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State-of-the-art streetcars, designed by Canadian transport manufacturer Bombardier Inc., will begin entering service in 2013 in Toronto with the promise of a better customer experience. (Bombardier Inc.)
State-of-the-art streetcars, designed by Canadian transport manufacturer Bombardier Inc., will begin entering service in 2013 in Toronto with the promise of a better customer experience. (Bombardier Inc.)

Industrial design

Design no longer at the back of the bus Add to ...

When they first began rumbling down Toronto's streets in the late 1970s, the city's hulking new streetcars were an emblem of design sophistication.

Their red and white bodies, elevated some two metres off the ground, allowed passengers to float above street level in modern comfort, all the while feeling confident the "Rocket" would get them where they needed to go safely and efficiently.

Fast forward some 30 years and Hogtown's travelling hordes will soon experience yet another chapter in the ongoing evolution of the city's mass transit system.

State-of-the-art streetcars, designed by Canadian transport manufacturer Bombardier Inc., will begin entering service in 2013 with the promise of a better customer experience.

The streetcars, with all of their communications upgrades and accessibility-minded features - advanced next-stop notifications, GPS and a new low-floor design providing wheelchair access, as examples - are indicative of the very evolution of industrial design occurring in the transportation sector today.

"It was a different era [when the streetcars were built in the 1970s]and designers had different technical knowledge," says Kevin Seto, the Toronto Transit Commission's superintendent of light rail vehicle engineering. "It was also a different society, and design changes as society changes."

Indeed, the look and feel of trains, subway cars, streetcars, buses, boats and even personal pleasure vehicles such as snowmobiles are changing dramatically thanks to a range of factors including new technologies, the growing strength of the green movement, security concerns and shifting customer expectations.

"The biggest change in transportation design is how designers communicate," says Christopher O'Brien Wheeler, president of the Toronto-based Association of Canadian Industrial Designers.

"I think we've started collaborating more and advanced design teams are integrating different professions and utilizing them in the design process … it's a mix of engineering, design, materials analysis, user-centred studies, as well as design optimizations for machining and fabrication."

The other major change, says Ken Cummings, a faculty member at Toronto's Humber College School of Applied Technology and one of the committee members consulting on the design of Toronto's new trams, is a dramatic rethinking of design priorities.

Thirty years ago, streetcars, automobiles, boats and airplanes were designed with an eye to aesthetics and consumer appeal, while ergonomics and utility often took a back seat.

But as public expectations shifted, designers began consulting a wider swath of stakeholders to find solutions to functional issues. This new approach resulted in accessibility improvements for once underserved or ignored minority groups.

Consider LED technology, which has allowed visual next-stop announcements to be added to buses and streetcars, thus helping hearing impaired passengers reach their final destination.

Multidisciplinary designers are now looking at ways to simplify and improve experiences by participating in every facet of the way a customer uses their product. In the case of a passenger riding a train, that means finding improvements to her online experience when buying a ticket, taking ergonomic considerations into account when designing her seat, carefully considering what that seat is made of, and determining how the train should move to and from the station.

Daniel Dechesnes, an industrial designer with Bombardier's transportation division, has seen the gradual crumbling of corporate silos transform the way his company's private jets, Sea-Doos and trains are made.

"The big change in my industry is that engineers and designers are now working hand-in-hand," he explains. "Twenty years ago, we had different views and didn't understand each other's goals."

New technology, space-age materials

Perhaps the most important factor influencing industrial design in transportation is the vast array of new technologies and materials at a designer's disposal.

"If you take the bigger picture in the recent evolution of industrial design, it's about the shift from the industrial age, which was about mechanical objects, to the information age, which is about all the functionality that you can get out of a black box," says Clive Rioux, executive director of the Dulles, Va.-based Industrial Designers Society of America.

"The real question is what influence electronics will have on people's journeys. I think the experience will be much richer because electronics will allow you to connect much more seamlessly providing information and entertainment to mask or enhance the journey."

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