Visitors and commuters arriving and departing Chicago via Union Station are greeted and bid adieu by a mess of traffic and impromptu coach bus station along a crumbled and grey Canal Street and a parking garage and surface parking lot on the south side of Jackson Avenue. The entire area, which is surrounding by a cluster of skyscrapers and relatively dull commercial and business uses, does nothing to engage people. While many have a purpose to be there without the presence of Union Station, the area would probably be as exciting as the Financial District on a Sunday morning. While little could be done to change the businesses or activities that go on in the area, aesthetic changes immediately outside of Union Station are the first steps necessary to change the fortunes of the station and remake it as a grand center of rail transportation.
Most traffic to and from Union Station is funneled along Canal Street, which is one-way northwards with a southbound bus-only lane along the 300 block of south Canal. On the 400 block of south Canal, coach busses attract large crowds of people heading to all sorts of destinations. Cabs and private vehicles clutter and clogged all the time as people compete to get the best spaces in front of the main entrance of Union Station while more coach busses squeeze into whatever spaces are open. There is no organization and no calm. A noticeable lack of interesting restaurants, cafés, shops or tourist information centers nearby and no clear signage for visitors looking for access to the “L” or find other nearby commuter rail stations. The exterior status of Chicago’s Union Station is nothing but bad.
With the wealth of examples available Union Station has plenty of models to work from, which can guide how to improve its exterior workings. From an aesthetic and logistic point of view, the main changes should focus around the two blocks of 300 and 400 south Canal Street as well as the full block south of Union Station, which is currently given over entirely to parking structures. Reorganizing how traffic flows, people move and utilize the spaces around Union Station as well as dramatic aesthetic changes could be achieved through a series of measures.
First, a bus station must be built adjacent to Union Station, which would obviously best be build on the block south of Jackson, which is already planned for a bus terminal by the City of Chicago. From what material is available though is whether or not that terminal is capable of supporting coach bus traffic. If that isn’t the case, a fully fledged bus terminal capable of supporting CTA local busses, potential bus rapid transit and coach busses is necessary for clearing streets and sidewalks of bus traffic clutter as well as providing carriers the necessary space for bettering the flow of people on and off busses, make for immediate connections. A bus terminal for all gives passengers a clear geographic landmark to reach, where they know they’ll find the busses they need to catch. This lot could also be utilized to get taxis and privates cars off of Canal Street for drop-offs and pick-ups. A taxi stand could easily be cut into the lot along Jackson Street with private drop-off and pick-up lanes along the entire length of Adams and Jackson streets north and south of Union Station.
Such a set up resembles the Hauptbahnhof in Freiburg, Germany. A smaller, but nonetheless, busy station on the main line between Basel, Switzerland and Frankfurt, Germany the station is defined by a taxi and private car drop-off/pick-up round round-about and bus terminal all within meters of each other. Wide sidewalks and ample space for plazas open up the space to cafés and space for travelers to linger and relax.
Organize traffic and the 300 block of south Canal Street can be closed off to all traffic and turned into a pedestrian plaza. Nothing would be more appropriate for this space. The plaza. From a purely aesthetic point of view, a plaza would make the area more visually welcoming while also providing an incredibly dense and built up part of Chicago some public space. Additionally, it would give travelers an outdoor space to relax in the summer and could even be utilized as a space for markets all year. Like at the Hauptbahnhof in Freiburg, the store fronts facing Canal Street in Union Station’s head house could be converted into cafés and restaurants with outdoor seating protected from the elements due to the overhanging roof and colonnade. Food carts, newspaper stands or other food stands would give a reason to come to this space and add to it’s vivacity. A similar project in London to clear away the old addition to the front of King’s Cross Station is similar in that it opens up a huge space to the public and creates room for a welcome plaza where people inevitable gather.
While these changes don’t dramatically alter the way in which traffic flows within the station, nor does it answer many of the questions that need to be answered as to how to improve the station’s overall condition, it does take a step that is very probable in the right direction to improving the overall experience of people who use the station, both visitors and commuters.