COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Thinking Beyond the Station

David M Nelson
May 8, 2014
Sep 4, 2019

You are cutting it close, rushing to catch your bus or train. Just as you arrive to the station/stop, you hear the heart-crushing sound of acceleration. You look up, it’s rolling down the line. It’s gone. Now you’ll have thirty long, lonely minutes to dwell on your near miss as cars careen past you. Your eyes scan the area. It’s bleak, with nothing to do, no way to get out of the elements, and no one with whom to pass the time.

Far too often this is the scenario that typifies the transit experience. Yet, memorable and enjoyable stations and stops that create value for neighborhoods are perfectly attainable. In fact, a transit station or stop can serve much more than a transportation function; it can be a setting for community interaction, a place that fosters a diversity of activities.

Through Placemaking, stations and stops become focal points in a community, especially if there is an associated plaza or public space. Even the station building or the bus shelter itself can be thought of as place. That is, the use of it can be expanded, in partnership with the local community, to serve other public purposes. The potential uses are boundless, from a café to an art gallery to a venue for performances and markets. In this way, a great station or stop adds value to the surrounding neighborhoods and increases the viability of commercial districts by connecting businesses to commuters and new customers.

Thinking Beyond the Station is a both theoretical and applied concept crafted by PPS to guide the activation of stations and stops as well-connected, multi-use destinations. We integrate transit stops into the communities they serve through supportive urban design, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, architecture, cultural programming, public art, and innovative space management. Our Placemaking process links transit to community institutions and cultural assets and seeks out citizens that may not have been considered or may not have considered themselves as transit stakeholders and engages them in discovering creative solutions. In addition, we jump start implementation through Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper techniques, evaluating outcomes and adjusting recommendations for greater effectiveness.

Thinking Beyond the Station strategies in turn provide value to the transportation function. Great experiences in great places attracts people, more people means more ridership. Likewise, the sense of pride and community presence translates into less litter, graffiti, policing, and upkeep.

Several key principles illustrate the Thinking Beyond the Station approach:

Start with a Community Vision

If the goal is to create a great place, it is essential to start with a clear understanding of the activities that are going to occur in the space. Design and management decisions then easily fall into place to support these activities.

Thinking Beyond the Station brings together transit professionals, board members, elected officials, designers, developers, and the public to solidify a shared vision for the role that transit facilities should play in the community and what that program of activities should be. Afterwards, the entire community can get behind the value of transit – whether they ride it or not – because it has been articulated as a key ingredient in the great places and visceral experiences they desire.

When the needs of less privileged, less empowered communities are not clearly articulated, explicitly voiced and defended, and when planners and transit agency officials do not have the tools to effectively listen, concerns are not addressed. It is an enormous challenge, but the robust bottom-up engagement behind Thinking Beyond the Station opens up long-lasting channels of communication between the community, professionals, and officials.

Under contract with the Federal Transit Administration, PPS developed the Tools for Transit Dependent Communities. A research team consisting of PPS, the UCLA Department of Urban Planning, and the Latino Urban Forum created and tested public engagement tools specifically designed to encourage stakeholder participation in on-site and off-site assessments of transit stop environments. Focused on transit as a community development mechanism, the toolkit facilitates the community visioning process.

Create Comfortable, Imageable Stations and Stops

Once a shared vision has been established, design considerations come into play. Stop and stations intuitively placed and complemented with amenities are the crux of Thinking Beyond the Station. Stop placement should be intuitive but rarely is. The stop should be located so it is highly visible, easy to find, convenient for riders to access, with lines and directions of service clearly indicated.

Corporations already advertise on transit facilities, why not take a single purpose poster and create something interactive and fun. Whether it be a skateboard ramp on the side of a bus shelter or the illusion of aliens and asteroids, these adverts do as much if not more to encourage sociability as they do to sell their products. (Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi, Copenhagen, Denmark)

Yet even when transit agencies are adept at stop placement, they often fail to layer in the features that elevate stops from mundane structures that provide protection from the elements to enjoyable – even attractive – public amenities. A place to sit or lean is paramount. Technical information like route maps and timetables should be complemented with suggestions about what to do in the place: wayfinding, events calendars, and nearby businesses and attractions that a passenger can visit before or after completing their trip.

Co-locating postal collection boxes, newsstands, and similar conveniences strengthens the perception of the stop as more than just a stop. Yet, Placemaking truly begins when you go a step further. Engaging the riders and neighbors often reveals latent interest in clever, imaginative amenities. Swings, vertical gardens, and interactive art are all examples of community-driven improvements to existing stop designs.

Make Safe and Convenient Connections

Fixed route transit is almost never door-to-door and location efficiency can only provide so much proximity to service. Good transit systems need safe and convenient non-transit connections to local destinations. After all, destinations whether they be for – work, errands, or enjoyment – are what drive transit trips in the first place.

The interface between the on-board experience and the last mile always occurs at the stop and as a pedestrian. As such, a sufficiently wide and appealing pedestrian realm, where paths and crossings follow desire lines, is absolutely essential.

