A preliminary design concept for MassDOT’s expanded South Station (pictured throughout), which is Boston’s busiest rail station. This exterior view features grand entry portals engaging Dorchester Avenue and the waterfront along Fort Point Channel. All photos courtesy HNTB

A preliminary design concept for MassDOT’s expanded South Station (pictured throughout), which is Boston’s busiest rail station. This exterior view features grand entry portals engaging Dorchester Avenue and the waterfront along Fort Point Channel.

All photos courtesy HNTB

By Dean Kimball

City living is invigorating. People are drawn to urban areas’ energy, diversity, and nearly limitless options for work, living spaces, and cultural amenities. Millennials have chosen metro living in record numbers, but CityLab research shows the migration actually began in the 1990s, before the millennial generation came of age. It encompasses a broad generational cross-section, including empty nesters and baby boomers wanting to relinquish dependence on automobiles and have easier access to cultural and social amenities and services.

With the growing number of city dwellers, demand for and reliance on urban transit has exploded — a fact that compels metropolitan leaders, transit agencies, and transit system architects to focus greater attention not only on efficiency and operability, but also on designing systems that enhance customers’ daily travel experiences. This, and several other factors, are driving heightened recognition of the value of seminal architecture in transit facilities.

Iconic transit architecture trend
While elected officials and transit authorities have long been aware of transit systems’ ability to make a statement and project an image that generates civic pride, the architectural design emphasis in the past has been largely on function and maintainability.

As traditional funding sources have dwindled, it is harder for transit authorities to fund and build much-needed projects. Agencies have begun turning to alternative delivery methods, often focusing on transit-oriented development that integrates multiple funding sources and stakeholders who push for iconic architecture that differentiates their project from others. Agencies have responded to these newer stakeholder voices by seeking a more balanced approach from the architectural design process.

The foundation of a transit project remains life safety, security, and functionality. Any system that doesn’t operate correctly will quickly lose public support. Without minimizing function, however, the more balanced approach recognizes a transit project’s potential to attract business and development, enhance property values, and create a legacy structure that offers an inviting climate for both travelers and those who will work in the station.

Interior view of expanded trackhead and new passenger concourse.

Interior view of expanded trackhead and new passenger concourse.

Transit-oriented development
The trend toward transit-oriented development positions high-quality transit stations as center points around which walkable, mixed-use communities can grow. Designed correctly, a transit station serves as the catalyst for the whole area to become a destination.

While the industry views transit-oriented development as a recent phenomenon, it actually hearkens back to the early history of train travel, when communities sprang up wherever trains stopped. Similarly, as cities have spread out, developers are attracted to the growth opportunities in areas surrounding transit stations, where large groups of people already are gathering.

No longer are transit hubs seemingly interchangeable, with stations serving as mere entry points to get to trains. Instead, on-trend design recognizes how each station can be used in its immediate context to connect communities through transit-oriented development and by engaging multiple modes of transportation.
It takes into consideration how a station’s accessibility, amenities, and aesthetics will help elevate local communities. In these ways, signature architectural design serves as a beacon to attract people and businesses to the area.

Boston’s train stations, for example, increasingly are becoming hubs for development. In 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT)announced it would explore new preliminary design concepts for an expanded South Station, which is Boston’s busiest rail station and serves some 75,000 daily passengers. MassDOT not only sought to expand terminal capacity through design of a functional and flexible space that can meet current and future commuter and intercity rail service needs, but also expressed a desire for the project not to preclude the opportunity to promote city-building in a key area of Boston.

HNTB completed the preliminary architectural design concepts for the South Station expansion as part of a Federal Railroad Administration grant, emphasizing intuitive wayfinding, easing passengers’ transitions from their trains to other modes of travel, including busses and the intercity subway system.

Another of MassDOT’s goals in this densely urban space is to retain a sense of openness. By reaching into the sky and connecting with the water of Boston Harbor, the architectural design preserves that feel, which, by design, won’t be built over or lost in future development. The design maintains a large open expanse in the boundary area above the platform area and concourses, where passengers have access to a rooftop waiting area.

The landmark design also honors Boston’s legacy as a harbor city, showcasing the station from Fort Point Channel, which flows into Boston Harbor, and linking the water to the structure through a new waterfront esplanade for pedestrians and bicyclists. Major entries to the station look out toward the water. The design preserves the openness and grandeur of the historic station while holistically expanding opportunities for transit-oriented development and better integrating the station into the local community it serves.

Expansive ETFE Canopy over platforms with elevated walkways connecting concourses.

Expansive ETFE Canopy over platforms with elevated walkways connecting concourses.

What’s ahead in transit design
As the expectations of passengers and communities served by transit stations continue to evolve, transit agencies and their architecture partners must respond with concepts and technologies that anticipate future needs.

These issues increasingly will affect and inform the architectural design of transit centers:


Technology has become essential to Americans’ daily lives. Passengers — especially millennials — who expect technology to both simplify and enrich their transit experiences, notice when it is lacking. Besides supporting millennials’ desire for sustainability, transit increases their opportunities for in-person and technological interactions. While succeeding generations may have somewhat different expectations, technology unquestionably will be critical if future stations are to attract both passengers and sustainable development. Transit agencies and transit architects must take steps to understand the technologies users desire and make them integral to the design process from the beginning.

Among its other benefits, technology has potential to enhance the travel experience by standardizing common processes — such as purchasing a ticket — across multiple systems.

Progressive technologies increasingly are being utilized during the design process. For example, virtual reality technology can simulate the experience of walking through a station. This view of the work in progress can help all stakeholders understand and embrace the project vision.

Creative deployment of newer materials is helping transit architects achieve landmark design. One such example is ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, a durable, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly cladding fabric. Being used in the Boston South Station preliminary design, this fabric — which is lighter than glass and easier to maintain and keep clean — permits natural light to filter into the station and accomplishes the size and mass needed while keeping structural members to a minimum.

Advertising integration
Massive digital displays already help with wayfinding and provide train schedules and other passenger information. Increasingly, they are being used to provide travelers with advertising about local or state attractions or other points of interest. Vertical walls, which previously merged into station ceilings as a matter of form, now are being pressed into service as focal points to display dynamic advertising messages and interactive displays.

Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAV)
As a way of moving people to and from transit centers, autonomous and connected vehicles will have huge impact as their use becomes mainstream. They may not displace current systems anytime soon, but they quickly will supplement shuttles and automated people movers as a means for connecting passengers to or from transit systems and airports or other modes of transportation and locations.

Passenger experience
Art, whether performance or visual, is gaining ground as a means for attracting new transit riders and giving existing riders a more satisfying experience. Incorporated into a transit center, art reduces travel-related stress, creates a dynamic connection with place and delivers a sense of community vibrancy.

Iconic transit center design not only makes stations more stimulating but also easier to navigate and make connections. By enriching the customer experience on every level, these signature facilities enhance current and prospective passengers’ perceptions of transit as a viable mobility option — and help fulfill the promise of energizing city life.   

Dean Kimball is Architecture Department Manager, Associate VP with HNTB Corp.