David Bernstein: Underground resistance

If ‘Freedom Pass freeloader’ David Bernstein doubts Transport for London’s commitment to ‘design excellence’, what do people who pay for tickets think?

I have a Freedom Pass. You have to be of a certain age to know what it is, let alone possess one.

It used to be called a bus pass. Whoever rebranded it understood the difference between a product and a brand. A product name is generic and does not merit cap initials. Whereas a product name denotes, a brand name connotes, conveying meaning and associations. Freedom Pass is a promise, especially to active oldies.

Not merely free travel, in the London area, on bus, rail and Tube, but the freedom which that brings – to visit, explore, go to the end of the line or simply catch a bus for only one stop.

Freedom on London Underground starts at 9am. So the other day when I entered the Victoria Tube station forecourt at 8.58am I spent a couple of minutes rifling through Transport for London’s selection of leaflets and discovered Be Moved, a promotional piece, in six languages, for the Transport Museum at Covent Garden Piazza.

The inside spread comprises nine pictures, each clearly linked to its explanatory caption in the classic LT typeface. No tricks. No gizmos. No prize-winner – except in my eyes. The reader is led logically through some of the museum’s exhibits – and they supply the surprises. The leaflet acts as a sample of the show and, of course, it showcases ‘Harry Beck’s 1933 map, a world famous icon of London’.

Bottom right is the assertion, ‘Design excellence has become synonymous with transport in London’. (And, to be frank, who’d pick a quarrel with that?)

However… the clock moved to nine and I joined the crowd on the escalator to the Victoria Line. The woman in front of me was gripping a gigantic wheeled valise. When we reached the bottom she was unable to move it. She stopped. I couldn’t avoid bumping into her. Nor could the lady behind avoid bumping into me. Luckily, the combined pressure managed to generate some wheel movement and a nasty situation was avoided.

The incident made me consider ‘design excellence’. Could better design have pre-empted it? Or, to put it more acutely, had an accident occurred, would the resulting crush enquiry have pinpointed design, or the lack of it, as a contributing factor?

Of course, we’re back to the old chestnut – what do we mean by design? Here are three markers I’ve found useful. One, I believe that design is about helping people and that, as the US commentator RitaSue Siegel says, the designer is ‘the user’s advocate’. Two, Victor Papanek defines design as ‘the conscious attempt to impose meaningful order’. Three, Buckminster Fuller says, ‘the opposite of design is chaos’. Against all three ‘criteria’ – helping people, bringing order, avoiding chaos – TfL would appear to have fallen short.

When the Victoria Line was on the drawing board, did anyone anticipate that Gatwick travellers, suitably baggaged, would swell the normal commuter traffic, or that strangers to London would pause, look around and stand on the escalator’s left?

Once off the escalator, passengers crowd on to the Victoria Line’s northern platform and, despite the attempts of station attendants to encourage movement along the platform, the station layout positively encourages the newcomer to add to the crowd at the immediate entrance. Indeed, often the only way to get to the far end of the platform is to turn right, access the southern platform and join the northern platform two-thirds up. But there are no signs or announcements to suggest this. Indeed, you get the feeling it’s discouraged, if not actually forbidden.

When traffic fills the Underground forecourt then the gate affording access from the rail terminal is shut. A sensible safety precaution. However, what is being denied is access not simply to the Victoria Line, but also to the District, Circle and Metropolitan, which actually may not be so crowded. There is, of course, another entrance to these, but no sign advises the stranger of this fact.

TfL has enough problems without my contribution and would be justified in regarding these comments of a Freedom Pass freeloader as so much chutzpah. Nevertheless, some remedial design solutions could make life easier in the short term for regular travellers, London more welcoming for visitors and working conditions less stressful for TfL staff. Perhaps staff members have some design ideas?

Wouldn’t it be great if excellence of design in the fullest sense of the word was synonymous with transport in London?

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