If you have a direct, one-seat transit connection from home to work— if you don’t have to change buses or transfer from bus to rail— congratulations! You’ve managed to order your life sensibly. Many of us have been less wise (or lucky). With that in mind, I write today about transit centers, in defense of their importance if not their typical design or aesthetics.

And I’ll be using a broad definition of “transit center”. If you prefer “transit hub,” I won’t argue, but I mean any bus stop where a majority of passengers are transferring to another bus or train rather than walking to their destinations. In Austin, the North Lamar Transit Center calls itself a transit center. In Chicago, the 95th Street Red Line Station is usually called a rail station, but probably 95% of those using the station are transferring from bus to bus or bus to train. In some cases it’s not clear to me whether a majority of people are disembarking to transfer or to walk to a destination. Austin’s Republic Square bus stops downtown and Chicago’s Orange Line Station at Midway Airport fall into that category.

Those who enjoy well-ordered lives often envision rail or express bus ridership as people who walk to their stop from home AND work, but it’s clear that large numbers have to transfer. The 95th Street Red Line Station is clear on this. Like almost all of the Chicago rail stations opened between World War II and 2000, 95th was designed as a transfer point. You can tell from this architects’ photo that it wasn’t designed with pedestrians in mind; there’s practically nothing to walk to. Yet, not counting bus to bus transfers, 95th serves around 10,000 passengers a day, about the same as the O’Hare Blue Line Stop. And while Chicago should be commended for re-vamping the station in 2018, soooooooo much more effort has gone into trying to improve life for those O’Hare passengers.

How strong are 95th Street’s rail ridership numbers? 10K per weekday is more than any station on the Orange Line, including Midway Airport. It’s half the total for the entire Pink Line and about the same as the entire Green Line south of the Loop. It’s more than any Blue Line station outside the Loop and more than any Red Line or Brown Line station north of Belmont. A monumentally successful rail station doesn’t have to have anything within walking distance.

But it’s not just rail in Chicago. Austin’s better-used MetroRapid bus (801) gets a lot of walk-up boardings from its UT and Downtown Stations. (See page 87 at this link for April 2016 numbers.)  But outside that Central area and the successful Triangle 801 stop, bus to bus transfers dominate walk-ups. Tech Ridge, the North Lamar Transit Center and Southpark Meadows get higher boardings than any of the other stations. Oltorf and Rundberg edge out the South Congress Transit Center, but those enjoy high ridership crosstown bus connections.

The Triangle stop on the 801 proves you can have a successful station without an important bus connection. But North Lamar Transit Center and the CTA’s 95th Street prove that not every station needs pedestrian traffic. Sure, the platonic ideal of a station would include intensity (nearby residential density plus employment) and bus connections. But not every station needs to be the platonic ideal.

I have no idea why transit centers have to be so ugly. Well, that’s not true. I do have a suspicion. They’re usually designed for buses rather than bus riders. And the bus riders they serve aren’t people who have the wherewithal to order their lives around one-seat transit trips. Transit center riders don’t expect much from government, so that’s what they get. The people who forget about them don’t intend to neglect those of lesser means, but the effect is the same. If you envision light rail as serving environmentally-conscious burghers who walk from home to their rail stop and then disembark within walking distance from work— well, your vision is excluding a lot of people, maybe even a majority of those who need to be served by rail.

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