Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Terminal, Threshold and Rebirth

The Birth of Venus
Sandro Botticelli 1482-6

After recently riding various subways, I began to feel more than ever that exiting underground stations is a very powerful event. Crossing the below/above ground threshold strongly foments most of our senses. The artificial lights of the underground give way to daylight. The sheltered and controlled environment below gives way to natural fluctuations of weather. Wind and rain or heat or cold.  Sounds change. Smells too.  Suddenly, our intimate and protective surroundings, give way to a much more spacious and volatile world. I believe that crossing this threshold is as close to a rebirthing experience as we get in contemporary urban life.

The physical motion too is similar to being born. As this diagram shows, when we enter the world above, our heads is first revealed and then slowly working down to our feet, the rest of our bodies become exposed. This phenomenon is reciprocal. When exiting the underground, our line of sight starts at the top. The sky is first revealed to us, then the tops of our surroundings, working down to the ground. To the passenger, his surroundings too are being born.
Birth to Highline
Ben Samson 2011

This series of pictures from my visit to the Highline demonstrate such a vertical threshold. Here, at first nothing but a bright dot at the end of the stairs can be seen of the world above. As we move upwards, the surroundings are revealed from the sky downward. Finally, when we reach the final step, we become a part of this elevated world.

When thinking of this above/below ground threshold as rebirth, it induces many design questions. It seems that there is real opportunity to create some significant sensory experience. Should this transition be amplified or depressed? How should the design manipulate the senses? Conversely, being born in this process also suggests that traveling underground is somehow related to being encased by a womb. Eero Saarinen tried to capture the comfort and protection of a womb in his famous Womb Chair. Should the designs of the cars and underground spaces reflect this maternal peacefulness? Additionally, when we enter the world aboveground at a station, (especially for the first time) we are often disoriented and estranged, much like a newborn. Should there be orienting devices in place? And perhaps most importantly, because this threshold gives us a first impression of the surroundings of the area, how should this new world present itself? 
Yana P. Yaseva

Womb Chair
Eero Saarinen

Friday, July 1, 2011

Highline Park

Highline in use

This past weekend, I visited NYC, the transportation capital of America. Because of New York’s extreme density and concentration of humanity, the city has so many unique situations and opportunities to build upon itself. The Highline is one example where designers have found potential within the concrete jungle to do something unique and groundbreaking. Utilizing industrial remnants, the Highline Park has been a large part of the transformation of surrounding neighborhoods, Chelsea and The West Village, sprouting development and artwork all along its 1.5mile length. It is acting as a beacon of green design and offers a solution to how we repopulate our urban areas with good contemporary design while also maintaining the history and sense of place of the area. The Highline serves as a valuable example as I study the ideas of transforming the image of a city.
An Industrial Past

Originally, the above-grade tracks were built between 1929 and 1934, in order to reduce the number of crashes between trains, cars and pedestrians. This itself was a major transformation, as the surrounding Lower West Side was known as “Death Avenue” before the grade change. Trains regularly ran here until the early 1960’s and the last train rode ran in the 1980’s. Soon, there was no action on the tracks and wildlife began to sprout. Called a “self-sown landscape,” the Highline was both an eyesore and intriguing. Half ghost town, half meditation garden, The abandoned tracks sat quietly with the Empire State Building and other skyscrapers as a backdrop. In 2000, threatened with demolition, many local artists advocated preserving the landscape, and in 2004, a competition was held for redesign of the highline. Over the next 7 years, two sections of the park have been opened and the third and final section is underway.
Self-Sown Landscape
Joel Sternfield

Overgrown Tracks
Barry Munger

According to “Designing the Highline,” the park followed eight design principles:

1.    Keep it simple. Keep it wild. Keep it Quiet. Keep it Slow.
2.   Preserve typical railings and upgrade to fulfill code and ensure safety.
3.   Preserve North-South sight lines and linear consistency.
4.   Preserve slow meandering experience through varied conditions.
5.   Preserve and reveal the structure providing opportunities to inhabit and appreciate details.
6.   Preserve unusual and found conditions on the Highline.
7.   Preserve wild opportunistic landscape by enhancing existing plant species.
8.   Preserve industrial presence of the Highline at street level.

Current Highline Park
Ben Samson

Mostly, the designers sought to preserve the unique quality of a self-sown landscape and accentuate the structure’s industrial past. As I design Pittsburgh’s transportation system, I too am looking to build on the city’s industrial roots and explore the distinctive hilly landscape. The Highline teaches us that building on the uniqueness of a place can be achieved with simplicity and contemporary design ideals. It maintains the character of its past, yet is entirely modern and offers the hope of a brighter, greener future.  


