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:

Prinzenstraße station

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.

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72 comments

    1. Indeed, how could one enjoy the uninterrupted dawn skyline of Edwardian villas if a bloody great U-bahn was running through it?

      And that is the problem with the Superfund proposal. Getting light rail down Dominion Road at street level is already going to have to contend with an implacable NIMBYism. The chances of a raised line would be practically zero, the entitled opponents of that would be even worse than the Lib-Dem Remainers you get commenting in the Guardian.

        1. No comparison. Even if you disagree with Remainer Lib-Dems, at least they have principles and are sticking to them – unlike affluent inner city residents who talk a good talk about diversity, tolerance and inclusion, but are on hair-trigger readiness to fetch the pitchforks from the shed and chant “screw the greater good” if even a hint of urbanisation threatens their suburb. Disappointingly this includes overgentrified former left wing warriors and their relatives such as Helen Clark and David Lange’s brother

      1. “the entitled opponents of that would be even worse than the Lib-Dem Remainers you get commenting in the Guardian.”_

        Oh dear someone is confused.

    1. Illustrative of a very old system, look at Copenhagen for a modern elevated railway, it looks much nicer. Even the Docklands Light Railway is more attractive than this german example.

  1. Could you build shops and apartments under the line as part of the development. Would basically slice Dominion Road in 2. You would need regular openings to each side so service vehicles could circulate and engineering for both noise and vibration calming.
    But would certainly add serious intensification… and would take on it’s own character in time.thinking like a mini Gothic quarter ala Barcelona.

    1. It’s the sort of idea where the details would make or break it. In a 20m corridor, even if you only used a 4 metre structure, you’re left with two 8m streets, fenceline to building front. That’s very skinny, similar to High St. I think there would be a disconnect with what people expect in suburbia and what this would present. We would expect trees, especially to soften the structure aesthetically. If vehicles are allowed, I think the space would be poked.

      I think we need to be honest that we can’t even get simple, uncontroversial streetscapes right in this city. With this amount of space on Dominion Road, a beautiful streetscape is clearly possible. There’s room for trees and great walkability. But we don’t manage: https://www.google.com/maps/@-36.8983959,174.7437451,3a,75y,195.95h,83.16t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1ssOvKeTt9y0yG9AoTmZSSNg!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo2.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3DsOvKeTt9y0yG9AoTmZSSNg%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D264.65506%26pitch%3D0%26thumbfov%3D100!7i13312!8i6656

      1. Heidi in 20m there is room for trees only if you don’t have bus lanes or cycle lanes. Even collector roads in urban expansion areas are wider than 20m. Dominion Road is called an arterial, the Boroughs claimed they would widen it instead of having the Central Motorway but they never did. Now you have what you see. Soon it will be worse with tracks down the centre and bikes and cars squeezed into the sides or maybe a Blues Brothers style of elevated heavy rail.
        There is already a designation for widening for public transport but so far I haven’t seen any current plan that uses it.

        1. Even if there is not enough room for street running LRT down Dominion Rd in parts, any narrower sections could be dead-ended to general traffic as per a post on this blog a year or two back which allowed for cycle lanes as well.
          We could be bold and do that rather than try to pander to through running cars. They can use the Western Ring Route etc.

  2. Activity beneath the line: If we want to know how this would look in Auckland you only need to see the gloom that is the lower Hobson street flyover or Victoria Park viaduct where 5 years down the line they are only installs lights!!!

    Sadly we aren’t anywhere near as quirky or imaginative as the Berliners and it would just be additional parking wherever it went.

    All the places i’ve been, only El-Rail that I’ve thought looked good was the OG – The Chicago Loop. It ain’t for Dominion Road unless they bowl everything and build proper denisty along there but there is more chance of hell freezing over.

  3. I am not a great fan of elevated rail systems – but there is a potential solution to the dominance/severance issue. In Bangkok they have several kilometres of elevated rail in the inner city area which are supported on concrete decks with relatively long spans between substantial concrete support pillars. The trick is that rather than have the deck with minimal clearance underneath as in the photos from Berlin (which look like about 5 metres or 16 feet the decks in Bangkok are elevated something like 10-12 metres (33-40 feet) above street level which paradoxically reduces the sense of dominance as they are so far above pedestrians as to be barely noticeable and daylight comes flooding in from either side. Trains running on continuous concrete decks are much quieter than the steel lattice structures usually employed (think New York or Chicago). At stations the deck widens considerably, occupying much of the street width, with stairs and elevators below. There are also elevated motorways which use a similar approach (long spans between high supporting pillars). As far as I know the Bangkok approach is unique – every other elevated system I have seen is at minimal height and very dominant in the affected streets.

