Monday, July 9, 2018

How MTA succeeded in building a landmark bus transit center in a disadvantaged community

This blog about urban matters, architecture, and transportation covers a broad spectrum of topics but it practically never touts the work of my own architecture and urban design firm. I am assuming this would turn readers off who are interested in a critical, factual non-commercial discussion. Here is an exception: A transit project, completed at the end of 2016:  So many stars aligned for this monument to public transportation that it is worth an article, even though my firm was the architect of record.
Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center (Photo: Wilson T. Ballard)

Interesting aspects of the project are, in part, surprising, innovative or should be part of daily practice on any transportation project:
  • how a Baltimore centered transit agency comes to build a transit center where none of its services operate
  • how agencies within the Sate DOT can collaborate
  • how federal funding is important for good infrastructure
  • how transit design can promote equity
  • how design and engineering can complement each other
I will address each separately.

How a Baltimore centered transit agency comes to build a transit center where non of its services operate

Maybe the most baffling aspect of the Langley Park transit center is that the MTA built it, even though not a single MTA bus will likely ever run through it. Users are Washington's transit agency WMATA, Montgomery County's Ride-On, Prince George's The Bus and UM shuttles.  (Metrobus C2, C4, F8, J4, K6 and K9; Montgomery County’s Ride On 15, 16, 17, 18, and 25; and Prince George’s County TheBus No. 18).
Scattered bus stops consolidated: Transit Center at black dot

What many Marylanders don't know: As a statewide transit agency, MTA, through its Office of Local Transit Support, provides support services for locally operated transit systems all around the entire State. In other words, MTA earns the M in its name not only because it provides commuter train service from Perryville in the north to New Brunswick in the south, but because of its coordination with local transit providers. As such it facilities and sometimes funds and designs facilities outside its service area. Eaxamples include the Metro/bus Paul Sarbanes Silver Spring transit center, the Purple Line and the Corridor City Transitway.  The justification for the Langley Park Transit Center in MTA's construction program read this way:
This area is the busiest transit transfer point, outside a rail station in the region,
with 11 Metrobus, Ride On, The Bus and shuttle van routes. The project will also address pedestrian safety issues. The project will accommodate a future station and connection to the Purple Line. 
The initial cost estimate was $12.31 million with funds coming from Montgomery County, Prince George's County, WMATA and Maryland Transportation Infrastructure Investment Funding. The Silver Spring Transit Center is operated by WMATA. This was originally also planned for the Langley Transit Center but the changed to MTA operating it as a more cost effective solution.
A landmark in a sea of cars and asphalt (Photo: Philipsen)

How two large state agencies can collaborate

At the root of the idea for a transit center was the fact that Langley Park at the confluence of University Boulevard (MD 193) and New Hampshire Avenue (MD 650), was the locale of a very high rate of pedestrian crashes.
At least 138 pedestrians have been struck by vehicles in the past eight years on a lethal 2-mile stretch of state highway that runs through this low-income immigrant community. Eight have died. (Washigton's Top News, May 2017)
The area provided a perfect storm for those crashes with two very wide and extremely busy suburban arteries bisecting in a community  with a very high rate of immigrants from South America. Langley Park residents use transit at a much higher rate than more affluent populations. Langley Park today is a working class community of about 19,000. Three quarters of its residents are Hispanic, 65 percent are foreign-born, many from Central America. In 2000, 68 percent of households had either one or no car, and more than 20 percent used public transportation. The path from the area apartments to the many bus lines operating along the arteries included almost always crossing one or even both of the busy roadways.
25,000 square feet of glass with 44PV panels: (Photo Kyro systems)

The MTA transit center was adopted into the official Montgomery County 2012 Sector Plan.

The high crash rates eventually had SHA make improvements near the area where the two State routes intersect:  A slew of changes were made including $191,000 for fencing on the medians, a new pedestrian signal, reduced  pedestrian wait times at signals, a lower speed limit of 25 mph in this area and increased use of speed cameras. No pedestrians have died since then.

A key safety feature, though dealt with transit: A center where all bus stops would be concentrated on a part of an older 1960s style shopping center would reduce the need to dart across the street to transfer from one bus to another and aggregate all road crossings at two signal protected crosswalks leading to the center. The transit center would be planned by SHA's sister agency MTA.
Langley Park Transit Center: Room for 11 bus bays (Photo: Philipsen)

35,000 bus riders a day transfer among 11 bus routes. They brave the congested terrain, walking as far as a quarter mile through a dangerous gantlet to their next bus. A Takoma/Langley transit center would consolidate the bus stops, creating a safer environment and bringing more consumer foot traffic to local businesses. (Maryland Newsline, April 2010)

CAD model rendering with future Purple Line (Image: ArchPlan)
The collaboration between MTA and SHA didn't end with designing for pedestrian safety but had to be extended to negotiations with the owner of the shopping center when the company was unwilling to accept two State offers to purchase the tip of the shopping center where a Taco Bell franchise sat and where the transit center was supposed to go. Only SHA has the ability to negotiate such deals and, should they be unsuccessful, condemn property via "quick-take". An eventual deal could only be reached after the owner had been offered a sales price far higher than the assessed value of the land as determined by various independent appraisers and after the transit center design at been peer reviewed by high powered consultants of the shopping center owner's choosing for its impacts on the remaining center.

