How forward-looking are our new light rail stations?

Sound Transit Link light rail is a contentious subject, its supporters as zealous as those who oppose a regional extension of the system. This might have something to do with a muddled central goal. Are we building an expanded light rail system to reduce traffic congestion? Or to move people through Seattle? Or to move people around the region? Or are we building it to eventually reduce GHG emissions? Or to guide future development? Which is it? Then there are those who might argue it will accomplish none of these objectives . . .

However, despite varied opinions, I think the majority – on both sides of the debate – would agree that light rail is nothing if not a long-term investment, that the system is expanding, and that its infrastructure will impact not only the region’s immediate future, but its long-term one.

With this in mind, and considering that (a) green bonds will help finance the rail extensions, and (b) the region has a reputation for prioritizing the environment, one might expect that such a mammoth, debt-funded investment would be pursued with the goal of providing a precedent for creative, leading edge, future-focused transit design. Our expanded rail system will speak loudly about our values as a region.

For this reason it is essential that Sound Transit not only systematically predict the impact of this expanded light rail system on the future of the region, but also that it is held accountable for those estimates as the plan unrolls. This includes rigorously quantifying the GHG emissions associated with the construction and day-to-day operation of these new stations, a task that entails a predefined set of goals.

This post will propose criteria that might be used to asses a light rail station’s success, specifically those criteria that one might traditionally associate with – now arguably hollow – buzzwords such as “sustainability” and “green.” I only omit a criteria for judging the tunnels between the stations because that task is outside my areas of expertise. If you haven’t already reviewed them, Sound Transit’s website provides information and links to drawings depicting the new light rail station designs for its University Link and Northgate Link Extensions: Capitol Hill, University of Washington, U District, Roosevelt, and Northgate Stations.

Note: A-P and Al Hurd’s book The Carbon Efficient City – which I highly recommend – offers unambiguous strategies for reducing the carbon footprints of cities. Those strategies have helped inspire and inform the criteria I propose in this post.

Sound Transit should be accountable for quantifying how well these stations . . .

  1. Make use of existing context, structures, and materials.

It’s responsible to assume that the new light rail infrastructure is going to support transit for at least a century, given all the varied costs associated with its construction. For a system to stay relevant in the face of change, it must be flexible. Only then can it accommodate future technologies and programs.

As well, the station should be thoughtfully integrated with environmental and contextual realities, rather than featuring eco-afterthoughts, denoted as callouts in construction documents. Sound Transit should require the new stations to make use of natural ventilation in lieu of or to supplement mechanical HVAC systems, draw daylight to underground mezzanines or platforms, use rainwater, treat stormwater, and generate energy on site.

The placement of each station must also make sense in regard to the district it represents. U District Station, for example, is well-placed near “The Ave,” while also giving new meaning to UW Tower, which currently feels awkwardly monumental in its surroundings.

For the most part the station designs appear to take a tabula rasa approach, rather than retrofitting existing structures/systems. However, according to Sound Transit’s website, during demolition for Capitol Hill Station, “2,890 tons of bricks, wood, metal and other building materials were recycled.

  1. Incorporate vegetation, open space, and habitat for other species.

A light rail station is a place for everyone, and presents a unique opportunity to provide a central gathering space in an urban center. There are so many reasons to support biodiversity in cities and a public transit station is a great place to accomplish just that.

In order to do so, the station designs should maximize vegetation wherever there is access to adequate sunlight. Vegetated areas can provide respite in the fast-paced urban realm, promote happiness and health, and are essential to creating vibrant urban districts.

Moreover, urban plants can reduce urban heat islands, filter pollutants from the air and water, and store CO2. A vegetated station design can provide an important link in an otherwise fragmented wildlife movement corridor, providing, for example, nesting areas for birds or habitat for pollinators.

Apparently U District Station has been designed to accommodate a building at street level. This could be a missed opportunity. While U Village and the UW campus have plenty of open space, the U District is dominated by the right-of-way. As drivers have become accustomed to avoiding the station area during its construction, why not design a plaza that spills out onto Brooklyn Avenue, prioritizing the pedestrian with raised paving and connecting with the currently underused plaza at the foot of UW Tower?

