The Randstadrail. Image by flickr user Sytske_R.
Architects and urban designers may be no fans of elevated transport infrastructure and fair enough. Rarely is the overhead viaduct, rail bridge or elevated freeway a contributor to the urban form.
Typically, they sap the very life out of the surrounding area.
Notwithstanding that argument, however, is the fact that tunnelling is remarkably more expensive than building overhead transport infrastructure while providing the exact same quality and level of service.
Plus there’s the question of the view – but that’s something for a whole other post.
Now if the architects and urban designers of the world were willing to open their own wallets to make up for the difference in price between elevated and tunnelled transport infrastructure, then tunnels it is. But until that unlikely day ever arrives, elevated transport infrastructure is likely to be the preferred means of providing fully-dedicated rights-of-way for public transit in the near future . . . at least in places where virtual slave labour can’t be used to build said tunnels.
The entire problem with the elevated versus buried argument is the logical fallacy both sides present. The buried proponents argue that elevated infrastructure is inherently ugly and detrimental to the urban form and it’s a hard argument to refute when you see things like Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway or the Chicago El. But the argument breaks down because the fact that most elevated infrastructure is ugly doesn’t mean all elevated infrastructure must be ugly.
As I’ve argued before, ugly is an opportunity to be beautiful and elevated can be beautiful.
The elevated proponents, meanwhile, don’t do themselves any favours by consistently producing and constructing some of the most ugly and intrusive infrastructure ever unleashed on the urban form. You can’t claim that a piece of infrastructure will help a community when a great many historical examples have destroyed, decimated and cut-up pre-existing communities.
Let’s be frank here: Most elevated transport infrastructure is ugly and it’s therefore no surprise that architects and urban designers get all up in arms whenever a new one is proposed for any city. Just look at the debate over Honolulu’s new LRT line over at The Transport Politic here and here.
Which brings me to the Netherlands new light rail systems the Randstadrail. Opened in phases over the second half of the last decade, it connects The Hague with Rotterdam. While most of the Rotterdam system is underground, much of the track infrastructure in the Hague is elevated. And unlike most standard elevated tracks, these are elevated not just physically, but aesthetically as well. Take a look:
A Randstadrail station as integrated into a pedestrianized plaza. Image by deVos.
Note how the overhead rails don’t overwhelm the sidewalk below. There’s an elegant, almost beautiful interplay between street, rail and service. Image by flickr user Daniel Sparing.
An entrance up to the Randstadrail. Image by flickr user Daniel Sparing.
A train departs a Randstadrail station. Image by flickr user Ferdi’s-World.
From underneath the Randstadrail. The lattice work creates a sculptural effect that is almost organic. Notice too the space for pedestrians and the lack of support columns. Image by flickr user Gerard Stolk.
It’s an interesting example of using the elevated track as a visual cue, guide and corridor. It seems designed to play with the pedestrian at street level as much as it is designed to move people above street level.
Will elevated infrastructure work everywhere? Of course not. Some urban form dictates that elevated infrastructure is completely inappropriate and impossible. But at the same time, if one considers geologic and economic factors, some environments are completely inappropriate for tunneled infrastructure too.
At the end of the day architects and urban designers have a responsibility to understand the financial constraints cities face and cannot disregard all elevated structures simply because they’re “ugly.” After all, an architect’s or an urban designer’s job is to make the urban form beautiful within the structural, political, environmental and economic factors of the day. For an architect or urban designer to willfully ignore something as viable as elevated transport infrastructure simply on the grounds of aesthetics is to admit that they possess a severe lack of creativity and are quite likely just not very good at their jobs.
To draw an analogy: If you were bad at chemistry, would you run around claiming chemistry to be stupid, useless, harmful or ugly? Or would you instead rely upon people who actually did understand chemistry and knew how to use it responsibly?
Hopefully this current debate subsides in the near future. It’s harmful and it’s wasteful. Hopefully as the internet allows us to easily peer into the backyards and intersections of the world, systems like the Randstadrail in The Hague and projects like Zürich’s Im Viadukt will gain notice and can go a long way to showing the world that elevated infrastructure can be more, shall we say, elevated.