Hazari, Patrick. Designing the Highline: Gansevoort St. to 30th Street. Friends of the Highline. New York, NY 2008.

Shaping the American Transit Landscape: A History of How We Got Here

Cities are living histories that are constantly evolving. With nuanced technological changes and sweeping ideological reforms, every generation of urban planners, politicians and technocrats sees new possibilities for our urban centers. One factor of particular dominance in the molding of our cities is transportation, and as technologies evolved, the history of transportation has had a massive impact. Streets and transit-ways compose the majority of the public realm within cities, and thus are critical in the formation and maturation of the urban fabric. Furthermore, cities present unique and challenging situations and opportunities for transportation, often leading to the evolutions of new transit technologies. Therefore, cities play a major role in the evolution of transit, and conversely, transit plays a major role in the evolution of cities. This cause-effect cycle is what has shaped America’s urban transit landscape.
Part 2 of the Transportation Research Board’s “Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual” (TCQSM) discusses current modes of public transit in the U.S. while the first three chapters of Alan Black’s Urban Mass Transportation Planning discuss the importance, impact and history of U.S. transit, explaining how the current transit modes evolved. While Black lays a solid groundwork for understanding the history of transit in America (both technologically and politically), the text only covers the history through around 1990. On the other hand, Part 2 of the TCQSM explains recent (2004) trends in transit, examining data from the 2000 census. While there is a slight gap, taken together, these two readings compose a thorough understanding of the evolution of transit in the United States. When examining a city, as I am examining Pittsburgh throughout my thesis work, these texts not only offer an in-depth examination of transportation history and its current transit capabilities, but they also hint at a possible future.

Public Transit Ridership
TRB, 2004

Current Riders and Transit
Part 2 of the TCQSM asserts that there is a dual role of public transit: to offer transportation both to “choice riders” and to “captive riders.” Choice riders are those “who choose to use transit for their trip-making even though they have other means of travel, in particular, a motor vehicle” (TRB, 2004). The TCQSM explains that these riders choose transit for many reasons including saving money, avoiding traffic, using their travel time productively and helping the environment. The “captive riders” use transit for basic mobility and are those who cannot drive because of their age or “physical, mental or financial disadvantages.” Black asserts that these captives (which he calls “transportation disadvantaged”) include 11.5% of households and over 20% for center city dwellers. While it is extremely important to serve both types of riders, the “choice riders” dominance and heavy flow (during peak hours) tend to push transit systems to greater levels. In analyzing transit riders, TCQSM outlines the basis of solving America’s transport problems. The TRB looks to Transportation System Management solutions that focus on moving persons and not just vehicles. By readjusting our thinking, and focusing on riders, the benefits of public transit become even more attractive in transportation planning. By focusing on whom transit serves, we can understand how to best serve them.
The TCQSM also analyzes the many modes of transport currently used to serve these riders. Current transit modes discussed in Part 2 of the TCQSM include the major modes of transit like buses and rail, as well as some less common forms like ferries and funiculars (See exhibit 2-3). Surprisingly, due to Pittsburgh’s aggressive topography and its three rivers, most of these transit modes are relevant to the city and offer possible solutions for its transportation future. Pittsburgh public transit is dominated by buses much like greater America, where buses make up 62% of passenger transit (TRB, 2004). However, the focus of my thesis deals primarily with BRT and LRT systems in the city. The TCQSM examined both of these systems in Pittsburgh (as well as many other cities), implying the city’s importance regarding these modes of transit. Because of the three busways in Pittsburgh, the city is especially important to understanding and planning future BRT systems. Though I will compare the busway and light rail systems later in this class, the TRB implies that both of these modes are viable for the city and expansion of them offers solutions for future transit within Pittsburgh (See exhibits 2-14 and 2-24).

