Build Seattle’s Light-rail Stations as Cathedrals for Public Space

America’s modern obsession with profitability has hamstrung public transportation, to the detriment of all. Where investment is wrestled from the public purse, it is paltry and the cost per project eye-watering, resulting in pared down underwhelming results. Put simply, our public transit is not pleasant or make a first tier transportation option. To sit in the shade of an adequate bus stop or light rail station, we must plant the seeds of change today. In this respect, Seattle must act quickly.

At some point in the past century it has become a economic necessity that for corporations and public utilities, profitability is king. Success is defined by it, and services that benefit the public like the USPS, parks, and the arts have increasingly had their cashflows asphyxiated. The yawing gap between the rich and poor in the city of Seattle, a tech bastion, serves as a clear illustration of this trend. Technological innovations designed for hyper individualized manipulation of human attention have trucked boatloads of cash into the multi-million-dollar households of the rich. And yet the city has not risen along with its winners. Public projects are limited, slow, and meagre. Philanthropy has filled some gaps, but remaining at the will-and-call of the mega-wealthy has proven to be a hindrance for the city’s health. Oftentimes it is the voices of Seattle’s rich criticizing the “Right-Wing” for inhumane behavior only to lobby viciously for a dog park over public housing or re-zoning. Better to let one’s Fido piss in the grass than make space for another human being to live.

It is within the context of this leftist-capitalist hypocrisy that I want to talk about train stations. Or really, light-rail stations.

Separate, staid and sad, Seattle’s light rail stations are utilitarian bunkers sometimes clad in a bit of nice art. Better than many American cities, and yet sad in comparison to top global standards. Often their eye-watering price tags force only the most simplistic designs. Years of political debating delay the projects so that the Sound Transit light-rail masterplan extends on with completion dates well into the years following the heat-death of the universe. Often steered by well intentioned and passionate civil servants and urban planning professionals, the gauntlet of review boards and public comment that really works to the benefit of the incumbent landowners means that by the end of things they’ll just take what they can get. A celebration of a new station opening is often a celebration of the labor it took to get to that point, and not a celebration of the building or system itself. We all know that objectively there is little to be proud of.

The plight of the Link light-rail stations embody the tragic standards for liminal spaces Americans have come to accept. Years of car-propaganda and weird anti-communist fearmongering meant that to be American was to reject sitting with other Americans on a bus or train. Only a Ford F-150 could really capture the freedom spirit. We know now that this campaign has been a disaster for our society. Traffic choked roads and thriving neighborhoods destroyed to make way for Interstates are the clear evidence. The unhealthiness of the average American, our mental health crisis, and deteriorating social cohesion are the less obvious symptoms. Yet all of them demonstrate that a change is needed, a radical change. In this respect, we can lean into an old solution — beautiful train stations. Seattle has an opportunity to set the new American standard.

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Amsterdam Centraal Station, surrounded by people!
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‘s-Hertogenbosch Railway Station, rebuilt most recently in 1998

It is not as if transit that looks good and works as an integrated part of the city is a new idea. During a trip to the Netherlands a few years ago I took the morning commuter rail out of Amsterdam to the small town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where a professor I was meeting worked. ‘s-Hertogenbosch is a city of around 150,000 people. Even in such a small town, the rail station was more beautiful, elegant, and useful than any I have seen in and around America. Rather than attempting to spruce up an otherwise uninspiring utilitarian box, the design of the station integrated with the city so that shops, offices, and walkways surrounded and even directly connected to the station. A person could walk around the station or grab a coffee.

In American cities where old infrastructure has grandfathered in good design, like New York, beautiful and integrated transit hubs have become dilapidated, cramped, or both from neglect. Boston’s South Station, a regional hub for private and public bus transportation, drips with the smell of McDonalds and has a haze to its air as if they still allow smoking indoors. In both cases, where the buildings stop the majority of land and control has been ceded to cars. They are transit islands, surrounded by noisy dirty and dangerous roads.

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Boston South Station Outside!! Surrounded by cars…
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Inside Boston South Station Bus Terminal

America’s public spaces also feel like they’re crumbling. The sense of decay is the new normal for America. Without the wherewithal or political support to properly fund transit networks, public money gets funneled toward building bigger and more expensive interstates between suburbs and towns. Dilapidated and poorly designed mobility infrastructure is just how things have always been in America. At least for my generation. In parallel to this decay, cars seem to be getting bigger and bigger and with fancier technology (Car Play, Apple Play, Android Connect) to compensate for the hours of life stuck in traffic while commuting from one building to another. Even in an Escalade it is oftentimes an awful routine to drive between work and home. Unable or unwilling to render creative thought, the public response to traffic fatalities and crushingly long commutes seems to be… bigger roads. So the 16 lane freeway becomes the 32 lane freeway and when it slows down folks ponder what a 64 lane freeway might look like. Cost is not an issue for some reason, and billions are wasted on these ill-fated projects that based on all real data do not provide any meaningful benefit to the public.