    1. To the Dominion Road residents, and those nearby, who have taken a keen interest in bus lane provision, bus stop resiting, cycle lane provision, and any other changes in their historic villages, including intensification, and allowing higher buildings, are you in for a surprise if the Superfund proposal gets the go ahead with an elevated railway running on a track 10 to 12 metres, about 4 stories above you. The effected corridor, with loss of sunlight and views, will be far wider then just the street front properties effected by any surface running light rail. Whatever way you paint it the support columns will require sacrificing one lane width of ground level, transport or placemaking space. The provision of above ground stations will again be much more space hungry and visually more obtrusive then on ground station provision. The vehicle speed advantage will be more then offset by the access time required to get to station platforms.
      The onus is on the Superfund to provide real world examples of such a system being installed and operating above an equivalent road corridor.
      There are now an increasing number of new street running light rail systems world wide to offer valid comparisons.

      1. Threatening Dom Rd residents with elevated rail could be a good way of getting them to support surface LR. Choice of two options …

      2. Good luck charging a targeted uplift rate with that trundling past residents second floor windows. I suspect there could be a drop in property values.

    2. This is Clementi MRT Station and bus interchange in Singapore, completed in 1987 https://goo.gl/maps/dZau2DKcCHrc5U1w7 Not as elevated as Bangkok but a leader in terms of construction. The space under the rails is often planted.
      This is the Bukit Panjang LRT in Singapore, opened in 1999 https://goo.gl/maps/bbgjDyTJxfH1nFRZA

      This is the Vancouver Skytrain https://goo.gl/maps/unoYaPVA1a8V6tRz9 Its a bit of an ugly duck but it does have cycleway in parts https://goo.gl/maps/rG8VFEzecGkojmkK6

      Bangkok, high enough to clear power lines https://goo.gl/maps/qAudHynzLfMyysj98

      Chongqing monorails have to be about the highest I’ve been on https://goo.gl/maps/GySVz4qvofWVuxVE9

    3. I’ve Just been in Bangkok for a week and was looking closely at the elevated rail lines and roadways. My conclusion was that they are a terrible blight on the city, mainly because of the barriers that they create. Hardly any of the elevated lines or roads near where I was staying made use of the space underneath – for the most part they were just wasteland. Not a great advertisement for elevation IMO.

  4. Good article. Reinforces the point that elevated light rail doesn’t preserve road space underneath it for traffic lanes and inhibits placemaking outcomes.

    The main project risk for a surface running light rail system is utilities relocation. You have to spend a lot of time locating and identifying pipes and cables in the ground (many of which are abandoned or obsolete), then waiting for design of replacements. And of course the half dozen different asset owners, whose permission you need, all want you to gold plate the replacement pipes and cables you’re installing for them. There’s not much geotechnical risk since if the ground can bear a road it can bear a rail line.

    With an elevated light rail line you still need to do utilities relocation around all the support pylon foundations. Those foundations are fairly frequent so it’s not clear that you’d have to do less work than is involved in a surface running system. Those foundations have to support large structures so suddenly geotechnical engineering becomes a much bigger risk.

    Of course elevated light rail is more expensive anyway (and this is possibly why the Superfund is pushing it). However it seems to me that it also has much more potential for cost overruns. The way these Public Private Partnerships usually work is that the Public client bears the cost overruns while the Private developer scoops up the profits.

    1. The way some of the PFI contracts were written in the UK for hospitals for example allowed the private provider to frontload all of the income into the first decade of the deal after it was signed and running. The deal was meant to be spread over forty years. This has resulted in massive deficits for these NHS trusts. Public entities seem to trip over themselves to give generous sweetheart deals to the private providers and assume ridiculous levels of risk. They justify this by saying the private providers wouldn’t do it without these levels of return. This ignores that simply borrowing at a sovereign rate is much cheaper. Lets hope our experience here is better, but the signs are not good so far.

  5. The new skyrail sections in Melbourne are great, the space underneath makes for some good trails and the level crossings get removed. Cant wait for the next one to be done. They look a lot nicer than those Berlin ones do.

    1. Sky rail runs in the rail corridor so opens up space that was not previously available. Elevated railway lines in existing streets are much less appealing.

    2. I’ve seen pictures of those, I think. And I was told that the two lines, which are separated, will have the space between them filled in. I hope they don’t do that, as the space is what allows some sunshine in.

