Improving American rail: Chicago’s Union Station, part 2 – Getting aesthetics right

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.

The Hauptbahnhof in Freiburg, Germany shows the efficiency of connecting multiple transportations options in one space. It also shows that these can be combined without compromising space and aesthetics. On the ground there is ample room to move and relax.

The Hauptbahnhof in Freiburg, Germany shows the efficiency of connecting multiple transportations options in one space. It also shows that these can be combined without compromising space and aesthetics. On the ground there is ample room to move and relax.

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.

A very rudimentary sketch of what it would look like if Canal Street in front of Union Station were closed and turned into a plaza already shows how much more aesthetically pleasing and welcoming the space is in comparison to the current tangle of traffic.

A very rudimentary sketch of what it would look like if Canal Street in front of Union Station were closed and turned into a plaza already shows how much more aesthetically pleasing and welcoming the space is in comparison to the current tangle of traffic.

This is what Canal Street in front of Union Station looks like now.

This is what Canal Street in front of Union Station looks like now.

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.

This shows the area in front of King's Cross with the old addition that covers the space in front of the station.

This shows the area in front of King’s Cross with the old addition that covers the space in front of the station.

This shows what the space in front of the station will look like after renovations and the removal of the old addition. It opens up into an airy and spacious plaza.

This shows what the space in front of the station will look like after renovations and the removal of the old addition. It opens up into an airy and spacious plaza.

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.

 

Improving American rail: Chicago’s Union Station, part 1 – micro-changes for macro-results

 

Despite the overcast skies, afternoon light pours through the massive skylight that illuminates the echoing marble chamber that is the Great Hall in Chicago’s Union Station. The massive space is devoid of the hustle typically encountered in a major train station. Although a relatively steady stream of people move through the station, few seem comfortable and barely any linger. There is nowhere to do so, except for a few scattered tables and chairs, some vintage wooden benches and the single café-bar.

Union Station, Chicago - Great Hall

The vitality of the great train stations is missing at Chicago’s Union Station. Rather it is a better example of how we’ve failed these great hubs of transportation at the center of our cities. Considering the incredibly important role Union Station plays at a local, regional and national level improving it is also crucial for improving how the entire American rail network functions: it’s a micro scale change with potentially huge macro scale results. At the present time the station faces many problems, some aesthetic, some interior, others exterior, there are problems with multi-modal connections, movement of people and trains and utilization of available space. Each needs to be addressed in order to move Union Station from being dowdy and inefficient place to an attractive, kinetic and efficient transportation hub.

The changes could easily be grouped into categories that could be handled one at a time to make incremental improvements but just as easily implemented simultaneously. From exploring current plans for improvements to Union Station and older plans for improved transit in Chicago as a whole, making comparisons to other plans in places like Frankfurt, Stuttgart and München, Germany and considering real life experiences using the station I’ve grouped improvements into specific groups to consider individually in more detail: 1) exterior beautification and place making, 2) improved utilization of interior spaces in the head house (where the Great Hall is located), 3) intermodal connections and improved access to other transit options and 4) improvements to the tracks, platforms and concourse area and potential construction of a new concourse building.

The implementation of such changes requires that the many parties involved in rehabilitating the station form a united front in their efforts. Ultimately, it is in the City of Chicago’s best interest to make a lasting improvements for the future. It would be better to create a long-term task force that is relatively autonomous from the potential bickering of all these entities (Amtrak, the City, Metra, the RTA etc) and the likelihood of them blocking any real attempts at creating meaningful change. This may be a repetitive remark verging on cliché, but Union Station has the potential to be a transit hub with the capacity of an airport downtown and as I see it change the fortunes of the city. A better Union Station would indeed improve the way rail traffic moves through the entire region and ultimately Midwest. As the hub at the center of any future high-speed rail network, it can’t be held back by past imperfections.

 

 

Union Station in Chicago shares a similar story to Penn Station in New York. The forces of time, the introduction of the car, the rise of suburbia and jet travel all contributed to bring the Golden Age of American Rail to an end in the early to late 1960s. As a result stations in city centers were either decommissioned entirely or downsized. In both Chicago and New York, major terminals were buried under skyscrapers and the subterranean maze of platforms, concourses and waiting rooms turned into dark, dreary places that lack the vivacity and welcoming atmosphere of stations like Grand Central in New York or Los Angeles Union Station, which out of great fortune were preserved. It is what those stations have that Union Station in Chicago needs: space, light, beauty, functionality.

The question becomes where to begin and how to do it? What about funding and the will of the city, state and even federal government to do this? The moment is there though to support such a massive overhaul. It seems pretty clear that many parties realize the station needs to be improved for the benefit of transportation connections to Chicago; other recent efforts in Denver, New York and Washington D.C. indicate that investing in our rail stations is again a desirable effort. Chicago has a lot of work to do though. The problems should probably be solved incrementally, because that is practically the easiest way to go, but they shouldn’t be seen as independent of other solutions. What I propose is first looking at the exterior problems at Union Station and improving them as soon as possible. These include improving traffic lanes to perhaps building a plaza outside the station and progressively getting to more serious issues like connectivity to other transit forms and improving the concourse area.

Because each project requires select attention and includes many possible alternatives I will look at each aspect separately and propose various ideas as to how incremental improvements to Union Station could positively change the experience of passengers passing through the station itself and the area surrounding. First, I will look at simple changes that could be made to exterior and some interior areas of the station to improve aesthetic experiences and access to services, then I will discuss connectivity to other transit options, because some of theses have simple and more complex solutions and finally looking at the concourse area itself. In each piece I will discuss how they can fit into other projects. Additionally, I will first look at what has already been proposed, where the faults in these proposals lie and what is good about them in relation to what I think would work well.