The Transit Advantage

Art and Transit: An Odd Couple That Works

Public transit reflects the soul of any city.  A public transit system provides major visual continuity for its city; much like branches flowing from a tree – it symbolizes an intimate, tangible connection to its base.

Can you imagine San Francisco without its cable cars or BART; Portland, OR without its streetcars; or London without its double-decker red buses?  Riding public transit and being on the streets are major ways that people see and experience their cities – more so than when they’re in their private steel and glass bubbles, aka automobiles, or in buildings.  Both of these contribute to a sense of place and “attachment to one’s community,” as the American Society of Landscape Architects puts it in this interesting blog post:

The Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community initiative surveyed some 43,000 people in 43 cities and found that “social offerings, openness and welcome-ness,” and, importantly, the “aesthetics of a place – its art, parks, and green spaces,” ranked higher than education, safety, and the local economy as a “driver of attachment.”  And that’s really the reason our communities invest in public transportation anyway – the public good.

Why public art?

Art and culture are important, they make you feel alive!  Studies show that art contributes significantly to our well-being, while making us feel that we are part of a community.  Seeing art on your Monday morning commute reminds you that you’re not a soulless robot (robots don’t appreciate art).  Public art reminds people of this as they travel through a city.  It also forms landmarks that give a city character and can be a point of pride; so it’s not just good for the soul, it’s good for the soul of a city.

Based on the unending number of official transit agency web pages about public art programs that come up when I Google the terms “public art transit” (without quotation marks), I am encouraged to believe that other people think this, too. Even the Federal Transit Administration thinks it’s worthwhile to invest in public art in transit, and provides the funding many local agencies need to do so.  (See the FTA’s position on art and transit here.)

I recently participated in a LinkedIn discussion entitled “Will the art in the metro attract more people to take public transportation?”  I didn’t see a concrete answer to that specific question from the participants, but among the hesitations some people expressed due to the financial cost of art, I saw a strong consensus emerge in the community about the spirit and joy that art brings.  Art can sometimes bring financial rewards, as in the two anecdotes reported by The Atlantic’s Dan Rosenfeld in “The Financial Case for Public Art.” And it can help gain public acceptance of a new community feature that can be visually imposing, as can be seen in this FTA-authored case study.

As the CEO of Acumen Building Enterprise, Inc., I am proud of our role in making cities function more efficiently, helping people do what they need to do with less frustration, and helping build strong, vibrant, participatory communities.

As someone who loves and collects art for my own home, and Acumen’s Oakland office (we have embraced the beauty of art in our headquarters and throughout the building’s internal space), I am also happy to see public art achieving the same things.  I am very much looking forward to seeing the new artwork planned for some of the projects in which Acumen is involved, such as BART’s Oakland Airport Connector and Warm Springs Station.  From my perspective, good public transportation and good public art go hand in hand.