Designers, Mr. Rioux says, are seeking new ways for passengers to interact with their transportation environments, from dashboard GPS systems in cars to video screens in subways. Some transit authorities are even using mobile phone messages to provide riders with information such as system delays.
On the materials front, the advent of super-strong steels, aluminum and titanium has led to the design of less expensive, lighter vehicles that require less fuel.
The era of green design
"Environmental sensitivity has become part of the definition of good design," Mr. Rioux says. Stakeholders - from transit authorities hoping to address rider concerns over emissions, to consumers concerned with their commute-related carbon footprint - are all demanding eco-friendly solutions.
What was once a niche market catering to environmentalists has since become a critical avenue of growth for transportation manufacturers worldwide.
As such, designers are developing new fuel-efficient or electric power technologies that are reducing the demand for fossil fuels, while perfecting navigation systems that enable vehicles to reach their destinations more efficiently, thereby reducing emissions.
Designers, Mr. Cummings says, are even beginning to incorporate organic materials such as cotton into designs for seats and other coverings with an eye to improving the sustainability of their products.
But not before ensuring the safest ride possible.
A safety-first approach
When Chris McCarthy, the Vancouver-based director of fixed facilities for Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., and his colleagues began work on Vancouver's new Canada Line light-rail system - a crucial addition to the city's infrastructure and the transit showpiece of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games - safety and security were a top priority and a major influence on their designs.
Concerns over issues ranging from potential terrorist attacks to fire safety prompted designers to include hundreds of CCTV cameras in trains and at the 16 stations across the Canada Line system. Glassed-in elevators were incorporated into stations to allow personnel to check for trapped riders in case of an emergency, while non-combustible materials were used in everything from the trains' seats to internal mechanics.
They also applied scratch-and-spray paint-resistant coatings on train surfaces and designed bright lighting in all areas of cars and stations to minimize security or vandalism threats.
Quick and easy, please
While safety is always of prime concern, industrial design is also changing to suit the shifting demographics, not to mention the growing waistlines, of riders.
"I think the low step height you're seeing on new light transit vehicles is an example of that," Mr. Cummings says of efforts to lessen the physical burden on transit customers.
Customers now expect an efficient, well-designed experience when they use any form of transportation. Commuters recoil at the thought of bottlenecked subway platforms, drivers fume over poorly-placed dashboard controls and discerning fliers carefully plan their routes away from older, more congested airports in favour of state-of-the-art terminals in other cities.
As Mr. Cummings points out, transportation design that's simply "good enough" is no longer acceptable to the masses.
While it's clear that transit systems such as those of Toronto and Vancouver have changed drastically in just the past 30 years, the bigger question is where the greatest design advancements will be made next.
Mr. Seto says that at least on the TTC, the ongoing evolution of industrial design will have the greatest impact on the number of people for whom the system will provide a safe, efficient and reliable means of transport.
"I would say for sure we're going to make the greatest gains in accessibility," he says. "There's no question that our vehicles now are difficult if people are mobility impaired … we're making great strides."
Best through the decades
1970s: Volkswagen Golf
The successor to the iconic Beetle, the Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed Golf is a great example of industrial design, says Clive Rioux, executive director of the Dulles, Va.-based Industrial Designers Society of America. The Golf went into production in 1974.