    3. Luke remember those Berlin Skyrails most likely were built in the days before precast concrete and the means to trnsport the stuff

  6. Well… assuming we don’t want to put much below the stations, an elevated system seems ideal for putting in cycle lanes underneath.

      1. There’s a thought Heidi…….plant some trees and claim some carbon credits.

        You could get James Shaw to do the planting to offset his excessive use of air travel. LOL.

  7. Not to say it wouldn’t work on the North Western, where it would put the services at street level for the overpasses. In fact, it might be preferable should street level services on local streets ever be connected. But it’s totally unworkable for Dominion Road.

    1. minus 1 for me. I think you’re both wrong – it could work very well for Dominion Road. Especially when you compare it to what is there now: Currently 4 lanes of traffic, mostly confined to the centre two, as buses hammer up and down the edge nearest the pedestrians and the cyclists.

      Far, far better to put LR down the middle, on nice straight sets of tracks, remove all the buses, and route the cars down the lane near the footpath – giving you room to widen the footpaths too. Win win ?

      1. That’s the point… the busses won’t go. Even assuming that NZ Infra wants as expensive a scheme as possible (more money for them) there’ll be too few stations to serve as a substitute for the bus stops. Similarly adding the uphill component of getting to the station will reduce the effective walking distance; 800m where you just walk on is a different proposition to 800m + some stairs at the end.

  8. I doubt elevated rail will ever happen on Dominion. But just because it has been done badly in the past, doesn’t mean it could never be done right.
    Imagine a linear park the length of Dominion road protected from the rain, the elevated structure designed to look good having natural timber cladding around the posts and a minimal appearance.
    There are a lot of unmentioned advantages – higher speed, less chance of injury, less chance of closure, much easier to cross the road.

        1. No, actually. We are talking about elevated vs surface rail.

          Suggesting a park (shaded?) under an elevated line is putting lipstick on a pig.

          Did you see the pictures in this post?

  9. Just another thought. Google ‘England railway arches’ and click on some of the links and then on some of the further links, etc. You can find workshops, retail, cafes, bars, clubs, restaurants, offices, housing, public spaces…

    1. …along with several Guy Ritchie movies and an entire sub-genre of East End Gangster lore… The railway arches are (now) a key part of Britain’s heritage – Victorian brickwork erected in the 1850s, still going strong 170 years later. I’m sure that they were not liked at the time – but now the population couldn’t live without them and will slap a preservation order on them if you so much as look at them with demolition on your mind.

    2. A couple of years ago I spent a few days in Alexanderplatz, Berlin, just across the square from the station which is on the elevated stadbahn line. The station has S-Bahn (suburban/metro) and long-distance trains, there are shops underneath at street-level plus shops in the viaduct arches. The whole area was buzzing with people, loved it.

    3. Network Rail in the UK have recently sold the space under the arches to a venture capital fund who are busy throwing out many of the traditional small business tenants so they can gentrify and upscale the areas.

    4. …a large percentage of which have pun names such as the Archduke wine bar on the South Bank. If there is a hairdressing salon in a railway arch somewhere in the UK I bet it has the worst pun name ever

  10. I live near the elevated section (city section) of the Nishitetsu Omuta-Tenjin line in Fukuoka, Japan. Personally, I love the look of elevated rail in the city. But, Dominion Rd. doesn’t look like a city to me and elevated rail would look completely out of place in that suburban environment.

    I’ve never felt any unease near the rail line. It doesn’t feel unsafe and, running through the densely populated core of Fukuoka, is hyper-illuminated. So, it doesn’t necessarily have to feel feel unsafe.

    The space below the rail line varies from very well used e.g. kindergartens, recording studios, convenience stores etc. to very poorly used e.g. a handful of carparks.

    So, in a dense urban environment, I love elevated rail. It just looks cool to see a train zooming by 20m above your head. In suburban Auckland, though, nope. It would look absurd.

    1. “I live near the elevated section (city section) of the Nishitetsu Omuta-Tenjin line in Fukuoka, Japan. Personally, I love the look of elevated rail in the city. But, Dominion Rd. doesn’t look like a city to me and elevated rail would look completely out of place in that suburban environment.”

      Agree. In KL, the new MRT lines are elevated, in some parts they must be 50m high, and they look great. But they are that high to span motorways and flyovers and in that context, are really impressive. However the cost of that elevation, including the stations, supports and escalators, lifts etc must be astronomical compared with surface rail.

