London’s transport policy needs design at its heart

We urge Transport for London to think hard about its appointment of a new design head. If, as the experiences of Corynne Bredin and her predecessor Christopher Nell indicate, the authority is dumbing down its in-house design function and is more concerned with implementation than new ideas, then it needs to take design on board in other ways, using consultancies in every aspect of its business – in the way it is using Priestman Goode to investigate better use of the capital’s waterways (DW 5 April).

This approach demands a strong design manager, as does running an in-house facility. Without a strong guiding force, TfL is less likely to get the best out of design at a time when transport has been highlighted by London mayor Ken Livingstone and others as the key issue to be resolved to improve life in the capital. It needs the best possible person for the job.

London’s transport system was once an exemplar of good design. From the 1930s, under the direction of Frank Pick, the then London Passenger Transport Board combined design and good management to create an enviable public service and broadcast its facilities through classic posters and Harry Beck’s design for the London Underground map.

The old London Transport that formed the basis of TfL when Livingstone became mayor went on to win design awards in the 1990s, particularly in product design for use within stations. Tube stations on the Jubilee Line extension to Greenwich and beyond have meanwhile found international acclaim for their designs this century. This is a heritage that shouldn’t be lightly tossed away.

But there is much more to it than a heritage argument. Design can help to alleviate the chronic transport problems London currently faces, not just through better designed hardware and rolling stock, signage and the like, but through bringing creative minds to the system. Some of the best private transport concerns are starting to realise this. Take Philippe Starck’s involvement with Eurostar (DW 21 June) and Priestman Goode’s overarching role in getting Virgin’s tilting trains into full service.

Then there is the view, endorsed by Design Council chief executive Andrew Summers and BAA design head Raymond Turner among others, that transport systems should be the start point for inclusive designs, making them accessible to all, regardless of age or ability. London desperately needs a transport policy that puts design at its heart to address such issues. The person best placed to achieve this is unlikely to be comfortable with just an implementation role.

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