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Commuting Places as Community Spaces

The Cities Collective is a collaborative partnership between Future Cape Town and Urban Times. Working across platforms and across countries, the Cities Collective seeks to create a platform for the discussion, investigation and exploration of cities and urban life around the world.

By Andres Torres

I'm all for trying everything once, especially in a city like London, but there are some commuting customs best left unchallenged. Jumping the bus-boarding queue, standing on the left on an escalator, sitting near the inebriated on the night bus –all actions best avoided while traveling on London's sprawling train/bus/boat/air gondola network, but there is one inadvisable action I wish were more inevitable (though it might be slightly inconvenient at rush hour): a slow station exit.

It is at the exit of any Tube station that one can most clearly distinguish the seasoned commuters from the casual travellers. One need only gauge the rapidity with which the former breezes through the turnstile and out of the station and compare that to the clumsy multi "tap-out" actions of the latter. Invariably, a novice's ill-timed swipes elicit angry beeps from a confused card-contact pad, which only exacerbates the bewilderment of the befuddled traveler, ultimately creating an impenetrable logjam in that turnstile lane that a TFL station attendant must sort out.

To avoid such delays, the seasoned commuter generally seeks to position himself in an exit queue peopled with other suited, briefcase-toting commuters in order to maximize his chances of a smooth and uneventful exit. The commuter is aided in this pursuit by station designers who embed architectural cues to help streamline the morning and evening interchanges. Natural light can help indicate the direction of the exit more intuitively than a jumble of (sometimes conflicting) yellow arrows. Multiple escalator banks can help accelerate movement. And separate tunnels and pathways for entering and exiting commuters can prevent the chaotic crashes of counter-moving hordes.

Yet, an over-emphasis on efficiency in transport station design can obscure the potential of the station to serve as more than just a space of optimal passenger flows. The ideal design should facilitate movement into, through and out of the station, but it should also strive to give a momentary pause upon exiting, even to the most veteran traveler.  In this pause, the station becomes more than just a pass-through point between work and home and becomes a doorway to a new community and a compelling invitation to explore and engage with a new world.

Though I have been exiting the Canary Wharf underground station almost daily for over a year, that George Takei "oh my" moment still strikes me twice as I pass through the station. Firstly, upon disembarking from the train and entering the main concourse, I cannot help but appreciate the soaring columns supporting an impossibly nimble looking concrete roof. Secondly, after a seemingly unending escalator ride, I still seem to suddenly and surprisingly emerge from a concrete cave of subway into the bright light and cool air of the station's front plaza.

Source: Ewan-M

Source: Ewan-M

In its monumentality, the station's interior recalls the centuries-long centrality of this area of London at the heart of an international commercial network, from a time when ships with sails represented the ultimate hi-speed network to today, when millions of ideas and billions of pounds can cross thousands of miles in fractions of a second, invisibly. In its modernity, the station references the most recent transformation of the neighborhood into the paragon of international professional hubs for banking, consulting, and accounting, among other pursuits. In sum, the station not only connects the surrounding area with the rest of London, it introduces the commuter to the Canary Wharf community from the moment he steps off the train, serving as a true gateway.

A recent addition to the London Tube network, the Canary Wharf station inarguably enjoyed certain advantages in funding, technology, experience and site parameters that some of the unenviably chaotic and uninspiringly generic stations of other lines were denied. Designed by Foster & Partners as part of a new town in East London, one cannot deny what top-tier talent working on a (comparably) blank canvas can construct. This is not to say that the project was without challenge. Nevertheless, the station offers lessons for how future stations, thinking specifically of the new Crossrail stations in London, might seek to re-orient themselves not just as railway terminals but as neighbourhood gateways, not just as passenger thoroughfares, but as passenger hubs that can connect commuters as easily with the surrounding community as with other communities.

Individualizing stations, connecting them with their community and ensuring a design that expresses local character while still emphasizing efficiency is an important first step that transport planning and design can take to advance the community-centered, place-making oriented approach to city design that leading urban thinkers, designers and policy-makers are currently advocating. The idea of a station as destination and gateway is not new, as visits to any one of London's older railway terminals reveals, but along the way we seem to have forgotten how special these spaces can be and what important community centerpieces they can become.

From outside Canary Wharf Underground Station one cannot fathom the depths and breadth of the mammoth concourse interred below. Three light glass canopies barely break the surface of their respective plazas yet seamlessly blend into the skyscraper landscape of the Canary Wharf estate. Though subtle, the station entrances easily transition us from the dark concrete world of the Underground to the corporate shimmer of the financial services sector above ground, and at the threshold between the two–the top step of those long escalators–I daresay even the most experienced traveler just might have cause to pause. In case you find yourself in such a situation, just make sure you're standing on the right.