This is a guest post by Ella Kay.
I’m currently staying adjacent to one of Berlin’s U-Bahn lines. I wouldn’t usually notice how proximate I was to a train line (apart from being near enough to a station), but couldn’t avoid noticing it here as the rail line is just below eye level of my fourth floor window.
It got me thinking about why elevated lines are built, and whether they deliver good overall outcomes relative to the space that they occupy. Here are some of my observations:
1. Nice view when you ride the train:
This is probably my personal favourite thing about this line. You zoom along above the streets of the city, giving yourself a great orientation of where you are, where you’re going and every wonderful thing in between.
View of autumn in Berlin from the U bahn
2. Activity beneath the line:
The elevated lines provide rapid transit while preserving the opportunity to have other things happening beneath the line. There are a few examples of the space below the lines being used in a way that creates place for people, usually beneath stations. For example, Schlesisches Tor – complete with a gig venue and a burger shop below the station:
Schlesisches Tor station, with burger shop to the right and gig venue under station
Bi Nuu (venue under Schlesisches Tor) Photo from Bi Nuu’s website
3. Except for beneath the stations, the space is rarely well used and results in severing the street:
Elevated lines may seem like a way to preserve existing transport options in a corridor while enabling new rapid transit. They do separate the rail line from vehicle traffic, enabling vehicles to cross under the lines. The lines of supporting pillars prevent the space from being preserved as traffic lane space. For the most part it ends up being used as ad hoc kerb parking or construction supply storage which accentuates the feeling from street level that the street is cut.
4. The severance is especially evident at night time and causes the area to feel unsafe:
As I’ve walked home many evenings, I’ve noticed that the street is a bit darker due to the lines above, and doesn’t really feel that safe. My observation is that this is due to a low level of lighting below the lines and the long distances between intersections or designated pedestrian crossings.
5. Noise pollution – the use of elevated lines is pretty loud:
Thanks to the frequency of transport in Berlin, I am reminded that there is a train line next to my room every ten minutes or so, between 4 am and 1 am each day during the week and 24 hours a day on the weekend. Admittedly, most transport except for underground options is loud for adjacent residents.
View out my window
6. Access to elevated line stations and platforms is not the most straightforward.
Although elevated lines provide grade separation of the rail and the vehicle traffic, access for pedestrians isn’t ideal. Elevated stations require stairs and lifts or ramps, road crossings and sometimes overbridges (depending on whether side or island platforms are used).
Stations with overbridges are a bit of a unit and possibly add more severance to the street:
Stations requiring road crossings just take a while to get to and the station entrance isn’t always legible or obvious. This isn’t a problem if you use the route most days and know where to go, but isn’t great if you’re a tourist or new to that part of the city. Here, at least, the frustration of seeing the train arriving and leaving while you’re waiting for the light to turn green is offset by knowing that another train will be coming very soon.
Kottbusser Tor station, requiring two crossings
Overall, elevated lines might be a good idea if there are compelling reasons for building them – i.e. as an alternative where it might not be possible to build underground and/or may not be enough space to build at grade (rail, light rail or busway) infrastructure. The only other reason for why elevated lines might be a preferable option is that it would be cheaper and possibly less disruptive to expand elevated stations in the future compared to underground stations (which would need to be bored). However, the stations here that have undergone expansion are analogous to the Harbour Bridge with clip ons, and don’t have a great aesthetic outcome.
The idea that elevated lines can provide space for transport without compromising an existing corridor isn’t borne out in Berlin. For the majority of the length of the lines, the space beneath the lines seems to be difficult to use. Only at the stations, where a density of people and attractive amenities below the lines, does it feel lively and safe. Elsewhere, the elevated lines seem to have a negative impact on placemaking and the feeling of personal safety of an area.