Best of 2011 - March - Designing High-Speed Rail’s Future – Next City

Best of 2011 - March - Designing High-Speed Rail’s Future

A rendering of Diridon Station in San Jose, California, as envisioned by the California High-Speed Rail Authority California High-Speed Rail Authority

This piece originally ran here in March 2011.

Much of the controversy over high-speed rail in the United States has been centering on where to put it and who will accept it. Most recently, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida spurned over $3 billion in federal funds for the development of high-speed rail. Closer to home, opposition to California’s high-speed rail system from a number of cities on the San Francisco peninsula contributed to the decision to lay the first tracks in the Central Valley. The first phase of California high-speed rail line is currently planned to connect Madera, Fresno, and Bakersfield, rather than link cities along a corridor that has a high population density—such as San Jose to San Francisco or Anaheim to Los Angeles.

High-speed rail is essential infrastructure that this country needs in order to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Redundancy and speed in our transportation network is important not only for handling national emergencies, as we proved with our national highway system in the 1950s and 60s, but also for remaining competitive in our world economy. Europe and Asia are already considerably ahead of us. As California continues to progress with its own high-speed rail plans, one question that we need to address is this: what should transit-oriented development (TOD) around high-speed rail train stations look like in the United States?

First, a TOD around a high-speed rail station will not be like development around conventional transit nodes, such as light and heavy rail stations. Buildings will likely be bigger, taller, and denser, and the area of walkability around stations will be at least one half mile. Second, unlike development surrounding airports, new construction around high-speed rail stations will need to fit into the existing city fabric, with area plans for new mixed-use development and strong connections to a variety of public transit modes. Minimizing automobile use in the immediate vicinity of the station will be essential, both for driving and parking. In order to find models that we can adapt for U.S. situations, we need to look overseas. Following are a few examples.


The Porta Nuova development as envisioned by 2015 is close to the renovated Milan Central Station. Image from Skymino.

One question with high-speed rail TOD is whether to try to adapt existing train stations for high-speed rail use or to build anew. Both are possible. In 2006, for the Turin-Naples high-speed rail line, Italy upgraded Milan’s Central Station, originally built between 1912 and 1931. With a population of 7.4 million people in the greater metropolitan area, the station currently serves about 330,000 passengers per day. There are five privately operated garages within a quarter mile of the station. New station area development focuses on the three neighborhoods of the 72-acre Porta Nuova area near the station, including 3.9 million square feet of office, residential, and commercial uses as well as parks and open spaces. The idea is to keep the flavor and character of the old city while also adding new development. The centerpiece of the area is the beautifully renovated main entrance to the station fronting onto a sizeable urban plaza.


The new Berlin Central Station includes several levels of platforms, shops and offices. It serves 300,000 passengers daily. Image courtesy of Deutsche Bahn AG.


A new mixed-use district called Europa City is planned to the north of Berlin’s Central Station. Image courtesy of Vivico Real Estate/ASTOC

Berlin’s Central Station provides an example of how to fit a brand-new station into existing and new urban fabric. Designed by von Gerkan, Marg and Partners and completed in 2006, the station occupies the former border between East and West Germany, and its huge glass hall is intended to represent the government’s post-Berlin Wall openness and transparency. With a population of 5 million people in the greater metropolitan area, the station serves about 350,000 passengers per day and has 860 underground parking spaces. The station has many uses on several levels, creating connections to the city, the station plaza, and the Spree River. New development within a mile of the station includes retail, office, and hotel uses in the 4.3-acre Station Quarter. In addition, there is the 40-acre master-planned EuropaCity to the north of the station, which is the result of a competition and is being developed by a public-private partnership. The six neighborhoods of EuropaCity will include 6.5 million square feet of residential, office, retail, and cultural uses.


The new station in Liège, Belgium, designed by Santiago Calatrava, has become an impressive urban landmark. Photo by Joao Morgado.


The masterplan for the station area in Liege proposes a generous esplanade, an open space connection from the station to the river. Image courtesy of Dethier & Associates.

Perhaps most relevant to California’s high-speed rail stations in terms of urban scale is Santiago Calatrava’s Liège-Guillemins Station in Belgium. Completed in 2009, the multilevel station with its many walkways knits together parts of the city that had long been divided by railroad tracks and highways.

With a population of 600,000 people in the greater metropolitan area, the station currently serves about 36,000 passengers per day, about a tenth of the ridership in the Milan and Berlin examples. The amount of parking in the station’s garage is quite extensive, about 800 shared spaces, only slightly less than in Berlin’s Central Station. A 52-acre new mixed-use district is in the works, following the form of the city’s existing fabric, It will be built along a new esplanade with 500 new residential units, 1.1 million square feet of office space, 27,000 square feet of retail, and 107,000 square feet of hotels. The esplanade will be a 10-acre open space that extends from the station through the mixed-use district to a new pedestrian bridge crossing the Meuse River. As in Milan and Berlin, high-speed rail development is fashioned to fit within the city, to make significant public places, and to strengthen urban connections.

Because it doesn’t involve high-rise buildings, the Liege example is particularly useful for cities like San Jose. San Jose’s plan for the high-speed rail system is to build a large station on the site of the existing Diridon train station to the west of downtown, with accompanying mixed-use development in the vicinity. The draft of the Diridon Station Area Preferred Plan calls for increasing building heights, but approximately seven to nine stories is the upper limit around the station because of proximity to the San Jose International Airport. However, having an airport located so close to the station does has its advantages: surplus parking capacity at the airport can be used to meet some of the additional demand generated by high-speed rail. The California High-Speed Rail Authority is predicting a total need for 3,800 parking spaces for patrons using the San Jose station, but only a fraction of these spaces need to be within walking distance of the station, catering to day-long journeys. Most boardings are expected to involve overnight travel, and those travelers can park up to three miles away, as long as there are good shuttle connections to the station. Because the San Jose Airport falls within the same three-mile radius, a good connection with the airport could decrease the need for more parking downtown and make more land available for buildings and open space.


The area surrounding San Jose’s train station as it looks today. The Arena is on the left and the existing Diridon Station is in the background. Image courtesy of the San Jose Redevelopment Agency.


Illustrative plan of proposed development in the Diridon Station Area of San Jose. Courtesy of Field Paoli Architects.

By 2020, China is projected to have spent $300 billion on high-speed rail and to have a 16,000-mile network. By then, Spain is projected to have spent $100 billion and to have a 6,200-mile network. In the United States, comparable figures are harder to determine because the fate of high-speed rail is more uncertain, but projections are that by 2014, we might have spent over $12 billion and have one 800-mile north-south line in California. We have a long way to go to catch up. While Europe has been focusing on compact development using less energy along transportation corridors, we’ve spent the past 60 years devoting ourselves to energy-intensive, automobile-dependent sprawl. Without a significant cultural shift, including compact development and transit connections around high-speed rail stations in a comprehensive system, it’s going to be difficult to make high-speed rail work in the United States. But if we can accept and adapt ideas from overseas, these examples and others can prove useful. Now that California has been awarded some of the high-speed rail money that other states didn’t want, we should run with it. At high speed.

Heidi Sokolowsky contributed to this article.

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