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L.A. Union Station Needs a Concourse That Puts Passengers First

Does the new upgraded Union Station really need to depend on lots of elevators? Capture from Metro LinkUS above grade concourse video

Last month I was sitting in the air-conditioned Metro boardroom taking notes at the meeting of the Planning and Programming Committee. Staff was presenting on the planned Union Station run-through tracks; a $2.75 billion project called LinkUS. The presentation included a fly-through video swooping through a newly-designed alternative for an above-grade concourse.

As I was watching the video the first time, I admit that I thought it looked pretty cool: all glass, sky and views of the city. I tweeted out that it looked like a new airport.

Metro staff seemed pretty proud of the new idea, but made it clear that in the environmental clearance process they would still be evaluating both the at-grade and the above-grade concourse concepts. Committee chair Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker was vocal in her praise of the "very promising" above-grade concourse concept for its "wonderful views," reduced construction cost, and reduced construction impacts to existing service.

I quickly shared the new concourse concept at Streetsblog. The video and renderings made the rounds at Urbanize, Curbed, Archinect, and Metro's The Source.

Glassy and above grade is cheaper and sexier. What's not to like?

Metro's own evaluation shows the at-grade concourse would be more convenient for riders. At grade is more expensive to build, but cheaper to maintai). Initial coverage at Urbanize was critical of an above-grade concourse's station circulation impacts:

Aside from financial considerations, the above-grade option would have significant impacts on transit riders and other visitors to the station. The diagram depicts a massive structure that would hamper movement between the East Plaza and Historic Union Station, requiring passengers to ascend and descend to get from one side to the other. It would also contribute to an already-existing problem of vertical circulation at Union Station.

Today, there are four levels to the hub: the subway, the mezzanine, ground level, and the railyard. To this, the above-grade concourse option would add two more: the elevated railyard for regional rail (the light rail stations would remain at their present level), and the passenger concourse itself on top. Centralizing connections on this top floor would lengthen the transfer time required for almost all patrons.

Commenters at Streetsblog were also very critical, including this response from the author of the excellent Systemic Failure blog:

Wow, that above-grade-concourse concept is really horrible. In the comparison chart, it explicitly states that it would increase walking distance, require more vertical travel, have higher operating costs, and reduce square footage available for station amenities. So why is it even being considered -- for the views!?

Then the reality of the design really sunk in for me.

When I am making connections at Union Station, do I want them to be any less direct than they already are? Unlike all those unencumbered pedestrians in the video, when I am in a hurry rushing to get from the Red Line subway up to catch my Amtrak, I often have luggage, a bicycle, and my 4-year-old daughter in tow. I don't need to wait for an elevator. I don't need to go up and down extra levels. I need as direct a transfer as possible.

(See also CiclaValley's recent coverage of Metro's brand new on-the-fritz North Hollywood elevator and escalator if you think the new Union Station lifts will be working all the time.)

My advice to Metro: The LinkUS project presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the great Union Station even greater. Run-through tracks will greatly streamline operations, helping connect riders to destinations near and far. Keep the rider experience at the center of plan and designs. To keep and grow ridership, make transit connections as easy and convenient as possible. Skip the above grade concourse.

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