Still be jams before tea

All the candidates for London mayor have public transport at the top of their agenda. If used properly, design could help lure London’s commuters out of their cars

Whatever the policies of the new London mayor, one issue has remained top of all candidates’ “to do” lists – transport. Independent candidate Ken Livingstone and Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer want to issue bonds to fund the Tube, and Labour’s Frank Dobson has fought for a public/ private partnership. But no-one has yet defined the crucial role design plays in creating a successful transport system.

London’s transport has traditionally enjoyed a strong visual identity, but that has gradually changed. Red buses now appear in clashing liveries, courtesy of the wealth of independent operators. Black cabs are painted with colourful advertising; trains, run by several companies, no longer possess a consistent identity.

Despite, or because of this, design is playing what has become a leading role in creating a cohesive, user-friendly transport system. At its best, it is even tempting die-hard car users onto public transport, as Paul Moss, former design manager of London Underground, explains: “Design is crucial in furnishing vehicles with suitably ambient interiors to get people out of their cars. And the design of stations and bus stops must be consistent for a seamless, stress-free journey.”

Enticing people out of cars is a key pledge from all candidates, but some, particularly Darren Johnson (Green Party), see levying charges on car owners, rather than improving public transport first, as the only way to do this.

All are committed, however, to improving bus services. Conservative candidate Steven Norris wants weather- and vandal-proof bus stops, with safety cameras and comprehensive information, and this is where design comes in.

Design consultancy Fitch, which was commissioned in 1991 by London Transport Buses to create its new identity and update its bus stop information, discovered unclear timetables were actually putting people off buses. To overcome this, the consultancy introduced a co-ordinated design style – a red strip – to all bus stops and timetables, and updated the roundel symbol. Running from 1991 and 1998, the campaign named all stops, stated the direction the bus was travelling and simplified the timetable.

Here, a little design goes a long way. Fitch introduced a skeleton timetable, featuring three key stops, to the top of the timetable to show where the route went. And after research revealed three bus-user types – lovers, pragmatists and phobics – it included the line “buses every 10-15 minutes” for those who couldn’t even attempt the timetable.

London mayor take note: design can enhance passengers’ journeys in more ethereal ways, says Marcello Minale, director of Minale Tattersfield & Partners. Its redesign of London Underground’s Oval Tube station in 1995 reflected the area’s sporting roots with bat-wielding cricket players on the walls, echoed as shadows on the floor.

According to Minale, the priority with transport design is creating space. “Creative designs such as these will only work in an uncluttered arena,” he says. “Designers should include subtleties like shadows. Few passengers get them straight away, but it’s rewarding when they do.”

Design consultancy Bamber Forsyth, which created a new identity for the Gatwick Express (DW 28 May 1999), used a similar technique, echoing airport runway lights in its carpet design for the trains.

But design can over-step the mark, according to London Transport product design manager Innes Ferguson. Eduardo Paolozzi created mosaics at Tottenham Court Road Tube station in 1983, but Ferguson says these are too brash to work as a functional design. “People have difficulty finding information among the colourful collages,” he says.

As passengers use public transport to get from A to B and little else, design can pass unnoticed. Tube and bus seats are a good example. The durable, cotton-velvet seat fabric – moquette – was designed by the late Enid Marx in the 1930s. Her brief was strict: the seating had to look fresh, “even after bricklayers had sat on it” and the design bold, but not dazzling. The geometric patterns in contrasting colours such as orange/ brown are still in use today.

As for the future of transport design, we could be bidding farewell to the travelcard. Plans for Smartcard technology – where passengers re-charge an electronic card for use on transport – are already underway and they could be the norm in 18 months. Frank Dobson sees the card as the end to queues, and Norris is backing the development.

One interesting new concept is “moving” Tube ads. As Tube trains supposedly spend most of their time on the go, there are plans to introduce a series of advertising posters fixed to tunnel walls which transform into a moving image when the Tube is moving.

Private or public, the dawn of a new era in London should witness a commitment to transport and design hitherto unseen – whoever is in charge.

Private transport

Many Londoners still shun public transport in favour of their own steam. But design-led innovations are improving private travel for those who still refuse to go public.

The Smart Car, designed by Mercedes with Swatch, is a tiny two-seater car. Marketing manager Howard Clarke thinks it is the design that attracts people, rather than its ability to fit in small spaces. ‘People want to be seen in it, it’s funky,’ he says.

Japanese restaurant Yo! Sushi has a delivery service and owns a fleet of 14 scooters and, now, two Smart Cars. Managing director Simon Woodroffe says the delivery vehicle mentality is persuading people into smaller vehicles like the Smart to get around. ‘City dwellers are embracing mopeds and scooters – they bypass traffic queues easily and squeeze into small parking spaces,’ he says.

Scooter-lovers need look no further than the new BMW C1 bike, designed by Bertone (see feature, page 20). Billed as ‘alternative urban transport’, the single-seat scooter has all the mod cons, including a five-point seat-belt harness and even a roof.

But for those determined to take exercise, the bicycle is still the only way forward. LT is serving riders by erecting bike racks across London. It favours the ‘Sheffield’ design – a simple metal hoop in the ground. Innes Ferguson says the design is cleaner, more sophisticated and more reliable than Continental wheel clamps. If Frank Dobson’s and Steven Norris’s plans to double the number of bike journeys in London by 2004 come to fruition, we could be seeing more of these.

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