According to Sound Transit’s webpage, Roosevelt Station will incorporate a plaza, which seems to be a great opportunity to include native planting and green stormwater infrastructure. The 90 percent station design presentation for Northgate Station depicts bio-retention and vine planting. Additionally, the design for University of Washington Station incorporates 200 new trees.

  1. Reinforce the identities of the communities served.

The vision of our new light rail system is to connect cities to each other more than it is to connect points within the city. While the stations should represent Link light rail as a unified whole, they should also say something unique about the communities they serve. An important measure of success is if these stations serve as beacons for their communities, reinforcing and supporting community identity.

A light rail station is where people cross paths. More than a station, it should serve as a stage for the community to animate day and night, year-round. For example, could a station plaza support a demonstration one day, and a farmers market the next? Soon Capitol Hill Station, under budget and ahead of schedule (lest you forget it!), will provide a new home for the Broadway Farmers Market.

  1. Accurately quantify GHG emissions associated with construction and day-to-day operations.

For a moment let’s assume that the expanded light rail system will, in the long run, emit fewer GHGs than the alternative. How can that be determined? Who is responsible for the carbon accounting? What is the measurement?

Sound Transit recently announced that they had carried out “the world’s largest municipal sale of green bonds.

But accurate accountability can only happen if the project meets criteria set and regulated by scientists and other outside experts rather than the green bond issuers, right? It is important that carbon accounting consider not only the day-to-day operations of the expanded system but also the emissions that result from the construction of the stations themselves. The costs of our expanded light rail system are heavily weighted toward the front end, not just financially but also environmentally. Sound Transit should prove that the diminished GHG emissions resulting from the daily operation of the system in the future, compared to the alternative, are worth the large amounts of emissions associated with transportation of materials, manufacturing those materials, and the construction process itself.

  1. Connect with other modes of transportation and foster walkability.

Like most complex problems, the solution to transportation in the Central Puget Sound region is not best solved with one technology, but rather many overlapping systems. How well will the new light rail system connect with other modes of transportation? How will light rail overlap with bus routes? Do the stations support walkability? Wayfinding is crucial here. The system will not be successful if it isn’t legible and navigable for everyone.

According to Sound Transit’s website, U District Station will boast 100 bicycle parking spaces. In reality, that’s probably not enough to make a substantial impact. But then again I’ve been to Copenhagen. As a comparison, according to its website, UW supplies over 5,500 bicycle parking spaces across campus. Apparently Roosevelt Station will also include bicycle storage.

University of Washington Station will prioritize pedestrians with a bridge leading to UW campus and the Burke-Gilman Trail. Northgate Station is also designed to connect with a futuristic pedestrian bridge over I-5, which, as I understand it, is not yet funded.

  1. Apply creativity.

This is a good criterion to end on. Creativity shouldn’t stop at the public art installations that will adorn the new stations. Ending climate change will continue to require dramatic transformations in the way human systems overlap. Conventional methods should be reconsidered. Beyond artistic embellishments within the stations, creativity should extend to the building designs and the codes and policies that impact them. Creativity can be surprisingly straightforward.

I recommend that Sound Transit initiate a national student design competition for future Link stations. It could easily receive armfuls of fresh, free ideas from students across the country or even the globe. Design students, armed with the latest theories and ideas from academia, would likely jump at the chance to have their wild ideas integrated into a tangible design. A local design firm could then edit those ideas into reality. Now that would give us a unique set of new light rail stations.

A future-oriented transit station must look beyond features such as public art, signage icons, and bicycle storage to remain relevant decades down the road. Green bonds don’t necessarily fuel responsibly-constructed, long-lived projects. A regional light rail system is an investment, and its stations should be planned with a common goal that underlies at least the six criteria listed above. In the face of climate change, Sound Transit should be accountable for evaluating its new light rail stations in light of these criteria.

Do you have thoughts about how our new light rail stations do or don’t measure up to the requirements of the region’s future? What additional criteria might you suggest for rating our new light rail stations?

Note: This post was originally published August 31, 2015 and was most recently updated September 1, 2015 at 3:07 pm.