Sunday, February 24th, 2008

The Importance of Aesthetic Design in Transportation Facilities

As I sat down to write a review of INDOT’s nice 46th St. bridge replacement project in Indianapolis, it occurred to me that a sort of prologue was in order. I talk about the importance of aesthetics and design identity in roadway design, but have to date not justified why that is something we should care about.

I argue that there are national and regional trends that lead to this, especially in a Midwestern city. These cluster in three groups:

  1. Trends in international economics and culture
  2. Transformation of the public square in American life
  3. Unique Midwestern challenges

As to the first point, we see a number of trends converging. Firstly is the rise of offshore economic production and domestic productivity increases, which have decimated the Midwestern manufacturing base and threaten to bring similar changes to the service sector. This might not seem on the surface to have much to do with transportation aesthetics, but it does. Previously, Midwestern states could rely on participating in a sort of commodity market for manufacturing jobs. That is, the most important determinants of factory location were access to labor and the cost of doing business. This leads to a strategy of focusing purely on functional efficiency and minimizing cost. The problem is, in a commodity market, the low cost producer wins, and in a global economy with third world labor at pennies per hour, the Midwest will never be a low cost producer again, no matter how much cost cutting they do on highway design. This means a more differentiated strategy needs to be pursued.

We also see cultural trends heading this direction. Witness the decline of a homogenized national experience in favor of more specialty, high quality products. Fifteen years ago, Hoosiers got their coffee from the $0.69 bottomless cup at Waffle House. Today they suck down so many $4 lattes that your find Starbucks outlets at interstate highway exits next to the truck stop and Starbucks even put its Midwest headquarters in Indianapolis. In the 1980’s you had your choice of three beers: Miller, Bud, and Coors. Today, the quality and quantity of beers available in even small markets is nothing short of astonishing. There used to be three major TV networks everyone watched. Today there are hundreds of specialized cable networks. If you wanted a good meal in the Midwest, it wasn’t too long ago that you had to hope you were fortunate enough to live in Chicago. Today, virtually every city has a variety of high quality restaurants.

Beyond the general quality explosion and niche markets, we also see the rise of design for its own sake. Today, every product is so sophisticated that it becomes difficult to separate DVD players, etc. based purely on technical criteria. Every new release of Microsoft Word only adds even more new features most users will ever need or care about. What is becoming more and more important is that products simply look cool. The best example of this might be the iPod, which even today is not the most advanced music player on the market. While Apple clearly got the value proposition right, the design of this product played a huge role in its popularity. Starbucks is known as much for the design of their stores as for the actual quality of the coffee. In short, design matters. And the importance of design will only continue to increase over time. This has been well-documented, for example in books like Virginia Postrel’s “The Substance of Style”.

To sum up, Midwestern cities cannot rely on traditional commodity approaches in today’s world. Rather, they need to pursue a more differentiated strategy that recognizes key trends like globalization, the rise of niche markets, high quality, and the importance of design.

Beyond these trends, the post-war transformation of American living patterns has changed the entire nature of the public square and the public experience, though this is often unrecognized. Our interstates and primary arteries are our new “Main Streets”. They are our true public spaces and shared experience. The only impression many people will ever have of a place is driving through it on the freeway. What type of impression does your town want to leave? Cities and towns invest millions in aesthetic improvements in their downtowns, downtowns that increasingly are not the locations that shape people’s perception of a place. Too often the places people predominantly see are neglected. This is where aesthetics is really key.

The Midwest also has a particular problem: the so-called “brain drain”. I happen to think that the concept of brain drain is flawed. Nevertheless, there is a legitimate problem with attracting the talent needed to compete in the 21st century economy to most of the Midwest. Natives get their degrees and leave, and there isn’t enough inflow from elsewhere to make up the difference. This is a result of yet another trend: the mobility of people in our modern society. And while there is a circular effect, in today’s world it is more true that jobs follow people, people don’t follow jobs. One reason you see comparatively few life sciences and high technology jobs in the Midwest is the lack of a skilled labor force. The answer is not just to try to lure jobs, but also to try to lure the people.

This is where aesthetics in transportation really comes in. Why is this? The Midwest does not have mountains or an ocean or perfect weather all the time. So its built environment plays a critical role in the overall perception that people have of it. It also has to play a role in making people want to live there.

