Ideas for an Ideal Subway Station

Let’s make the world a better place to live in, one twig at a time.

Both inbound and outbound passengers should stand on the same platform, one, in the center and not two with tracks separating them.  Why?

Subway Stations

Just a few rough ideas on how to make the best subway system platform and station.

1) One Platform: Both inbound and outbound passengers should stand on the same platform, one, in the center and not two with tracks separating them.  Why?  If there are only a few passengers, why would a designer or engineer separate them, cutting their numbers in half when safety in numbers is a reality in life? Keep all passengers on one central platform to keep everyone safe. The truth is the vast majority of engineers don’t have the artistic or human sensibility to design places for humans, they are bound by their notion of beauty is in the structural efficiency of a particular scheme, hence they miss out on so much that should be considered.  On that note there are so many public projects that must, in the future, be lead not by engineers but by Architects.  We can be easily awed by the shear scale of certain engineering projects, but size or scope does not equal quality.  Any structure or edifice must be a balance between structural integrity and human function, and those function include our perceptions and moods that are evoked from the things we build.  On larger stations with multiple tracks a ‘one platform policy’ wouldn’t work.  Still no platform should ever serve just one track.

2) Center Circulation aisle: Create a center aisle right down the center of the platform for people to walk, from one end of the centralized platform to the other.  Why? Why would anyone concerned with safety allow passengers to walk next to the platform edge?  Perhaps the real question why haven’t existing designers and engineers been concerned with it?  Creating a central corridor free of benches, stairs, columns or other obstructions that is at least 6 feet wide will enhance one’s experience, i.e. improve their quality of life, and, create an efficient flow of pedestrian traffic while promoting safety.  I don’t know how many times my daughter has become very nervous being forced to walk within 3 feet of the drop off into the track area.  As most US codes state, any ‘edge’ (such as a subway platform) must have a handrail with any openings being less that 5 inches across, but, for some reason, and I really mean excuse, on subway platforms this law is ignored.  The least we can do is offer a viable alternative to walking close to the edge of the platform through the use of a central circulation spine.

3) Minimum width of Platform: Number two above implies that platforms must be made wider to accommodate a central circulation space.  Yes, because in truth it is a minimum requirement.  Existing conditions on, for example, most New York city subway platforms, are unacceptable and reflect an out dated sense of priorities and code regulations.  Codes and Zoning have evolved and our stations must reflect the safety concerns they protect.

4) Minimal column impact: Columns should be either on the wall of the track area or next to the central circulation spine.  Putting columns next to the edge of the platform is not acceptable because it invites people to walk between the column and the edge of the platform which is inherently dangerous.  Thus, there could be two columns flanking the central circulation spine creating a barrel vault or some other architectural expression, making the experience of our stations much more pleasant. The reason there are so many columns in existing older stations is for two reasons, one is that the steel used is typically composed of many parts riveted together which is something we don’t need today, and the second is by shortening the span of a beam you can make it’s height less, thus putting the top of platform closer to street level.  While that is important, keeping the platform close to the street, with today’s escalators and our ability to tunnel, an extra foot in depth to allow for longer spans would not be significant enough to warrant adding additional columns spaced closer together.

5) Clean Surfaces: Water that infiltrates a station creates muddy, moist and basically gross conditions.  The upper structure and side walls need waterproofing to encourage water to flow around this structure and not find ways into the interior spaces of subway stations.  This means that the depth of stations would have to be slightly lower than is typically to accommodate a second crawl space between the street structure above and the platform ceiling structure below.  Water that makes it to the ceiling structure would hit a rubberized roof membrane and be directed to gutters and downspouts in such a way to guarantee no leaks.  On both surfaces, they would be curved, not only for structural considerations but to also move water away from the center, i.e. no flat surfaces above the platform would be used.