      A comparison can be made with the LRT and KTM lines (and some parts of the MRT before it goes underground in the CBD). They pass through areas like Dom Rd and its horrific. True, they tend to be lower in height. But its just not right. Its destroyed the street level as anything enjoyable.

      Regardless of height, I think what people don’t take into account when pushing for elevation is the additional costs for stations in the air and all the support and access they require, as well as the fact that the supports for these lines take up two car lanes anyway. I could see it being used down a motorway corridor but elsewhere, no thanks.

    2. It’s low scale suburban now, but isn’t one of the key roles of the transit corridor to promote high density urban development alongside it?

      1. Auckland’s version of “high density” is nowhere near dense enough to suit an elevated rail line. A few 5 storey apartment blocks is not high density.

  11. Ella Kay – nice post, thank you for that. I wondered, since you are in Berlin, what you think of the Hauptbahnhoff? Personally, I think it is one of the more exciting and dynamic stations in the world – designed by van Gerkan Mark and Partners, who are the big kahunas of German modern architecture – but it hardly ever gets any press outside of Deutscheland. Maybe you could do a review? Thing is, it brings all the Bahn to the yard, with the U-bahn and the S-bahn and the ICE etc – really amazing space. Multi-storey elevated railways at their best.

    1. Thanks Guy, I’ve been there a number of times before and I think it does well at what it was designed for. Is there anything you’d like me to go and have a closer look at particularly?

  12. The is another con:

    Elevated lines blocks the view for retail. So retails will be much worse off as a result.

    Generally elevated lines do harm to the streets-cape and devalues the surrounding environment and should be avoided on area where people spend their time.

    However Elevated line can be used near motorway or industrial area where the surrounding area is already rundown and does not need to be made nice.

    1. What harms streetscapes everywhere is cars. High traffic volumes on urban routes ruin place. The system that makes road pricing politically feasible will do the most to improve steetscapes everywhere.

  13. Make the entire length seperated Cycleway underneath without too many crossings and could be great for bike/scooter journeys.
    I.e. Partially covered with ability to have well lit from lighting above.

    1. While I think that’s a good use of the space underneath, I think elevation is unnecessary for Dom road, even if it were a possibility to get through.

  14. Arguments like this can be put to rest by asking the people of Berlin: Would you trade your U-Bahn for a tram system following the same routes that provided for nicer streetscapes in areas where it is elevated but would provide slower, more crowded trips at lower frequencies?

    1. Yes, and asking the people of Berlin with good street level systems whether they would trade them for an elevated system. The devil you know affecting responses, and all that…

      1. Better still, ask the people supporting elevated lines on this thread how they would feel about a 10ftx4ft concrete pylon outside their front door and a track running at the height of their second storey window.

        If we are going to put a cycleway underneath then this presumably means support structures that span the road and put pylons on both sides of the road, as opposed to a single pylon in the middle of the road. More space taken. More concrete towers. More place-ruining guaranteed. No one on Dom Road is going to agree to that.

        Is the fantasy dead yet?

  15. I also lived for quite a while in a similar situation in a different area of Berlin (not Kreuzberg) next to a raised railway line. In summer the location was noisy because the raised U-Bahn train line ran seemingly every 5-10 minutes or so, straddled by two tram lines (also frequent) at street level plus private vehicles. The line didn’t have car-parking underneath and the whole street-level aesthetic with trees etc… was quite attractive and didn’t feel unsafe to me although I was not generally out too late. I very much miss Berlin’s transport infrastructure. It would be good if Auckland could learn something regards density and transport from that city. Thanks for the article Ella and have fun in Berlin.

  16. As someone with German heritage:

    – Please god correct the spelling of the station to Schlesisches Tor
    – There is a push to make the space underneath the U1 a cycleway for the entire length, as a sort of cycle motorway, so there are some advantages to locking in that space

    1. Sorry about my terrible spelling. I’ve noticed that many sections under U1/U3 line are currently under construction to install formalised car parking, which is disappointing. Some segments have footpath but these are generally not well lit and severed by a few lanes from the rest of the pedestrian/active environment. Maybe the cycleway plans changed.

  17. I don’t know why some people dislike the aesthetic of the steel/iron viaducts. I don’t have any problem with it, the viaduct around the Schlesisches Tor bahnhof looks very attractive.
    These sorts of elevated railways are as old as underground railways. New Yorkers to this day lament losing their once-extensive network of “el’s” during the 50’s. Chicago kept theirs and celebrate them.

    However, for this to work: There needs to be a large amount of lateral space (like Boulevard’s). A lot of these were built in areas that had been or were being redeveloped during the 19th century.

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