Oct 07, 2016
THEME: Point of View

Transportation, Technology, and Urban Transformation: A Conversation

A lot is riding on this November’s election in the United States, not least of all its future stake in public transportation.

We are in the midst of a resurgence of interest and investment in transit. Across North America and at nearly every level of government, there is interest in expanding public transportation systems. In a recent study, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Oxford Economics estimate global investment in infrastructure between 2014 and 2025 will reach almost $78 trillion. The European Union recently announced over €30 billion for transportation initiatives that will be supplemented by tens of billions more by individual countries. The Canadian government recently began spending $3.4 billion over three years towards public transportation. In the United States, there are over $200 billion in public transportation initiatives on ballot for the federal election in November, which is potentially the largest amount considered for transit in the country’s history. Regardless of who succeeds in their bid for presidency, if the majority of ballot votes land on the yes side in November, we might consider calling this ‘resurgence’ truly a revolution.

What is driving this all this potential investment? Aging infrastructure is a common theme. The great public works projects of the 20th century are reaching their expiry date. Rising land values are also a factor. There is a growing awareness around transit’s central role in compact and healthy communities, and we understand that those communities are desirable places to live. Public transit has an ability to succeed where superhighways, interchanges, and the automobile previously failed our long-term collective good. Perhaps it’s as simple as Keith Parker, CEO of Atlanta’s MARTA recently put it, “public transportation is cool again.”

People wait for the subway. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

More and more people find themselves waiting for the subway. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In this context, I set out to explore this renaissance and its impact on the future of our communities. I sat down with Beth Kapusta and John Potter, respectively Senior Manager and Senior Advisor of Policy and Planning of the Design Excellence initiative at Metrolinx, Toronto’s transportation planning agency, to talk transit design, technology, and urban transformation.

A New Era for Public Transportation

Jeff Doble (JD): We’re seeing a significant uptick in investment in mass transit projects world-wide. Can you talk about what’s driving this global expansion of public transportation systems and how this growth is impacting our cities?

Beth Kapusta (BK): I’ll speak to the two driving phenomena in greater Toronto as that is our immediate context. First, in the Toronto region, there exists an almost medieval growth pattern where a series of arteries have emanated from the city centre in a radial pattern. This really speaks to the typical development of a car-based city. As a response to this we’re creating a network approach that will overlay that radial pattern, striving to create intensity around transit nodes. Second, as we move light rail transit (LRT) projects into less dense suburban areas, the challenges of public transit expansion really become driven by the relationship between the city centre and its less densely-populated periphery. The fact is we just can’t keep building and expanding car-related networks. We must find ways of making cities more efficient and meeting the needs of a diversely distributed population. Thus a significant part of our work is engaging LRT in the challenge of suburban density.

The Importance of Design Excellence in Transportation

JD: Eglinton GO Station in Toronto was recently given an award for design excellence from Canadian Architect magazine. People are beginning to discuss the role of great design with regard to infrastructure. Why is design excellence important to the future of public transportation in our cities?

BK: Design excellence is really about customer experience. Much of the energy of infrastructure has historically focused on what goes on underground and between stations. It’s typically all about the alignment and the engineering challenges of these massive systems. But, if you can’t draw the people into the system, why are you building it? Design excellence is the tip of the iceberg of what we do. It is the critical interface between our passengers and the system which is really what people remember in the end. Their response to the tactile and physical presence of the station. There are a lot of invisible design elements that make the transportation experience comfortable and pleasurable. The level of design literacy within urban populations has really increased over the past decade as well. Expectations are higher.

At the beginning of our Crosstown project, we surveyed the public on their likelihood to use the system. This early investigation really changed our thinking about the role that design excellence played. We saw that all of the relatively nuanced factors that we consider part of design excellence actually have a significant impact on people’s likelihood to embrace public transportation. Their responses highlighted navigability and way-finding as important factors, as well as cleanliness. Cleanliness in terms of a space literally being clean but also as a description of the design elements.

