Placemaking, Underground: BART to Revitalize all 44 Stations

This article is adapted from a piece originally published by Rachel Wexler and Rachel Dinno Taylor in San Francisco Planning and Urban Research’s [SPUR] journal The Urbanist, on May 11 2015.

Stockholm’s metro system, or Tunnelbana, is widely known as the world’s longest art gallery. Since the 1950s, the system has been contracting with artists to work with their architects and engineers to transform 90 of its stations into fully immersive experiences. Author's photo.
Stockholm’s metro system, or Tunnelbana, is widely known as the world’s longest art gallery. Since the 1950s, the system has been contracting with artists to work with their architects and engineers to transform 90 of its stations into fully immersive experiences. Photo Credit: Author’s Own.

Transit hubs are often massive, and massively underutilized, public spaces. Take for example the Bay Area Rapid Transit [BART] and San Francisco Muni Metro systems. Nearly 500,000 riders traipse the drab halls of these transit stations, heads down and nose plugged. It’s a hairy network of grime encrusted tile corridors reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic county hospital. If you’re lucky, the sweet strains of an impromptu violin sonata may shake you from your destination-driven perseverance and it’s as though an angel had descended into the purgatory of afternoon rush hour. But otherwise, aside from waiting for your train, not much else is going to make you stop.

San Francisco's Montgomery St Station
San Francisco’s Montgomery St. Station.  Photo Credit: Author’s Own.

However, for the first time in its 40 years of existence, BART is planning a comprehensive overhaul of its 44 stations. And, due to the advocacy of the non-profit organization SubArt, they’re considering an aesthetic overhaul to improve the quality of riders’ experiences. Now, with the Triangle light rail system is in its planning stages, is the time for the system’s transportation planners to consider the importance of art, design, and placemaking in the transit planning process. Let’s look at this case study to see why.

Yes, the BART budget is limited: BART must build new stations, perform routine maintenance, and purchase new rolling stock. However, studies investigating the impact of art in transit have proven that it is not just a pretty “nice-to-have” addition. In fact, it can be a powerful tool that can have a massive effect not only on rider behavior, safety, and public perception, but it can also increase economic activity and investment in the areas surrounding stations. Furthermore, these benefits can come about through limited fiscal investment on the part of the transit authority when public-private partnerships are taken into consideration.

BART and Muni Metro stations serve over 90 times more people than the San Francisco area’s most frequently visited museums. The city’s underground transit corridors represent a tremendous opportunity to enhance riders’ experience, engage a broader spectrum of the public in the arts, and reflect the innovative and artistic cultural capital of the Bay Area.

At Candidplatz Station, Munich, the walls are covered in colored panels using the full color spectrum. The design riffs on the theme of motion — trains carry riders through the color wheel as they move through the station. Author’s photo.

The United States federal government encourages transit systems nationwide to make use of the cost-effective benefits of art in transit and even allocates up to 5% of federal funds to be used for the integration of art. The Federal Transit Administration states that, “the visual quality of the nation’s mass transit systems has a profound impact on transit patrons and the community at large. Good design and art can improve the appearance and safety of a facility, give vibrancy to its public spaces, and make patrons feel welcome.”

The fiscal efficiency and positive impact of art and design in transit has been documented globally:

  • Studies have shown that riders are willing to walk farther and pay more to use a station enhanced by art and design.
  • They are also willing to wait longer for trains due to the improved environment.
  • Art and design in transit have a multitude of other benefits, from increasing the overall use of public transportation to reducing crime and vandalism in stations, creating a safer environment for riders.
  • Studies have also found that large-scale art and design in the underground increases female ridership, helps with wayfinding, and creates pride of place.
Georg-Brauchle-Ring Station of the Munich U-Bahn

Furthermore, engaging local artists and community members in the planning and execution process can increase cross-cultural respect, community cohesion and pride, and encourage local investment. Other American cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, and Chicago are already investing in significant underground art interventions and many more international cities, including Buenos Aires, Naples, and Taiwan, are reaping the benefits of comprehensive, immersive art and design programs in their public transit systems. BART’s imminent redesign offers the opportunity to demonstrate the global leadership and innovation of the city’s region.

In Naples, Italy, the positive impact of full-scale art is well documented. Studies show that riders are willing to walk farther, pay more, and wait longer for a train in a station enhanced by art and design.

Art and design opportunities reach well beyond traditional mosaics and murals.  Cities have revitalized their stations with permanent design installations and created temporary exhibits that include light, music, and performance art by local and visiting artists. Shouldn’t the Bay Area, a region known throughout the world for its innovative culture and thriving art community, have dynamic underground metro stations that reflect the vibrancy above ground? In order to achieve a comprehensive and fully integrated revision, collaboration between designers, artists, and the public needs to occur during the planning process. In order to truly revitalize BART, the scope must reach beyond functionality and showcase the diversity of Bay Area culture through design and art that reinforces the importance of place.

At Westfriedhof Station, Munich, massive overhead lamps emit warm red and yellow hues while the walls are lit by diffuse purple. These seemingly massive changes in fact required minimal investment because they were achieved through a cost effective planning approach: city leaders and transit planners included artists and designers as well as engineers from the outset of the design process. Photo Credit: Author’s Own.

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About the Author: Rachel Wexler is the co-editor of the Carolina Planning Journal and pursuing her master’s degree in City and Regional Planning. Her bachelor’s is in english from UC Berkeley; prior to beginning her master’s she worked as an editor, cook, and musician. Her academic work focuses on economic development, neighborhood revitalization, and placemaking. Her non-academic work focuses on playing in general and playing cello in particular. She also thinks frequently about Oakland, California and Berlin, Germany, both of which she calls home. These are also the urban spaces that brought her to this charming small town to study planning.