And yet Americans gleefully pay thousands of dollars to travel to Tokyo or Shanghai or London or Amsterdam and relish in their bullet trains and shiny train stations as an attraction similar to six-flags, removed from reality and too nice and fun to actually be experienced on any regular basis. The American conscience has made the decision that transit is a little foreign pleasure. Yes, it is delightful, inexpensive, enjoyable, and efficient, but it is not American.

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New York Port Authority

So while the Japanese Shinkansen (Bullet) Trains have been whizzing by at hundreds of kilometers an hour since 1964 (1964!!!!), and the French have been able to zip from Paris to Lyons on their trains at max speeds of 260 km/h since the 1980s, Americans have decided that having won World War 2 the task of designing the perfect car would be our north star, and anything standing in the way of that goal would simply be annihilated.

And America did annihilate. Before and after images of downtowns show entire neighborhoods crushed by right-of-ways so freedom loving suburbanites could get to their corporate jobs downtown more seamlessly. Relatively unscathed by the horrors of two world wars, America took it upon itself to destroy it’s cities and historic buildings. Churches, stores, homes, parks, main streets and gathering squares all fell before the power of the United States Department of Transportation. America built its destruction.

Much of the destruction was racially motivated. Sure there are complex and interconnected problems in America (in many ways the byproduct of increasingly complex systems of racism), but there’s also a childish pride that we know the right way. Though everyone else seems to have figured things out, and we are stuck in traffic and unhealthy as a society, one day we will perfect the car and then our lives will be perfect, kind of like those chair folks in Wall-E.

Our national colors, gray and black, envelope every corner of our neighborhoods and cities, the sad physical presence of the concrete and asphalt mediocrity someone in the past 100 years decreed normal. A too-good-to-be-true train between Houston and Dallas remains a pipe dream after decades of buzz. Despite a multilane freeway cutting through the dense urban cores of Seattle and Portland, no fast and easy trainline has been retrofitted over the often choked-in-traffic lanes. And so, the passenger travelling back from vacation in Japan flies back home, maybe to IAH, or LAX, or LaGuardia, or SeaTac, and there walks through miles of air-conditioned, often crumbling terminals lined with security cameras and menacing agents, jarringly interrupted by glittering cocktail bars and overpriced steakhouses. They walk and walk because they do not want to walk in America, and then take a shuttle to a car park as large as Cairo’s Great Pyramid in Giza, where they move their bags from the shuttle to the car and finally, half dead and with the radio blasting to stave off the waves of drowsiness, they drives 45 minutes back home, collapsing, exhausted by the trip. Then the next day, to ‘get back into the grind’, they wake up and drive to the gym, where they park their car and take an escalator to the floor that has all the treadmills.

That is the story of America. It is a core misunderstanding that liminal moments are meant to be shortened, made efficient, improved upon until they no longer exist so that we can always either be at home surrounded by a picket fence or at work surrounded by things to do. So obsessed are Americans, and therefore Seattleites, with essentially teleporting from one moment to the next, that when we attempt to create places where moments of pleasure can be experienced, such as Pike Place Market, we are incapable of acknowledging how we get to and leave that place can ruin it. (There should be no cars in Pike Place Market.) In many ways a peculiar contradiction exists in this respect, since it is the older generations often insistent on their right to drive and park anywhere they see fit, and also the older generations that criticize the younger generations for not resting in the moment, as if you can rest on the cobblestone streets in front of the fish market without being honked at by some perturbed SUV. The sober reality might be that the car infrastructure insisted upon by those generations that can nostalgically reflect on ‘simpler times’ cheapens the experience of a place such as Pike Place Market to the point that only through Instagram and a curated perceived reality can the experience really be fully appreciated.

This generational divide and resulting hypocritical critique of Millennials and Gen Z reflects the policy shift in urban design and transportation policy that occurred during the mid-20th century. Under the guise of Anti-Communist drum-banging and aided by actively racist policymakers seeking to maintain segregated communities, America drove toward the suburbs. Car companies and steel manufacturers, titans of that era of American Capitalism, lobbied and won the removal of the streetcar lines that graced streets across the country. Slowly, then all of a sudden the streets of America morphed from a public square to dangerous chasms reserved for those with the means to own a personal vehicle. To be fair to American policymakers, everyone was heading in this direction. In Utrecht, Copenhagen, Paris, and many other European cities literal public squares, canals, and other facets of public life transformed into roadways and carparks. Unlike these European counterparts however, America seems to have doubled down on mistakes, whereas in a city like Utrecht, what once was a canal and then became a road is once again a canal. It’s never too late to turn around. To quote C.S. Lewis, “if you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

While the motivations for the American sprawl and subsequent car-dependence have been multi-faceted, one thing that is clear is that it has left this country in a quagmire of “essential” public spending maintaining the rapidly deteriorating network of roads and bridges that have expanded far beyond reasonable economic justifications. Any other spending on mobility, such as better busses or improved rail stations, can be hushed off as anachronistic, since the future is cars. Seattle is not immune to this thinking. Bike lanes often take years of debate and debate, public comment, environmental reviews, and spending questions, and often have car-centric spending lumped in with their cost so that an eye-watering per-mile cost of implementation cools voter interest in further projects. And then when a $200 Million emergency injection of cash is levied against taxpayers because a bridge devoted solely to cars is crumbling — well then there is no delay, no painstaking review boards, no long community engagement and questions on the high price tag, no reflection on the relative economic and environmental benefits such spending brings the people of the city. This is the innovative mind of Seattle, technology hub of the world, evidently. It is narrow and ridiculous.