How important federal funding is for good infrastructure

With the high cost of the land, the transit center would have become unaffordable if it were limited to the funds originally set aside for the project. The project was eventually saved by a federal TIGER grant of $13.9 million. The final cost came to $34.86 million, proving once more that infrastructure projects take a long time, face unforeseen hurdles, and usually far exceed original cost estimates.
“It’s a landmark,” It’s an area, a crossroads that’s always been sort of unremarkable." Takoma Park Council Member Fred Schultz
The federal money injection kept intact the intent of the center to become a landmark in the area signifying the importance of transit in a suburb heavily marked by the automobile. The basic functionality could have been achieved by simply arranging curbs and gutters the right way and by placing some standard bus stop shelters on some islands.
How transit design can promote equity and create value in a big engineering team 
No car parking but bike racks (Photo: Philipsen)

Designing for transit in the US typically serves a population which has an income below the median, less access to cars, consists more frequently of renters and belongs to a minority. All this applies even more when a transit facility is located in the heart of a highly segregated community such as Langley Park where 17 of all residents live under the poverty line (2000 data). When my firm ArchPlan was asked to join a team of engineers to work on a future transit center in Langley Park, equity wasn't foremost on our mind. Like most architects, we were glad to be able to assist in designing something.

However, it became quickly clear, that the project required much more than minimal functionality. It had to truly elevate transit in a sea of asphalt, cars, shopping center parking and bloated suburban intersections. That wasn't as easy as it sounds, even if sufficient funding is available. In the design of a transit center, the architect is a subconsultant to engineers, not the team leader as on building projects. The first challenge is the basic layout of the center, i.e. how the buses get in an out and how the various stops are placed, something which is typically worked out by
Ticket sale office, bathrooms,  transit police office: Facility building
(Photo: Brough Schamp)
transportation engineers, especially when it is as complicated as accommodating some 11 different bus lines on a tiny spot that previously only served a Taco Bell. The engineers think of turning radii, articulated buses, saw-tooth bus bays which make it easier to pull a bus tightly to the curb, and stacking lanes where buses can line up at the signal without blocking buses coming in trying to pull into their bays.

Naturally, the initial layout did not consider how a large roof could pull it all together and give the transit center a visual presence in the car centric setting. Luckily, collaboratively we were able to modify the layout so that it wasn't only functional but also compact enough to allow two large glass roofs. Steel trusses holding up the glass span up to 120' and arch to 42'. Two roof "shells" ride over top of each other and cover all the bays with an architectural gesture that stands out and gives transit and its users the signature structure that now defines the crossroads.

The project isn't just a proud center, it also features many green solutions: Rainwater is harvested from the large roofs and cleaned in an underground storage tank which also serves as an irrigation source for watering the plants. Small rains are collected in bio swales where plants filter it. The 25,000 squarefoot roof allows hot air to vent trough an opening placed above an area where no bus riders wait. An array of 44 solar panels around the vent opening provide electric energy that can offset a good portion of the energy needs of the 1,100 squarefoot facility building which is heated and cooled with environmentally friendly variable speed ductless ceiling units.
Under the roof the facility building (Photo Brough Schamp)

Without the rail service of the Purple Line, which will be constructed adjacent, the transit center is still smaller than the one in Silver Spring, but it already serves more bus riders than any other non-rail transit center in the State.  As far as I could find out, riders, people working in the center (there is an attendant selling tickets and a small transit police room) and bus operators have no particular complaints about the center. That may sound like a low bar, but in the real world that is about as good as it gets. The local politicians who made it possible find it beautiful. 
“Por fin!. This is going to be so much better. There’s more space. It is also looking very nice.” Zulma Berrios, bus rider
The project won a 2017 American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Quality of Life/Community Development Award and a 2017 AIA Good Design is Good Business Honorable mention.
Installation of glass panels. They are "fritted' with
 white dots to reflect heat (Photo Kyro Systems)

There is much talk about changing bus technology and new operation models (related article here) The need, though, for the bus to interface with its riders in a safe and convenient way will not go away. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Client: MTA. Lead engineer: The Wilson T. Ballard Company (WTB); architect: ArchPlan, Inc., mechanical/ electrical engineers: AECOM, Inc., traffic engineers: Sabra, Wang & Assoc., Inc. and RJM, Inc., landscape architect: AB Consultants, Inc. Contractor: Costello Construction.

Greater Greater Washington Washington: Langley Park’s new transit center opened on Thursday!

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