Sometimes the journey is the destination: How public transport design defines our cities

By Ewan Ferrier and Paul Cardwell, creative director/executive creative director Middle East

April 13, 2016 | 6 min read

The world’s great cities are marked by celebrated museums, ornate religious landmarks and other historic monuments. But beyond the facades of these cultural institutions lies perhaps the most significant measure of any great city: its humble transport system. San Francisco has its cable cars. New York has yellow cabs and the Subway. Paris has the Metro system lined with romantic Art Nouveau entrances. And London has its iconic red buses and the Underground.

Despite their lack of luster, city transport markers are surely photographed as often as the great galleries and museums – possibly more often. People want to take a picture of themselves next to the city, and there’s no better way of saying 'I’ve been to London' than a photo in front of a Tube sign. The transport system intrinsically represents the city brand, and its design encapsulates the city as a whole in a way that very few other landmarks do; a city’s transport system is part of its design heritage.

Although the basic modes of transport have changed very little in 100 years, their brands always represent modernity. With this unique ability to simultaneously represent both tradition and innovation, it should come as no surprise that the recent retro-style redesign of the Routemaster bus has been tremendously popular in London. The elegant visual identity captures the essence of the much-loved old buses and elicits a sense of nostalgia, all delivered in a technologically sophisticated shell. The designers understood that people don’t mind marginal improvements, as long as you don’t change the brand altogether (which explains why the London Transport logo has been a circle and a bar since 1912).

Aesthetics aside, city inhabitants love public transit because it is what makes life in a city possible; without it, we would remain a series of poorly connected villages. And no matter how much we complain about our options – the foul odours, the delays, the rising fares – locals are guaranteed to feel a certain amount of defensive indignation if their system is criticised by an outsider.

What’s more, beyond the mere badging role the transit brand or logo plays, it’s important to remember how the very function of these systems (moving people from Point A to Point B, defining areas as more or less accessible) definitively shapes the development of urban areas within cities, both geographically and socially.

The same applies nationwide. Recently announced plans for HS3 are about more than cutting down journey times (after all, the reductions aren’t huge). It’s about the perception of being linked – or of not being left out. And perceptions are sometimes enough. Some of the earliest Tube maps, for example, compressed the distance visually in order to make the then suburbs look closer, and therefore more attractive. Of course once people were convinced to move to these areas, an extra 10 minutes on the Tube wasn’t terribly inconvenient.

This is perhaps the most important role that transport (both within cities and inter-city) plays: making people really feel connected through a unified experience. Posters for the Underground have always spoken to this truth, by reinforcing the cultural and social facilitation that the Tube enables ('Brightest London is best reached by Underground', 'The Tate Gallery by Tube' and so on). At a time when the United Kingdom has perhaps never felt less united, this fast, integrated connection to the 'Northern Powerhouse' may go some way to making us feel a little closer; though it’s interesting to note that this metaphor for connectivity doesn’t quite extend to Scotland, yet.

Perhaps another part of our sentimentality towards our public transport stems from the fact that it’s a social leveler. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that London Tube stations doubled as air raid shelters, providing a warm, safe haven for anyone in need. Today, the Underground is used by people from every walk of life, and arguably transcends class. The mayor of London is often seen on the Underground, chatting merrily to his fellow passengers (whether they like it or not).

Tourists, too, have an affinity towards public transport, and for most visitors, a trip to a foreign city is not complete without a bus or train ride. For a few moments, and a few coins, you’re living like a local. Your hotel insulates you from the reality of the city around you; public transport immerses you in it.

While the appeal of public transport is universal, each system is unique. The Paris Metro could never be mistaken for the London Underground or the New York Subway. The stations are different, the trains are different, the people are different. The entire experience is different. Sure, the systems have identical functions, but each one is a product of its own city and its denizens, resulting in culturally distinct characters and brand voices. New York is direct and no-nonsense, Paris is elegant and refined, London is multi-faceted and quirky.

We see therefore that the transport brand and the city brand have become inextricably linked, not only in terms of design, but in terms of personality. A city’s history is reflected in the design legacy of its transit system – and vice versa – and each one shapes the other. So while it would be a reasonable conclusion that all great cities have great transport systems, in fact the opposite is true: they are great cities because they have great transport systems.

Ewan Ferrier is creative director, Brand Union and Paul Cardwell is executive creative director, Middle East, Brand Union


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