amsterdam centraal

The train platforms in Amsterdam’s Centraal Station are completely accessible to the public.

You can get to them, even if train tickets have not been purchased. Because of this, the platform is public space — and a direct extension of the city’s street life.

The train-fares in the Netherlands are collected by the OV Chipkaart system. It is highly automated so the gates onto the platform are left open. Paying train-fare correctly is the responsibility of the traveller, and not the train authority. Tickets and fares will often be checked on board, once the train has left the station.

ov chipkaart

The open gates of the OV Chipkaart

That the Centraal Station’s platform is public space means it plays a strong role in the psyche and imageability of the city. The wide open concourse and sweeping architectural arches that form the iconic half-cylindric roof of Centraal Station are available for appreciation from a wide audience, even those who aren’t taking the train.

I like this feature because it is fundamentally about access: not having to pay to get into somewhere changes its nature and role in the city. We can feel the potency of the “public” in public space.

union station

Toronto’s Union Station

Toronto’s central train station, Union Station, is currently undergoing a revitalization. Its dingy train-platform is being “Europeanized”, and plans show a lovely glass atrium with sweeping architectural gestures that reference Train concourse halls built in the late 20th century constructivist tradition (e.g. the Eiffel tower).

union station 2

Architectural rendering of ‘revitalized’ platform

I am excited about this project: it shows a shift in perception and a respect for rail infrastructure as a viable means of transportation versus the car – this is a big deal in auto-oriented North America.

But will the Union Station platform be similarly part of Toronto’s public space, an extension of its street life? Will we be able to explore its grandness without necessarily taking the train? It wasn’t before, and as a result, it doesn’t play a strong role in the city’s image.

I often describe North America as a “private property paradise”. It would be healthy for Toronto’s identity and imageability if Union Station’s platform was a public space, but at odds with the private nature of space in this city. Now that I think of it, the main hall of Union Station, a beautiful concourse is indeed a public space, enabling chance encounters, lingering and undeniably contributing to the imageability of the city. Technology, such as the OV Chipkart system in the Netherlands enables that publicness to extend even further onto the platform — a more equitable experience of the city.

I wonder what the platforms will be like in Union Station.

See also Honour System Anarchy