Designing Idle Time for Public Transit
Time is a critical element in designing experiences, particularly for transit systems where there is usually one fundamental objective: helping people quickly get from A to B. What a great experience it would be if we could just click our heels and instantly find ourselves where we want to be.
However, the reality is that even the quickest experiences will never be instant, and everyone experiences the passage of time in their own way. As increasing urban migration puts more stress on our public transit systems, more and more people—of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds—will be forced to wait. This challenge presents an opportunity: How might we design this inescapable “idle time” to be enjoyable, accessible, and inclusive?
In this post, you’ll find inspiring examples from around the world that show us how aiming for three specific objectives can improve the quality of urban life—and the public transit experience—for all.
Objective 1: Make waiting time enjoyable
Service delays and long wait times are often the biggest pain points for transit users. Idle time accounts for the in-between periods before, during and after arrival at the destination, which is often overlooked in transit design conversations.
Waiting is usually perceived as boring and irritating dead time, especially in modern cities where the “time is money” mindset has become a way of living. In The Secret World of Doing Nothing, researchers Billy Ehn and Orvar Löfgren mentioned: “Waiting can be a source of intense boredom but also of surprising insights.”
The ecology of waiting creates different conditions and evokes a variety of emotions. Rethinking how idle time can be used is important not only because it helps alleviate transit users’ pain points, but also because it can create more social cohesion.
For example, design organizations have explored the element of play in transit areas. BUSt! Boredom is a creative project in Lexington, Kentucky that transforms the transit center’s waiting place into a playground for kids and their families. The impact of this project is compelling because it provides playful education for kids and more convenience for parents who often juggle between responsibilities.
At the same time, it increases a sense of public safety through intergenerational and interclass social interactions, as well as through the presence of an interactive LED light installation that brought more visibility to the bus stop happenings.
Photo: BUSt! Boredom in Lexington, KY servicing nearly 5,000 citizens a day at the bus station – an innovative example of applying elements of play to make wait times more enjoyable.
Image source: Kaboom.org
Rethinking idle time can lead to creative solutions and open doors for more spontaneous connections to form among city strangers. The sight of street vendors on public transit might not be common in the U.S., but in other parts of the world such as Thailand, people are creatively taking advantage of their long commutes. You won’t have to wait for an expensive flight across the Pacific Ocean to have quality dining service. On a train ride from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, you can enjoy a variety of snacks and lunches while awaiting the final destination, from green mangoes to chicken satay; and if you’re lucky, you’ll even get to cure your back pain with a vendor’s tiger balm and massage oils.
These aren’t simply commercial activities in a collectivist culture, but also ways of creating spontaneous communities who happen to share the same transit route. From a design perspective, the consideration of taste as much as sound and sight in a transit experience is a fascinating opportunity. The fabric of urban life becomes much more vibrant and enjoyable when public transit creates space for people from different backgrounds to exchange food, stories and cultures.
Objective 2: Make waiting spaces accessible
The design of idle time usage and waiting environment isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula. People experience time and comfort differently depending on their personal needs, backgrounds, daily responsibilities, and cultural habits. Just like the concept of multi-modality as one characteristic of a good transit system, idle time usage should include diverse options for various groups of users with different necessities and expectations.
In subway stations, mirrors are always thought to be a genius solution to the waiting boredom and claustrophobia people experience inside elevators, for example. But Japan recently announced that mirrors were first and foremost installed to help wheelchair users navigate in and out of the elevators more easily.
Accessibility is a vital area for improvement and standardization across transit systems around the world. Brussels recently introduced tactile wayfinding elements on the ground for people with visual impairments at De Brouckère station. KABOOM!, a national nonprofit that works to end playspace inequity also pioneered an informative toolkit that addresses in detail accessibility needs when designing public playspace, from adopting a person-first language to creating auditory elements and tactile stimulation for people across the ability spectrum.
Photo: Singapore’s Land Transport Authority introduced the Tactile Guiding System in an 2021 article.
Image source: Land Transport Authority (LTA)
Paying attention to the accessibility of waiting spaces is crucial because it welcomes more people to use public transit with more flexible options, while improving the collective transit user experience for everyone.
Objective 3: Make waiting experiences inclusive
Designing for inclusivity in the public transit experiences provides ample learning opportunities for how we might design more inclusive cities as a whole. During the COVID-19 pandemic, American Public Transportation Association (APTA) published universal design guidelines that detail best practices and design principles for a more inclusive transit system, including considerations such as lighting, texture, operable barriers, and temperature. It also states that these universal design principles should extend into the community around the stations so that the door-to-door experience including transit will be welcoming to everyone in the surrounding neighborhoods.
According to Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit, we need to distinguish between technical questions and those about value when designing for public transit. Community’s knowledge and feedback always serve as an important input for the design of urban mobility systems because they’re the end users who will determine the value of it. When designing experiences, our job is to advocate for community insights through every step of the design process, and to help transit agencies understand not just the inquiry of the design challenge, but also the purpose of it.
Inclusive cities rely on inclusive urban transit systems. At the end of the day, designing for urban mobility isn’t just about helping city dwellers move from one place to another, but rather about improving the quality of future urban living, one ride at a time.
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