6) Cleaning Machines: It’s not enough to replace tiles and clean surfaces when renovating a station.  The NYC subway system needs cleaning machines that ‘lock into rails’ to allow them the leverage to clean not only floors but also walls, columns and ceilings.  There’s nothing more disgusting than feeling like you’re standing in a dirty and smelly gas station bathroom when waiting for a subway.  Maintenance machines that run on a schedule autonomy should clean both the platform area and the subway track area (dry brush system).  Because of the masses of people who use stations, leaving them dirty and neglected is not acceptable. Quarterly cleaning crews should follow up to ensure everything is spotless.

7) Weep Holes: There is no reason to have weep holes in a station as all exterior water should be directed to drainage pipes below the track level with easy to maintain sump-pumps that could handle the worst flooding conditions.

8) Utility Chases: Chase ways for cables and other electrical and communication devices should be incorporated into the sides of walls and covered with easy to access panels.  Never should lines be exposed to the public.

9) Variety of Lighting Conditions: Lighting should be both direct and indirect to offer some relief from lighting that is plane and ‘gray.’ There should be focal points of interest in the linear design of a station.

10) Access points to the platform should not be at the very ends but at the 2nd and 5th positions of a 6 bay system, or in the 3rd and 4th positions when a centrally located booth is considered.  This is to allow easier flow of commuters into and out of a station without having to walk the extra distance to the end.  This also limits how many people one would have to pass in order to reach every point on a platform thus reflecting the efficiency of such a layout.  Finally, this would allow easier access to all areas on the platform for police or emergency services.  Because there is one platform, there could be one booth and station manager which will immediately save on operating costs.  Having two booths for split platforms is an inherent waste of resources.

11) Smoke Egress: The ceiling above the tracks would be higher than the ceiling for the platform.  This is to allow smoke to move away from exit areas and pedestrians and to allow the release of air pressure when a train enters a station.  Furthermore vents to the exterior would be located in these areas for the same reason. These higher ceilings would also be even higher at the ends of the platform away from entrances and exits.  Stairs leading to platforms would be enclosed  and thus have the lowest ceiling height preventing smoke from entering waiting areas and entrances above.  In essence, if there is a fire, the natural flow of smoke would be directed away from all pedestrian areas.  Mechanical means would be considered a secondary system providing positive and negative zones that reinforce these natural air flows.  Mechanical systems are secondary because of the chance of failure, and because we are talking about life safety failure is not an option, hence reinforcing ‘natural flow.’  To supplement ‘natural flow’ air scoops would be on the surface and initiated by fusible link if there were smoke/fire conditions creating a positive pressure from the center of the station outward.

12) Replacement of Surfaces: Paneling systems for both floor and ceiling should be designed for easy replacement with the flip of a clip/screw.  This is so stations could be maintained in a facility and panels could be switched within a couple of hours keeping all stations in tip top shape well into the future.

13) Spacious zones: There should be ‘ample zones’ on the platform that allow people to gather in a group, at the entrance/exit areas to break up the monotony of the linear design of the station.  Therefore one would think of a station as being somewhat of an egg shape, narrow on the ends and wide in the middle.

14) Eliminate firms that don’t have a grasp of these important design concepts: Agencies should use this list to see if their Architects and Engineers are incorporating some if not all of these components to ensure they won’t be left with an edifice they will have to endure for decades and perhaps centuries to come.  It is much easier to maintain something that is built right from the get go, and thus will cost less in the long run, than to build something cheap that requires endless renovations.  It’s time that we invest in the future as well as every day from the moment the station opens in the quality of life of each passenger that has to experience what is built.

15) Entertainment and Information: Wide screen TV’s should be located to run ads, information and schedules.  These can be part of a focal point in a station.

16) Ticket booths should be located on or next to a platform.  It is important that a station manager have direct access, in a safe location, to respond to any emergency instantly and call for help immediately.  This booth would be located central to the platform and as close to it as possible.  This might mean it is located on the platform or directly above it with the ceilings above the platform in this area lower that other areas.  It should be visually accessible with glass enclosures that allow visual access yet create a clean and non-confusing separation between ‘haven’t paid’ and ‘paid’ areas.

17) Simplicity of mechanics: There should be no moving platforms to span the gap between the subway interior and the platform.  Instead the curvature of the track must allow for proper platform to be constructed.  The cost and safety concerns of moving platforms is not warranted and thus must be eliminated in the layout of a station.

