaurants, etc. This is a very sensible model for an intercity terminal.

            Not so sensible for a subway station, which is what the PATH terminal is. The 19th century subways *also* were full of commerce, but of a different sort, on a different scale: newspaper stands and coffee. They were grand in a different way: not the vaulted ceilings used for people who may have to sit and wait for their train for hours, but the decorative tiled walls used for people who are rushing along a corridor and want
            something to entertain the eye as they go. The Calatrava PATH terminal is just wrong for its function, and I think that’s because it’s really a 9/11 memorial grandiosity, not a station design. I rather hope it never gets built and something more appropriate gets built instead.

    • Beta Magellan

      From what I understand payment’s based more on a percentage of the total projectcost—starchitects can charge a higher percentage, but their wages aren’t the main driver of the project. Rather, it’s things like the size of the project, and in the case of high-profile ones things like paying for structural gymnastics, materials, and craftsmanship that add up.

      What’s ultimately needed in transportation architecture are very basic things like navigability and a basic standard of pleasantness. Subtle good design—stuff that goes unnoticed but unconsciously helps the user—often goes further than monument-building.

  9. mulad

    Oof, and I thought the Saint Paul Union Depot renovation was a lot at $243 million — though they now claim it will come in “under budget” (I have to put that in quotes because they basically never advertised the true projected cost until late in the financing stage). Building underground is expensive of course, though much of the SPUD project cost goes into replacing about a third of the site’s 22-acre (89,000 m^2) elevated train deck.

    Now we just have to see if it will ever see more than one train each way each day.

    • Nathanael

      Indeed. The St. Paul renovation is really an excellent project — but a project designed to support far more rail service than Minnesota currently has. Of course, Ramsey County very much intends to have that much rail service, and so do the Metropolitan Council and the Midwest High Speed Rail folks and the Duluth folks, but the question is how long it will take for any of that to get off the ground. In the meantime it seems poised to become a major bus terminal.

      (As to why it is an excellent project, the Twin Cities needs a decent intercity train station, and Minneapolis stupidly built ordinary buildings atop every single good Minneapolis location, with the Federal Reserve Bank taking the best spot. Yes, there’s Target Field, but it and its eastern approach, the only usable one for most services, are excessively space-constrained even for its current service. Ramsey County is clearly trying to poach business from Minneapolis; who knows, it may succeed. The historic restoration at SPUD is worthwhile in itself.)

      • Alon Levy

        I think the Twin Cities need decent intercity train service first. The proposals for lines to St. Cloud and Duluth are actually decent given the regulatory environment they’re in. When you build a huge train station without new service to match it, you get Calatrava PATH, the Fulton Street oculus, or Diridon Intergalactic.

        • Nathanael

          Bad tactics, Alon. You don’t delay one (funded) part of your plan because another part got delayed… that way lies madness, as the nexus of funding for the funded part may vanish. And the concourse side had been threatened with demolition previously.

          Ramsey County has been working simultaneously on getting the train services and the train station. The station simply managed to get there ahead of the services. The services have actually been in planning longer than the station, but the commuter lines were subject to an attack first from Republican legislators and then from Pawlenty, and of course the high-speed rail was sabotaged by Scott Walker.

          Had this project been killed due to lack of trains, and had Red Rock Commuter Rail then been approved, it would have had no station to stop at in St. Paul. When you’ve got a master plan where you have to cobble together funding in bits and pieces, there’s really no choice but to go forward with the parts you manage to get funded as you manage to get them funded.

          The other big difference between this and the examples you give is that they’re *not* building a huge train station, they’re renovating an existing building which was sitting largely vacant (yes, it has a few condos and one restaurant). As usual, historic restoration costs more than tearing the building down and building a modern building, but Ramsey County and the City of St. Paul feel that it’s worth it, and they’re right.

          • Alon Levy

            What I’m concerned with is that they’re building a train station whose size is disproportionate to traffic. By analogy, I think it’s good to keep going on with building the Central Valley segment of CAHSR since it’s likely funding will materialize in the next few years for LA-Bakersfield, whereas starting with a segment that doesn’t extend to a good IOS (Merced-Sacrameto, maybe?) or a relatively useless project like the DTX tunnel and Transbay Terminal would not be a good idea.

