Home PANYNJ Link: Transit megaprojects and the battle between form and function

Link: Transit megaprojects and the battle between form and function

by Benjamin Kabak

A less-than-spectacular view from above. (Photo via WTC Progress on Facebook)

As long-time readers (or even recent converts to the site) know, I am not a particularly big fan of the Port Authority’s PATH Hub at the World Trade Center site. It’s a monument to an architect and a mall ahead of a transit center. Already, what’s opened has been both overwhelming and less than impressive with narrow staircases and insufficient access to the platforms. As form and function pull at a limited pool of dollars, the PATH Hub is the epicenter for the debate.

Yesterday, The Atlantic’s CityLab published a piece of mine on that very topic. It’s the culmination of years of railing against the price tag and design of the PATH Hub. I’m not against great design for transit, but as it does at Grand Central, the design should flow from the function. Santiago Calatrava’s monstrosity does just the opposite as form overwhelms function.

An excerpt:

From a practical perspective, where Grand Central seamlessly integrates commuters with its purpose as a rail depot, the Port Authority’s new hub fails its customers, the PATH-riding public. One platform is already completed, and its design flaws are obvious. Staircases are too narrow to accommodate the morning crowds who come streaming out of the trains from Hoboken, Jersey City, and beyond, while the narrow platforms quickly fill with irate commuters. Anyone trying to catch a train back to the Garden State risks a stampede. The marble, bright and sterile, picks up any spill, and a drop of water creates dangerously slippery conditions until a Port Authority janitor scurries out of some unseen door, mop in hand. Passenger flow and comfort, two of the most important elements of terminal design, seem to be an afterthought. The PATH Hub is shaping up to be an example of design divorced from purpose.

The price tag too creates consternation among those fighting for sparse transit dollars. For $4 billion, the Port Authority could have extended PATH to Brooklyn, built a one-seat ride from Lower Manhattan to JFK Airport or helped cover the cost overruns from the dearly departed ARC Tunnel. For $4 billion, the MTA could build out most, if not all, of another phase of the Second Avenue subway or the lost 7 line station at 41st Street and 10th Avenue five times over. At a time with real needs for regional transportation improvements, a $4 billion missed opportunity stings….

In his writings and lectures on “Why Architecture Matters,” the architectural critic Paul Goldberger writes: “When architecture is art, it does not escape the obligation to be practical, and its practical shortcomings should not be forgiven.” Politicians choose architects who create buildings with visual designs that leave a mark in the public memory. For an occasional visitor to Lower Manhattan, Calatrava’s building is a sight to see, but for an occasional PATH rider, Caltrava’s platforms and staircases are a reminder that transit users in the eyes of celebrity crafters are afterthoughts. The riders don’t post photos to Instagram and swoon over a stegosaurus-like structure rising out of the ashes of the Twin Towers; they grumble about narrow staircases and shoddy construction.

Please do go read the full piece at CityLab. I try to end it on an upbeat note. We as a society used to design great buildings that were also functional. If we try hard enough and focus properly, I’m sure we can do it again.

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John-2 October 8, 2014 - 1:35 am

From above, it looks like the world’s biggest toothpick dispenser.

Which isn’t any better than a stegosaurus, but as noted, the transit part of the terminal was never what this was all about. It was the above-ground section that the builders cared about, much in the same way Robert Moses not only disliked subways, he hated vehicular tunnels, seeing them as nothing more than bathroom walls with paving that could never come close to matching the graceful magnificence of his bridges that all of New York could see.

lop October 8, 2014 - 4:25 am

Was that it? Or did moses just focus on bridges being much cheaper? A Brooklyn battery bridge that he favored might have had twice as many lanes for the same price as the tunnel.

MIchael H October 8, 2014 - 7:11 pm

Maybe true, but read Caro, to see Moses’ true motive.

Douglas John Bowen October 8, 2014 - 2:38 pm

Cliche check, Paleontology Division: Folks gotta stop being so Jurassic. It’s more like Ankylosaurus, Cretaceous period.

And, yes, that’s nitpicking. But no less intense than some transit advocates arguing about differences in the A Division and B Division.

sonicboy678 October 8, 2014 - 8:02 pm

To be fair, there are legitimately some differences between the A and B Divisions; however, these primarily stem from design choices back to the origins of the IRT, IND, and BMT. These differences are kept for practicality purposes; that said, they still have more in common than LIRR and Metro-North.

Larry Greenfield October 8, 2014 - 3:14 am

I’d like to see a comparison of cost per traveler for PATH’s Calatrava station vs. the MTA’s new Fulton Street station.

sonicboy678 October 8, 2014 - 6:42 am

That’s comparing apples to carrots.

Joey K October 8, 2014 - 10:21 am

More like apples to ducks.

Michael K October 8, 2014 - 2:22 pm

Are PATH passengers special or something!?

