Train stations in Japan are a lot of things. They are busy – Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station sees two-thirds as many passengers as the entire NYC Subway. They are complex – the big ones are shared by multiple railway companies, from public to private and everything in between.
They are profitable – the majority of train lines in the Tokyo–Osaka megalopolis are unsubsidized, including many of the government-owned lines. One thing they are not, however, is attractive. Shinjuku doesn’t even seem nice by modernist Japanese standards, and the most extravagant post-war station I can find is Nagoya, which doubles as the skyscraper headquarters of the country’s biggest Shinkansen company.
Spending a lot of money on flashy stations is also not something that Spain, the world leader in cheap and efficient tunneling projects, recommends. In a report on railway expansion in Madrid, tunneling expert Manuel Melis Maynar writes: “Design should be focused on the needs of the users, rather than on architectural beauty or exotic materials, and never on the name of the architect.” And it makes sense – the point of transit is to transport. Money buys movement, and funds are finite. When a system is running well, people aren’t sticking around to stare at the ceiling, anyway.
As always though, America must be the exception. Spain would never spend $3.8 billion on a single starchitect-studded station, but its own Santiago Calatrava was happy to build one if New York was footing the bill. Calatrava’s original design called for an enormous bird-like World Trade Center PATH station whose walls would open up in a sort of flapping motion, but it was scaled back for security and cost reasons. The wings were clipped and evolution was set back a few hundred million years – the bird will now be a ”slender stegosaurus.” Even the originally projected $2.2 billion cost would have been more than Paris spent on its entire new 9 km-long Métro Line 14.
And then just one block away from the WTC boondoggle, we find the $1.4 billion Fulton Street “Transit Center” (a.k.a., subway station). Back in 2002 there was talk of selling off air rights above the station, the largest undeveloped parcel in Lower Manhattan, but that never happened. Like Calatrava’s PATH station, Fulton Street is essentially a reconstruction, and will not enhance rail capacity.
If American cities are ever going to grow beyond their currently stunted sizes, they’re going to need new transit infrastructure. But no amount of government subsidies will ever be enough to build more than a line here and there until we get our astronomical costs under control. To be sure, aesthetic projects are not the biggest driver of America’s breathtakingly high transit costs, but they are indicative of our warped priorities when it comes to mass transit.