John Potter (JP): Design excellence is also driven by issues of functionality, durability, life-cycle, operations efficiency, and maintenance costs. These are things not often associated with great design but these factors inform everything we do.

BK: Design excellence is a unique proposition; we provide a sense of leadership in a space that’s often driven by highly pragmatic or expedient decision-making. It’s our role to maintain the overall vision when we’re in the midst of creating billions of dollars-worth of public infrastructure.

Design Guidelines and the Seamless Passenger Experience

JD: Can you describe the purpose of the GO Transit Urban, Architectural and Landscape Design Excellence Guidelines we’re currently working on together? What will change because of the guidelines?

BK: The guidelines’ mandate is to create a more consistent experience for the GO brand as it moves into a new era. We’re going from a simple commuter system to something that is much more integrated with the region’s rapid transit network. It’s a fundamental paradigm shift and Metrolinx’s leadership is projecting twenty-plus years forward to imagine a world where the experience of public transit, the TTC and the downtown network are more seamlessly integrated with the larger GO network.

We have to be real strategists about the way we approach future-proofing the procurement models and the practical kind of visual, physical, and experiential elements that will identify what it means to be a GO passenger. We must carefully consider how we make the experience easy and reassuring for the travelling public. To consider how we create a continuous visual and experiential identity across a network that has been constructed over the last fifty years and by many diverse hands.

We’re also looking at a number of catalytic changes to the system like electrification. The GO design guidelines have to dovetail with these in order to make the experiential aspects work with the functional changes to the system. So it’s both a backward and forward looking assignment. We admit to the fact that it’s a really tough identity-development exercise but that’s the challenge we’re embracing.

JP: On a more prosaic level, if the ambition of the guidelines is everything that Beth has just described, the project’s success will be defined by the guidelines’ ability to clearly communicate Metrolinx’s objectives and how those objectives are expressed via growth of the GO network. After having put a lot of trust in the design thinking and capturing that in the guidelines, we’ll see the real value when different project teams and different design consultants are brought together on various projects. The guidelines will help them on-board quickly and align their thinking and design work with our larger brand objectives. We’ll see the real proof of value of the exercise over the next five to ten years.

The Importance of Brand

JD: We’re hearing a lot of transportation authorities talking about their “brand.” In a world of Coca Cola, Apple, Nike, and others, what does “brand” mean to a transportation authority and/or a transit line?

BK: Brand is really the promise of a consistent, high quality, high-functioning experience. Brand is not necessarily about a mark or graphic, although the GO reputation is long-standing and has a lot of equity built up in it. It’s really about the things we do consistently well over time that give us credibility and a high status with our customers.

JD: Most people typically don’t wake up in the morning and look forward to their commute to work. Will the guidelines change individual’s perception around commuting?

BK: Architecture is a somewhat invisible component of quality. From the results that emerged from the Crosstown survey, we started to parse out what people really meant by words like “cleanliness” or “uncluttered.” How much work do you have to do as an architect to create an uncluttered experience? It takes a significant amount of design thought. It’s like the Four Season’s brand. A thousand little things. Every piece of architecture is a thousand decisions made right. So we had to provide enough dots to connect in the guidelines that will be used by a variety of consultants, to encourage a consistent experience that resonates with our customers time after time.

Priorities of the Line vs. the Individual Stations

JD: How do you balance the need for overall efficiency and a seamless or branded passenger experience throughout an entire line with the need for specific stations or hubs to respond to the unique context of their neighbourhood? Do these interests conflict with one another?

BK: This is a fundamental challenge of a system that is both urban and suburban. It’s also a challenge to consider where you put more energy so that things like the integration of public art or other enhanced experiential qualities can reflect high ridership. What we’ve done on Eglinton, and will likely incorporate in the GO design guidelines, is consider that we have elements of consistency that form the back bone of the station experience, and then consider what the elements of variability are that can reflect a more local or a more site-specific approach. We’ll explore whether there’s the need for transit oriented development at a site, whether there’s the need for a public plaza that speaks to the local conditions, or whether there’s a way of reflecting the nuance of the local landscape within the station design. We’re cognizant for the need for a back bone but also the need for things that reflect a local condition because people still have to fall in love with these places and experiences. People still have to say “yeah, that’s my station.” There is a familiarity that is born out of an attachment to a unique feature. That familiarity and the experience of the overall line have to be in balance, though there’s always going to be a tension between them.