Douglas John Bowen October 8, 2014 - 2:39 pm

Sure we are. One can infer from Mr. Kabak’s constant numbers comparison — though I dare not say he implies — that we are inferior, at least from a transit ridership/political perspective. And perhaps he is right on both counts.

BenW October 8, 2014 - 11:33 pm

Your trolling is awarded 0 points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Benjamin Kabak October 9, 2014 - 5:23 pm

Inferior because I think spending $4 billion on a building that suffers from extreme functional flaws? Come on.

lawhawk October 8, 2014 - 2:51 pm Reply
Eric F October 8, 2014 - 4:01 pm

The WTC average figures are a bit cooked in my opinion. The weekend figures are suppressed by the fact that (1) weekend service is spotty (this year non-existent) due to construction; (2) WTC is a hub below an active construction site. I’d expect that weekend figures will be up dramatically in 2015 compared with 2012. The weekday figures are already over 40,000, and that’s without the occupancy of a single tower of the four planned towers at the site. Two of those towers will start seeing tenants during or before next year. In short, the passenger numbers are not that far apart.

Eric October 9, 2014 - 5:22 pm

So if the number of WTC passengers rises by about 80% (hard to imagine), it will be about equal to the number at Fulton Center.

Meanwhile, the WTC stop is three times as expensive as Fulton.

Nathanael October 12, 2014 - 8:47 pm

…and the platforms and staircases are too narrow, and the floor surfacing is slippery and inappropriate.

Whereas at Fulton, they opened up the platforms by removing clutter, and added staircases. You know, like you do if you are trying to accomodate a lot of people.

Joey K October 9, 2014 - 6:23 pm

I still don’t understand why ridership is the chief comparison here. The biggest problem with the PATH Transit Hub is that it’s called the PATH Transit Hub when really it represents the umbrella term for all of the below-ground elements of the entire World Trade Center complex (minus the Calatrava dinosaur), which happen to include a PATH station.

So, that being said, if we compare the yearly revenue generated by the PATH Transit Hub vs. the yearly revenue generated by the Fulton Center, I think the numbers would be much more reflective of the construction costs. In terms of ridership, sure the Fulton Center will have more for now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future. But in terms of use by non-passengers, the Fulton Center will not come close to the PATH Transit Hub, which includes over 200,000 square feet of top-tier retail space and will be directly connected to all of the World Trade Center properties as well as Brookfield Place. This retail space, by the way, is over three times as much retail space as the Fulton Center. And I say “top tier” because it is important to note that these square feet are commanding higher prices per square foot than the Fulton Center. The MTA pushed for an Apple Store in the Fulton Center, but guess where the Apple Store is opening up downtown… I don’t think a single tenant has been announced for the Fulton Center. The PATH hub also enhances the PANYNJ’s surrounding buildings which all link directly into the underground complex. This will help support higher rents in their buildings (if they can eventually find tenants for 1WTC…).

So yes, if you are using ridership as your benchmark, the Fulton Center will win out. But the PATH Transportation Hub is not solely about transportation. It’s also about enhancing the PANYNJ’s properties and generating revenue through the largest luxury retail space in lower Manhattan. As a transportation investment, it’s hard to square the $4 billion cost considering total ridership compared with, say, NY Penn Station or even the Fulton Center. And we have both read about the reasons why that price is so much higher than originally anticipated. But the transportation hub is really about so much more than just transportation.

Nathanael October 12, 2014 - 8:48 pm

If the PATH station had been designed properly, that might be fine.

But it wasn’t. The platforms and staircases aren’t doing what they need to do.

adirondacker12800 October 12, 2014 - 9:50 pm

As far as I know the platforms where designed in the late 60s/early 70s when they were rearranged for the original World Trade Center.

Thomas Graves October 13, 2014 - 12:47 pm

How about a radical idea? A transportation hub that’s at least mainly about transportation? You’re apologia attempts to justify absurd cost over-runs, lousy design and construction quality of a train station, because it’s “about so much more than transportation”. A ridiculous excuse!

lawhawk October 8, 2014 - 9:01 am


Excellent piece, and it speaks to many of the observations that I’ve noted here and on my own blog. The design put function a distant second to form, and the form is debatable. I’m sure it will be a favorite on Instagram and photo sharing sites for years to come, as commuters grumble about the incessant problems with the platforms, the access to platforms, and counter commutes.

The thing is that the Port Authority had all kinds of tools at its disposal to mitigate any of Calatrava’s issues with the designs – particularly foot traffic and flow through to the platforms. There’s software packages that can model how a given setup will work. It would appear that they ignored this.

Mind you, all the problems with the new platform in service is taking place with an 8-car train. The Port Authority plans on extending cars to 10-cars, particularly on the Newark-WTC line. If the remaining platforms have setups similar to the Hoboken-WTC line currently in service, you’re going to have several hundred more people trying to get up the same cramped stairs and escalators with the same issues for counter-commuters.

