If you’ve been to New York’s Penn Station, you’ve experienced firsthand what Dante was talking about. It’s congested and chaotic, and worst of all, it’s near impossible to find your way around. Amtrak, which owns Penn Station, shares the sprawling transit hub beneath Madison Square Garden with the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit. To further complicate matters, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which manages the Long Island Railroad, also oversees two adjacent subway stations that feed into Penn Station—each with separate signage systems that confuse travelers rather than inform them.
But now it seems clarity is on the way. In his new digital book, Making Penn Station Easier to Use Today, graphic designer John Schettino has created a coordinated station-wide wayfinding program by providing detailed maps and diagrams that can be printed or downloaded to mobile devices.
Back in fall 2014, Schettino officially entered the ranks of helplessly lost Amtrak neophytes. Around the same time he happened to be looking for a meaningful civic project. It was a match made in mass transit hell. Schettino spent months studying Penn Station: taking notes, sketching, and photographing corridors, concourses, platforms, signage, and kiosks in an effort to better understand how the disparate spaces mesh and how travelers interact within them.
The only comprehensive map that Schettino found inside Penn Station was mounted on the wall within the New Jersey Transit area. While this map depicted the physical layout, it presented too much information simultaneously, and its placement didn’t necessarily correlate with the immediate environment, which made it difficult for users to pinpoint their location and orient themselves within the space.
Based on the New Jersey Transit map, and buoyed by his exhaustive research and analysis, Schettino developed a series of floor plans in Illustrator of the station’s two levels and then used these diagrams to create three-dimensional perspective views in SketchUp. The 2D floor plans map out the space while the 3D views help travelers visualize the environment and imagine themselves within it. The dimensionality is especially helpful during peak travel times when physical obstructions and dense crowds make it difficult to see more than a few feet in front of you.
To distinguish the two interior levels, Schettino applied color-coding. The upper level, where Amtrak and New Jersey Transit are located, is identified by blue and the lower level, where Long Island Railroad is situated, is colored yellow.
The 382-page book also includes street-level maps that locate Penn Station within the neighborhood, enlarged views of floor plans that spotlight specific areas, and diagrams that identify typical pathways inside the station. On top of that, there’s a section on the theory and practice of wayfinding and lots of photographs that document the mayhem.
While Schettino worked on making Penn Station easier to grasp and navigate, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a plan on September 27, 2016, to renovate the site. The proposed design by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill would expand Penn Station to encompass the nearby historic James A. Farley Post Office building with an underground concourse connecting the two. The newly named Pennsylvania Station-Farley Complex would also allow for office space, retail shops, and restaurants. Concept drawings showcase a bold wayfinding system.
A counter proposal designed by Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder of the architecture firm Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, was put forward by Michael Kimmelman, New York Times architecture critic, on September 30, 2016. Chakrabarti’s design proposes that a new commuter station be built on the site of Madison Square Garden and make use of its structure and foundations. This option would maintain the platforms and infrastructure that remain of the original 1910 Penn Station, which was demolished in 1963 and replaced by Madison Square Garden and Penn Plaza.
Whichever proposal is eventually realized, Schettino plans to carry on with The New York Penn Station Atlas. His goal is to develop an interactive app that would include dynamic path plotting, 3D modeling, and live data integration. In the meantime, he hopes that his static maps and diagrams will continue to bring clarity to confused and frustrated travelers.