Review: MTA’s New Design Build Stations Are Way of The Future

Verdict: New York’s much maligned Metropolitan Transportation Authority has quietly, and cost effectively, completed impressive transformations of three stations along Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue Line. With a few caveats, I feel fairly confident suggesting that these renovations be replicated throughout the rest of the system.

Overview

New York’s subway system has received a fair amount of negative attention over the past twelve months. Rampant delays, declining service patterns and even derailments have created a feeling of general malaise,with state and city officials seemingly at odds on any sort of long term fix. Yet, despite the rancor and tumult arising from the city’s underground as of late, there is a rare glimmer of good news.

Starting in September the first of the three renovated stations along the BMT Fourth Avenue Line began to open to the public, and the reaction was decidedly positive. The stations were clean, modern and utilized next generation (for the MTA) information systems. Equally as important, is the fact that Transit employed new tactics and strategies in order to accomplish more with less; utilizing a “design-build” method that has become popular amongst other agencies, and opting to completely shutter the stations for six month periods, instead of keeping them open during work, so the job could be completed more efficiently.

The quality of station environments has often been underappreciated in the larger conversation of New York’s subway crisis. Yet, while tracks, signals, rolling stock and other critical infrastructure are ancillary to the operation of the system, stations shouldn’t fall by the wayside; they’re essentially New York’s most trafficked public space. We spend more time in our 472 subway stations than any other single or amalgamation of public space in the city and, unfortunately, most of these facilities are utterly miserable.

Compared to other cities, most of New York’s subway stations offer a filthy, bleak experience that is bound to upset even the most calloused spectator. Stations regularly small of bodily fluids, feature peeling paint, rats, stains and garbage. The lighting is often poor and announcements are rare. I don’t know of another city that features such run down subway stations, and certainly not in such a large number.

In the 90’s and 2000’s the MTA completed dozens of ambitious station renovations in various parts of the system. While generally praised, these upgrades were often limited to hubs, express stops or stations in busier parts of the city– local stations, especially those outside of Manhattan were untouched. For every Atlantic Avenue Barclays renovation there exist a Hoyt-Schermerhorn and Nostrand Avenue. For every Fulton Center, there is a Chambers Street and Bowery.

Station renovations are costly and time-consuming. With hundreds of stations in need of updates, it seemed as if the MTA might never make it to the system’s secondary and tertiary nodes.

The recent design-build renovations of 53rd Street, Bay Ridge Avenue and Prospect Avenue in Brooklyn provide some much needed hope that this may not be the case. With just over 72 million dollars and six months each, the MTA completed overhauls of three stations, the beginning of a larger plan to overhaul 31 local stations in the system.

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MTA President Joe Lohta and other officials tour the artwork installed at Prospect Avenue. Photo courtesy of MTA

Process

Easily the most controversial part of these renovations was the complete closure of the station for a six month period. On one hand, straphangers would be inconvenienced, having to walk to another station or find an alternate transit arrangements. On the other hand, however, with the contractor able to work unencumbered by revenue service, the work could be completed faster and more efficiently. Fortunately, stations are fairly close together on the BMT Fourth, so most riders would be able to walk to another station during the closure.

The MTA promised a 6 month time frame for each closure and delivered. Each station was closed for a period of nearly six months and promptly reopened on-time. If the MTA is going to use this approach for other stations, especially larger ones, it’s important for the riders to have confidence in the MTA’s timetables.

We don’t yet know if the MTA was able to deliver the stations on budget, but the $72 million dollar contract, roughly $24 million per station, is certainly laudable, especially when compared to other transit projects around town.

Station Features: Lighting

The lighting improvements are easily the most noticeable components of these station overhauls. Light flows from everywhere, directly and indirectly. On the platform, the traditional fluorescent rail has been replaced by an improved lighting fixture that directly illuminates platform edge below. A secondary layer of up-lighting has been installed along the wall to provide ceiling illumination.

Station entrances are equally embracive of the lighting concept.

The MTA has replaced the historic old iron station entrances with a modern black canopy. These handsome structures are adorned in bright LED strips and illuminated route-display information. While I have mixed feelings about the loss of the old iconic entrance structures, these new canopies make the subway entrance quite literally the brightest thing on the block, adding not only to the subway aesthetic, but to the overall streetscape lighting environment as well.

Those who chose to descend underground will find a handrails with LED lights on the underside and strips of lighting along the ceiling. The handsome blue tiling which lines the walls reflects reflects the light in a mirror-like effect, further enhancing the experience.

The fare control center has also been dramatically enhanced with light. Light comes down from dark matte ceiling panels via LED light housings and from lighting strips. These strips also provide uplighting as well, ensuring that station ceilings are equally illuminated.

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The redesigned canopy is pours light onto the streetscape. Also seen in this image is the non-operational information screen at 53rd Street.
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The stairways are well lit, with downlighting coming from the handrails and reflective tiles
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The platform features direct and indirect lighting
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Fare control areas are well lit and have received a design overhaul

Station Features: Design

With the arrival of these new stations, the MTA has come the closest that I’ve seen to embracing a uniform design idiom for its infrastructure. New York’s 472 stations feature a wide array of design styles, architecture, interior design and iconography. The seven stations, either new or completely rebuilt, stations that have been added to the system over the last decade have moved the ball forward on a common design trends, with slick silver finishes and platform features but the rest of the system is a mish-mash.

These newly renovated stations have a decidedly modern feel. In addition to the re-designed station canopy, the MTA has worked to re-think many of the stations fixtures.

