A diagram of a building.

Can we improve the public transit user experience?

Research Project Name

Rethinking Public Transit

What We Did

We examined the current London “Underground” experience by identifying typical user profiles, creating a comprehensive journey map, and analyzing upcoming trends in operations, retail, and technology that might impact user experience. We then conducted a survey to find the spaces used/liked most by commuters, which helped to identify areas with the greatest opportunity.

In partnership with a group of collaborators, we identified key sections of the commuter journey with the greatest opportunity for impact. Using the London Underground as a case study, our ultimate goal is to identify both locally applicable solutions and scalable ideas that can become a prototype for other transport modes and other cities.

The Context

As cities grow, commuters are traveling longer distances, making the user experience more critical now than ever. An increase in ridership means more tracks and stations need to be built and maintained. To achieve this without constantly increasing ticket fares, operators need an expanded set of revenue sources.

With over 1.3 billion commuters every year, the London Underground is a prime example of the need and opportunity to leverage new strategies to improve public transportation’s user experience. Recent conjecture about 24-7 operation, beginning with 24-hour weekend operation in 2015/16, and its broader economic effects also informed our study.

The Results

We focused our research on three main areas of interest for the improvement of the transit experience. Urban solutions focus on leveraging and improving existing city infrastructure and transportation patterns, and meeting diverse user needs. Retail solutions explore opportunities for integrated commercial and retail elements to generate added revenue for transit improvement and expand opportunities to meet diverse user needs. Digital solutions focus on using new technology to create new opportunities for customer communication and brand integration.

Building on these categories, we then identified a more detailed set of opportunities for exploration, including pre-journey planning, sustainable energy sources, branded retail opportunities, using trains as prototypes for user input, expanding to 24-hour weekend service, integrating digital signage, and the transformation of underutilized infrastructure. A particular focus on infrastructure transformation led to the development of our “London Underline” design proposal to convert abandoned subway lines into pedestrian and bicycle paths.

The London Underline is Gensler’s speculative design proposal to convert disused subway tunnels into the world’s first self-sustainable subterranean pedestrian and cycle path network. The project was awarded Best Conceptual Project in the 2015 London Planning Awards and received the 2015 Gensler Design Excellence Awards (GDEA) People’s Choice award.

What This Means

The opportunity, and technology, to create a 21st-century transit experience exists. For the city of London, and other cities struggling with similar issues around the world, the question will be how best to prioritise funds and explore new revenue opportunities to make change happen. We believe that branded retail, digital signage, and the transformation of underutilised infrastructure offer the most significant near-term opportunity.

The full transit experience must be considered in tandem. Understanding the user experience and decision making process before and after using public transportation informs smart planning. Alternative transportation modes—buses, cycling, trains—should also be considered to understand how ridership and experience on one influences the others.

New transport strategies require cross-discipline collaboration. This research integrates design expertise across project types including transportation, retail, digital media, and branding. The sharing of ideas between practices and professionals with differing experience allows for broader, more innovative solutions.

New opportunities for transport can capture the public's attention. The work focused particular attention on opportunities to better leverage existing infrastructure. This resulted in a concept design for the London Underline, which catapulted the project into the public realm, and created unprecedented interest in the proposal across the world.

What’s Next?

As we continue our research, our goal is to “export” our London-based findings to help other cities and regions engage in similar discussions relative to local context. These discussions will help to develop design proposals and trends specific to each city, and allow us to look more closely at feasibility and specific requirements for these trends to materialise in those markets.

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Ian Mulcahey, Jon Tollit, Trevor To, Rachel Barnes, Anupama Joshi, Boqian Li, Henry Lindblom, Lara Marrero, Craig O’Halloran, Adam Phillips, Riddhi Parakh, Leah Ray, Tony Soares, Miranda Squire, Tony Wilks

Year Completed