JP: There are special circumstances beyond the local built and neighbourhood conditions that will impact context for some stations. Like the nine stations that include heritage buildings, for example, where we may have to develop specific, customized guidelines to address this aspect. Also the major interchange stations where the GO system may not be the primary service provider. In these cases it’s understood that the GO brand will have a lesser expression within the modal interchange.

Stations: From Iconic to Integrated

JD: Transit infrastructure includes iconic, stand-alone stations like New York’s new World Trade Center Transit Hub. At the other end of the spectrum there are facilities like Vancouver’s Marine Gateway where the station infrastructure, along with a major bus exchange, are deeply integrated and wrapped into a comprehensive mixed use development. Can you describe the transportation hub of the future?

JP: We’re moving away from the typical paradigm of primary users moving mainly to and from home and work in the central business district. We’re looking at a much more networked and dispersed approach to transit for the future. So when we talk about the hub of the future, I think the concept is going to be all about intermodal and interchange. Also there will be a lot more of them. We’re already anticipating at least three times the number of intermodal/interchange hubs than there are currently. And they will be more typical. In other words they’re not going to be like NYC’s World Trade Center facility. Rather they will be more integrated and typical of the network.

BK: The facility has to respond to the pressures of specificity. In New York you can get away with a multi-billion dollar single point hub because the population, expectations, and ridership support that approach. Integrated transit is very much going to be a phenomenon of all of our futures but the surrounding context really has to make sense of it. I think we’ll find a spectrum of integration opportunities in the future. We try to anticipate overbuild conditions wherever possible but at a number of locations the current state of planning doesn’t justify it. It’s often really hard to know what’s going to happen on the street in the future. One approach that we are seeing more often is collaboration between transit agencies like ourselves and the municipalities where enhanced zoning is happening in lock-step with transit development. We are also developing transit-oriented design guidelines that speak to a future where stations and development are much more integrated than they have been in the past.

JD: So in order to achieve these types of projects, what are some of the challenges you face when working with municipalities and the development community to see a successful integration of transit within larger development?

BK: There is already a huge amount of construction complexity to any transit system let alone a system that is overbuilt by a massive building. There are always jurisdictional complexities to consider. Also time is money with these projects so trying to get all approvals happening simultaneously is an unbelievably complex process. The logistics at times can be almost insurmountable. Especially when a lot of the larger-scale transportation projects are being delivered by a design-build-finance-maintain model. In this case it’s all about creating incentives for a contractor to incorporate the density at the stations within a model that is really driven by time and budget.

JD: Can you envision a time in the future where the station areas are defined in advance, the line is designed and delivered, and the private developer or other interests would take over from the rails up?

BK: It’s possible but in order to do that you really have to know what is going in above the rails. There is quite a construction premium to building a generic overbuild box situation. It’s not a neutral proposition. We’re in the business of building transit. To try and anticipate a future development situation that could costs multi-millions of dollars without really knowing the details – we’re not in the business of reading a crystal ball. There’s a bit of a tension around the extent of what we can do as a transit agency. The best case scenario is to be working in lock-step with the city and developers as we’re moving along but that’s not always possible given the time pressure on these projects.

Design Excellence, Take Two: Perceptions of Value

JD: We’re seeing a lot of critique of the World Trade Center transit hub. It’s being held up as an example of design excellence in transportation, however, it also immediately associates design excellence in transit with being expensive. It’s our experience that design excellence doesn’t have to cost more. It simply requires that attention and care be given to a vision from a design perspective.

To go back to Beth’s earlier comment about the public’s increasing design literacy, are you seeing thinking and behavior shifting to a more transit-centric approach to our cities? An approach where train and transit stations are important and recognized buildings like in some parts of the world where there is more of a history with rail and infrastructure design?