To extend the service area beyond a typical ¼ to ½ mile walkshed, Thinking Beyond the Station layers other transportation facilities on top of the stop. For example, bikeshare or carshare locations can be sited nearby. Likewise, bikeways, bike parking, and bike maintenance stations are great for linking transit and cycling trips. Again, the goal is to add functionality beyond boarding and alighting and to consider the rider’s experience from origin to destination, not just stop to stop.

At rail stations or commuter bus stops, this approach eliminates some private automobile trips and thus reduces traffic and parking demand. Traffic and parking not only make the station less attractive as a destination, but they also make the surrounding area less livable and less attractive to development.

Activate the Edges

The area around any public space is as important to its success as the design and management of the space itself. This holds true for stations and stops as well.

The Garnett MARTA Station in Atlanta, Georgia is a transfer point to Greyhound, but the surrounding area is marred by blank façades, barren plazas, and dismal surface lots. Such an unglamorous space does little to promote transit or to challenge negative stereotypes of transit use.

A blank wall contributes nothing to the activity of the street. Many façades conceal the activities going on within a building. The activity inside should spill out and blossom in the public realm. The reason why Atlanta’s Garnett Street MARTA station is devoid while Denver’s 16th Street Mall is vibrant has a lot to do with the edges: parking garage entrances vs. sidewalk cafés.

Thinking Beyond the Station looks to these existing edges and figures out how to bring the ground floor uses out to blossom into the public realm. Unique perpendicular signage and sandwich boards announces what’s there. The smell of food through open windows or a retractable façade entices diners in for a meal. A sidewalk sale beckons passersby to peruse for a bargain. An artist studio with artwork outside stirs the senses. Even if a station or stop is afflicted with a retaining wall or blank wall, fun aesthetic treatments can be applied to transform it into something productive and attractive.

The 16th St. Mall in Denver, Colorado provides the entire downtown with shuttle bus circulation and high quality pedestrian access to Union Station. However, its success as a place has to do with it's edge uses, over 300 shops and 50 restaurants that line the Mall with cafés, window displays, and buskers. | Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr

Anchor a Multi-use Destination

Rail stations function as the center of many communities, often with thousands of people passing through them on a daily basis. Likewise, bus stops are frequently at the heart of a neighborhood, located at important nodes or along a main street. This relationship presents immense potential to anchor successful multi-use destinations with stations and stops.

For a station or stop to anchor a multi-use destination, there must be a critical mass of activities and those activities need to be triangulated. To achieve this critical mass – what we at PPS call the Power of 10 – places must offer many things to do and reasons to be there for many different audiences at many times of day. Triangulation is then clustering those activities to be complementary such that the destination becomes much more valuable than the sum of its parts.

The Atocha Station is the stop for the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid and houses its own 4,000 square meter botanical garden. Travelers can stop and amusingly watch turtles in their sanctuary, find sanctum of their own on a bench amongst the flora, or shop and dine under the gorgeous architecture. | Image: Wikipedia Creative Commons

Thinking Beyond the Station carefully crafts a mixture of permanent and temporary uses in buildings, kiosks, and mobile carts or trucks, paired with amenities, art, and a robust programming schedule, all centered around the stop or station. Because this mixture is in internal harmony, triangulation occurs. Chance interactions and serendipitous discoveries then become commonplace. The station or stop is thought of fondly as a label or brand for the district, and the association of all those concentrated attractions with transit encourages visitors to take it to and fro, increasing ridership and revenues. If that revenue is used to make the destination even more attractive, a virtuous cycle is formed.

Cultivate a Conducive Policy and Administrative Environment

When transit operations are siloed and separated from other government agencies and departments, the policy environment tends to inhibit Thinking Beyond the Station. In contrast, a place-centric mindset sets off policy changes and cooperation, accelerating projects, unlocking new funding sources, and merging individual single-purpose projects into fewer and less costly multifunctional ones.

For example, a parks department with a constrained budget and a rundown public square offers up a corner of the square for a new transfer center it knows the transit agency has Federal funds for. In exchange, the transit agency incorporates needed renovations to the park as part of the capital project. The nearby public library then qualifies for a grant to host a pop-up reading room over the summer in the rejuvenated park. Now, while transit riders wait in the shade of trees, they can check out a book to read during the ride, and their children are entertained by story time during the transfer.

This installation for the Victoria Bug Zoo in Canada created by Rethink Canada gives passersby and awaiting riders a view of the world through insect eyes. The installation is but one of countless ways that cultural institutions can elevate and enrich the transit experience. | Photo credit Jeff Harrison

Thinking Beyond the Station also includes policy initiatives such as value capture, development incentives, zoning changes, shared parking, and so forth. More importantly though, it expands the operations paradigm to include place-management: making connections, forging partnerships, populating the space with programming and amenities, and maintaining a well-kept appearance to project a sense of ownership and volunteerism. Citizens respond with a favorable opinion of transit and an understanding of it’s importance in the community.

At this point, as a transit patron, you no longer look out of place waiting at a transit stop. You are just another participant in an exciting civic realm. You may miss your bus or even show up a little early so you can grab a cappuccino at a coffee shop, scarf down a taco truck burrito, pick up your prescription, find flowers for your sweetheart, or pet a passing puppy. Transit is a component, but by no means the extent, of your memorable experience in this place.

David M Nelson
David M Nelson
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