Most major transit initiatives can currently be divided into two camps: those that want to make our transportation landscape greener by creating alternatives to car travel vs. those that want to create a greener generation of automobiles. Arguably, both pursuits can lead towards the same goal of reducing environmental impact but each option brings with it significant directional decisions as to the future of our culture and how we design the built environment. In the end there may not be one universal option that fits a country like the U.S., but different courses whose implementation should follow the demands between urban and suburban development.
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National efforts for efficiency and conservation continue to lead us to analyze aspects of daily life to find opportunities ripe for sustainable progress. Our transportation infrastructure is one of the largest and most energy intensive systems that our country needs to function. As a result, every time a mode of transportation is pitched it comes laden with facts and figures as to how it is responding to our needs for increased efficiency. But across the board, how do all of these various players (hybrids, buses, planes, trains) stack up in the amount of energy it takes to get someone from one place to another?
With a growing pressure from the government, our economy is beginning to weigh the costs and benefits of reviewing our means of transportation and deciding which deserve promotion while others are best left unaided. Only last week President Obama announced his landmark (albeit under-funded) promotion of High Speed Rail with the doling out of $8 billion in loans. As Americans, our transportation choices decide the course of huge amounts of GDP. When one considers automotive sales, public transit funding and commercial aircraft the order of magnitude is already in hundreds of billions of dollars. It is no surprise that industries are all fighting to shift the course of the next two decades towards their respective products.
Even before I went to London, I had heard tales about its extensive subway system. Known as “the Tube,” many boasted that the infrastructure was easier to understand, cleaner and safer than New York’s MTA service. In short, I was hearing it labeled as “better.” While the Tube is an impressive system, a closer look at its operation and costs draw into question its existence as a system of “public transit.”
New York’s underground subway system began in 1904. Over a century later, it is made up of 26 different subway routes on 9 different lines with a total of 468 individual stations. It spans across four of the five boroughs with a total of 229 miles of route track distance and 842 miles of track bed (most of New York’s system are three or four tracks across.) Transporting an average of 5 million passengers every weekday, the system carries over 1.6 billion people annually.
Beginning in 1863, the Tube is made up of 11 different subway lines with a total of 270 individual stations. 250 miles of track spread across the neighborhoods of London. An average weekday hosts 3 million passengers, bringing an annual total to around 1 billion patrons. Like New York, the Tube began as a series of privately funded ventures that were eventually encompassed by municipal oversight and direction.
The train cars, also called “rolling stock”, of the Tube feature cloth-covered seats and colored handrails. Every car I traveled on was clean. The speakers announcing stations were clear. Comfort was a clear goal in the cars’ design and it was achieved. Averaging 8’6” wide, the average train is approximately 437’ long. New York’s cars are often wider at 10’across with trains as long as 600’ to provide a larger average capacity. Though New York subways can transport more passengers per ride, once inside the digs are not plush, merely smartly infrastructural with plastic seat surfaces easily cleaned. Finding a car where one can actually hear the announcements is hit or miss.
While the street grid of New York provides for fewer crossings of train lines, London’s web of streets forces many tracks be carved deeper beneath the road surface. Most tunnels in the Big Apple are 15-20’ underground, but London’s can go as deep as 65’ (a healthy five story building.) Not only can getting down to the tracks take longer, but air movement at such depths becomes more difficult. In the London heat wave of 2006, the temperature in Tube tunnels reached 117 degrees Fahrenheit.
The stimulus package has helped to renew consideration for updating our national rail system to include high speed trains, devoting $8 billion to funding new projects across the country. The desire for breaking into new territory is clearly there. Forty states have reportedly submitted $103 billion in requests for high speed rail funding (that is over 12 times the available pot.) However, unless we are complimenting these faster means of travel with smaller, more localized improvements to the network of alternative transit these dollars may be paying for a system with limited levels of efficiency.
These sleek trains that can travel in excess of 200 miles per hour are one of the more enticing visions of efficiency in bolstering alternative transportation in the country and limiting car and plane travel. Glances to European and Asian models give tantalizing possibilities of quicker commutes like traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours. Conventional wisdom pegs trains as far more fuel efficient than the energy required to fly a plane and within a radius of 600 miles, the train can actually be more convenient and faster when you factor in the arduous process of air travel (baggage, security, boarding, taxiing, deplaning.)
I am a complete supporter of high speed trains, but too many people are beginning to see them as the silver “bullet” for our travel woes and if they are not running between cities that have continued to build a network of alternative transit, their usefulness will be capped and keep us from the success that other countries have found.
