Design for density

Monash Mobility Design Lab is formulating new strategies to disperse train passengers and take stress off Melbourne roads.

Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 Australian Infrastructure Plan named the need to address road congestion through public transport investment a central priority for Australian cities— warning that crowded trains and a lack of capacity upgrades would potentially send commuters back to their car.

Monash Mobility Design Lab (MMDL) works to elevate the public transport user experience through interdisciplinary research – with a specific focus on addressing reactions to crowding and subsequent willingness to utilise public transport.

MMDL director, Selby Coxon, says population growth and density have made it difficult to imagine a congestion-free future. Rather than becoming despondent however, he and his team are studying passenger dispersal to try and shift perceptions of public transport and reduce people’s reliance on cars.

According to Dr. Coxon, at a rate of 1.04, Melbourne has one of the lowest rates of passenger to car density in Australia, meaning people are essentially driving themselves.

Likewise, the Australian Bureau of Statistics cites inner-city Melbourne as the most densely populated area in Australia, with 17,500 people per square kilometre.

“Historically, public transport has been regarded as a utility and the notion of having creature comforts not considered – that was the realm of the car,” says Dr. Coxon. “What we want to do is elevate the experience of public transport and make it a more attractive option for people with things like heating, ventilation, cleanliness and significantly, less crowding.”

While design considerations might seem superficial, according to Dr. Coxon appearance engenders confidence, making effective design a central force towards the optimisation of passenger experience.

Dr. Coxon says when trains are busy, people tend to congregate closer to the doors for fear of getting trapped in the middle of the carriage and missing their stop.

The concept of “peak doors” is MMDL’s response, envisioning the installation of two extra doors per train carriage – increasing the number from three to five.

However there is a down side, according to Dr. Coxon – the installation of two extra doors would force a loss of seats. To mitigate this issue, MMDL proposed that extra doors only be operational during peak hour when passenger numbers were high.

At off-peak times, when passenger numbers are low, the doors won’t open, facilitating the use of fold down seats. The design incorporates fold down seats for multiple functions throughout the carriage. For instance, when a train is travelling through the inner-city, seats can be folded up to generate greater standing room before being folded down again as the train travels further out.

Dr. Coxon says he thinks adjustments like these will increase people’s inclination to take public transport, resulting in reduced road congestion.

A 2016 Australian Road Research Board study found that two in three Australians had changed their work and travel habits to deal with increased road congestion. However, while 73 per cent of 18-24-year olds have turned to public transport, walking or cycling, less than 29 per cent of 45-65-year have done the same.

In 2015, The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics estimated congestion costs Australia $16.5 billion a year – predicting if strategy didn’t change this would rise to between $27.7 and $37.3 billion by 2030.

Looking at both studies simultaneously emphasised the significance of road congestion and highlighted the need to conceptualise and apply new ideas and frameworks.

Dr. Coxon explained that rail companies are quite risk averse given the importance of safety in the industry, adding currently MMDL’s designs exist only as a model.

Dr. Coxon also says that while safety concerns make innovation roll out challenging, as congestion pressure increases, rail companies and governments will have to start looking more closely at radical ideas.

MMDL is working on a number of other projects related to the transport sector, including research into how a change to electric motors would affect bus design, anti-vandalism initiatives with Metro, and a partnership with Downer to address accessibility concerns at legacy train stations.

The team also received a grant from the Australian Research Council to investigate smart roads. According to Dr. Coxon, MMDL approached issues of transport and infrastructure through the creative lens of design and architecture.

“In the transport sector there’s a reticence to change for fear of terrible repercussions, whereas we’re allowed to think the blue-sky thoughts and give it a go. We can make mistakes in the lab, refine, improve and nothing bad is going to happen,” Dr. Coxon says. “One imagines all these things will eventually filter out into the industry, creating actual services and products.”

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