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Melbourne train station | Rail and transport architecture

Q & Architecture: city-shaping public transport networks

Principal Andrew Shields on city-shaping public transport networks and where future innovations in transport will take us.

When you are conceptualising public transport infrastructure in established cities, what factors are guiding your decision making?

Above all, public transport is about giving access to everyone: it’s inclusive but it’s also transformative. It can play a pivotal role in improving urban life for everyone.

Previously, large public infrastructure was viewed as a primarily technical question – think of mid-century road infrastructure, or at-grade or elevated rail dissecting urban areas. Now we focus on realising the social and cultural benefits and improving people’s day-to-day lives. Making decisions about design is about imagining exactly who the customers are and making their experience as easy and efficient as possible.

We are currently working with Sydney Metro on several projects with an emphasis on this customer-centred design approach. You can build a very accurate picture of the breadth of user requirements by surveying people across the entire gamut of potential users: people on their daily commute, parents with young children, the elderly, people across the full spectrum of physical and mental challenges. Really taking on board this kind of input goes a long way to ensuring the design does not exclude anyone.

Once you have understood the customer needs you have to plan for moving them from one place to another easily, particularly during peak hours, in a way that keeps stress levels to a minimum – in fact, ideally, it’s an enjoyable experience in and of itself.  You consider pedestrian flow. You make it easy and intuitive for people to find their way from the surrounding city context though the concourse, then to the platforms and onto the train. You plan sequences of movement that avoid customers having to pause to make decisions about direction of travel, so that they don’t, for example, arrive at an escalator’s base and be confronted there with a decision about where to go next.

Finding your way should be effortless. There shouldn’t be any need to make conscious decisions at all – that’s what I mean by making it “easy”. In a station context it’s not only easier but also safer when people are able to navigate the urban context and station in an intuitive way.

Figure 1: B-Line Northern Beaches Bus Rapid Transit

City-shaping public transport networks - B-Line Northern Beaches Bus Rapid Transit

It seems that no matter where you go in the world, the locals tend to find fault with their city’s public transport offerings. Can you give an example of a great public transport system and describe why it works?

I lived in Hong Kong for 22 years and I had my part in developing the metro system there, so perhaps I’m biased, but I think the MTR is possibly the best metro in the world. Certainly, it’s not the most beautiful but it’s just so easy to use and works… very, very well. It connects the entire city. Almost all built up areas in Hong Kong are connected by metro and it moves 5 million daily in a city of 7 million!

The system is an exemplar of good planning. Generally, it’s highly intuitive with features such as cross platform interchange, which makes changing lines as simple as alighting on one side of the platform and boarding on the other. Stations are embedded in the urban realm with a network of entrances, which lead you down to a large centralised concourse where there is always a range of retail and other services – even doctor’s surgeries and dentists. Every station works like this in Hong Kong. It’s so easy to move around and use and that results in stations that have become centres of local community life.

There are much more beautiful or spectacular stations in other places. Moscow, for example, has perhaps the most lavish metro in the world – one of Stalin’s legacies – it really is quite stunning. Then there’s Copenhagen’s metro, it is beautiful with the very rock it is dug from exposed to public view. But there’s nowhere else with a public transport infrastructure as well planned and sustainable as Hong Kong’s, testified to by the fact that car ownership there is the lowest in the developed world.

Figure 2: Canberra Metro Stage 1

City-shaping public transport networks - Canberra Metro Stage 1

What do you imagine public transport will look like in the future?

That’s a huge question. Certainly, it absolutely must be central to the way cities are planned. We have to move on from cars and expressways. If you are thinking, as we need to, in terms of sustainability, ease of use and inclusivity, public transport is the only possible answer to mass mobility.

Australian cities are waking up to this. Melbourne already has 250km of tram lines and Sydney is bringing back a light rail network after demolishing one of the world’s most extensive networks decades ago to make way for the car!

As well as mass transportation, city design needs to promote the inevitable transition from car use for short local trips to an increase in micro mobility and active transport modes such as bicycles and scooters.

I’ve been involved in the development of high-speed rail in China, Singapore and India. I’m convinced it can work here. HSR connecting major centres from Melbourne to Brisbane would be far more sustainable than flight and would also offer solutions to distributing new connected population centres to deal with the projected population growth in the coming decades.

Autonomous vehicles are coming, and they will transform our cities. Try to imagine, instead of cars, a fleet of autonomous vehicles connected by AI and GPS: the AVs could move people whenever and wherever they needed to go without need to slow down for traffic or traffic lights. Imagine a city with no need for rows of idle vehicles outside people’s houses, or vast car parks outside suburban retail centres and in our CBD’s. Urban liveability will be improved. In one form or another that transformation is coming.

Andrew Shields has over 35 years of international experience working on a wide range of projects, including primarily specialist technical rail infrastructure projects. Based in Hong Kong for 23 years, Andrew has overseen a range of international rail projects from large scale high-speed rail through to commuter rail and automated people mover systems.


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