Buses, Bikes & Public Space

Planes, Trains & Automobiles
In the current economic climate, securing support for public spending continues to be a challenge, and this is no less true for the most costly forms of new public transit infrastructure. It is not just rail projects that are contested, but all new spending on large projects, from highways and road design to airports. Even so, as our population continues to grow, our need for mobility persists. In the last decade, the American population has increased by 30 million, the equivalent of doubling the size of our ten largest cities, or adding another New York and New Jersey to the national population. In addition to this growth in the overall population, the redistribution of population centers presents an even larger challenge to our existing infrastructures. Yet, while it is widely recognized that there is not enough existing capacity in our highways, rail lines, and airports to accommodate this ongoing growth and shifts in population, appetites for significant investment in transportation infrastructure have cooled.

Against this backdrop, the construction of new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems, dedicated bus lanes, low emission buses, bike lanes, and the implementation of bike share and car share programs in major cities across the country suggest that a new approach to transportation in urban areas is emerging. Addressing the increasing demand for mobility with lighter transit modes – developing transit solutions in a more incremental approach – may be a more appropriate and feasible strategy. It allows the public to realize benefits quicker. And with gasoline prices poised to reach record highs this summer, the use of lighter modes assumes a new focus and urgency. Cities and agencies across the country are working to fully integrate expanding, lighter transit modes in urban areas, using them to reinforce city streets and public spaces, as well as to encourage development opportunities.

Patsaouras Transit Plaza, Gateway Transit Center at Union Station, Los Angeles, California
As a stimulus for new development in downtown Los Angeles in the 1990s, our design for Gateway Transit Center at Union Station was a large project that integrated buses with the subway, commuter rail, and vehicular parking, all focused around a great outdoor civic plaza. We were recently asked to design an addition that would integrate BRT service with the existing transit infrastructure in order to address increasing demands on the public transit system. The proposed extension responds to the unique nature of BRT service, with pre-pay zones and level-boarding platforms, while expanding and enhancing the transit experience. Building on the existing vocabulary of the high-quality materials used for the original plaza, the new design extends the experience established in the plaza, embodying and integrating BRT’s important and growing role in LA’s transit infrastructure.

Gallery Market East, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Despite an outstanding transit infrastructure, the proximity of vital neighborhoods like Chinatown and Washington Square West, and attractions like Independence Mall and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia’s Market East District is not a successful area today. The routing of buses through this central historic district has been a major obstacle to fulfilling Market Street’s potential to become an outstanding public space that would attract quality development. While Market East is one of the richest transit hubs in the country, until now it has significantly underutilized its valuable space and location.

The City of Philadelphia intends to redevelop Market East, the key street in downtown Philadelphia, as a new transportation and commercial center. Where currently buses are seen as a negative, polluting the air, stalling traffic, and obscuring clear sight lines from one side of this wide street to the other, our plan for transit in this neighborhood proposes a repositioning of current assets. By using the street as a central gathering place, creating opportunities for Chinatown and Jefferson to further expand, along with bold new connections to the Delaware River Waterfront and the adjacent loft district, our plan promotes a rejuvenated mix of uses while transforming and expanding the district’s existing intermodal transit center. The plan also creates a more sustainable Market Street by consolidating bus drop-offs, improving street-level air quality, and facilitating transit ridership through a truly intermodal complex.

Implementing these incremental but critical changes will dramatically improve the quality of this historic neighborhood and help re-establish its role as Philadelphia’s “Main Street.”

I-35W, Minneapolis, Minnesota
In Minneapolis, we are working to connect an urban area with a new BRT system that will run on an elevated section of I-35W. Here buses will move in a HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane, cutting travel time to downtown from 30 minutes on local buses to under 10 minutes. The elevated highway had literally divided the neighborhood, creating an inhospitable barrier on formerly walkable streets. The new connection between the street and freeway levels presents the opportunity to knit back together a historic neighborhood, recreating convenient, walkable streets and bike paths, connecting several modes of transportation and improving overall mobility in the region, while providing some significant development opportunities for this new destination.

Downtown Transit Master Plan, San Antonio, Texas
With a growing population of 1.33 million people and a steady stream of 26 million tourists annually, San Antonio is the nation’s largest city without rail transit. While San Antonio is moving toward implementing rail, the process is a long one and, especially in the current economic climate, the road to implementing such major infrastructure presents many hurdles. While not precluding future rail, we are working with VIA, the city’s transit agency, in conjunction with other stakeholders, to reconfigure and improve the existing bus network. The goal is to combine transportation, development, and placemaking strategies in order to realize more immediate benefits in all three spheres – an exciting and innovative approach for a transit agency.

The configuration of the existing bus system in San Antonio developed incrementally, with most bus lines now directed to and from the center of the city. This is not an efficient “mapping” of desire lines. It has resulted in many riders making bus transfers downtown, even though downtown is neither their origin nor their destination. In addition, the sheer volume of buses on San Antonio’s relatively narrow, historic downtown streets has required dedicated bus lanes, reducing the availability of on-street convenience parking and diminishing the viability of storefronts on these streets. While Riverwalk, a unique public space one level below street level, presents an active commercial environment for tourists, the restaurants, hotels, and bars at this level are serviced by the streets above. And since there is very little other activity at street level, this service activity predominates on the public streets, resulting in a diminished public realm.

To address the current challenges while not precluding future rail, we are developing a new approach to provide high-quality service for transit riders, while supporting the development of more active and complete streets, including bike lanes and landscape, and associated economic activity in the downtown core. We are proposing some new transit interventions focused on walkable districts with active, pedestrian-oriented streets that will promote opportunities for private development, leveraging the public investment in improved transit facilities and an improved rider experience.

In Urban Transit Today, Small is Big
Rather than building transportation infrastructure that is focused solely on moving people as quickly as possible from origins to destinations, many cities are leveraging relatively modest investments in transportation infrastructure, including bus system upgrades, bike lanes, and well-defined public spaces, in order to create significant added value in existing urban areas. Accomplishing this, while providing a better transit experience and building a new transit ridership, is marketing people out of their cars. Decisions made about transportation issues relative to public space have a huge impact on development. Whether opportunities for significant new investment in transportation infrastructure will return quickly or we are in a “new normal” cycle that will last for some time, reconfiguring urban bus systems with a focus on placemaking is one strategy whereby cities can offer measurable progress toward improving both the quality of life they offer and the economic viability of their neighborhoods.

By Jonathan James Cohn, AIA, LEED AP