A few years ago I met the legendary designer John Maeda. "As social media links people and ideas together in unprecedented new ways, and as design tools become accessible to many", I asked him, "are we about to benefit from a world with a thousand times as many active designers?" "Great question!" he replied.
It's fair to say that very little design or engineering talent has been applied to my local station Denmark Hill since Queen Victoria was alive. I use this place a lot. It's the primary mass-transit feed to Kings College Hospital, one of London's most important hospitals, which is five minutes walk away. It's used for 3.1 million passenger journeys each year. So the equivalent of about a twentieth of the entire British population stumble through this little inner London railway station each year.
And stumble they must. Despite a refurbishment in the 1980s, it's been woefully inadequate for as long as most people can remember. All four rail platforms must be reached by steep wooden steps, all of which are in poor condition. Water pours through the roof during rain, directly onto these steps and all passengers are filtered through a narrow inner and outer doorway, via a 19th century booking hall. At peak times during the morning and evening, exacerbated by timetabling that means many of the half hourly train services arrive within minutes of each other, this Victorian grouping of steps gets badly overcrowded. Many of the users of the station are visiting hospital, so the demographic skew of passengers is towards the elderly or the physically impaired.
I wonder what the Victorian engineers who built the place would think about the reconstruction project that started to affect public access to the station this week.
Work is underway to provide much better access to the station - on paper the plans look great, or at least the reporting of them (plans are not easy to find online, nor made available at the station - if you find them let me know).A lesson in poor design
Work has begun but the implementation hasn't been thought through. I'm particularly surprised by the lack of attention paid to access - the service experience for users - during the transition phase. It can only confuse passengers who use the station (many are occasional visitors, exacerbating this) and it provides even worse accessibility during the construction work, which seems expected to last about a year.
- On Wednesday the existing station access bridges and staircases, which have always channeled passengers through the booking hall, were closed. Now passengers use a temporary scaffolding-based bridge and network of staircases that is if anything more overcrowded than the old (deeply inadequate) arrangement.
- Passengers exit onto a side access road, Windsor Walk. However, this new entrance is very poorly signposted.
- Inexcusably, no Oyster card readers are installed at the new entrance, or on the platforms. London's Oyster card system requires all rail users to "touch in" and "touch out" on arrival and departure, and not doing so will lead to a daily cap fine being imposed of about £5 extra. Last night, in the warren-like confusion of the new exits, I completely forgot to touch out and had to call Oyster today to get my fine reversed. I am absolutely sure I'm not alone here.
- Now users are expected to walk right around the station into the old booking hall, to touch in or out after each journey, far from the new temporary entrance and exit. This imposition seems absolutely at odds with the project's goal, which is, a year from now, to provide dramatically improved accessibility.
- Communication about the changes is poor or non-existent. There are some basic posters but no detailed project plan is available online. Nor are progress updates being posted. I'm working with organisations who do far better updates building toilet blocks in Africa. There's a Wikipedia entry about the station and that would be a great place to link to formal plans and timelines. The lack of status updates reduces my confidence that the project is well-led. Or even led at all. I think the original Victorian designers would be amazed that with the advances in technology, we can't do better.
Some years ago I dipped once before into the planning of Camberwell's local infrastructure. A grim, vicious public meeting about the Camberwell Grove railway bridge (beautifully captured in all its misery by the Guardian's Peter Preston) left me disillusioned by the limited ambitions of those who are employed to improve London's public infrastructure.
As 21st century designers, we can do much better. Designing and redesigning stations is about more than just engineering work. Clearly, little thought has been applied to the interim needs and experience of the unique demographic that uses this station. There's an army of kids out there without jobs, and many have been trained in media, design and communication. With the right support, they could run rings around these efforts. Maybe, it's time we got them involved.More about Mark Charmer here.