Most of the debate over the building of the nation's first bullet train, in California, has focused on the economics of such a monumental undertaking and its projected $68-billion first-phase price tag. Largely ignored amid the excitement over the railway's recent official groundbreaking — on a vacant lot in a depressed industrial area of Fresno — is the physical impact and design challenges that cities will need to grapple with as they prepare for high-speed rail.
As the design process moves to center stage, California should look to rail systems across Europe to fully understand the challenge of building a transportation hub that connects to the community. The arrival of high-speed rail can provide opportunities to transform adjacent station areas and reshape local economies through thoughtful planning and policies that integrate the railway stops with the local business and physical environment.
In the U.S., the introduction of new rail systems has not necessarily been an upgrade for surrounding areas. This is clearly demonstrated in Southern California, where often-subpar Metrolink station locations and a lack of foresight in planning have confounded efforts to activate development around them. Commuters passing through Metrolink's Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs or Commerce stations have little reason to linger in the car-centric wastelands surrounding these transit hubs.
To make the most of California's once-in-a-lifetime chance at building a thriving transportation network, cities need to focus not only on the design of stations and their immediate surroundings but on the area extending half a mile around the station, the municipality at large and the broader region.
The stations should, of course, facilitate efficient and seamless travel but also serve as a destination for citizens who may come to shop, eat at restaurants or visit a theater or museum housed there. Many European rail stations do this quite well. For example, Madrid's Atocha high-speed railway terminal — built as an extension of the city's historic station — houses cafes, restaurants and a lush indoor tropical garden. In Germany, Leipzig's central train station incorporates a multi-story shopping promenade.
Though high-speed rail stations need to include luggage and waiting facilities similar to those in airports, their design should stray from airports' in one major way. Airports are essentially in a bubble, cut off from the city, while railway stations should link to the adjacent urban fabric. The architects of stations must focus on breaking down the barriers caused by coping with a massive transportation infrastructure, employing good design to place rail tracks out of the way and to increase the station's connectivity to its surroundings.
Parking structures should be scattered throughout and hidden as much as possible, linked to the station by shuttle services or moving sidewalks. Private automobiles should not be the only means of accessing the station; California has much to learn from the interrelatedness and ease of access that characterizes rail stations in Europe and East Asia. Many are adjacent to bus terminals, host bike- and car-sharing facilities and are purposely an easy walk away from shopping and major attractions such as convention facilities and cultural centers.
Planning also needs to take into account the wider municipal and regional context and assets. For example, Anaheim needs to encourage development of its recently opened transportation center as a hub with easy connections to its landmark neighbors: Angel Stadium, the Honda Center and Disneyland. Smaller cities should engage in complementary planning with bigger cities that are stops on the rail network and seek to identify productive relationships with newly accessible neighboring areas. For instance, a city such as Palmdale may be able to create affordable housing for workers who commute to downtown Los Angeles, because that destination would be only 30 minutes away by high-speed train.
We may have to wait until 2029 to ride a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but high-speed rail in California is no longer a “what if.” Neither is the need for well-designed railway stations with the potential to become city landmarks — and to connect Californians for generations to come.
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris is associate dean of academic affairs and a professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and a research affiliate at the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose.