Public transport vehicles today are like the least virus safe places to be

Travelling last week with the virus at an early stage of spreading around the global population, we noticed new behaviours amongst fellow bus, train and plane passengers. These vehicles feel like some of the least healthy places to be right now; with their high churn of strangers from many locations concentrated closely together, they are the environments people are most sensitive to being infected by Covid-19. Unsurprisingly passengers are prioritising more space around them, are positioning themselves to ensure others are not orientated to them (to literally be out of the line of fire), and they are trying to move in and out of seats and vehicles with the minimum amount of physical contact. And these new behaviours will have lasting impact on the nature of mobility design: designing vehicles in a post virus world will be different in several ways. 

The design of almost all cars, buses, trains, and planes, centre on the accommodation of passengers sitting side-by-side. In a car today passengers mostly know one another; typically occupants are members of one household or otherwise are family or friends or colleagues. In other forms of transport occupants comprise more of people who do not know each other, but none-the-less people have been happy for hundreds of years sitting side by side with strangers on buses and trains and planes. Until now anyway.  

One of the reasons we have sat comfortably side by side other people is that our peripersonal space does not extend much sideways. Peripersonal space is the name given to the space that we all endeavour to keep around ourselves. It is our personal ‘buffer-zone’ that varies according to our circumstances: the nature of our surrounding environment; the extent we are moving (or not); the identity and behaviour of nearby people; our state of mind; and other personal predilections we have about space. Fundamentally this is part of our innate, hardwired self that protects us from walking into door frames, or being too close to people who might accidentally bump into us. When this space is invaded it reduces our psychological comfort as we become, to a degree, alerted to a danger. In a vehicle, passenger spaces are designed, tacitly, to accommodate our peripersonal space: we don’t technically need a large space in front of us, but it feels much more comfortable if our allocated space extends ahead further forwards than to the sides or behind. So sitting next to someone, if they are not actually touching us, hasn’t previously invaded our buffer-zone. 

Now though we have new parameters. Whilst our cave-person programming might be comfortable with proximity to others, with our new awareness of how Covid-19 can be picked up from those nearby, and particularly through touch or from being in the trajectory of a cough, we are adopting a new set of more conscious spacial comfort parameters. It is as if our peripersonal space is changing in its shape and size and orientation; no longer is it just about subconsciously protecting ourselves from physical impact, it is now about protecting ourselves from infection too. Arguably sitting side-by-side each other is no longer so comfortable, and directly facing each other (indeed, being sat with anyone facing us, even if they are not where we are facing) is far from ideal. And we don’t want to have to stand close to one another as we queue or funnel through a barrier or door, we don’t want to have to touch a door handle or button, we don’t want to need to hold handles or poles to secure ourselves either. We are even less inclined to acknowledge our fellow travellers too — in a way we know that they all pose more of a threat to us that they used to — so travelling in a way where we can politely appear not to notice one another is increasingly valued too. 
If these new spacial sensibilities last — and we think that there will be real inertia here given how affecting today’s experience is for many, and how many less dangerous viruses will continue to spread themselves from person to person ensuring that today’s new behaviours will still have relevance tomorrow — then mobility design, and specifically seating configurations and seat design, will need to change. Slightly staggered and angled and height’d seating may become more common, likely seat modestly panels and wingbacks will make a return too. Handles and poles and buttons and switches may likely diminish or change in form. And other subtle design innovations in material and form and UX will change mobility design in general and our vehicle interiors in particular as designs respond to these new priorities. Perhaps the dominance of side-by-side seating that we have known for hundreds of years will be displaced, maybe along with a wider reinvention of vehicle interiors which sees passengers able to be more separated from, and less aware of, others around them.  

Today’s situation we are facing with Covid-19 is not going to be lasting, even if it looks like we are all set to have a very long few months ahead. But this pandemic will bring lasting changes to our behaviours, and it seems likely that some of the biggest design changes this virus will bring will be to vehicle interiors.