They'll Ride If It's Fun

Simple, modern and vivid station art combines functionality and aesthetics at Villa Maria Metro in Montreal. Phobo by Picantico.

It seems a week can’t go by without at least one person giving me a surprised look, stammering, “You ride the local?” They’re referring to my choice to ride Mumbai’s local train system every morning. Like many places, there’s a stigma in Mumbai against riding public transit if you can afford not to. I’ve always given the practical arguments: that it takes at least 15 minutes off my trip and costs far less; that it’s healthier to spend the time walking and standing, as opposed to sitting in traffic. I don’t usually tell anyone I started riding it because of how much fun I thought it’d be, but that’s the real reason the train won me over—it’s fun!

My morning walk to Khar Road Station always has something new to show me, and boarding the train often wakes me up better than any cup of coffee. I even get a daily tour of the city streaking down Mumbai’s spine. The thing is, as pretty as I paint the image, it doesn’t sound like fun to everyone.

A utilitarian train station in Mumbai. Photo by Mike Rowehl.

Maybe not being fun is why some urban transit fails to lure riders away from their cars. Really, the local train in Mumbai isn’t “fun” in the traditional sense. It doesn’t smile at you and welcome you in. The stations are completely utilitarian, sometimes dangerous, and contain hardly a speck of green. There’s no art nor anything else particularly engaging beyond the commuters themselves. Where I have found fun in adventure, others have not.

Carbusters’ recent review of Darrin Nordhal’s book, “Making Transit Fun,” discusses various examples of where transit is made quirky, interesting or plain fun, such as bus stops shaped like fruit in Japan, or Los Angeles’ redesigned award-winning signage. The cutest hands down is the childlike approach taken in Columbia, Mo., which launched an active transportation marketing campaign called “getabout,” highlighting the joys of mass transit, biking and walking. Nordhall suggests, “bait them with delight,” and says, “Joy may be the quickest way to erase the persistent stigma of getting around without a car.” (For more information on best practices on transit marketing and communications, read “From Here to There: A Creative Guide to Making Public Transport the Way to Go,” published by EMBARQ, the producer of this blog.)

Making public transit fun and exciting might just be the key for cities like Mumbai, where traffic is so dense during rush hour that removing even one car from the road is a victory.

Studies in the U.S. have shown that transit ridership increases sharply during gas price hikes, but do not decrease at an equal rate when prices dip back down. It seems once riders get over the first week’s hurdles of learning how to navigate the transit system and forming a new transportation habit, they are likely to stick to it.

A typical station on Stockholm’s Metro, Den Tunnelbana. Photo by Freeariello.

Beauty is enough to get people into stations for a peek. Just look at this list from THECOOLIST* of stations. It includes the Stockholm Subway in Sweden, known as the longest art gallery in the world; Kazakhstan’s Almaty Subway, with its mesh of classic and modern design; the progressive U-bahn in Frankfurt, Germany; and Montreal, Canada’s colorful childlike art-covered Metropolitan.

The childlike whimsy of the Belmont El Train Station in Chicago. Photo by John Pricken.

Public art has real impacts on raising citizens’ overall happiness, fostering social cohesion and action, and lowering crime. Art draws people into public spaces, as well as increases tourists’ attention, which can both have beneficial economic effects. Could you imagine your enviornment if your local stations were memorable?  I can think of one here in Mumbai, the architecturally detail-rich Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) that always has an orbiting ring of tourists taking photos.

Exploding populations in places like Mumbai include a growing middle class who can afford to drive. Making transit stations a place people actual want to be contributes to more livable cities, and it would give all riders a better morning start.

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