Calming the commute – Nille Juul-Sorenson from Arup

Nille Juul-Sorenson from Arup looks at how intelligent railway station design can help to make commuters’ lives easier.

A  recent European survey conducted by Ford has revealed that the most stressful part of a working day is likely to occur first thing in the morning. Forget meeting with the boss or delivering a presentation, many people find getting to work even more stressful than their jobs.

Longer commutes are the result of a rapidly growing urban population. But when you also factor in delays, congestion and the unpredictable British weather you have the ideal recipe for a fraught experience.

Although it’s true that a number of these factors are out of our hands, for those traveling by rail many of the frustrations felt by commuters are the by-product of poor station design. The most significant factors can be, and are being, resolved through passenger-sensitive station design.


This highly stressful condition is believed to affect around 10 per cent of the UK population. Descending into confined spaces underground can cause feelings of claustrophobia, while artificial lighting can make navigating a metro network even tougher. When we design a house or an office building, daylight is a primary consideration, but this is rarely factored into the design of our transport systems.

Introducing a whole new lighting scheme would be a big step in making commuters’ journeys more acceptable. New York City’s Fulton Center, a subway station and shopping centre, and Copenhagen’s Cityringen, provide prime examples of how this can be achieved. Both use a combination of skylights and reflective materials to direct sunlight into the stations below. In Copenhagen these systems enable natural light to permeate 20 m below ground level.

Ticket barriers

Even when you make it through the gates first time, the experience of moving through any ticketed area or barrier makes you acutely aware that you’re transitioning to a different, monitored environment – which is stressful in itself.

In the near future, we’ll see technology resolve this problem, with systems automatically registering and charging passengers as they board trains. This will reduce station congestion, and make for a passenger experience of smooth continuity from the station to the train.

Unintentional encounters

Whether it’s spotting the least crowded carriage or avoiding a boisterous group on their way to a party, poor visibility can lead to commuters unintentionally entering uncomfortable situations.

Stations in Copenhagen’s Cityrigen have been designed to help commuters avoid such problems. Passengers descending escalators will be able to view the whole platform, enabling them to decide which carriage they’d like to be in, or whether to wait for the next train.


Navigating through a station, even a well known one, can be confusing and stressful. Ironically, a barrage of signage can actually exacerbate this, and is often unhelpful for foreign visitors. Station designers are waking up to the idea of using intuitive design to create stations that clearly channel passengers towards the platform using less aggressive techniques, such as lighting and block colours.

Rubbish and dirt

If people see rubbish, they are more likely to litter ­– crowd behaviour in action. One way that to avoid the accumulation of dirt is through introducing easy-to-clean materials into stations, or ones that disguise common sources of grime. During the planning stages for Copenhagen, the foods that people commonly consumed in the stations were studied. With hot dogs and chocolate milk being popular choices, a wall coating that could be easily be wiped clean of them was selected and specified.

According to the Office of Rail and Road, London’s Waterloo station alone recorded almost 100 million entries and exits in the last year and this number is growing all the time. Major design changes to stations of this scale and investment in infrastructure on this level can be costly in both time and money, but, when we consider that over 1.3 billion people a year travel on London’s underground alone, the widespread and long-term benefits of station improvements in urban regions across the nation are more than value for money.

Through intuition and careful consideration, drawing on inspiration from existing programmes across the globe, we can combat this day-to-day stress by redesigning our commute.

Nille Juul-Sorenson is global business leader for architecture at Arup