18) Flow of water away from center: Station tracks should be slightly higher than outside the station to force flooded station water to recede away from platforms and pedestrians.

19) Surface either invites debris or allows for easy cleaning: Track sub-structure should be smooth to allow easy cleaning instead of exposing structural ties.  Structural ties can existing under the finished surface of a rail system.

20) Sound deflection and absorption: Instead of the solid wall next to a train being concave, which focuses sound onto the platform and into the ears of waiting passengers, it should be convex to reflect sound into sound absorption panels in the ceiling.  This implies that there is structure behind the convex surface because structurally and traditionally that concave surface is part of a barrel vault and is ‘holding back’ the earth around it.  Still, while structure could be seen and does have an aesthetic, in terms of quality of passenger experience, in a subway station a concave hard surface is the wrong thing to propose.  Designed right, the wall could reflect sound into absorption areas that instead of reflecting sound absorb it.  Because those surfaces would be porous and thus could collect dirt, they would be hidden from view with a system of stepped baffles.

21) Non-porous materials: Concrete absorbs moisture and dirt, therefore no exposed concrete, brick, stucco or other porous materials should every be used as a finished surface in a subway station.  This includes joints between tiles, therefore all surfaces should be non-porous, non-puncture, non-scratch, non-rust, lightweight, fireproof and strong.

22) Future growth of buildings around a station: Foundation walls of a station would be created to accommodate future construction of new buildings above on the surface.  Because stations offer a pedestrian circulation opportunity, and thus a focal point in a community, buildings should be ‘set back’ from the street line to create focal areas in the community. By doing so stations will add a component that is typically missing in neighborhoods, and that is well traveled and occupied public areas.  By creating these nodes and acknowledging them with the displacement of buildings communities would have the opportunity to expand their own quality of life.  Regarding structural foundations and retaining systems, the foundations, always in fear of being disturbed by future construction, would acknowledge their location on the surface with patterns that are easily recognized.


1) It will cost more to centralize entrances and create a lobby space.  Currently there are typically 4 entrances and tunnels reaching a typical station, located near the ends of the platforms.  It doesn’t cost more to move these entrances to a centralized location and have their ‘tunnels’ be combined into a central space.

2) It will make pedestrians walk further to catch a train.  Only if there happens to be a train on the platform at the time they enter.  Say a person reaches the ‘end of the platform on the surface’ and enters the system.  If there is no train they can walk to where they want to enter the subway car, as most people do when they consider exiting. Typically there is plenty of time before the next train comes and only in certain instances does this make a difference and only when a train is in the station.  Further, actual access points to the platform would be spread out, but not all the way to the end.

3) It is not as safe not having exits at the ends of the platform.  Granted there are minimum distances to an exit point as prescribe by code, but these exits shouldn’t be exaggerated and the system itself should be considered as a hole.  Centralizing safety systems including  having smoke egress exit at the ends (considering that smoke currently exits out the exits themselves as there is a natural chimney effect already in place, while side vents do help), the cost of sprinklers in a central lobby versus spreading them out at the extreme ends of the platforms (although sprinklers are not part of current systems), and, having wider platforms with a central aisle provides more options to move versus narrow aisles that can trap a person who might be under threat of a mugger, makes incorporating a complete design concept far better than our current system.

4) It will cost more to incorporate these ideas.  Yes, but it always costs something, but given mass production and the advantages it carries today versus when most subway stations were built, we are in a position to creating designs that will be fundamentally more cost effective and safer over the long term, with the added bonus of every station being ‘clean’, bright and spacious without the need for endless renovations.  Take all the money that is wasted on 5 to 10 year renovations of each station and put that money towards a permanent solution and we’ll have the money for rebuilding.

