Transforming Chicago's Union Station
Photo by The West End via flickr
With highways and arterial roads plagued by congestion and the price of gas making airline travel more cost-prohibitive, trains – an efficient, economical means of travel – are once again a hot topic. Likewise, cities and planners are re-examining major train stations as potential destinations and economic development hubs, not just places people rush through to catch said train.
Into this milieu enters Chicago Union Station. As explained by the Chicago Dept. of Transportation’s Jeff Sriver, who on Dec. 15 outlined a new master plan study for Chicago Union Station, our historic station is due for a redesign. Nearly 200 transit enthusiasts packed the Union Gallery just off the station’s iconic Great Hall to hear the details of the study, which was necessitated by major shifts since the station was constructed in the early 1900’s: the growth of suburban jobs and communities, massive expansion of federal highways, and the rise of the Internet (what does that have to do with a train station? Keep reading.) Back then, the majority of people passing through Union Station were taking long-distance trips, which required separate baggage loading platforms. In addition, the station was proximate to Chicago’s old Post Office, a major hub for mail and package distribution across the U.S., which also required multiple platforms for handling a huge volume of mail. The early 20th century also witnessed the rise of the automobile; city and transit planners at that time viewed rail as a fading medium for travel. Thus, Union Station was not designed to accommodate significant future growth.
More than 86 years later, however, the reality is quite different. The number of trains serving Union Station is projected to grow 40 percent by 2040. Of Union Station’s weekday riders, 92 percent – around 109,000 people – are using Metra for their daily commute; carrying only briefcases, they no longer require baggage platforms. The steep rise in commuter rail use, coupled with the decline of mail volume thanks to the Internet, means Union Station has too many baggage/mail platforms, while passengers do their best imitation of sardines on narrow, limited boarding platforms. The station also lacks direct connections to other modes of transit including the El, bus, and other Metra stations. And the kicker is that it is not living up to its potential as a retail hub and destination, despite its prime location in Chicago’s Central Business District .
As noted in a Chicago Tribune article on the study:
“[T]he goals to create a more vibrant terminal that can be a catalyst for growth in the West Loop include:
Expanding capacity to handle more trains and relieve congestion to make today's crowded concourses and mezzanines more inviting. Union Station handles more than 300 trains each weekday carrying more than 120,000 arriving and departing passengers.
Building an off-street CTA bus terminal on the existing surface parking lot south of Jackson Boulevard; and providing more convenient transfers to CTA trains as well as taxis and shuttles.
Launching an east-west bus rapid transit service from Union Station to Michigan Avenue and eventually Navy Pier.
Easing potentially dangerous conflicts with vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists by reconfiguring how Canal Street is used.
Other projects that would follow include converting unused Amtrak baggage and mail-handling platforms to wider commuter platforms, adding direct access to and from the street level and building new tracks that for the first time would allow trains to pass through the station. (Trains currently approach from the north and south, but do not pass through.)”
One group out in force at the public meeting was the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, which sees this study as an opportunity to leverage major funds not only for technical upgrades, but also to support an expanded vision for Union Station. The association, which branded CUS as Chicago’s “Downtown Airport” due to the 16.2 million passengers it serves each year (nearly twice as many as Midway’s 8.9 million), generated 600 letters showing widespread support for thinking big. They argue that, while quick fixes do need to be made to relieve overcrowding, the city should capitalize on this opportunity to thoroughly modernize the station.
MPC’s take on thinking big, as I’ve noted in this blog before, is a push to see the station’s redesign framed in light of Placemaking principles, which favor the creation of vibrant public spaces and have the potential to transform an imposing historic structure into one that invites interaction with its users and surrounding city. In other words, a station that is not only an efficient rail hub, but also a truly great place. This message clearly resonated with many attendees of the forum; one such attendee, Mr. James Beatman Sr., put the principles of Placemaking into his own terms:
photo by Peter Skosey
This could mean incorporating aspects of Washington D.C.’s Union Station, which offers multiple levels of retail and dining. With connections to rail and bike sharing, D.C.’s station serves as a draw for the entire area. However, it is also worth noting that D.C. Union Station watchers have praised the Chicago Union Station master planning process as open and transparent at a relatively early stage, citing CDOT’s public meeting and creation of a dedicated web site, http://www.unionstationmp.com/.
Next up for the study, CDOT and an engineering and design consulting team led by TranSystems will develop simulation models to evaluate alternatives for street access improvements, tracks/platform improvements, and station configuration improvements. The team also will identify agencies that will seek full funding for individual projects, and lead each project through the planning, environmental review, detailed design, and construction processes, as well as explore potential public-private partnerships.
For more information and to view Jeff Sriver’s presentation, visit the study’s web site at http://www.unionstationmp.com/ and be sure to leave a comment!