The entire aesthetic of the station, despite the copious light, doesn’t overwhelm thanks to the addition of blue colored tiles and black ceiling lighting and furniture fixtures.

While the turnstiles remain unchanged, other fare control features are dramatically altered. Gone are the steel gate “fence” and in is the plexiglass wall. This new approach helps to make the station feel more open and airy.

On the platform a number of fixtures have been re-designed. The trash cans are smaller and square, and now completely flush with the wall. More controversially, perhaps, the stations seating elements have incorporated anti-homeless features. The benches have received a new finish as well as more aggressive steel “hand rests” while “leaners” have been introduced throughout the station.

Overall the design just works. It manages to enhance what was once a dreary station environment into a more pleasant atmosphere. The attention to detail, something that Transit has traditionally struggled with, is particularly praiseworthy. It really seems like the user experience has been really thoroughly analyzed.

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The new stations feature a comprehensive design overhaul. Seen above, fare control at Prospect Avenue. Photo courtesy of MTA/Patrick Cashin
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These new-style benches incorporate steel handrests that are designed to deter those who are seeking a place to sleep
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New “leaners” which prevent people from sitting at all.
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New minimalist waste receptacles take up less space but also hold less trash

Station Features: Information & Connectivity

These re-imagined stations were supposed to represent a stark departure from the MTA’s long running struggles with information access. From what I saw during my visit, the vision and foundation are there as long as the MTA can maintain and properly utilize the technology.

Screens and panels are everywhere.

Outside, a subway countdown clock has wisely been added to the station entrance in order to give straphangers a better idea of when the next train is coming before they go downstairs. For many, this will be a game-changer; if riders know they’ve got ten minutes to kill before the next train arrives, maybe they’ll chose to get a cup of coffee or a quick breakfast prior to swiping in. Knowledge is power.

The station entrances also have information screens on the outside as well, which have the ability to display service notices. This is also a game changer. If no trains are running below, I’d probably like to know before going downstairs. At the recently opened 53rd street station, however, at least one of the exterior screens were not operating (more on this shortly.)

On the platform and fare control level, information screens and countdown clocks are numerous. In contrast to the recently installed countdown clocks in some other stations, I found the ones here to be well placed and easy to see. The information screens deliver a variety of information about subway service changes and even nearby bus arrival times. Subway information screens are particularly promising; these large bright, dynamic screens are a much better way for the MTA to communicate the latest service change information to customers than cardboard posters.

However, some of the information screens were inoperative, especially at the newly opened 53rd Street. It would be great to see Transit fully utilize this new technology, and I do worry about the ability of the MTA to keep all the screens in working order and to ensure the information displayed on them is up to date.

The display choices on some of the screens was also a bit questionable. While the service status information is genuinely helpful, I was disappointed to see a “next scheduled train” screen. It’s well known that subway schedules provide woefully deceiving information to riders, and with numerous real-time countdown clocks located in the station, confusion will inevitably ensue.

I have another, albeit minor, nitpick on the information screens: If they’re all over the station, why do we still need the cardboard posters plastered around the station? The tape will just shorten the lifespan of the new paint jobs, and will likely confuse riders if out of date.

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Information screens help riders understand service disruptions
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Screens adorn the exterior of stations, so riders can find out about service changes below
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Countdown clocks help riders understand when the train is coming before getting to the platform
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Some of the information screens were inopoperative

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What’s the purpose of cardboard posters when information screens are everywhere?

Station Features: Cleanliness

The MTA claims that these new stations incorporate “easy-to-clean” surfaces. While only time will fully allow us to evaluate the meaning of that claim, I went to see how the 53rd Street station fared after about 2 months of revenue services. The results were mostly good, with a few warning flags.

At that station, there were noticeable floor stains towards the rear of the platform as well as some light buildup of litter around the seating areas. The news that the MTA could be potentially cutting back on station cleaning crews only exacerbates these concerns.

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Minor accumulations of litter and floor stains from trash were seen at 53rd Street

Station Features: Artwork

Recently constructed MTA Subway stations have excelled at wonderful artwork, and these stations are no exception; fun colorful murals grace the walls of the platforms and fare control areas. It’s heartening that artwork wasn’t overlooked during the planning process of these overhauls.

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Artwork adorns the renovated stations at the platform and fare control level

Summary

Overall, there’s real reason to be excited about the work here. Yes, excited about the MTA. These renovations were done quickly, in a cost-efficient and thoughtful manner. The attention to detail, and the willingness of the MTA, perhaps prodded by the governor, to pay close attention to the user experience has resulted in a station environment that is far superior than most other stations.

I still have some concerns about the MTA’s ability to maintain these upgrades. While the some MTA renovations are still sparkling, even many years after their completion, other’s quickly become dirty. Transit has a decidedly poor track record when it comes to cleanliness and quality assurance, especially at lesser used stations.

Assuming that this concern can be addressed, and the integrity of the upgrades maintained, the city and state should consider accelerating this overhaul program. If Transit spends $25 million, roughly, per station 100 station could be overhauled for a cost of $2.5 billion, a relatively small sum when considering the number of people the renovations would affect.

There are those who believe that station environments should play second fiddle to service itself, but that is simplistic and somewhat shortsighted. The rider experience inevitably will depend on high functioning subway service paired with safe, pleasant and friendly stations.

To generate this post I visited the Prospect Avenue and 53rd Street Stations on 11/4/2017. Featured image courtesy of MTA/Patrick Cashin

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