It’s a mess, and there’s no one left to blame but the Port Authority officials who signed off on the mess. Can anyone (Gov. Christie or Gov. Cuomo) hold them responsible? I doubt it. They just want to see it done so that they can hold the ribbon cutting ceremonies.

John R October 8, 2014 - 9:17 am

Ben, you’ve really hit on the crux of the issue with the WTC hub in this post. In truth if you look at the surface level foot traffic connecting from Fulton St to the World Financial Center, and soon to the WTC towers, there will be a tremendous amount of foot traffic through the transit hub. That being said, it seems like almost all function was sacrificed in many places. The Dey street corridor, for example, was narrowed and will be an utter nightmare once this is all open. The path train stair cases are horrendous, and the platforms too narrow to really feel comfortable. They’re nice off peak when no one is there but in the heat of rush hour, the stegasaurus-sized problems rear their heads.

Unfortunately, the folks at PATH appear to not understand pedestrian flow. The way that they organize the flow of escalators at JSQ is a clear example of this. They create massive choke points of crossing traffic. I’m highly disappointed that the new PATH hub is so poorly designed from a user standpoint. My only question,

Is it too late to create wider platforms before the whole project is too far along?? It probably is, oh well. This will certainly be a useful case study of how important it is to start with function and add form later.

lawhawk October 8, 2014 - 10:39 am

It’s too late to change the platform width. That’s set by the track geometry and space for mechanicals and other underground components.

The one place where they might be able to improve matters is the access to the platforms – either by replacing escalators with stairs, or putting additional staircases in. Even then, that might not be possible due to the way that they designed the platforms with minimal columns supporting the levels above.

Douglas John Bowen October 8, 2014 - 2:42 pm

As this writer noted in the CityLabs comment section for Mr. Kabak’s piece, the platforms, and staircases, for other portions of track level do appear to be wider, more able to handle customer flows.

And there’s that Stego reference again. (Buzzer sounds.) Whatever the presumed ugliness of the Calatrava station, it doesn’t look anything like a Stegosaurus to me. Or to 3rd and 4th graders I’ve talked to — and who knows dinosaurs better than that age cohort?

Llqbtt October 8, 2014 - 9:24 am

An important difference between GCT and the PATH Hub

GCT was built by a for profit entity with the express goal of enhancing those profits, i.e. making GCT as usable and as appealing as possible to build ridership.

Joey K October 8, 2014 - 10:19 am

I understand the “for-profit” moniker is the difference. But PANYNJ does not receive government subsidies. It’s not the MTA or NJTransit or Amtrak. Its “profits” on the PATH hub are just as important to it as GCT profits were to the Vanderbilts. On the other hand, you can argue that Penn Station doesn’t matter as much to Amtrak because they get billions of dollars in subsidies to cover losses throughout their system. They even mortgaged Penn Station and have done very little to generate non-train revenues or improve the station. But PANYNJ, in building such an expensive hub, is keenly aware of the ability to generate additional revenues through the retail and real estate elements of the PATH Station. They need the PATH Hub to be as profitable as possible. And judging by how quickly the retail spaces were snatched up, I think they should be making significant money as soon as it opens. One WTC on the other hand…

Mickey C October 8, 2014 - 7:02 pm

Sounds good in theory, but only in an alternate universe. In this universe, the PA’s ability to print money at its bridges and tunnels covers the runaway cost of this vanity project. Even if you believe that high crossing tolls promote some societal benefits like reduced pollution the cash they generate would still be better spent on the types of things Ben suggested like subsidizing ARC or the PATH to Brooklyn.

SEAN October 8, 2014 - 8:41 pm

Perhaps true, but I really don’t see what the problem is beyond the cost overruns. I don’t think it looks all that bad, but being visually challenged may cause me to miss the esthetic flaws.

Keep in mind also what you see at the WTC is what you could call “the Westfield look.” If you take a jaunt to Garden State Plaza, you’ll see what I’m referring to as the mall gets renovated.

Nathanael October 12, 2014 - 8:51 pm

Pedestrian flow doesn’t work right and the floors are inappropriately slippery.

Those are *real* design problems. Priority one should be to make the station function as a station, and that wasn’t done.

Eric October 13, 2014 - 8:51 am

Of course the floor problem can be fixed with a thin layer of concrete. As for Calavatra’s artistic vision, well, f*** that.

adirondacker12800 October 9, 2014 - 2:40 am

They were planning on subsidizing ARC at 3 billion for the construction costs.