That’s the key. Midwestern cities need to make people want to live in them. As I’ve argued before, no one who is bright, ambitious, and has big plans for themselves will want to live in a place where good enough is good enough. The new economy labor force is going to migrate to places where the civic ambition matches their personal ambition. I believe there is no greater marker of the civic ambition of a place than the design of public spaces and buildings, and transportation facilities are, as I noted earlier, the public space par excellence in our modern society.

Consider Wal-Mart. They understand that design and aesthetics say something important about what they are all about as a company. Wal-Mart could easily afford to make their stores look better. But they don’t. Why? It isn’t just to save money. Rather, they are doing it to send a powerful message to their customer that they don’t care about anything but rock bottom prices. This works for Wal-Mart because that design identity fits with who they are as a company. And fortunately for them, they are the low cost producer in a commodity market, hence their enormous success as a company.

But what if your town is giving off a Wal-Mart vibe but is still far from being a low cost provider, particularly when overseas competition is factored in? That’s the place all too many Midwestern towns can find themselves in. And that’s why designing high quality projects that also provide a sense of design identity for a place is so important.

By the way, this does not necessarily involve spending huge sums of money. For example, I highlighted 15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis in my Pecha Kucha presentation. I believe that if done right, making it look good doesn’t have to cost a lot of extra money. We have to keep two decisions firmly separate in our minds: what do we want? and how can we get that most cost effectively? It can be the case that we have to compromise on what we want in order to live within what we can afford, but let’s make that choice consciously, not by default.

So that’s why aesthetics and design identity are so important in roadway design. Stay tune for more reviews and previews.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation

12 Responses to “The Importance of Aesthetic Design in Transportation Facilities”

  1. thundermutt says:

    In a former life I traveled quite a bit on business. Several times I had the experience of waking up in an Interstate Interchange Hotel and forgetting where I was. Looking out the window, chain restaurants, Mickey D’s, early big-boxes, and endless rows of strip malls lined the suburban boulevards; I still couldn’t tell what city I was in. Suburban Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Memphis, and St. Louis were generally indistinguishable.

    All this is to say that differentiation of place seems to be important in today’s economy. Not all of it (as Richard Florida points out in his endless “Creative Class” franchise) is about the physical place, but the built environment is a powerful part of the equation nonetheless.

    One small example: if you’re driving on a boulevard interspersed with roundabouts and edged with broad multi-user trails, you know what city you’re in.

  2. Crocodileguy says:

    I have to agree on the importance of urban design–especially as it relates to a “sense of place.”

    You go to any culture hub, and you immediately know where you are, whether it’s Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Orlando, Atlanta, Phoenix, Houston, etc.

    The midwest has a unique opportunity to capitalize on its “Rust Belt” status by taking that negative and turning it into a positive (like “Nap Town” from the Pecha Kucha presentation). I, too, like Indy’s Warehouse District design theme, and think it would fit in most areas. Meridian St. and Forest Hills also feature special lamps and design aesthetics to set them apart. I think given the “Rust Belt” status, Indy could utilize more of a “rusted iron” look to its urban design, such as they did on the 465 NW corridor bridges. It’s high-concept industrial design, but I don’t think it would become tired too quickly. And to my knowledge, no one has adopted that aesthetic as their own…yet.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m an urban planner and lifelong Midwesterner. I can’t agree with you more.

    The key to long term economic sustainability is attracting good jobs (all good things flow from good paying jobs). Good jobs follow talent and the talent today is flowing to locations that offer the best overall quality of life. Right now, the Midwest is clearly falling behind with each passing day. The Brain Drain is on, and it’s on big time.

    Absent a great climate and compelling natural features (mostly), the Midwest simply has to try harder. However, I don’t think the leadership in most Midwestern cities really understands what happening, let alone has the resources and political leverage to turn things around at any significant level. Perhaps only the leaders in Chicago, Minneapolis, and, in the recent past, Milwaukee, have really understood the power that design can play in revitalizing city centers (including roadway corridors), and how that serves to enhance their overall civic image and identity.

    Appearance matters as never before. Roadway corridors, especially, are the places that define a given location’s image and identity. Unfortunately, for most municipal bureaucrats, these impacts are poorly understood at best. Even when they are, the public resources available to remedy the problems are very, very limited.

