Public transportation: a new living space?

Increasingly comfortable trains with massage chairs and yoga studios, bright well-lit stations with art galleries and co-working spaces... The public transit facilities are no longer happy to simply be places we have to use; their ambition is to become life spaces we choose to spend time in.
Putting materials at the service of comfort

So how can we transform environments that are so often associated with stress and overcrowding into places we enjoy? Previously all about function and nothing more, trains, subways, streetcars and buses are now designed as spaces for life that can adapt to the needs and profiles of individual users.

Passengers who want peace and quiet to enjoy a good book will find a dedicated onboard reading space with subdued lighting, a soothing sound environment, individual seats and USB phone charging sockets. Others may want to chat with friends in a part of the train with facing seats and brighter lighting. Glazing plays a decisive role in creating these individually distinct environments by reducing noise, providing thermal insulation and using the properties of new smart glasses to adjust transparency and light transmission. So smart that they’re able to respond to movement and voice commands, like the glazing units designed by Saint-Gobain Sekurit and Cerence for the e.GO Mover bus prototype. You can darken them, lighten them or use them to deliver information simply by speaking to them.

The train of the future... or is it your living room?

“Designers all over the world are seeking ways of diversifying and better organizing the living environment inside vehicles, so that every traveler can say ‘I prefer this place and I feel better here!’,” explains Yo Kaminagai, Head of Design in the Projects management department at RATP (the Paris public transit system operator responsible for the capital’s subway system) and a member of the UITP (International Union of Public transport). Working, chatting with friends, playing with the kids, eating, meditating, sleeping, meeting with others... there are so many possibilities in public transit environments, and designers must consider this huge diversity of uses to offer the greatest differentiation in services offered.

Actually, the rail industry is already making increasing use of domestic references to make passengers feel more at home. Designers have even envisioned reproducing an apartment setting on board a train. This is the (not so) crazy project led by a team of English transportation designers. Welcome to the Mercury High Speed Train!

More realistic - and more importantly - on the rails from June 2024 onwards, the future French TGV high-speed train developed jointly by Alstom and SNCF is called Avelia Horizon. And it clearly puts passenger experience at the heart of its design ethos. It also adopts a number of Saint-Gobain solutions to deliver this level of comfort by using even larger windows featuring uprated thermal insulation performance and the ability to provide a stable Internet connection (4G and 5G antennas will also be integrated into this glazing solution soon). Equal attention has been paid to developing maintenance solutions that enable faster replacement of windows.

In the world of public transportation, comfort also means reducing the noise pollution generated by movements of air inside the train, streetcar or bus. And although glass intrinsically improves the acoustic properties of vehicles, special glass wools (like those produced by ISOVER) also improve acoustic comfort for passengers.

Co-construction with travelers

Without going as far as to ape the home setting, transport operators are looking to provide us with a huge number of small touches that make these environments more familiar and convenient. The widespread introduction of USB sockets is a good example, says Yo Kaminagai: “It may seem like a small thing, but the ability to charge your phone even to 4% when you absolutely have to make an important phone call is a great help. When we think about interior design, we try to take account of every passenger’s ups and downs, so that everyone feels like they’ve been considered in the process.” 

Considered yes, but also listened to! Co-construction with the traveler is becoming increasingly commonplace in public transportation. Following an Internet vote, Swedish passengers decided that their new train would be called ‘Trainy McTrainface’. In 2015, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston (USA) was struggling to choose between alternative designs for its new subway lines. In the end, travelers made the decision themselves by conducting an online ballot. In Paris (France), users have used similar methods to decide on the color of seating for a new commuter train. Travelers now have the power, and the days when they were just an anonymous face in an equally anonymous crowd are gone forever.

Stations and comfort

So even though public transportation will probably never be a true ‘home from home’, travelers are now feeling more and more ‘at home’! This trend towards continually higher levels of comfort is also there to be seen in train and subway stations.

It’s there, for example, in the new high-speed train station in Kenitra, Morocco, whose facade received a 2019 Prix Versailles Award for the most beautiful exterior in the ‘Train and Subway Station’ category. With a facade clad in Saint-Gobain Cool-Lite glass and Placo plasterboard, the station was designed to offer its users flawless thermal insulation and high transmission of natural daylight. Another country, but the same philosophy of combining aesthetics with traveler comfort: the facade of the high-speed train station in the Turkish city of Konya is clad with around 10,000 m of Glasroc X glazing units. This product was selected by the architects for its ease and speed of installation, but primarily for its water, fire and UV resistance properties.

But what if comfort wasn’t really all about forgetting we're using public transportation? From a distance, the ‘augmented’ Limmatplatz station in Zürich looks like an attractive outdoor bar shaded by a big tree and an oversize roof. But the streetcar track is just a few yards from the tables and chairs. The design of this station is a good illustration of a minor revolution that is seeing transportation spaces being transformed into spaces for life. The boundaries between the two become increasingly blurred when these transitory locations become destinations; when these places of quasi-restriction become places for relaxation.

The revenge of the non-places

In the 1990s, the French anthropologist Marc Augé coined a new term for these interchangeable spaces where humans remain anonymous, of which stations are the archetypal example: ‘non-places’. Since then, the ‘non-places’ have begun to take their revenge! Transportation hubs are becoming life hubs that are as attractive as they are comfortable.

“Developments underway around the world aim to make these places more familiar, more intimate and more sensitive,” says Yo Kaminagai. “They’re no longer simply functional spaces through which we pass; things are going on and life is being lived in them.” Travelers should no longer get lost in long, cold, impersonal corridors, but rather be grabbed and attracted by unexpected travel-related events: a literary encounter, a light show or a work of art that adds a positive surprise to everyday life... Welcoming, soothing, silent and personalized, public transportation is now turning its back on the cold indifference of anonymity!

Photos credits: Naoufal Takroumt / Shutterstock, Mariia Korneeva / Shutterstock

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