Joey K October 9, 2014 - 11:25 pm

Here’s the thing. If the year were 1999, and they were deciding how to allocate capital spending for the next decade, I would agree with you. There are certainly plenty of other projects that were more time-sensitive. But following 9/11, the mandate was made, there must be a rebuilding of the WTC site, and through the public debate, the current vision for the WTC was born. This meant doubling down on the resurgence of Lower Manhattan and trying to establish downtown as not only the great commercial center it once was, but also the retail and residential center it never was. It’s hard to remember just how different the WTC area was in the 1990s, let alone the 1980s and 1970s. The PANYNJ chose to invest in a site plan that incorporated significant retail and public elements. The PATH station is called a transportation hub, but it is so much more than that. It connects the entire WTC site with the Fulton Center and Brookfield Place. It will have more than 200,000 square feet of retail space. And but for the underground complex, it would be impossible to facilitate an above ground open space memorial park.

Being that PANYNJ had to rebuild the WTC, I’m pleased that they went all in on the complex in order to make it worthy of New York City. There are certainly valid criticisms in terms of cost overruns and other things discussed on this site as well as other publications. This happens across most public construction projects unfortunately. But in terms of scope and aim, I’m very pleased they were not timid in their design. I could hear the cries of “Penn Station Downtown” had they significantly scaled things back… It will be a truly enjoyable space when completed, and one of the grandest and most functional the city has seen in a long time.

adirondacker12800 October 10, 2014 - 12:18 am

also the retail and residential center it never was.

It used to be farmland. I’m sure sometime between when they built the wall and today there was residential and retail there.


Joey K October 10, 2014 - 1:34 am

Resident population in lower Manhattan rose from around 5000 at the turn of the 19th century to a high of around 20000 in 1850 before falling to and staying in the 10000 range from the late 1800s through the 1980s, when Battery Park City and urban renewal brought new residential developments in previously industrial and commercial areas. But the real growth began in the late 1990s when the city started the current economic and residential boom that has seen tremendous growth throughout the city, including lower Manhattan where population has increased by over 400% over the last two decades. The creation of new retail spaces and public parks and plazas is integral to this transformation. Radio row was a shabby collection of old, low density construction, nothing worth getting nostalgic over.

adirondacker12800 October 10, 2014 - 1:54 am

It doesn’t count if it’s not upscale retail and condos for rich people?

Joey K October 10, 2014 - 9:09 am

Lower Manhattan was never a residential or retail center for anyone, rich or poor, until the last two decades. In the first decade, it was very much an affordable neighborhood. Look at developments at south BPC or older developments on Greenwich Street. Since then, development has exploded and market forces drove prices up.

I don’t understand what you are arguing. You seem to just be making unconnected comments. My point, which I think I’ve backed up with facts, is that the WTC developments currently under construction help compliment the overall transformation of Lower Manhattan and will help cement it as not only the commercial center it’s been in the past but also the residential and retail center it never was. A few blocks of radio stores and sporadic residents did not make Lower Manhattan a retail or residential center in the past.

adirondacker12800 October 10, 2014 - 3:59 pm

Just because it’s been commercial in your lifetime doesn’t mean it’s never been. There have been things going on down there since the last glacier receded. At the time there was an actual wall where Wall street now is, it was swampy where the World Trade is. Sometime between now and the time the last glacier receded it’s had many uses. The people making their living on Radio Row were engaging in retail. It may not have been their primary focus but an individual could go into those stores and buy one thing at a time. The apartments over the stores may have been converted to storage but they were apartments at one time. The landmarked and preserved townhouses up in Independence Plaza were and are townhouses. The farmland was developed into housing, the housing redeveloped into commericial and it was re-redevloped. It’s being re-re-re-developed. Things may have been different since you were born.
…. an electronics store

Eric F October 8, 2014 - 5:42 pm

For some reason, the station always looks better to me at night. Maybe it’s just because the crowds have thinned out, but it seems more impressive at night. Like many people, I’m hoping that it looks fantastic at all times of day when it’s completed.

EJ October 8, 2014 - 8:46 pm

Practically any building looks better at night. Especially with what they can do with lighting these days. If you’re defending a building based on what it looks like at night, you’ve lost the argument.

D in Bushwick October 8, 2014 - 7:45 pm

Like it or not, the Hub will become an instant landmark that will be the dominant image associated the WTC complex and that is a positive thing.

SEAN October 8, 2014 - 8:58 pm

Absolutely! With all it’s flaws, it’s still going to attract plenty of travelers, shoppers & onlookers. And in the end that’s the point regardless of what it looks like.

Could you imagine the outcry if the PA said we’re not going to rebuild beyond the temporary PATH station? They would be accused of being unpatriotic & giving in to the terrorists blah, blah, blah & everybody here instinctively knows that.

Eric October 9, 2014 - 5:24 pm

What if they said “We’re not going to rebuild the current functional station, but we are going to take the $4 billion and build a brand new rail tunnel to Lower Manhattan instead?” I think people would be in favor.


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