BK: When we start a project we engage our stakeholders in a workshop to map the comfort zone for that phenomenon. We draw a cross with small dollars at the left, big dollars at the right, a systems approach at the bottom and an iconic approach at the top. We have our stakeholders map a series of examples on those axes to determine where their comfort zone is.

If you overly invest in something that is iconic for the sake of being iconic, it doesn’t necessarily support the user experience in the way you think it will. It may work against you and become a kind of lightning rod for excess. There is a significant portion of the project in New York that you can look at and question whether or not it needs to be there or if it is purposely meant to be part of a very individualistic expression of a building.

Through our work we’re focusing on what is enough to systematize and elaborate upon the functional and experiential criteria for a facility with a highly insightful vision of how those things come together, and without going overboard. The most controversial item for the Eglinton design guidelines was the insertion of criteria for a rectilinear built form – because we didn’t want our consultants going off and doing highly gestural buildings. When they’re in the public realm people look at them and ask “why did you make a tornado shaped building? Why couldn’t you have just been more practical because you’re spending tax payer’s money?” We’re constantly aware of the tension between our responsibility as public servants, as architects and the need to attract people to the system.

People respond well to carefully designed systems. They don’t have to be extravagant in form making in order to be truly excellent design. It’s a much more subtle design brief than saying “make a building in the shape of a tornado.” In the long term it’s an investment in repetition. It’s an investment in bringing people back to the system because we’ve often found that the things that they love most about the architecture are incredibly subtle.

The Rise of Technology, Autonomous Cars, and the Future of Transit

JD: Autonomous vehicles are all over the news. We’re seeing the emergence of transit apps and mobility-as-a-service where we can arrange a trip using multiple modes of transit with a few clicks of our phone. How will these advances in mobility impact the future of our cities and the future of public transportation?

BK: Another item we discovered from the original Crosstown survey was the extreme importance of seamless navigation of the network. The Design Excellence Group started out thinking that we were all about architecture, but after the survey we realized that we had to be thinking about integrated transit because that’s how our customers think about it. We started an initiative utilizing technology to harmonize wayfinding. We are now connecting all thirteen transit operators in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) with an app called Triplink. It’s basically an app that supplies open-sourced, real-time transit data to all of our service providers to be used any way they want.

So we see the continuum in a much more holistic way than we had imagined at the beginning of the process. The architecture is inseparable from the way you get there, but the experience really starts when you pull out your phone or computer in the morning to figure out the fastest or best way to your destination. People don’t care as much about the way they get there. They care about the speed and efficiency of using the network so the closer proximity of time and space, and the ability to use technology to trade one off of each other, is one of the sea change moments that we’re living through right now.

The self-driving car has the potential to remake mobility in our cities. Image via Google.

The self-driving car has the potential to remake mobility in our cities. Image via Google.

JD: As this technology advances and we find ourselves changing the way we access transportation, how do we ensure the best experiences are available equally for all sectors of society, regardless of income, age, etc.?

BK: Given the current development phenomenon in North America, we’re seeing that residing in the centre of the city is becoming an increasingly elite, boutique way of living. Housing prices in the centre of the city are prohibitive to a significant portion of the population, so the importance of being able to bring people into the centre in an equitable way is one of the challenges of the expanding network.

If you look at the time it takes to get from Markham to downtown if you’re not connected to transit, it’s not fair that someone from that area is spending two and a half hours a day commuting. So building out of the network will have an influence on those inequities that we see at an urban scale. Again looking back to a customer-service approach, we have an aging demographic so issues of accessibility have to be baked into our design. It’s no longer acceptable to have accessibility as an add-on at the end of design as much as it’s no longer acceptable to have sustainability as an add-on to a project.

Accessibility and sustainability are the two single most important things we need to be thinking about. We’re investing a huge amount of construction expenditure into building these networks and the fastest rising demographic of ridership right now is people who will experience serious mobility challenges in the next ten to twenty years. At the same time it’s our planet and we have to protect it.

