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Rethinking the commute

Rethinking the commute

Journeys to work are getting longer, making commuters increasingly unhappy. Thankfully, designers are coming up with creative ways to cheer them up

Journeys to work are getting longer, making commuters increasingly unhappy. Thankfully, designers are coming up with creative ways to cheer them up

Amalia Illgner | November 28th 2016

It’s 7.30am and your alarm, that spiteful tinpot dictator, has commanded that you wake. You hydrate and caffeinate, and prepare to face a wall of fellow marching zombies. If you’re in Britain you might be one of the 3m people who spend more than two hours travelling to and from work, a number which has soared by 72% in the past decade. But this morning something feels different. As you step onto the road at your familiar crossing, something happens. There’s music and dancing, and colour and smiles. Everywhere you look people are having a ball. 

At least that’s what Daniel Hirschmann believes our morning commute should be like. Last month Hirsch & Mann, his design and technology consultancy, won the “Playable City” award (run by Watershed, a social enterprise and charity, in association with the British Council) for “Stop Smile Stroll”. The concept aims to transform the simple act of crossing the road by turning  pedestrian crossings into “magical multimedia moments of serendipity”. “My vision,” Hirschmann explains, “is for the traffic lights to turn and for music to erupt with light projections igniting around lowering disco balls. And then – poof! – in the time it takes to cross the road, the carnival will disappear.” The firm will stage a pilot in Bristol, working with the local council and community groups, after which the idea will travel to other cities including Lagos and Tokyo.

Stop, smile, stroll Taking the pain out of commuting 

A recent study from Britain’s Office of National Statistics has shown that commuters have lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile, lower levels of happiness and higher anxiety than people who work from home. Average anxiety levels increased with each additional minute of the commute. Marlynn Wei, a New York-based psychiatrist and author, thinks initiatives like this, which “draw people away from their busy minds”, could potentially decrease the stress and anxiety of commuting. Hirschmann isn’t the only person thinking about ways to liven up the commute. Here are some other innovative projects from around the world.

 

New York: a subterranean feast 

The average New Yorker spends more than six hours commuting every week, well above the national average of around four hours, and the Columbus Circle subway station sees as many as 90,000 passengers pass through its gates every day. This inspired Susan Fine, a real-estate developer, to launch “TurnStyle”, an underground street market in the Columbus Circle subway station that’s packed with selfie stations, pop up kiosks, fresh flowers, independent food vendors, fashion boutiques and novelty stores. 

“I was looking for a way to make the subway experience a little more bearable for commuters – it’s such a big part of our lives as New Yorkers, and being able to stop and take pause makes everyone’s days a little better.” Fine says her design choices were intended to create little “wow” moments and give commuters some fun. The warm lighting, porcelain tiles, high ceilings and flashes of bold colour have more in common with the latest gallery than Manhattan’s other grimy stations. During New York Fashion Week, Dog & Co, one of the TurnStyle’s tenants, staged a full-blown canine catwalk with 20 dogs modelling the latest four-legged trends. David Schwartz, a Columbus Circle regular, says Turnstyle's offerings are “a real treat – a break from the day-to-day tedium of commuting”. 

 

Singapore: jog, cycle or stroll to work along a railway garden

Singapore’s MRT metro system is overcrowded and prone to delays. One blogger says that getting to work is more stressful than the work itself. But a new alternative is in the works. Nikken Sekkei, a Japanese architecture firm, is working with Arup, one of the world’s largest design and engineering companies, to create the first phase of the Rail Corridor, 24km of green space, pathways and cycle lanes along a disused railway line.

Nikken Sekkei’s lead urban designer Shoji Kaneko has taken his inspiration from nature. His plan divides the corridor into eight stretches, each with its own distinct landscape, from a tropical forest to a community vegetable patch. The planting strategy is designed to support migrating birds and boost much-needed insect populations which, he says, will help fill-in large gaps in Singapore’s ecological networks. Kaneko realises the need to balance “wilderness” with a “useful and safe space” for people to walk, jog or cycle. His proposal includes ideas for wheelchair provision, shelter from the elements, places to relax, get a drink and even have a shower. Bisecting the entire nation, the Rail Corridor will connect the homes, workplaces and schools of nearly 1m people and provide a new way of commuting in the city, with more than 100 access points. And complementing the Rail Corridor will be an app giving commuters route-planning tips, advice on nearby amenities, news about local events and holograms to educate locals about the plants and wildlife. 

 

Stockholm: a history of art for the price of a metro ticket

Stockholm’s underground network has been described as the “world’s longest art gallery”. In 1975, Per Olof Ultvedt painted the walls of the T-Centralen station, where all three lines meet, with giant cobalt-blue vines, offering a moment of calm to passengers as they transfer to different trains. Ulrik Samuelson’s 1977 design for the central Kungstraedgaarden stop, the city’s deepest, remains a public favourite. With mossy greens and terracotta browns, it represents an underground garden. The artist, now 78, believes the metro has been transformed to “become an important place in people's lives”. Every summer, passengers can take guided tours of the highlights for the price of a metro ticket, while designated stations are reserved for pop-up graduate exhibits and international artists. Now and until September next year, the Skanstull station has been taken over by “Konstväxlingar – Rörliga bilder” (above), a soothing installation with gentle dreamlike electro music from Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries, a Seoul-based art collective. 

 

The tech firms tackling travellers’ blues

While city planners mull over long-term improvements to urban transport, tech is offering instant help to desperate commuters. For Londoners, the “Tube exits” app will tell you which carriage is best to ride in if you want to make a quick getaway or interchange. In San Francisco an app called “Hill Mapper” gives streets a colour code according to incline, so locals can walk, cycle or run to work while avoiding the city’s steep hills. As of last month, bus and rail commuters in Düsseldorf can take free journeys with new app WelectGo. After downloading the free app, passengers get the option of watching four 20-second adverts in exchange for one-way ticket – a saving of €2.60. Now the company behind WelectGo, says it’s planning to roll it out to more German cities. 

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