5) This might work for local stops, but what about 4 track express service stations? Again this is a questions of building less infrastructure which would absorb less finances because of less square footage to maintain, by putting express trains on local tracks when the enter a station.  That’s right, a simple switch would put an express train on the local track to enter a station.  This wasn’t deemed practical or safe when our subway system was created but today with advances in technology it would be easy enough to accomplish.  Typically there is already a track diverter before and after a station, so no extra costs would be associated with this ‘addition’.  Further, there would literally be less track, platforms, stairs, tunnels, surfaces, etc. to maintain creating a fundamentally huge savings in money for the agencies involved, and thus for riders.  So you’re saying that two trains, a local and express, can’t pull into a station at the same time allowing people to make a connection?  Yes, but given strict schedules there would be no delays for passengers.  How would people know what train is local and which is express when it pulls into a station?  Signage, both on the train and above the platform.  We live in a new age and technology is readily available to meet those needs.  Because it is both a local and express station, there would be more exit/entrance points, a larger platform to accommodate more passengers, and other amenities that could be added.

6) There are many existing utilities underground around these existing stations, how could you create a larger width station and still not disturb these systems?  Existing systems is yet another important topic regarding their ease of replacement and maintenance.  Because the subway platform project as proposed would impact these system it offers an opportunity to do them right.  Chaseways for telephone, cable, steam sewer, electricity and other items need to have tunnels large enough to accommodate trollies and other machines used to inspect and repair these components without having to tear up the street.  Again, with a redesigned utility system, one made for the future of low maintenance and created using mass production, there would ultimately be a savings in money and a fundamental disappearance of surface trenches and utility trucks disrupting traffic.  A station design would incorporate a new way of thinking regarding those services and provide a new master plan on how it should be done.


1) Impression of the City: Visitors from other countries and cities come to NYC, and their impressions are certainly impacted by what they experience.  Our subway stations are a part of their experience and it is fundamentally embarrassing.  While there are a few stations that are charming, the vast majority are less than utilitarian.  If they were fully utilitarian they would at least be clean, bright, safer and more spacious.  As it is 10 million riders are experiencing an embarrassment every day.

2) Construction Methods and Speed to Completion: Mass production could create the components of a station, and if using ‘dig and cover’ methods of construction the components could be dropped in with cranes to minimize the construction phase impact on a community.  Fundamentally all construction would be completed off site and reassembled on site.


1) Impression of the City: It’s funny that if one finds all the things that would fault such a system, that they would potentially kill a project that incorporated these elements and leave instead the financial fiasco that we are currently living with, in place.  Many home owners and others who want quick expansion use cheap construction methods to get them to their goal as fast as possible.  Their two main concerns is 1) can i get that extra room, and 2) how little money can I spend to get there, because i want that money for use elsewhere in my life.  We, considering their point of view if for something that is for themselves and not for tens of thousands, the impact of such an attitude on the public is minimal, except if large communities have shown they’ve expressed that attitude.  For example, Somerville, Massachusetts shares a city boundary with Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Both are very different cities and they look it.  Somerville has touted itself as a place where the worker can live (I guess they mean their housing must look poor and shoddy) while Cambridge has implemented certain zoning regulations to ensure that ‘crap’ doesn’t gain a foothold in their city.  Over the decades the contrast couldn’t be more striking.  One has trees and beautiful homes while the other is hot, cold and desolate.  Yet I’ve lived in both areas and the price of living wasn’t different significantly, and certain if Somerville had used Cambridges attitude and provided the quality of living that Cambridge had, thus increasing the number of quality housing then I suspect the prices would be the same.  The point here is something that services so many people should not be thought of in terms of a short sighted ‘gain’ but instead should incorporate a vision for the future.  It’s easy to throw up a little house addition, and if it falls apart perhaps it doesn’t matter especially if you sell the place and move on.  But subway stations are a permanent part of the city, are used by millions, leave an impression, reflect on city attitudes, reflect on the characters of those who create them, expend human hours to create, will need to be beautiful not for a few months but for decades…..

There are certainly more ideas, but given the hour put into this article I think it’s a pretty good start at addressing many issue that have plagued so many existing subway stations.  To be continued…

copyright 2012 Nicholas Buccalo, SimpleTwig Architecture.  All rights reserved.  If you wish to incorporate these ideas into your project, contact SimpleTwig Architecture to ensure proper credit is in place for your project.


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