Restrictions have eased, workforces are returning to urban centers, and mass transit ridership has increased—all positive signs of recovery. However, the resulting public facilities teeming with people with little option for social distancing remain a threat to that recovery. Now is the time to prepare those facilities for the next health or life safety emergency.
As the United States is getting past the pandemic, our focus now needs to turn to the future of our cities—to be proactive rather than merely reactive. As a first step, Congress just passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. It will be critical to implement the lessons learned from this time into infrastructure planning and design, for both new transportation facilities and the substantial renovations of existing facilities. We should better prepare our cities for the next crisis, and we have the funding to do it.
To be pandemic-resilient, facilities design needs to allow occupancy to flex between normal and “crisis” modes. Through implementation of considered design principles in coordination with transit authorities, engineers, and other experts, facilities will be better prepared for scenarios that may require social distancing measures and will be able to act as resilient facilities during a health crisis. While the resulting facility may be less efficient in terms of space utilization, it will allow all users of a facility, including customers, employees, and retailers, to have higher confidence in their personal safety during public health or other emergency events and will deliver an overall superior customer experience. This re-evaluation of transit facilities is also an opportunity to create more gracious spaces.
Designing “Loose Sweaters”
As the result of economic pressures and a lack of real estate in dense city centers, spaces are often engineered for maximum efficiency. However, in transportation and most building types, this hyper efficiency prevents spaces from easily adapting to requirements necessitated by health crises, such as social distancing. Therefore, in order for facilities to adapt and accommodate future unknowns, they need to be designed with a loose fit that prioritizes more than an idealized efficiency; a planning approach referred to as the “loose sweater.”
Through consideration of hypothetical case studies, four main planning principles to this design approach are identified as: pinch point-free circulation; robust ventilation and filtration; touchless and hands-free design; and a focus on occupant wellness and comfort. The basic plan of any future transportation facility should consist of multiple access points; vertical circulation elements that disperse stairs and elevators; dispersed ticketing kiosks; spaces for retail and back-of-house; and generous, accessible platform levels. In health crisis mode, these layouts can better allow for one-way circulation flows that prioritize social distancing and reduce cross-traffic. This entails separated arrivals and departures at both street and platform levels with separate entrances and exits, stairs, access to ticketing kiosks, and restrooms.
Provide Pinch Point-Free Circulation
In facilities with high volume, the goal is to eliminate or reduce congestion. One-way circulation paths with no cross-traffic provide for better pedestrian flows, even in the best of times. Separation between escalators in opposite directions, elevators with front and rear openings, platforms with generous widths for waiting, and one-way flows at restrooms and platforms all contribute to more continuous circulation paths. Additionally, they are more comfortable for users.
One of the key challenges is to improve movement on and off the platforms. A standard, code-compliant pre-pandemic design includes stairs and an elevator where passengers going in different directions mix and cross paths. This may be somewhat annoying to busy passengers, but it is generally considered a normal occurrence. However, this limited vertical circulation becomes problematic in a health crisis mode where one-way flows are required. Approached through the lens of resilient planning, for the same platform width, a second stair could be added to create pairs with a glass divider or other barrier between up/down, and front and rear openings provided on elevators. With these alterations to the platform’s vertical circulation, a sudden shift to health crisis mode would allow the facility to more easily adapt to one-way flows that segregate paths and access for arriving and departing passengers.
Ventilation and Filtration
The single most significant element to improving user safety, as identified during this pandemic, is the need for mechanical systems that provide robust ventilation and filtration, with increased outside air volume. In terms of spatial programming, healthier ventilation can be realized through smaller HVAC zones for passenger areas, retail units, and back-of-house spaces; use of oversized ductwork can allow ventilation rates and outside air purges to be increased temporarily during crises. Localized air cleaners and higher filtration levels as achieved by MERV 15 filters are also recommended.
Touchless, Hands-free Design
We have already seen an increase in the use of touch-free ticketing with mobile phone applications, and this principle can be extended to plumbing fixtures and doors. Touchless and hands-free design reduces the number of public surfaces for potential contamination between users and may have positive impacts in terms of cleaning and maintenance from a facility operations standpoint, as well as improved accessibility. For example, restroom layouts can be designed to have doorless entrances which removes the need to constantly disinfect handles and removes a potential accessibility impediment.
Occupant Wellness and Comfort
The last principle of pandemic-resilient design has the most direct effect on people’s use of the space—their perception of it. During a crisis, with shifting guidelines and differing levels of adherence, many people may feel uneasy in public facilities. It is therefore not enough to know that a place is safe, users also want to feel that it is safe. This can be accomplished through increased access to natural light, natural ventilation, and views of exterior landscapes, which have positive psychological effects. Making the enhanced wellness aspects visible and easily legible throughout is also recommended to provide users with subtle indications of a facility’s safety systems, such as fluttering telltales to provide evidence of enhanced ventilation.
What is Old is New Again
Some of these principles are not new, but it might be time to take a fresh look at them. For example, the concept of promoting one-way flows has long informed the design of transportation facilities. We find this in the separation of passenger arrivals and departures. While we are most familiar with this concept in airport planning, it has also occasionally shown up in the planning of train stations. A good historic example was the original Penn Station in New York designed by McKim Mead and White. The station, built in 1905, was organized to encourage the separation of arriving passengers from departing passengers. The arriving passengers, shown in blue in the diagram, would go directly from the platforms to a lower concourse that led to stairs up to the street, allowing the passengers to by-pass the main upper concourse. The departing passengers (in red) would enter the main upper concourse level where they could relax and wait before going directly downstairs to the platforms, by-passing the lower concourse. Sometimes what is old is new again.
In summary, when Planning for the Pandemic-Resilient Transportation Facility we suggest that the team be guided by two principles:
1. An ability to flex between normal and health crisis modes, and
2. An ability to adapt to accommodate the unknown – in other words, it should have a “loose fit”
John Schuyler AIA, LEED AP, Partner at FXCollaborative