View from a hill overlooking Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo by Elina Bravve.
There’s a lot to admire when you travel, and it’s fun to observe how other cities achieve function and beauty. This week, we asked our contributors “What city planning or transit projects have caught your eye while traveling, and why?”
As might be expected, many contributors were inspired by other cities’ transit systems, primarily overseas and mostly in Europe. Places with lots of active public space and bike infrastructure were popular as well. First, transit:
Jacques Arsenault was wowed by Istanbul’s transit network:
I enjoyed Istanbul’s streetcar system that goes up hills at least as steep as Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues, changing my perception of what is (at least, technically) possible for streetcars. Most of the streetcars run on dedicated track in the middle of the road.
Neil Flanagan was impressed with the way Vienna has worked its transit infrastructure into the city:
Even the elevated portions of the U-Bahn were great. They were attractive, they fit in to the city fabric, and they were actually really quiet. These aren’t the loud, dark ‘Ls’ in Chicago and they didn’t create useless highway underpass spaces like in Tysons. Some arches have been adapted to host stores and the bridges over major streets feel like gateways. It’s possible to make elevateds good for cities.
Agnes Artemel talked about Munich, another city with an impressive streetcar network:
There’s a wonderful streetcar system in Munich that makes it easy to get to the entire downtown, museum areas, and a number of parks. The streetcars run in both mixed traffic and on dedicated lanes, and the cars are modern and easy to get on. There are one day and multi-day passes available, and fare collection doesn’t slow down boarding because everyone is on the honor system to have previously bought a pass. I spent a half day just riding the streetcars wherever they went and taking pictures out the window or at a station.
Artemel also gave shout outs to pedestrian-only streets in many French downtowns, Paris’s Berges de Seine project which activates spaces along the river banks, and easy bike rentals at European train stations.
Ned Russell touted two ongoing rail transit improvement projects, Denver’s FasTracks and London’s Crossrail:
I like FasTracks because the city has really coupled urban development with the massive build out of the system, especially around Union Station in downtown. I remember the area being empty in 2006, and now it’s a hopping neighborhood with a lot of people going there.
I think the airport line, which is a fully electrified commuter rail connecting Union Station to Denver International Airport, could signal a change in the way a lot of Denver residents view the region’s burgeoning rail system.
As for Crossrail, I love the fact that a city the size and scope of London is willing to spend about £15 billion (more than $20 billion) on a new rail system that acts as an express subway in town and a commuter rail outside town, all while not running down the median of freeways as so many of our systems do. This is what New York, DC and Boston all need: commuter rail systems that really run end-to-end across the region and not just into downtown.
Russell also likes that the Chicago Transit Authority puts secure bike parking inside of subway and ‘L’ stations, and wishes WMATA would do the same. “If Metro added bike parking inside, say, the massive and empty mezzanine at Mt Vernon Square, I’d be much more likely to lock my bike there and leave it,” he says.
Accommodating bikes on transit means doing more than simply allowing them, noted Jonathan Krall. He cited San Francisco’s BART, which has no restrictions on the time of day bikes can be carried onto trains, as an example. Steve Seelig agreed: “There’s a huge gap in Metro policy with the rush hour bike ban. Seriously, I would ditch my car if I could use the system during rush hour.”
Tracey Johnstone noted another positive subway innovation, this one from north of the border:
Toronto is introducing subway trains where there are no divisions between cars. Passengers who worry about crime feel safer, as do those who suffer from claustrophobia. And there are no seats lost to driving stations in every car.
“I liked the way each stop in the Seoul subway had a name and a three-digit number,” David Cranor said. “The first digit told you which line you were on, and the next two which station. It eliminated the need to count how many stops you had to go, and put things in a language everyone understands.” Matt Johnson noted that MARTA in Atlanta tried something similar.
Portland, Oregon’s aerial tram is “a great example of a unique transit mode,” said Kelli Raboy. “Yes, it’s a tourist attraction, but it also seems surprisingly effective at serving the nearby university, hospitals, and residential areas. My favorite part of the tram is actually the free and well-used bicycle valet next to the station.”
Our region’s next new rail transit line could learn a lot from a similar line that just opened in Minnesota, said Adam Froehlig:
I look at the new Green Line in Minneapolis/St. Paul and see a lot of potential lessons to be learned for the Purple Line, especially with regards to the College Park campus and along University Boulevard. They include the design going through campus, what to do regarding pedestrians crossing the tracks on campus, and the streetscape.
Moving on to examples of public spaces, Mitch Wander cited a European model:
The street markets throughout Valencia, Spain provide an amazing alternate use of street space, a great place to shop, and an entertaining walking experience. Many neighborhoods have a designated day of the week on which blocks are closed to vehicular traffic. For several hours on that day, people of all ages wander around shopping, browsing and socializing.
Paris has created engaging public spaces for kids, noted Abigail Zenner:
When I visited Place de la Republique, there was a kiosk that had toys and games for kids. There were also little movable chairs. The other thing they rolled out last summer was bikeshare for children. It was limited to recreation areas but was such a cool idea.
Another country whose cities have great public gathering spots is Mexico. Elina Bravve explained:
In Mexico City, they close one of the main roads in the city, Paseo de la Reforma, to vehicle traffic on Sundays. The street fills up with bicyclists, joggers, roller bladers, dance activities, dog walking groups, and lots of family-friendly activities. There are also bikeshare bikes (Eco Bici) available for rent.
Also in Mexico City, I noticed some very cool architecture in Chapultepac Park. One of the best spots was Libreria Porrua, an indoor/outdoor bookshop overlooking the park lake, where folks were renting paddle boats for the afternoon.
Finally, Guanajuato is a very pedestrian-friendly city. It’s full of green plazas connected by very narrow streets, which aren’t ideal for driving. Instead, there’s a series of underground tunnels throughout the city that moderates traffic, diverting it from the historic center of town. I learned post-trip that these tunnels were created to stop flooding from a nearby River, then converted to roads at a later date.
On the bike front, Portland — the city with the highest rate of bicycle commuting in the country — impressed a lot of people. “Where most cities end shared paths at intersections, dumping cyclists into crosswalks, this ramp in Portland delivers cyclists into a bike lane in advance of the intersection,” wrote Jonathan Krall. “For a cyclist planning to turn left at the intersection, this is a big help. For a cyclist proceeding straight, it is much more visible to other traffic and much safer.”
Peyton Chung’s shared observations on a more general planning theme:
Cities like Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Montreal, and San Francisco have vast areas of three- to five-story walk-up residential buildings, with many miles of walkable retail streets connecting them. Even in cities without a long tradition of flats, many of the livelier neighborhoods (like Ghent in Norfolk and University City in west Philadelphia) tend to be those where flats, rather than rowhouses, predominate. Now, some New Urbanist architects are talking about these housing types as the “Missing Middle” of density.
But thanks to the recent “pop-up” controversy, there will probably never be any in DC. Columbia Pike was intended to have mostly four- to six-story buildings, but without a streetcar that won’t happen, either.
Have you noticed great planning and design in other cities? Tell us about your favorites in the comments!