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.