Busway Peak Traffic
TRB, 2004
LRT Systems
TRB, 2004

Transit History’s Impact
It is important to place current transit modes into the historical context of urban transportation. In the first three chapters of Urban Mass Transportation Planning, Black outlines the technological and political history of transit in America. He recounts the humble beginning stages of transit (horse-drawn Omnibuses and Street Railways), which were born from private sector entrepreneurs. Rather quickly, newer technology led to the dominant forms of transport we have today. Black emphasizes that the evolution in transit in the 19th century was a very rapidly changing scene, where in “75 years, the country went from the horse-drawn omnibus to the motor bus and electric subway trains” and that most of the current technology in transit was being used by 1900 (Black, 1995). 
This burgeoning period has shaped our cities. The development of each mode of transport has given a defined character to its urban environment. Trolleys and streetcars still offer a taste of historic character in cities like San Francisco while continuing to serve the public. In Pittsburgh, the two remaining funiculars (known as inclines) retain the memory of the city’s past (there used to be 15 inclines in the city). The effect of past history of public transit systems goes beyond the physical remnants still found in cities, but also includes the evolution of the city’s fabric itself. In Black’s conclusion of chapter 2, he reflects on how the history of transit has affected the growth of major cities in our nation:
“One can speculate on what would have happened if the automobile had been invented earlier. If it had preceded the electric streetcar, instead of coming later, perhaps U.S. cities would never have developed the centralized, high-density form characteristic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We’ll never know.” (Black, 1995)
Though we cannot be sure, it is safe to assume that focusing on the automobile, rather than more tightly woven forms of transport, would have created less centralized urban fabrics. For example in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, which was designed with automobiles as the dominant form of transportation, the city is completely spread out, with a very loose urban fabric. Thankfully, the automobile was not widespread until after the bones of our older American cities were already in place.
Perhaps the only historic element more important than technological advancements in shaping our transit systems is political influence. Black’s examination of past transit legislation offers insight to why and how the transit systems evolved the way they did. Originally, private individuals owned public transport, but as the systems grew and started to fail, government began controlling ownership. Transit systems were seen as indispensible to urban life and therefore could not be left to fail. First, capital costs were subsidized by the federal government, but by 1974, the overwhelming burden of operating costs also began to be federally subsidized as well.
Black explains that certain presidential administrations affected transit in the U.S. through acts of legislation and budgets. The federal government largely affects Pittsburgh’s Port Authority (PAT) because of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Act 76 of 1986, which states that Pennsylvania’s cities must have balanced budgets for their transit authorities. According to Steve Bland, the PAT’s CEO, the city is currently facing massive budget shortcomings and must “cut service and increase fares” to cover rising costs (Budget 2011). There is little room for capital investments without the aid of the federal government and thankfully, the stimulus package has invested the necessary funds for the current “North Shore Connector.” Many cities around the U.S., faced with budget crises much like Pittsburgh’s, rely heavily on federal funding for the expansion of their transportation systems. The timing and quantity of such funding greatly affects how the transit is built.

Conclusion: Planning Future Transit
Because we understand transit’s past, we can better plan for the future. The importance of transportation in shaping a city is paramount, and every decision we make must be carefully examined and planned. Today, planning has become an integral part of the transportation systems in our cities. The federal government formally recognized transportation planning in the Hayden-Cartwright Act of 1934. Black extols the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) for mandating all urbanized areas with 200,000 or more inhabitants to have 20-year transportation plans that focus on energy conservation, land use, intermodal access and social, economic and environmental effects. As I investigate expanding Pittsburgh’s public transportation systems, it will be critical for me to follow the tenets outlined in the ISTEA in order to better serve transit riders and the greater metropolitan community.
Transit Trends
Black, 1995

Trends in Black’s Urban Mass Transportation Planning show that public transit in the U.S. has been slowly and steadily rising since the 1970’s (See figure 2-9).  The TRB’s data confirms this rise as 9.4 billion annual unlinked passenger trips on public transit were recorded in the 2000 U.S. census (See exhibit 2-3). Furthermore, in the first quarter of 2010, APTA estimates nearly “2.5 billion trips were taken on public transportation,” which would total 10 billion trips for the year (McKendrick, 2010). Moving forward, as cities and transit systems expand, it seems clear that transit will play an ever-increasing role in our urban centers, perpetuating the cause-effect cycle that shapes America’s cities and their transportation systems.

Black, A. Urban Mass Transportation Planning. New York: McGraw Hill, 1995.

McKeendrick, Joe. “Public transportation ridership weathers slow economy, tight budgets.” Smart Planet. June 7, 2010. Accessible online at:

Port Authority of Allegheny County. “Operating and Capital Improvement Budgets: Fiscal Year 2011.” 2010. Accessible online at:

Transportation Research Board: “Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual (TCQSM), 2nd Edition.” TRB Publications, 2004. Accessible online at: