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Raising the Value of Public Spaces

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Choosing public furniture that maximizes use without sacrificing space

The Fight for Space

When designing for public spaces, those involved in the planning process need to take into account environmental stressors, such as crowding, and how that can affect privacy and personal space. Studies show that people prefer to have approximately 1.2 meters of personal space when it comes to ‘social distance’, which is the distance we put between ourselves and strangers or acquaintances.

Social distance

A person’s overall experience in a transitory space such as a train station, cruise terminal, or airport, is in part driven by their experience involving this social distance while waiting. Passenger satisfaction surveys almost always include questions to gather opinions of one’s hold room or waiting room experience – given that in many instances this is a place where passengers spend most of their time. The passenger experience influences a terminal’s star ratings, and dissatisfied travelers are very vocal and the most likely to share their experience with others on social media.

The challenge for space planners is sourcing furniture that will allow for maximum seat utilization, while keeping passengers feeling relaxed and not squished. To accommodate this, space planners should source furniture that is designed with this behavior in mind.

The Experiment

Using a variety of high-performance furniture and seating options configured in purposeful ways can maximize space requirements and seat utilization rates. In a special trial installation conducted at Tampa International Airport, a seating mock-up was installed in Tampa’s Airside F terminal. For several days, the tandem seats in this area were filmed for 2.5 hours during two peak periods over 2 days. The tandem seats were then replaced by cluster seating units featuring the same seat elements. This new mock-up was also recorded for the same amount of time over the same peak periods.

The result?

For the tandem seating, people occupied an average of 2.12 seats, as single travelers did not want to sit directly beside a stranger. In contrast, the cluster seating saw 100% seat utilization as the room became crowded (Null, 2013).   Clusters can sit 6 people around a central table where each passenger has enough space to work, eat, drink and be social with their neighbor. Its also an excellent seating arrangement for a family or group that want to sit together.

Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport

Counter Options

Depending on the culture of the transit operator and their goal for the passenger experience, they may want to set a high bar or wall-mounted counter solution that offers power outlets so people can charge their personal electronics. These types of solutions create short-term respite areas where there were none along often under-utilized wall-space. The small footprint means that they can be placed in hallways, or around existing seating in order to create a standing space for consumers to charge their devices, talk on the phone, or do work. When properly placed, these spaces discourage passengers from clogging walkways and transition areas as they focus on their device screens.  The ideal location for these minimal space-claiming solutions changes based on terminal locations, traffic levels, and proximity to amenities. Another benefit is that when passengers know that there is easy and accessible charging nearby, they are encouraged to shop or grab a snack instead of guarding a scarce power source, ultimately increasing facility concessions revenue.

Wall mounted counter system

Accommodating for scarce space

The reality is that space is very valuable, especially in older facilities that were built during a time when passenger levels were lower, and concessions fewer. Today, more concessions have encroached on hold room areas, squeezing the terminals. The battle on a concourse is for real estate, and space is money; so the key is to find the balance between functionality, comfort and economics.

In this case, seating, surfaces, and power options can either take up or maximize limited real estate so being innovative and finding ways to blend functions between a chair and passenger conveniences is critical for the passenger experience. Facilities should consider furniture options that “have it all” designed with surfaces, tablet arms, drink holders and power outlets as a way to provide enough personal space for a single traveler or even a family while situated near a concessions area as well as in hold rooms.

Seating with power, a tablet arm, and drink holder

Hold rooms over time have evolved from being utilitarian and underserving environments to inviting spaces that cater more to the diverse needs of individuals. Personal space and autonomy toward personal choices is in the control of people.