Designing for COVID

Written by Cesar Vergara, Vergarastudio
(Cesar Vergara / Vergarastudio)

(Cesar Vergara / Vergarastudio)

Industrial and graphic design has a key role in the emergence of a safer and more sustainable mass transit industry.

RAILWAY AGE MARCH 2021 ISSUE: The challenge: The very name and definition of our industry, “mass transit,” encapsulates the unprecedented disruption the pandemic has caused to transit agencies. Social distancing is diametrically opposed to the very advantage passenger rail transportation provides: to safely transport mass groups of people in the same vehicle. In daily life, people benefit from public transit for myriad transportation needs. Compiled, the list would be long; commuting to and from work would be at the top.

How can industrial and graphic design contribute to alleviate this unprecedented crisis?

In the short term, many measures have already been implemented: working in multi-disciplinary teams of engineers and maintenance shops; devising graphics, shapes and schemes that encourage social distancing; wearing of masks and the disinfection of hands; installing plexiglass barriers in food service cars—the list goes on.

The lion’s share of modifications is in the interior, but signage on railcar exteriors is also being installed for the New York MTA and other systems. Industrial and graphic design has provided short-term visible hygiene measures, alleviating the apprehension of riders using public transportation.

These designs will be roughly divided in two categories:
• Short term, which are now implemented throughout the country, and could last from one to two years or longer. 
• Long term, forming an integral part of the criteria for new rail vehicle design.

Daily vehicle cleaning has become a critical link in the chain of tasks required to provide a safe interior. Industrial design can play an important part by:
• Utilizing state-of-the-art disinfecting liquids and sprays.
• Improving cleaning tool industrial design. During my years at Amtrak and NJ Transit, specialty cleaning device manufacturers inquired if new designs were needed. This is an opportunity to revisit the tools to address the stringent procedures required. 
Learning from previous experiences. An example that comes to mind is the many modifications that were implemented in Amfleet cars, replacing carpeted areas above the baggage rack with vacuum formed parts. This provided surfaces that could be wiped, and a more updated appearance. Crevices and hard-to-reach places in interiors that are difficult to reach and clean can be streamlined with vacuum formed sections that will make them easy to clean.
Choosing the correct materials. All materials used in seating comply with flammability and toxicity requirements. It is now up to the designers to come up with ways to use color to delineate spaces, and smooth materials that can be cleaned and wiped thoroughly. Seating materials should minimize seams.

Presently, transit agencies are focusing on interior graphic design, outfitting interiors with safety distancing signage on the floor, center ceiling, bulkheads, vestibules and doors to provide ample notice of the distance recommended between passengers. Signage with clear graphics requiring the use of masks has been placed in stations. Transit systems are mandated to require passengers and conductors to wear masks. Public service announcements remind riders to wear masks, keep social distance and use disinfecting liquids. Cleaning and disinfecting standard maintenance procedures (SMPs) for interiors are continuously updated. In three-seat rows, the center seats have been blocked, with signage that they are not to be occupied. Plexiglass barriers have been installed in Amtrak food service cars, protecting passengers and attendants. Hand disinfectant dispensers in vestibules and car seating areas have been installed.

Many of the measures being adopted by agencies during the pandemic create an opportunity. Vehicle interiors can be configured to be more comfortable, easier to clean, and appealing to passengers and onboard crew.

Industrial design will also play a visible part in new rolling stock designs. Some suggestions of semi-permanent or permanent solutions: 
• State-of-the-art filtration systems that are being tested in the ventilation systems at Amtrak and other passenger railroads.
• Special UV lighting that helps eliminate viruses.
• Configuring seating in a staggered sequence to create more social distancing.
• Applying new materials being developed that don’t allow surface bacterial or virus growth.
• Lighting that indicates social distancing.
• Improving design of walkover seating to allow for thorough cleaning.
• Raised disc flooring that is easier to clean but still provides anti-slip qualities in rainy and wintry weather.
• Surfaces with protective film that can be peeled off periodically to reveal new surfaces.
• Plexiglass partitions applied with mushroom head Velcro that can be removed when no longer required, or for cleaning.
• Establishing wide-scale and regular employee coronavirus abatement interactions, including suggestions for improvements to industrial and graphic design.

A potential silver lining is that the measures being adopted by many agencies create an opportunity. By virtue of their smooth shapes that are easier to clean, vehicle interiors can be configured to be more comfortable, easier to clean, and appealing to passengers and onboard crew.

An existing example of this type of industrial design is the interior of the Kawasaki-built M8 commuter fleet for Metro-North. Some of the mainstream innovations in these vehicles, such as armrests shaped smooth with no cavities or sharp edges, are not only more comfortable and ergonomic, but also afford the cleaning crew ease in wiping on all sides. The gently curved center ceiling panel, baggage rack and coves are also easier for the maintenance crew to wipe clean. These innovations, intended for ease of cleaning, result in a more ample interior volume for passengers and crew. These features are surprisingly appropriate for a more thorough cleaning during the pandemic.

Industrial design has to work in concert with architects in platform design, as the vestibule of the railcar becomes a de-facto continuation of the platform when the doors are open during dwell time. In the M8, I designed the vestibules, clearly marked by their yellow color flooring, to closely match the tactile yellow of the platform edge. This was not a requirement, but rather a design done in the spirit of the ADA for the visually impaired. The result was a clearer definition of the vestibule as well, and a very well-received aesthetic.

There exist many good examples in public transportation outside of the rail industry. As an example in the bus industry, the DC Circulator, serving downtown areas of Washington D.C., sports a prominent “Swoosh” on the exterior. I carried this graphic feature to the floor of the length of the bus as well as to the ceiling, forming a reflective “swoosh” graphic. This was not only decorative, as it indicates that passengers should move toward the back, closer to the rear exit door.

As a COVID industrial design option, ADA norms can easily be adapted to achieve social distancing. As an example, the space required by a passenger in a wheelchair to safely maneuver and secure a mobility device is a circle approximately six feet in diameter—the same equivalent CDC-recommended measure for social distancing. The area in front of accessible lavatories also provides sufficient square footage and can be used as a temporary area for standing passengers to social distance.

One thing is certain: We will eventually beat the virus, but it will have changed how we maintain, operate and disinfect our transit vehicles for decades to come. Industrial and graphic design will play a key role in the recovery, and in the emergence of a better, safer and more sustainable mass transit industry.  

Categories: Commuter/Regional, High Performance, Intercity, Light Rail, News, Passenger, Rapid Transit, Safety Tags: , ,