Across the country though, this is the norm. When public transportation is considered in cities from Houston to New York, it is placed at the intersection of competing interests, public debate, and community engagement in such a gauntlet of a way that the lackluster goop to come out is meagre, expensive, and oftentimes barely useful. Meanwhile a $200 Million dollar levy seems to float though like God Himself anointed the passage of such spending. Amen.

So that is what the uncannily twisted logic of American mobility has become. There is even the audacious claim that it is more equitable to build roads and widen freeways since poorer folks live out of the city and need to drive in, as if the draconian zoning laws put in place by local governments during and following the Civil Rights movement of the 60s have nothing to do with poorer folks being unable to afford skyrocketing rents. Yes, urban planning and equity is a complex issue, but it is a fallacy to suggest that the solution for improving equity in this country is to build more freeways through poor neighborhoods so poor people displaced by those freeways can buy a car and be stuck in traffic driving into the city where they can no longer afford to live in.

The failure of the American imagination to consider a better, more wonderful fate for our public transportation network is real, and cascades like poison into our society as a whole.

To change America must innovate beyond profitability, or risk sinking itself into a deeper and deeper hole of failure. Self driving electric cars and ride-sharing apps gobble up much of the front page of Engaget or Mashable, but these are smoke and mirrors, more chasing the phantom of the perfect individualistic way to get around. What actually matters is retrofitting the millions of miles of public space held by parking spots and roads into a better social fabric, and one way we can go about this is by innovating in the way we build train and bus stations. In Seattle, a purportedly progressive bastion of American politics, and one of the richest cities in the history of humanity, the new light-rail line connecting the suburb cities of Bellevue and Redmond to downtown Seattle is set to be finished in the coming years. The stations are simple — a platform, escalators, card-tapping stations to pay, maybe a garage to park your car. And they sit like concrete monoliths, gray sleeping giants unaware of their surroundings. This detachment is likely by design, and yet it is the narrowness of the purpose of this physically built infrastructure that dooms it to mediocrity.

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Rendering of the new Overlake Transit Center, to be completed 2023

At the Overlake Transit Center, the main transit hub for Microsoft’s Redmond Campus, this is what the station will be. Why is it that for a company like Microsoft it is not hard to fathom an entire carpark below it’s corporate buildings, but a light-rail station is isolated? Innovation does not extend beyond the virtual realm, it seems.

Disclaimer: I am a current employee of Microsoft.

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Rendering of Wilberton Link Light-Rail Station, to be completed 2023

In downtown Bellevue, the Wilberton Link Light-Rail stops near the city center on the far side of a freeway, across from a Porsche Dealership. While the land surrounding the stop will accrue significant value over the coming years (I predict the large dealership sells the land at a premium for new “urban-living” apartments), the city will only reap marginal economic benefits. The vast majority will go toward private interests that had no part in the advocacy, design, and implementation of the new rail line. A system should be put into place to siphon more of this profit back into the transit authority, from which it originated. And even when new apartment buildings are constructed around the station some time in the future, they will simply surround the station from afar, since by design the station itself will remain a relative dead-space outside of regular commuting hours.

Compare these new stations to the station I stepped into after taking my commuter rail from Amsterdam to the small town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The clean signage in big letters on the outside of the station. The newsstands within it where you could buy a pack of gum, a magazine, or a quick snack. The train station I stepped into was clean, integrated into the city center, and felt far more friendly of a space than any of the Link Light-rail Stations in the greater Seattle area. This sense of enabling transit hubs, our bus stops, light-rail and train stations, as public community spaces is the vision we can have.

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Starbucks as the “Third Place”?

While stores such as Starbucks aspire to become the “third place” in American daily life, a moniker from sociology Starbucks likes to assert their stores embody, ultimately community cannot rely on profitability. (To Starbucks’ credit, if you wear Lululemons and like to ride bikes but never go anywhere, they seem to have become the new Church, minus the religion, shared sense of purpose, and socio-economic cohesion.) In Seattle’s case, the best bet is to leverage existing public spaces and right of ways as integrated public spaces for folks from all walks of life to mingle and rest.

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Seattle’s new Northgate Link Light-Rail Station, to be completed 2021

That is why Seattle needs to do better when designing future transit stops. For the Link Station going in at Northgate, declare eminent domain on the parking lots and streets surrounding it and create a new civic center with affordable, dense housing, and easily bikeable thoroughfares block off to passenger vehicles. The thing with all of this is though that as a city, Seattle doesn’t even have to innovate. The model of an integrated light-rail terminal exists. With just a bit of the creativity and innovative brain power that is currently being employed making better social manipulation algorithms, we can actually reimagine Link Stations as places designed for people. If you want to make Seattle a better city for all people, give people non-commercial places to exist comfortably.

Put simply: build better transit centers.

Written by

Software @ Microsoft | ECE @ Rice | Trying @ Life

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