In my last post, I promised to provide an overview of Awesome Transit the world over. It’s a phrase that I’m sure inspires eyerolls, a textbook oxymoron. Transit is a utilitarian thing. A tool of necessity, not a celebration of mobility, certainly not the cornerstone of a community. Right?
Well, certainly many North American cities have long treated transit this way. One of my favorite idle commuter hobbies here in my hometown of Calgary is to keep an eye out for the most indifferent of afterthought bus stops. Here’s a sample:
I think of this spot as a vital parachute-to-bus node in the city’s commuter network, since the only possible way to reach the waiting pad in winter without trudging through snow would be to have yourself dropped in by a passing airplane.
So yeah: Awesome transit? What’s that all about? Well, it could be as simple as a place to lock up your bike or a patch of grass growing between tracks. Or it could involve superior engineering or state-of-the-art design. More than anything, though, Awesome Transit is a more ambitious way of thinking about public mobility. It embodies an idea I once heard the renowned designer Bruce Mau explain about why transit has mostly failed to captivate people:
Public transportation is a great example of almost no design whatsoever. I mean, it’s been designed to fail. And we know it’s going to fail. We design it as a big loser, and then everyone around the table is absolutely shocked every year that it lost. Instead of saying, What if we actually designed it to beat those guys? If we designed the experience of public transit so compellingly that it was better to do that than drive, people would do that. But we don’t even try. . . .
I was in my car with my wife one day in February in Toronto, and we drove up next to a bus shelter, which is a glass box, the same as what they use in Los Angeles. Now, already, if you’re using the same technology in Toronto in February as they’re using in Los Angeles, we’ve got a problem, because it’s minus-forty. And there was a woman in the bus shelter, huddled against the cold. And I said, “Look, I know all about global warming and I’m glad we got a hybrid and all that, but I’m not, in a million years I’m not getting out of this car.” And no one else is either. And if they say they are, they’re either lying to you or they’re the one percent pioneer extremist who is willing to do whatever it takes. But that’s not how we’re going to win.
So what would winning the mobility game look like? Here are five examples of Awesome Transit around the world that sketch out the basics of a winning strategy.
1) The bus stop as café
Bruce Mau, to his credit, is practicing what he preaches. Recently, his design firm won a competition to redesign the bus stops for Santa Monica’s “Big Blue Bus” network. Mau reimagined the bus stop as a collection of stylish café-like installations along the sidewalk – the bus stop as hip café. The idea is so innovative it might just become the core of Santa Monica's civic identity.
2) The bus stop as sanctuary
In 2007, at the peak of our most recent economic delirium, the desert city of Dubai unveiled a wondrous new addition to its transit system: an air-conditioned bus shelter. Now, as fellow MNN blogger Michael d’Estries pointed out, the thing was not built for energy efficiency. But the concept – a bus shelter that aims for real sanctuary, a place to cool off or warm up, a welcoming respite from the elements – is one that should be a baseline for all future transit design. The question should be: Is your bus stop more pleasant to wait at than the rest of the roadside? If not, why would you expect anyone to chose to stand there?
3) The bus stop as community hub
Stroll up to a bus stop almost anywhere, and you’ll find the same scene: A group of people standing uncomfortably at a safe distance from each other, watching the roadway or checking their smartphones or reading a newspaper or otherwise communicating their deep desire to be done with this awkward, frustrating wait and get going already.
Los Angeles designer Julie Kim’s local bus stop was as bad as any: a handful of grim concrete benches installed against a blank wall. So she decided to see what would happen if she changed the dynamic with a simple art installation: a coffee table with some flowers on top. The answer, as documented in the video below, is that the dead space came to life. Out of such simple gestures, community can be born (or enhanced).
4) The transit corridor as green space
Here’s a picture of an amazing urban tram I rode on a couple years back:
(Photo by Ashley Bristowe)
Now, there are many remarkable things about this neighborhood – a place called Vauban on the outskirts of Freiburg, Germany. Among other things, this particular tramline runs right past a collection of 58 townhouses that make more energy than they use each year. But what inevitably strikes people first when I show them this picture is the simple, enticing idea of an LRT track overgrown with lush grass. Not only is it pretty, but it also absorbs some of the noise of the train’s passing. When Bruce Mau talks about designing to win, this is exactly what he has in mind.
5) The subway as pride and joy
Back in 1999, my wife and I lived for a year in northern India, during which time we passed through the vast metropolis of New Delhi a great many times, sometimes staying for weeks at a time. When we heard Delhi had built itself a subway, we both had the same reaction: horror. Having witnessed the general state of repair and the staggering boondoggles that emerge from state-led central planning in India, all we could imagine were crowded platforms, delays, doomed trains hurtling down dodgy tracks. (The rollout of new infrastructure for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi fully confirmed our skepticisms.)
So imagine our surprise to learn that the Delhi Metro’s first lines were completed ahead of time and on budget. That the system is a tidy, efficient marvel, a model to the rest of India and beyond and a source of enormous pride for the fast-growing city it serves. That the bureaucrat who oversaw its construction has become a sort of national hero.
Next time I’m back in India, I can’t wait to get to Delhi and try out. There’s Awesome Transit in a soundbite: What if your new subway system was a tourist attraction in itself?
To trade tales of travel on Awesome Transit, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
Also on MNN: How Americans get to work — and how they'd like to