Public transport is perhaps one of the best places to get an authentic sense of the local culture. While working in New York City, one of the most memorable subway moments for me were the random visits by young break dancers who would perform a series of jaw-dropping front/back flips in the 1m wide passageway. On the Vietnamese public bus that I would regularly take to get to Hanoi Architectural University, I witnessed young people silently and automatically giving up their seats for the elderly (if the offer was not made quickly enough, the ticketing staff would speed up the process). For the virtually active Seoulites, wifi-enabled subway stations, rail cars and buses were essential to the long commute home, while the rail cars’ heated seats were a bonus in the freezing Korean winter. I enjoyed observing how the locals’ behaviours differed from place to place, and how the transport system developed to meet their different needs.
While the environmental and economic benefits of public transport are inarguable, the social benefit has been paid less attention – public transport is a rare opportunity for time-poor urbanites to see how other people live, behave and look, and rub shoulders with each other. So how easy, pleasant and ‘experiential’ are we making public transport for diverse user groups? And how do we attract those that are used to driving?
I was in Auckland last month mulling over these thoughts at train stations, bus stops and bike lanes. Just the fact that Auckland has a train system and bike lanes is worth celebrating, as they didn’t exist in the early 2000s when I was a local resident there. Without real time bus location apps, blindly waiting for delayed buses in crowded bus stops was a frustrating experience for sleep-deprived, time-poor architecture students. Over the last decade, technology has solved many issues related to convenience or at least is in the process of doing so. Political pressure to increase and improve public transport options is on the rise. Public investment in new buses and stops, rail cars and stations has led to safer, newer and cleaner rides, with fares being tested and adjusted.
Despite the above positive changes, the proportion of Auckland’s public transport users is still low, about one third of Sydney’s and half of Melbourne’s. About 55% of the CBD workforce use private vehicles.
Is there a way to turn public transport into a treat rather than just a cost/convenience-driven choice? Auckland’s transport system including the bus, train and bike lanes, appears to be safe and well-maintained, it is functional. The experience of waiting or arriving at the nodes on the other hand, couldn’t be more boring, unwelcoming and uncomfortable.
Not every node can have the Sydney Harbour view of Circular Quay, the active plaza of New York ‘s Union Square or the awe-inspiring architecture of Lisbon Orient Station. But taking a few lessons from successful transport nodes of the world; we’d better start paying more attention to the waiting experience and the sense of welcome on arrival.