Thursday, September 23, 2010

Transit station for downtown?

Picture of the STA Plaza in Downtown Spokane, ...Image via Wikipedia
I have seen comments in the past that we need a bus station in downtown Salt Lake City. We already have Central Station but is located on the far west side of downtown and for people transferring between routes is out of the way.

In addition the station is not truly a central station but nothing more than a glorified TRAX/Front Runner station with a Greyhound component. Hopefully the station will become a true central station over time but we shall see.

While at first thought a bus station in the downtown area would seem like a good idea considering the number of bus routes in the downtown area, the success of such bus stations in other cities have been mixed at best.

For many years the RTD (now MTA) in Los Angeles maintained a large bus station in downtown Los Angeles that was shared with Greyhound. The station was built on what was the approach tracks for the Pacific Electric and their grand Main Street Station. By the 1980's because of cost and the general decline of the neighborhood RTD stopped using the station and it was eventually abandoned by Greyhound.

Spokane, Washington is probably a good example of trying to build something in order to solve a problem that only created more problems. Until their new bus station was built all the bus routes in the downtown area would converge at the intersection of Riverside and Howard. Area businesses complained about the "wall of buses" that would block their streets and bring too many undesirables to the area so it was decided to replace the wall with a bus station (a historic irony is that most of the businesses that complained so much went out of business within a few years after the buses moved a block away to the new transit station).

The bus station was originally designed to be the lobby of a high rise that was to be built above the station however the high rise project was stopped by Spokane's decades long lack of an economy and by CAVE people who didn't like the idea of public-private partnerships (the Spokane area has a big block of CAVE people - Citizens Against Virtually Everything-or in Spokane's case are against everything).

In addition instead of having the bus station become part of the street life in the area, it was instead design to flow people into the skywalk system. However, by the time the transit station was completed the skywalk system was on life support and there was attempts to bring life by to the sidewalks in the area. While there is still some retail and some fast food restaurants to access across the street via the skywalk, the lack of good pedestrian flow to the street side has been a major issue for the bus station. In addition the bus station is often criticized for having too many young people around and scaring off the normals.

Compare that to Denver who has not one but two bus stations located in the downtown core. The difference in Denver is that local bus routes still serve the surface streets with express and regional service routed through the bus stations. Denver's stations are also located underground and where more successful with selling the air rights above the stations. Both stations are connected by Denver's free 16th Street Mall shuttle buses that make frequent trips between the two stations.

Denver is now in the process of replacing the smaller of the two stations with a new larger bus station as part of their Union Station redevelopment project. The bus station will still be underground but will also be a connection from the new light rail station to Union Station which will not only be serving Amtrak but also Denver's new commuter trains that will be running in the next few years.

Another problem that can crop up with downtown bus stations is the value of the property they sit on. In one smaller east coast city, property values and development started hopping in the downtown area so city officials wanted rid of the transit center so the property could be developed into more "useful" purposes. The bus station was not seen as an asset, or part of the downtown area, it was seen as a nuisance taking up valuable land resources.

Looking at the Salt Lake situation, the question is, where would you put the station in order for it to be convenient to a majority of the downtown users, convenient for all the bus lines to get to, and would have enough area for operations?

An ideal situation would have been to integrate it into the design of City Creek Center, although the developers of that project may have seen bus riders as undesirable in their new complex. Most of the other areas would be on the west side of downtown which would place it too close to the already existing Central Station.

The best current solution for Salt Lake City would be to put in dedicated bus lanes to improve bus flow and make bus waiting areas as welcoming as possible. This will do more for transit ridership and the riders than building a duplicate transit center.

Any city or transit system should learn the following lessons if deciding to build a transit center:

-What will be the long term cost of operations and can the transit system afford it on the long term?

-Will the station be designed to flow into the surrounding area or be cut off from the street?

-How will you deal with the perception that too many of a certain type of people hang out at the transit station (whether it be homeless, teenagers, or some other group that others consider undesirable).

-Will air rights above the station be sold and if there is a desire for that will public opinion and the area's economics allow it?

-If real estate starts to boom, will your property be protected from having a hostile city council from keeping the transit center off the land to sell it to a developer?

The number one reason to build a transit center/bus station in a downtown area should be to provide the best possible service to customers, not as a redevelopment solution or a way to move buses somewhere else. Build a transit center for the wrong reasons is only asking from it to fail in the long run.

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Spokane Real Estate said...

Yes I do think that real estate has started to boom, every property will be protected from having a hostile city council to keep the transit center off the land to sell it to a developer.

Matt Miller said...

I'm told there was a significant amount of discussion about using the parcels just north of Gallivan center (SW corner of block NW of 200 S. and 100 E.) as a more central transfer facility. It's currently occupied a Carl's Juniors, a knitting store and a pawn shop.