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Can a station be a truly great place that opens the door to liveability & 20-minute neighborhoods?

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Flinders Street station sparkles at night as a blur trams rush past

Victoria's Big Build is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the future liveability and connectivity of Melbourne, being rolled out within the Level Crossing Removal Project, Suburban Rail Loop and more. Sydney Metro is Australia's biggest public transport project. The scale and breadth of this investment is touching millions of people daily, so we asked Micha Woodhouse, Senior Placemaker, and Jennifer Cook, Director of Village Well NSW to respond to the question: can a station be a truly great place?

Transport hubs are integral to keep our cities moving and functioning. As *places* however, they rarely inspire us. They can be sterile, brutally functional and unclean. They can feel unsafe and foreboding, with dwell time minimisation the unspoken goal.

Poor place experience of stations, transit hubs and intermodal nodes of activity is a missed opportunity.

Poor place experience, coupled with societal pandemic fears of personal proximity to others, does not only detract people from using public transport, it is a missed opportunity for social and optimal economic activation.

However, our emergence from the pandemic is also creating opportunities for new ways of thinking about stations. The rigid schedule of the traditional commute has shifted. If this continues into the longer term, there could be a smoothing effect on passenger volumes between peak and non-peak times. This doesn’t mean peak transit will be a thing of the past; we still need to cater for major events that pull large crowds.

Traditionally, government’s attention has been focused on the largest volume of travellers. However changing societal work behaviours may shift our focus onto journeys motivated by leisure, social or family needs.

What if the focus was shifted onto providing experiences, catering for a wider variety of needs and offering more things to do?

By considering a much wider station radius, slowing and spacing out the flow of people, there is potential to evolve beyond the role of an interstitial space to become a more active and community needs-driven space, with wide social and economic benefits.

Understanding the needs and rituals of the community and the larger, integrated place ecosystem is the starting point. If we lead with the intent to create active social hubs, within which transport access and interchange is one of several purposes, the focus shifts to the place rather than solely the transitory function of a station.

Internationally, the world's most populated cities are leading the way in this thinking. Serving 10,000 passengers daily, Tenri station in Nara, Japan was formerly a ‘dead space’ during non-peak times. Its redevelopment incorporated principles of play and discovery, encouraging people to linger in cafés, shops, play areas and generous and visually attractive performance and grassed exercise spaces in the active and programmed Plaza.

Image courtesy of Takumi Ota - Tenri Station Plaza, Nara, Japan

Understanding the key motivations for travel and the final destination provides an opportunity for the station to become a part of that experience. Atocha station in Madrid is where tourists and locals alight to visit the capital’s Royal Botanic Gardens. The station features its own tropical garden which has become an extension of the place experience, and a source of local pride.

“One stop” convenience is the mantra of busy modern lifestyles, and a foundational principle for successful retail and mixed-use destinations. A more attractive station experience with greater amenities and services has even greater potential to create an appealing place.

Usages such as childcare centres, supermarkets with take-home meals, healthcare, fitness services and community spaces, increase the intrinsic value of a place, its attractiveness to commercial tenants and economic benefit.

Time will tell if the much vaunted “satellite office” becomes a post-pandemic reality. If it does, the connectivity gains from having a station at your doorstep, may be the next big point of difference for non-CBD office space.

Mobility hubs - places that connect one mode of transport to another - are key to the success of the mass transit ecosystem. Successful examples provide seamless transfers from active transport modes - walking, biking, scooters - and high-standard end-of-trip facilities that are not just office based.

Positive interchange experiences encourage the uptake of sustainable forms of travel, and accordingly contribute environmental, health and economic benefits.

This approach to creating “stations as places” increases the importance of listening to the views of commuters, transit staff, local residents, government, business and community members, in order to deeply understand the community DNA of each station. Meaningful engagement, done well, incentivises public transport use, attracts desirable tenants, creates self-generating activity, and wins the support and advocacy of all stakeholders.

Getting these key ingredients right creates the conditions for stations to become true community hubs - inviting, activated, conveniently located, safe, pedestrian-first places. They are the keys to unlocking the aspiration of the 20-minute neighborhood, changing our relationship with mass transit, fostering resilient social and economic ecosystems and opening the door to liveability.

Are all stations great places? Unfortunately no. But, can a station be a great place? Resounding yes! Feel free to get in touch and ask us how. ;)

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