The Europeans love their trains, but as station managers, they face nothing like the Japanese challenge: Shinjuku Station in Tokyo sees some 3.6 million souls pass through its doors on an average day — more than the entire sum of daily passengers on the London Underground. Shinjuku Station, even more so than Frankfurt’s Hauptbahnhof, conforms to the famous, frequently cited, and even more frequently ignored advice given by Metro de Madrid boss Manuel Melis Maynar on the subject of building efficient transit systems: “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.”
The “starchitect” is almost always and everywhere the enemy of the public good, but American public planners, keenly aware that despite its many charms Philadelphia is in reality no Paris, have a terrible weakness for celebrity architects and public grandiosity. Add in corrupt and inefficient U.S. municipal institutions and you end up with our current perverse situation: American cities frequently spend much, much more than their European counterparts on transit projects, but get a lot less for it.
Despite some technical problems, Frankfurt’s Hauptbahnhof opened five years after ground was broken; New York City’s Second Avenue subway line has been under construction since 1919, and no one knows when it will be fully operational. As Stephen Smith points out in Bloomberg View, the first two miles of the Second Avenue subway will cost $5 billion, and New York will spend at least $3.8 billion on a single subway station, designed by celebrity architect Santiago Calatrava. “If New York could build subways at the prices that Paris and Tokyo pay, $3.8 billion would be enough to build the entire Second Avenue subway, from Harlem to the Financial District,” Smith writes.
And if we expected form to follow function — or if we were simply to acknowledge that the world already has one Sydney Opera House — then Calatrava’s downtown subway station might seem to us superfluous. You be the judge.