          • Zmapper

            Alon, there is a possibility that Minnesota will need the additional platforms in the future. Sure, today only the Empire Builder exists. In the future, not only might there be a train to Duluth, but more trains to St Cloud, Rochester, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Sioux Falls, Chicago, etc. I think that the US is right on the cusp of a train boom. Meaning, that additional capacity, for both regional and intercity passenger, as well as freight, will be sorely needed.

            Have you seen this study by the AAR? The growth rates seem a bit exaggerated but the main thesis holds true.

          • Alon Levy

            All the trains you’re mentioning, together, could fit on two platform tracks. Maybe four if you want to be extravagant. The Tohoku Shinkansen has four at Tokyo, where all trains terminate, and peaks at fourteen trains per hour. If they have space to have a large station cheaply then sure, but there’s really no point in spending money on that extra capacity now.

          • Sascha Claus

            And all the trains will run every 15min, so nobody has to wait long? Or will each direction only served half-hourly—or even more infrequent? I’d guess the latter, so Switzerland would create a Taktknoten where all trains arrive and leave at the same time, to allow connections without waiting time. Otherwise, your network only consists of lines on the map. This requires one platform edge per direction.

          • Alon Levy

            Nobody in the US is even thinking of an integrated takt, which is a pity. But if they did, most of the services could still fit on relatively few tracks. The main services could fit on two lines, connecting MSP to Duluth, St. Cloud, Chicago, and Rochester or Eau Claire, whichever is not on the line to Chicago. The main issue with running them like this is rolling stock compatibility – they might want commuter rolling stock for MSP-St. Could and higher-speed intercity trains to Chicago – but this is still pretty far in the future.

  10. Michael John

    What do you mean by European Construction Costs Alon? And is it still possible to build a hoboken-fulton-flatbush tunnel if the money came up? And the Fulton Street Station. Does it have to have 3 platforms like in your graphic for Transport Politic? Or will the platform layout be identical or similar to RER Chatelet Les Halles? Here’s a link to a track map:

    And what will the Hoboken Platform Layout be in this scenario?

    • Alon Levy

      European construction costs are way, way lower than American ones. For references, go to the right sidebar of this blog and click on the Construction Costs category; if you have time to read only one post, make it US Rail Construction Costs, which despite the name is about first-world subway construction.

      I haven’t compared any proposed alignment to the map of Manhattan’s building foundations at the required depth. It’s almost certainly possible – Lower Manhattan’s bedrock is hard (schist), which allows buildings to be built with surprisingly shallow foundations – but it will probably require a deep-level station. The shallower a station is, the cheaper it is: the RER A’s deep-level stations all cost hundreds of millions each, but near-surface Chatelet-Les Halles did not despite having more platforms. If all goes well the track layout should be the three-platform layout on TTP, yes, but if the middle platform has to go then it’s not a huge deal.

    • Adirondacker12800

      The Hoboken platform layout would be deep deep underground and nearly deserted. Or deep deep under the Palisades and nearly deserted. People go to Hoboken so they can transfer to PATH. If they can get a one seat ride to Fulton Transit center there won’t be many passengers in Hoboken. I see mixed used development where the current yards and platforms are.

  11. Miles Bader

    I’m not sure it really makes that much sense to talk about Shinjuku station using terms like “ugly” or “beautiful.” It’s not even one building, it’s a huge conglomeration of structures which grew organically over time, and most of what’s externally visible isn’t “station” at all, but rather department stores and the like. Of course underground, it covers an even bigger area, which still “feels” like part of the station, but manifests itself only as exits popping up here in there (often in the middle of commercial buildings some distance from the surface station).

    The result is that even though it’s obviously a huge presence, Shinjuku station doesn’t feel like one in the same way a big classical station does. It’s almost hard to notice it amid the hubbub of the streets, because it’s very much a part of it, and the boundaries between the station and the surroundings are not really so distinct. As you say, a street-level view (which is what most people will experience) magnifies this effect.

    This style seems fairly common amongst Japanese stations, although many are somewhere in between (well-integrated with the surroundings, but still a singular presence to some degree).

    The thing that concerns me about the Calatrava proposal is that, although the aesthetics can be argued, it looks dead—there’s little sense of it as an attractive place (or even room) for people to come and do stuff; the message seems to be “hurry up, get off your train, and get out of here.” That’s not how a big-city station should work, especially one taking up enormous amounts of surface real-estate in an extremely central location.

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