A holistic approach to the design and planning of transport hubs

In this article, written in 2015, transportation design expert, Peter Farmer, discusses how to create successful transport hubs and interchanges in the UK.

Throughout history, transport interchanges have been flow facilitators, a place where communication, transportation, trade and industry congregate. This paper examines the need for early design integration of social and commercial components within and beyond the concourse and precinct, to ensure that we deliver successful transportation projects of the future.

The interchange is fast becoming a more multi-modal, more dynamic, commercially active place for both interaction and leisure. An increasingly dense urban population means that we are far less dependent on the car, and we need to start considering a new urban model led by physical distances, and combining rapid transit and active modes. No longer is the transport hub a purely operational facility for the passenger, but also now an active commercial destination. Therefore we need to consider the spaces inside and outside the station precinct differently as they evolve, in order to provide an integrated approach to travel itself.


As mentioned, rail stations are generally designed as flow facilitators, and some think that this is their primary function, with their facilities and revenue secondary. However, they are also a social, cultural and commercial venue, and these aspects should be integrated with the operational aspects and not as an adjunct.

Rail investment is largely driven by safety or capacity requirements, and the ‘commercialisation’ of stations is more often a retrospective process that is seen as being at odds with the operational requirements. They must be local, contextual and inclusive, have a consideration of legacy and a desire to consider the wider impacts of the decisions and actions we take.

Growth and Opportunity

Stations in the UK are starting to outperform many shopping districts, showing 5.6% growth in like-for-like sales from January to March 2014, well above reported ‘high street’ growth of 0.5% (British Retail Consortium report) during the same period. When you consider that roughly a million people pass through a station such as London St Pancras Station every week, coupled, in this case, with an international connection, it puts the station environment in a very different context to its original conception.

We are witnessing a move away from the independent operator towards the larger generic chains, resulting in some independents struggling to survive. However, a few smaller outlets are able to mature, and they are being actively supported by station operators who recognise a commitment to support smaller trade and the local economy.

As station usage increases we may well see them becoming ground-breaking environments where we see how society is changing playing out. Many are now seen as destinations in their own right, such as St Pancras in London and New York’s Grand Central Station, as well as places to pause. New ideas are being explored, such as the virtual shopping walls in Seoul and Shanghai’s Metro.

Changing behaviours

The way we are using these environments is changing as a result of social and technological influences.

In the late ‘90s, in the Harvard Business Review, Pine and Gilmore helped to define the transition from ‘service’ to ‘experience economy’ and that is relevant to many of our station and interchange environments.

Technology is influencing the way we get information, shop and interact within the immediate public spaces. We may obtain travel information even before it is announced via our phones, and, while we may be a single traveller on our own with a coffee, we may actually be chatting with several other people. We buy less newspapers and cigarettes, but we are buying more coffee and breakfasts. We are happy to be entertained, and are not surprised to see pop up promotions. Such behavioural changes are all influencing the way that we design these environments.

Different stations in similar locations can also be very different due to their passenger, and immediate urban, context. If they are correctly integrated with commercial facilities and the dynamics of their surrounding fabric, they then can develop into an economically sustainable quarter in and around a station, enhancing the experience of both the traveller and non-traveller alike.

Changing needs

The retail space provision is changing as a response to these demands, and so, from the outset, the design must take into consideration the physical, operational and safety constraints and opportunities of the development, both for the present and for how aspects those adjacent sites may be safeguarded for future development. This must be for the completed design, but also for the delivery of the scheme. The viability of such a development can be significantly impacted by construction logistics.

At Chapman Taylor, we have developed a clear delivery strategy for these types of project that we use as a guide to develop projects at their early stages, along with design audit tools to ensure the design integrity as it develops.

Blurring the edge of the station precinct

A passenger’s journey experience no longer starts when boarding a train, or ends when they step off. The station is not a destination, but an interlude, and we now need to look at how to improve the quality of this experience both outside and in.

In the past, the train station environment has been a somewhat hostile place, and this had a negative effect on investment in the area. The recent commercial investment in some key stations in London has already meant a marked improvement in passengers' perception of the area, and this in turn has extended to the commercial catchment beyond that of the travelling public.

Yet when these boundaries are ‘blurred’, we need to develop a mechanism whereby the surrounding neighbourhood, and particularly properties adjacent to a train station, are considered when they share the benefits of investment. Perhaps train operating companies can do this through examining and adjusting their franchise agreements, and this way everyone can profit. Better communication between stakeholders needs to be adopted as to the future design and as to how the sharing of strategies and economic benefits of a station would be best managed. This could result in those nearby properties and businesses, that have gained significantly from the upturn, contributing back.

Get the pedestrian flow around a station wrong and it will be disastrous, get it right and it can result in a flourishing landmark and stress-free destination.

About the Author

Peter Farmer (BArch(Hons) BA Arch(Hons) ARB IARP)

Director, UK

Peter heads up our Transportation and Industrial sectors in the UK. He undertakes a key role in the continuing development of this sector, related research, masterplanning, due diligence and sustainability.

With over 25 years’ specialist experience across the UK, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and the Caribbean, he has an in-depth understanding of the political and business drivers of projects with multiple stakeholders and complex design and delivery teams.

Areas of expertise:

Commercial / Transport

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