It’s 5 in the afternoon. Record-high temperatures are sweeping across Europe. Workers sling their blazers and messenger bags fastidiously over their shoulders as they shuffle through the microplug doors of a Victoria-line train car, with dreams of a blissful air conditioner festering in their minds. In the bowels of London’s labyrinthian Tube network, familiar announcements reminding travelers to mind the gap between the platform and the train echo through space. The transit soundscape is unique and distills much of what it feels like to move around in an urban setting. In a cultural context in which efficient systems save people time and provide positive knock-on effects, particular attention should be placed on how spatial design influences the viscerality of commuting.
I wanted to use my summer to begin developing an understanding of how these transit systems, and the sensations experienced in the act of moving through them, served country-specific urban challenges such as traffic and pollution. Using London as a base, I hopped on low-budget flights to Geneva, rented bicycles to get around Copenhagen, and visited Malmø by train, passing over the Øresund Bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden. Since all associated travel expenditures were to be paid with my own hard-earned money, I generally elected to use the cheapest—and perhaps the slowest—transportation means in order to dedicate more of my budget toward haute accommodation: a hostel with four dorm-style bunk beds, shared bathrooms, and uncomfortably little regard for personal space was the luxury I treated myself to.
Despite this, it occurred to me that with every passing day spent in a foreign land I was becoming less of a passerby and more of a temporary citizen, endowed with a firm connection to each unique milieu. As a result of my tight budget, it was often the case that I would travel from point A to point B rubbing shoulders with each country’s social and cultural footsoldiers. It’s no wonder this feeling of release from the lukewarm experience of tourism came about. A firm belief among globetrotters is that the best way to experience a new landscape is to move as the locals move: ride India’s rickshaws, zoom around on Italy’s Vespas, shift gears on Denmark’s bicycles, and hail London’s black cabs. I am proud to report that this has a solid grounding in the truth.
On the whole, Europe and the United States enjoy—read: tolerate— dramatically different subway systems. In general, trains in London and Geneva are cleaner, quicker, and more deliberately designed than those in Boston. For example, the London Underground trains (henceforth called “the Tube”) have very limited capacity, with low ceilings and tight corridors much to the chagrin of flash mob performers. What the Tube lacks in individual train car size, however, it makes up for in frequency and timetable consistency. Rarely will you spend more than three minutes waiting between arrivals on the platform, which is a godsend on hot days when you’re desperately trying to validate your decision to forego a pricey cab ride home. For Bostonians, the T is decidedly more spacious and air-conditioned than the Tube but the space is impressively underutilized. Both traincars feature handrails above the seats lined along the perimeter, encouraging an unfortunate encroachment on the personal space of seated riders. Yet, the T falls short on effectively utilizing the corridor vacancy, as it lacks sufficient poles for those standing to hold onto as the train noisily lurches along the tracks.
That reminds me: the noise! You’d have to casually be carrying a pair of industrial grade air traffic control earmuffs to protect yourself from screeching of the T’s wheels against the steel tracks! Good luck having a smooth conversation, or at least one in which you don’t have to ask for clarification. But who am I to complain if public transit systems do what they’re meant to do and get me where I’m going? Am I being snobby in asking for a rider experience that offers more than the bare minimum? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.
It’s possible that, at the current rate of innovation within the mobility industry, my observations—and yours!—will help to inform the future of what urban travel looks and feels like. The concept of connected, shared resources is gaining traction and an encouraging dimension of this future is that it just might bring us back into honest contact with each other. We should take this opportunity we have to collaborate purposefully by examining the shape of our cities, communicating our desires, and informing the design of our environment to efficiently support the activities borne out of human capital.
Because, in the end, the city is ours.
Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Heights Editor