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Design no longer at the back of the bus

By Chris Atchison

Look and feel of streetcars, trains and other forms of transportation is changing with advances in technology, sustainability

When they first began rumbling down Toronto’s streets in the late 1970s, the city’s hulking new streetcars were an emblem of design sophistication.

Their red and white bodies, elevated some two metres off the ground, allowed passengers to float above street level in modern comfort, all the while feeling confident the “Rocket” would get them where they needed to go safely and efficiently.

Fast forward some 30 years and Hogtown’s travelling hordes will soon experience yet another chapter in the ongoing evolution of the city’s mass transit system.

State-of-the-art streetcars, designed by Canadian transport manufacturer Bombardier Inc., will begin entering service in 2013 with the promise of a better customer experience.

The streetcars, with all of their communications upgrades and accessibility-minded features - advanced next-stop notifications, GPS and a new low-floor design providing wheelchair access, as examples - are indicative of the very evolution of industrial design occurring in the transportation sector today.

“It was a different era [when the streetcars were built in the 1970s] and designers had different technical knowledge,” says Kevin Seto, the Toronto Transit Commission’s superintendent of light rail vehicle engineering. “It was also a different society, and design changes as society changes.”

Indeed, the look and feel of trains, subway cars, streetcars, buses, boats and even personal pleasure vehicles such as snowmobiles are changing dramatically thanks to a range of factors including new technologies, the growing strength of the green movement, security concerns and shifting customer expectations.

“The biggest change in transportation design is how designers communicate,” says Christopher O’Brien Wheeler, president of the Toronto-based Association of Canadian Industrial Designers.

“I think we’ve started collaborating more and advanced design teams are integrating different professions and utilizing them in the design process … it’s a mix of engineering, design, materials analysis, user-centred studies, as well as design optimizations for machining and fabrication.”

The other major change, says Ken Cummings, a faculty member at Toronto’s Humber College School of Applied Technology and one of the committee members consulting on the design of Toronto’s new trams, is a dramatic rethinking of design priorities.

Thirty years ago, streetcars, automobiles, boats and airplanes were designed with an eye to aesthetics and consumer appeal, while ergonomics and utility often took a back seat. Case in point: those elevated Toronto streetcars that made sense both functionally and aesthetically given the technology of the day, but featured steps that complicated access for the elderly, stroller-driving parents or anyone with mobility impairment.

But as public expectations shifted, designers began consulting a wider swath of stakeholders to find solutions to functional issues. This new approach resulted in accessibility improvements for once underserved or ignored minority groups.

Consider LED technology, which has allowed visual next-stop announcements to be added to buses and streetcars, thus helping hearing impaired - not to mention iPod-entranced - passengers reach their final destination.

Designers also began broadening the scope of their work to look at all aspects of the user experience. “It’s all-around design that industrial designers have helped add a sense of humanity to, as well as gauge what the market wants,” Mr. Cummings says.

Multidisciplinary designers are now looking at ways to simplify and improve experiences by participating in every facet of the way a customer uses their product. In the case of a passenger riding a train, that means finding improvements to her online experience when buying a ticket, taking ergonomic considerations into account when designing her seat, carefully considering what that seat is made of, and determining how the train should move to and from the station.

Daniel Dechesnes, an industrial designer with Bombardier’s transportation division, has seen the gradual crumbling of corporate silos transform the way his company’s private jets, Sea-Doos and trains are made.

“The big change in my industry is that engineers and designers are now working hand-in-hand,” he explains. “Twenty years ago, we had different views and didn’t understand each other’s goals.”

New technology, space-age materials

Perhaps the most important factor influencing industrial design in transportation is the vast array of new technologies and materials at a designer’s disposal.

“If you take the bigger picture in the recent evolution of industrial design, it’s about the shift from the industrial age, which was about mechanical objects, to the information age, which is about all the functionality that you can get out of a black box,” says Clive Rioux, executive director of the Dulles, Va.-based Industrial Designers Society of America.

“The real question is what influence electronics will have on people’s journeys. I think the experience will be much richer because electronics will allow you to connect much more seamlessly providing information and entertainment to mask or enhance the journey.”

Designers, Mr. Rioux says, are using sophisticated computer modelling to address ergonomic, safety and accessibility concerns, while seeking new ways for passengers to interact with their transportation environments, from dashboard GPS systems in cars to video screens in subways. Some transit authorities are even using mobile phone messages to provide riders with information such as system delays.

On the materials front, the advent of super-strong steels, aluminum and titanium has led to the design of less expensive, lighter vehicles that require less fuel, most notably airplanes - a major factor in satisfying increasingly eco-conscious customers.

The era of green design

“Environmental sensitivity has become part of the definition of good design,” Mr. Rioux says. Stakeholders - from transit authorities hoping to address rider concerns over emissions from rail or air services, to consumers concerned with their commute-related carbon footprint - are all demanding eco-friendly solutions.

What was once a niche market catering to environmentalists has since become a critical avenue of growth for transportation manufacturers worldwide.

As such, designers are developing new fuel-efficient or electric power technologies that are reducing the demand for fossil fuels, while perfecting navigation systems that enable vehicles to reach their destinations more efficiently, thereby reducing emissions.

Designers, Mr. Cummings says, are even beginning to incorporate organic materials such as cotton into designs for seats and other coverings with an eye to improving the sustainability of their products.

But not before ensuring the safest ride possible.

A safety-first approach

When Chris McCarthy, the Vancouver-based director of fixed facilities for Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., and his colleagues began work on Vancouver’s new Canada Line light-rail system - a crucial addition to the city’s infrastructure and the transit showpiece of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games - safety and security were a top priority and a major influence on their designs.

Concerns over issues ranging from potential terrorist attacks to fire safety prompted designers to include hundreds of CCTV cameras in trains and at the 16 stations across the Canada Line system. Glassed-in elevators were incorporated into stations to allow personnel to check for trapped riders in case of an emergency, while non-combustible materials were used in everything from the trains’ seats to internal mechanics.

They also applied scratch-and-spray paint-resistant coatings on train surfaces and designed bright lighting in all areas of cars and stations to minimize security or vandalism threats.

Quick and easy, please

While safety is always of prime concern, industrial design is also changing to suit the shifting demographics, not to mention the growing waistlines, of riders.

“I think the low step height you’re seeing on new light transit vehicles is an example of that,” Mr. Cummings says of efforts to lessen the physical burden on transit customers.

Customers now expect an efficient, well-designed experience when they use any form of transportation. Commuters recoil at the thought of bottlenecked subway platforms, drivers fume over poorly-placed dashboard controls and discerning fliers carefully plan their routes away from older, more congested airports in favour of state-of-the-art terminals in other cities.

As Mr. Cummings points out, transportation design that’s simply “good enough” is no longer acceptable to the masses.

While it’s clear that transit systems such as those of Toronto and Vancouver have changed drastically in just the past 30 years, the bigger question is where the greatest design advancements will be made.

Mr. Seto says that at least on the TTC, the ongoing evolution of industrial design will have the greatest impact on the number of people for whom the system will provide a safe, efficient and reliable means of transport.

“I would say for sure we’re going to make the greatest gains in accessibility,” he says. “There’s no question that our vehicles now are difficult if people are mobility impaired … we’re making great strides.”

Special to the Globe and Mail