The Metro:
A Space that can offer much more

With so many people spending some fraction of their time in the metro, can it become a space for spreading a strong message to a wider audience?

“The metro is a fantastic proposition providing a convenient service”, says Anthony Lopez, founder of Lopez Design. He notes that the metro has allowed people to explore new opportunities in their field of work while continuing to spend time with their families. If not for the Metro, people would have to live closer to their work places and often, this would mean they could not afford a large enough home for a family. With the advent of metro services, Lopez finds social activities have actually increased. People have started coming out of their houses, even on weekends and travelling greater distances for both work and leisure.

Such an efficient transport system has led to the emergence of the Delhi government’s odd-even scheme to reduce automobile congestion. And now, with the second round of odd-even being implemented in the capital, we as a society seem to be more consciously incorporating a lot of changes in our lifestyles as well. There seems to be a wave of self awareness spreading among people exposed to the ill-effects of pollution and traffic snarls. Today, almost every household suffers from some health issue or the other and citizens are actively re-imagining the future of their city. We can see many people increasingly travelling by the metro and other public transport systems instead of taking their cars. With so many people spending some fraction of their time in the metro, can it become a space for spreading a strong message to a wider audience?

Spaces impact social behavior

Anthony Lopez analyses the growing change in people’s response in public spaces, saying, “The metro in itself has induced a behavioral transformation among people since it was designed at extremely high standards, both from a facility perspective and an abuse perspective. Since the environment spoke of high standards, even less educated commuters started adopting civilized norms”. He adds, “ If I see a spot of dirt somewhere, it encourages me to think it is fine to add more dirt, but if I do not see a patch of dirt then I will hesitate to throw trash. This is a natural human instinct!”

We found there is scope to go much further with the space of the metro. While our team struggled to get five minutes of the time of commuters rushing at the Rajiv Chowk Metro station the other day, we managed to speak to a segment from both older and younger generations. Mr. Virender, who works in an insurance company and is approaching retirement has been taking the metro on a daily basis for the past three years. He finds that while people are gracious enough to offer him a seat on the train, him being a senior citizen, he finds a lack of basic hygiene. Many people dirty the metro, throwing eatables and trash. Poorvi, a college student who occasionally travels on the metro, notes that the platform and trains are always overcrowded and people push each other without displaying any sort of courtesy. Ankita, a  young working professional, mentions that she gets annoyed and impatient while waiting for the metro, feeling overwhelmed by the hustle bustle of the crowd; she ends up looking at boring posters put forward by advertisers because there is no better way to be occupied. 

With the advent of new age communication devices, many of us are frequently engaged with our mobile phone. While this has encouraged reading habits and listening to music among people, we rarely look at or engage with people travelling with us and even if we do, there is hardly anything beyond an exchange of odd glances.We have lost the natural charm for human interactions and are increasingly becoming slaves to technology. Interestingly, Lopez compares the scenario to traveling by auto where he actively engages in a conversation with the service provider since he knows they are going to share a space till the end of the journey. On the other hand he is less inclined to speak to his neighbors in the metro since he is not sure when they will get off. Certainly then, the idea of time is critical to relationships forming. And so, we imagined that if we extend this notion of time, the metro could become such an interesting place for social interactions and new relationships to form. By creating such a ‘time-space’, can the metro communicate messages to people while on their trip,  to keep spaces clean, offer seats to elders, not to push women and children or take a detox break from their phones? We think, yes.

Creating quiet moments in busy spaces

The space can also be redesigned in a way that it can soothe tempers and moods of impatient commuters travelling in the metro. In New York, in the early 1990s, a program called Poetry in Motion brought poems to commuters on the subway, giving a moment of respite from their busy lives and also allowing poetry to play through the overly busy spaces of public transport. Poetry, which otherwise is often cited as the poor cousin in literature, found itself a new and welcome space. The program picked up from the MTA in NYC and went on to other cities like Chicago’s CTA. The poems would be printed on the ‘car cards’ and while standing in the train, the words and accompanying visuals would leave a long term impact in the minds of travelers. Starting with America’s legendary Walt Whitman, Poetry in Motion featured many new and young poets till 2008.. After a hiatus, the program picked up again in 2012 under MTA’s Arts & Design program featuring a visual with a poem, reaching millions of subway riders and rail commuters. Poems are also printed on the reverse side of Metro cards, in transit venues and MTA’s on the On-the-Go touch-screen kiosks.

Image source: “Poetry in Motion – Graduation” by Tm [CC BY 2.0]

Purposeful communication by design

The role of environmental graphics can be directly motivating or simply reassuring by providing a comfort zone in the minds of people. For instance, public spaces can also be used to encourage people to take the stairs instead of the escalator thereby promoting a healthier lifestyle. The Piano Stairs at Metro Polanco along one of the lines of Mexico City Metro, for example is encouraging people to use stairs more often than the elevator. Besides offering aesthetic value, it encourages people to adopt a healthier lifestyle as well, proactively changing people for the better.

Image source: “Metro Polanco” by Victor.Aguirre-Lopez [CC BY SA/3.0]

The Toledo Metro Station in Naples,Italy is the 16th station on the line and the 13th of MetroNapoli’s Art Stations. The station design brought together architects, artists, engineers and artisans for a massive collaborative public art project. History and mythology associated with Naples come together in vibrant artworks such as the mosaic by South African artist William Kentridge executed by Neapolitan craftsmen. Designed around the themes of water and light, the surrealistic renditions create a soothing experience for passengers and visitors with the use of cool colors and organic textures.  The ambience engages on many levels, and visitors may well  forget their daily troubles, their consciousness becoming elevated.

Image source: “Toledo Metro Station, Naples” by Sònia Pereda [CC BY NC-ND/2.0]

Lopez believes, “Communication design can play a huge role in making the management of metro: people who work for the metro realise the importance of thinking, behaving and acting in a certain manner to delivers high quality service to their customer which in turn delivers a fantastic experience for everyone”. As of now, only some of the metro stations offer a visual site and that talks about the heritage and culture of the city.

Displays in Delhi Metro stations

We at Lopez Design believe that by using the cocooned space and time of the metro and stations in an innovative manner, the journey can become an active agent spreading strong messages to a wider audience as well as offering an interactive environment to its users that helps them feel comfortable and at home, leaving them with memories that they wish to experience again and again. Lopez Design believes that we as thinkers and designers can work towards making the experience of the metro more meaningful and thoughtful for its users by using methods of user centered design and identifying what connects to them.

Written by Ruma Dhingra with inputs from Ankita Singh and Sujatha Shankar Kumar
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