Left to their own devices or habits, engineers tend to design rather sterile structures to satisfy the functional needs of the project. Safety and cost considerations control the designers in satisfying a performance specification. Site adaptation is about the only concession made to the need to standardize for the sake of economy, but that generally applies to only engineering matters and not the facility's appearance or environment.
In recent years there has been increased interest in adding art work to existing transit systems; e.g., displays on tunnel walls. This application is known as Arts-in-Transit (AIT). Architects frequently have the opportunity to incorporate AIT considerations when the initial concepts are formulated but only if the project sponsor requires or allows it. In St. Louis, the AIT staff was allowed to influence the final design of the MetroLink system. The staff worked with the architects and engineers in considering the appearance of all aspects of the system that would be visible to the public. As a result, the entire system was designed as a work of art. The right-of-way was considered an integral part of the design, and the design of MetroLink was site-specific and relevant to St. Louis.
AIT contributed constructively to many aspects of the MetroLink project, not the least of which was the shape of piers to support elevated sections, which has won wide acclaim. However, AIT did more than simply influence choice of colors or textures, or even shapes. Working with the various neighborhoods, AIT helped to develop public art related to the stations and alignment. Art was incorporated into signage and construction markers. Very significantly, art projects were used to attract positive media attention. The outstanding ridership experienced in the system's first year of operation may be a partial indication that AIT contributions have had a very beneficial effect. As a result, patrons are inclined to consider MetroLink "their" light rail system.
Project organizations should consider and include AIT in their projects from the start of preliminary engineering. This link with the neighborhoods can provide valuable insight into "personalizing" the facilities and their surroundings.
Funding will need to be acquired from local or regional sources for the AIT effort, and this factor should be incorporated into the initial plans. If the effort is begun early enough, local businesses may serve as funding sources, just as rail cars were "sponsored" by large contributors in St. Louis.
This lesson can be applied to virtually every rapid transit project in the U.S., new or old, and will be limited only by the amount of local contributions and the persistence of the AIT staff in locating them.