    National retail franchises spend millions of research dollars trying to understand how to get customers inside their stores, get them to open their wallets, and make them want to return again and again. Customers’ sensory experience is especially important. I can’t image a successful store that looks shabby, smells rank, emits noxious sounds, is difficult to comprehend, and is uncomfortable to navigate. Yet that defines the majority of Midwestern city centers, and, especially, their roadway corridors.

    The impacts of high energy costs and the fallout of global warming may change things, but, right now, the big winners are the states and cities in the big “Smiley Belt” that starts somewhere around Boston, goes down through the Carolinas and Florida, over through Texax and Arizona, and up the Pacific Rim to Vancouver.

    It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is. Chicago and Milwaukee have made some real progress in improving important roadways. For most other cities, it’s biz as usual, including Indianapolis, whose downtown streets are chronically over engineered.

    The Midwestern city that wakes up and starts focusing on creating great roads and streets will be a big winner in the years ahead. How that might actually happen is another story.

    Sorry for the rant. Your observations obviously struck a nerve!

  4. Donna says:

    On the brain drain thing: I’ve noticed since moving to Naptown it seems quite common for people to graduate, move away, and then MOVE BACK when they want to have kids.

    Not sure how that relates to road design, but there it is, and seems like a defining feature of this place.

    On making a great image for travelers to identify with Indy: please let’s hope this post can’t be used as a support for the big rollercoaster sculpture! 😉

  5. thundermutt says:

    Some of the “move back” phenomenon relates to how much an income will buy here. A recent news item pointed out that we’re at the top of the “affordable housing” list for the tenth year running. That means we can have nice houses and spend more on other things living in Indianapolis. (I don’t think I’ve ever spent anywhere near 25% of my gross income on housing here, but I have friends in California who started out spending significantly more.)

  6. thundermutt says:

    What does everyone think of the report that INDOT is asking residents about what style of sound-wall they want on the NW side of Indy?

    In one way I’m in favor of the community-based decision-making, but in another way, I like Urbanophile’s notion of a consistent look and feel.

    If you drive past Dayton on I-70, Huber Heights is the main suburb, and its “claim to fame” is “America’s largest community of brick homes”. The sound wall there? Faux-brick, of course.

    Little things add up.

  7. Jason says:


    During thanksgiving I drove from Indy to home in Columbus and passed by what looked like new soundwalls on I-70 in Dayton. They had an interesting aviation theme etched into them. So you knew you were in the city of the Wright Brothers. Has anyone else seen this? I’m wondering if Indy should do something like it with a 500 theme.

  8. thundermutt says:

    Jason, I drove through Dayton at the end of the year, and your mention reminded me of noticing those panels at the time. I think the ones you mention are around the Dayton Airport exit, but I could be wrong.

    I think Urbanophile would suggest impressing the design of the city flag on those panels! (When you think about it, the design works in relief.)

  9. Jason says:


    Yes, I think those designs were around the area between the Airport Exit and where I-70 and I-75 meet. It looked like they are about to widen from 2 lanes to 3 on each side so they also added those new soundwalls with the neat designs.

    Unfortunately, Dayton (nor Columbus) isn’t as advanced as Indy where Google streetview can give me a view of them without having to drive back over there. Also, the aerial map doesn’t even allow me to zoom in to the lowest level of detail. It’s probably not a current aerial, anyway!

  10. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    I’d just say that I don’t care at all for sound walls myself. They are invariably ugly, and cut the street off from the surrounding urban context.

    However, I don’t live next to a freeway. And I can see why people who do would want them. I did live in a house that backed onto an active railroad line once, so I am familiar with noise. I think you tend to tune it out after a while. But there’s certainly a legitimate interest that adjacent homeowners have in noise mitigation. In that respect, saying No Barriers, period is not the best answer.

    However, I’d much prefer to see natural solutions done where possible. For example, plant trees and shrubs along the interstate. Or at least tree over the sound wall if you install it. Chicago even has some half-height wooden barriers that aren’t bad at all.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t realize Starbucks had put it’s midwest regional offices in Indy. Personally, I don’t go to Starbucks anymore. There a plenty of great local coffee shops in Indy that are favor better than Starbucks.

    On an additonal note I was so disappointed that the Abbey was not able to move back in to it’s orginal location at the point on Mass and College after the redevelopment. That was a great coffee house and almost an icon for downtown dwellers in Indy. Very sad.

  12. Michael Heneghan says:

    The Abby’s still downtown, and is still a great spot; hopefully it will see increased traffic now that the Central Library is finished.

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