JP: The build-out of the network will connect different communities to each other in addition to connecting the periphery to the centre. People won’t have to move just because they’ve switched jobs. They can actually get from Brampton to Pickering on our transit system. When you talk about the rise of autonomous vehicles and other modes of ride sharing, and as the province anticipates the population of the GTHA will increase by four million people between now and 2030, we’ll need a variety of different ways of getting around. I don’t think autonomous vehicles replace public transit. The thinking is that these other forms of transport will support the network. It’s the first and last mile idea where you have people needing other ways to get from home to rail and from rail to their destination and back.

The Role of Public Transportation in Resilient Cities

JD: In July of 2013, Toronto experienced the worst flash flood in the city’s history. Given climate change and the expected increase in extreme weather events and other large-scale shock situations, what role does public transportation play in the resilience of our cities?

JP: Of course resiliency planning is absolutely critical in public transportation. Metrolinx is developing what we call the climate adaptation protocol. This is a way of categorizing our assets in terms of high, medium or low risk and putting plans in place to address these assets so the system can keep running or be brought back on line quickly after a major disruptive event. A transit system is part of the critical back bone of a region so having it operational is key to any successful large-scale emergency response.

We’re also in the early phases of development of a second protocol around social resiliency. This explores the role of our key facilities as important social hubs within their communities. While stations will likely not be used as emergency shelters, they can be used as places where people can come for information. For example, we can provide generators on site that can run for several days after an event so people can charge their cell phones and be connected to emergency services.

BK: From a systems perspective, track heating and flooding are the biggest risks in our area. A lot of our tracks run through ravines, along water and in other areas of vulnerability, so we’re looking at how to future proof these situations.

The electrification initiative is also a sustainable approach to expansion at the regional scale. It’s really about getting people off of the roads because they understand transit is more reliable than the road network.

So, in terms of resilience, and as time goes on, rather than one massive rainfall occurring every one hundred years, we’ll see ten. In this instance, the public transit role will evolve into a safety net that gives people a level of assurance that they can still navigate their city even in a future climate where uncertainty is the status quo.

The Personal Transportation Experience

JD: Beth, how do you get to work?

BK: Typically I get to work by bicycle. Until six months ago I was living in High Park and if I didn’t ride my bicycle I would take the GO Train.

JD: Can you talk about an experience on public transit that impacted you in some way?

BK: I can’t name one specific example, but being a fairly consistent GO Train passenger, I can tell you that people would consistently ask me for direction – at least two to five times a day. People were always lost! For me, it really underscored the degree to which good way finding impacts a great passenger experience. People are focused on getting to their destination. As important as architecture is, clear and intuitive way-finding is critical to our passengers.

JD: Your background is in architecture. What drew you into the realm of public transportation?

BK: My past training is as an architect but I worked as an architecture critic and consultant for over twenty years. At the time, I was hungry for a change of scale because there was only so much I could do in my previous role. The transition was very opportunistic. I was looking for a bigger project and when the opportunity to set up the Design Excellence program came along I thought – that’s exactly the scale I was craving! As I set up the program I began to see the interesting future that lay ahead. It’s not very often we get to set the design vision for a six billion dollar project in our field. It’s meaningful, vision-setting work for me and the team and a truly amazing opportunity.

JD: Sounds like a fantastic opportunity for yourself and for public transportation in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area.

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About Beth Kapusta: A former architecture critic, avid cyclist and urban gardener, Beth leads the Design Excellence initiative at Metrolinx. Her mandate is to elevate the quality and customer focus of design across Metrolinx city-building projects including shaping design of the $6-billion Eglinton Crosstown LRT and advancing the design vision for the Davenport Diamond guideway and greenway.

About John Potter: Architect, mentor and a passionate advocate of public transportation’s ability to address societal questions about economic prosperity, urban intensification, sustainability, public health and quality of life, John is senior advisor to the Design Excellence group at Metrolinx and a key figure in the organization’s planning and policy group.

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