Alternative transportation is an ecosystem of its own, encompassing every scale of travel from door to door. High speed rail is at the largest scale, great for covering large distances with as few stops as possible and performing well on a scale of transportation efficiency, but no matter what they are only part of the journey. Getting to and from the station in a sensible way is part of what makes the concept viable and attractive. Smaller, more localized systems must be installed to facilitate local access to high speed travel. Spending the money to connect cities without this infrastructure is jumping the gun.
Regional or commuter train lines offer the first level of integration of alternative transit, giving more people easy and cost-effective access to prime transport nodes of major cities. Unlike their high-speed brethren, these trains can make more local stops while still easily trumping the time and energy required of car travel. From there, local lines can take the form of subways, light rail or street cars that give easy maneuverability in urban settings and exponentially increase the amount of accessible destinations. Still further are bus and bike infrastructure that provide an efficient way for short, local trips while remaining efficient in both energy and space.
A true system that utilizes all of these components would drastically decrease the need, and convenience, of traveling by car—which is part of the idea. The more convenience that the system can sell, the more passengers will change their travel habits, allowing the cost of the service to drop, perpetuating the cycle.
Not transit programmed?
Our problem in America is that our cities (and perhaps more importantly, our suburbs) are not designed to accept these systems. The last half-century has been spent crafting our environment around car travel, making it no surprise that many people feel reluctant to consider alternatives. Most of our cities do not have these integrated systems, or even pieces of them, and remain slaves to roads, highways and viaducts. This is why some experts assert that, as of now, the Northeast is the only truly viable site for high speed rail where cities that have matured transit infrastructure can benefit. Having a high speed train stop in Los Angeles makes far less sense than one stopping in New York City.
Although I am a proponent for getting people to change, at a certain point the request becomes unreasonable if the extra effort is less convenient with no time saving and a higher cost. Critics of new rail systems point to existing infrastructure like Amtrak and its failed attempt to remain a profitable source of travel. The costs in construction and maintenance of railroads are extremely high and in a recession no one wants to sign onto a plan that will create black holes of tax dollars.
Their complaints are not entirely unfounded. Amtrak has yet to succeed in convincing enough people ride to keep the prices noticeably low, but what can we expect? As a country we have not succeeded in building our communities around alternative transport—we have not really tried. But if we are going to try then it has to be a holistic effort. That being said, the situation is improving. Amtrak has seen increasing record ridership for the past 6 years and running. The progress can be compliment by our cities, towns and suburbs being re-conceived with less deference given to automobiles. Picking the regions to receive funding for high speed projects could hinge on whether local municipalities can do parallel efforts to promote transit-oriented development on a local scale to increase the health of the entire network.
I am reminded of conservationist Willie Smits and his rebuilding of rain forests. As he explains, there is more to the forest than just the trees—an entire system at different heights, sizes and light levels that is mutually and intricately co-dependent. True rehabilitation efforts must address them all and alternative transit is no different.
Many people still seem to be interested in the new Bank of America Headquarters at One Bryant Park. Not surprising really—the greenest skyscraper in the world is something to marvel at. As a result, I decided to do a definitive case study on the building so more people could know exactly how green the skyscraper is. Having had the pleasure of working at Cook+Fox and specifically with Rick Cook and Bob Fox, I can speak to their holistic approach to sustainability and scrutiny that they apply to every design challenge. For those that know Rick and Bob, a finished product like One Bryant Park is no surprise.
The new Bank of America headquarters sits on the corner of 6th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City, overlooking the trees of Bryant Park leading up to the New York Public Library. Owned by the Durst Organization and designed by Cook+Fox Architects, at 54 stories the glass curtain wall skin of the tower rises to 944 and a half feet above the street with a spire that tops out at 1200 feet, making it the second tallest building in the city beneath the Empire State Building. In its 2.1 million square feet, the building seeks to become the greenest skyscraper in the city, and possibly the globe, being the first building of its height to earn a LEED Platinum rating from the United States Green Building Council and the second in the state of New York (after Cook+Fox’s own office.)
It is impossible to find a sustainable solution to a design problem that is not catered specifically to its immediate environment. Cook+Fox started with the site itself as a storehouse of opportunity. There are few concepts more inherently sustainable than density. Placed in the heart of midtown, the decision to build higher with more square feet anchors the project in efficiency from the start. Its location places the building on the same block as two subway stations, now linked beneath the tower, with access to 17 subway lines. Grand Central Station sits only two blocks away to yield an amazing access to the rest of the city and beyond. Utilizing one of the best mass transit systems in the country is essential to supporting more transit growth in our nation and steering the populace away from car usage.
Despite New York’s accomplishments, there are aspects of its aging infrastructure that remain fragile. One of the most prominent examples is its sewage and stormwater system. Like many old, American cities, New York was built in an age known for unbridled expansion and industrial strength—not environmental stewardship. As a result it has a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system which means that rainfall brings stormwater flowing into the sewage pipes. Even a small amount of rain can cause the sewers to reach capacity and stress the treatment facilities of the city. To relieve the congestion a mixture of rain and raw sewage overflows directly into the Hudson river. Any effort that minimizes the release of sewage or stormwater from a site lowers the risk of environmental damage by CSOs.
One Bryant Park collects every drop of rainwater that falls on its site, nearly 48 inches per year. A series of collection tanks distributed throughout the floors can store over 329,000 gallons of water that is used for irrigating plants and flushing the building’s toilets. But it does not end there. Greywater treatment on the site takes water from the building and treats it for use in the cooling towers that returns water back to the atmosphere in the form of vapor—essentially completing a cycle back to nature. Cook+Fox helped to cut the building’s water usage by half employing low-flow lavatory sinks and waterless urinals.
The building also stands as a prime example of how our cities can move towards a decentralized energy grid. Right now, our national grid is a bit clunky and kind of like a leaky pipe. For many power plants, pointedly the throng of aging coal plants in the US, as much as 66% of the energy produced can be lost right out of the stack in the form of heat. An additional 7-10% is lost in transmission so collectively three quarters of the energy we produce can be lost before it even gets used. The tower proves to be perhaps the best example to date of tapping into onsite generation. A 4.6-megawatt, natural gas-fired cogeneration plant provides two thirds of the buildings electrical demand and is expected to reach 77% efficiency (zero transmission.)
The usage of the energy is also maximized to provide the least amount of stress on the surrounding grid. At night, while demand in the building is low, the power will be used to make ice in 44 storage tanks in the basement of the building. During the day, this ice is allowed to melt and used to cool the air of the building, drastically lowering its energy consumption during peak hours.
When it comes to air quality, the building pushes the envelope again to deliver fresh air to the entire building that is filtered of 95% of particulates. Even more commendable is that the air that leaves the building will thus be notably cleaner than the air that goes in, rendering the structure as a public air filter for midtown. When the air does reach building occupants, it comes through an underfloor air system—a pressurized air plenum beneath removable floor tiles, that brings tempered air closer to occupied space rather than originating from the ceiling.
Sustainability is a cyclical concept knowing that there is no finality to the life of any process or product. Rather it is merely the prelude to another use or stage of existence. In order to minimize the impact of new construction it is vital to use materials that decrease the net lifecycle costs of the project including the material that comes in and the waste that goes out. One Bryant Park managed to surpass its goal of recycling 75% of its construction waste to end at 83%. Additionally, with materials such as concrete with blast furnace slag and 60% recycled steel, the building contains 35% recycled content.
One way to tackle energy savings is by incorporating efficient fixtures for workplace illumination. One Bryant Park chose to tap into more daylight for workspaces, evident by its clear exterior. By using baked frit to reflect light outside of the main vision plane, each floor has floor to ceiling glass that allows light to penetrate deeper into spaces and minimizing the need interior lighting and providing views of the city.
In two industries (New York development and corporate banking) where cost is always paramount it may seem counterintuitive that this team placed so much time and equity in making sure that their building embraced green qualities. Moreover, the fact that a financial institution was convinced that sustainable systems would prove profitable investments is a boon to the movement as a whole. So how did that work exactly? Yes, saving water and energy also saves money but the payback on such systems takes time and is likely not large enough to be considered a revenue stream. What turned heads was looking at how work conditions affected the productivity of employees. While the figures for environmental productivity are constantly debated, consider only 1% of a common working day: 5 minutes. The firm estimated that increasing the 1% increase in productivity of the workers in One Bryant Park would yield $10 million every year (a number clearly visible on the balance sheet.)
In many ways One Bryant Park stands as what will hopefully become a new standard in high rise, urban development. Like any successful ecology, all parts of the building process must be in concert in order to create a product of such caliber. From client, to tenant, to designers and builders, all components of creation and use were necessary to reach such an outcome.
[UPDATE: An article on New Republic took a stab at trying to diminish the progress of One Bryant Park while also taking a jab at LEED. My response to that article can be found here]
Transit initiatives have grown in popularity and acceptance due to their inherent ability to address two large concerns in the country: sustainability and stimulus. Truly, it’s about time. For all the advancement we tote around as a nation our public transit systems are often stymied by our foreign peers. The buzzword solution has become “High Speed Rail” prompting images of sleek trains zipping across the landscape as a blur epitomizing modern advancement. That’s all well and good. I am a big fan of high speed rail, but when it comes to assessing the ways to lower our environmental impact and bolster the economy there are other options. It is possible that a system that provides an answer is not bleeding edge technology, but one we have had for centuries. The Streetcar. Continue Reading…