Transport art: going places

Imaginative and playful, bold and irreverent, urban transport authorities in world cities are using art to enrich the journey experience, trigger emotion and inspire new perspectives on the world we live in


On Dubai’s Airport Road, traffic lights are not just getting drivers to slow down, stop and go but look at the urban environment with fresh eyes. Emirati artist Fatma Saifan has transformed traffic signal control boxes into artworks, the box-like form inspiring her to create pieces in the shape of suitcases.

The art installation is the result of collaboration between Dubai’s Culture and Arts authority and the Roads and Transport Authority and the project works to beautify the streets of Dubai. “One of those pieces is designed to seem like a cargo shipment box with ‘handle with care’ and fragile symbols,” comments Saifan. “While others were designed to look like cartoonish luggage to seem fun.”

The concept of linking urban transport networks with art has been freewheeling for some time and one global city that has made art and travel a permanent institution is London. By both celebrating the iconic ‘Tube’ railway network and a variety of art mediums, ‘Art on the Underground’ adds another dimension to travel and reveals new and unexpected perspectives on it.

For example, Hard Metal Body by Alice Channer, installed at Notting Hill Gate station earlier this year, uses a series of rough ellipses, varying in size and figuration, on walls next to escalators. Travelling past the images in quick succession gives the impression of looking at images in a flick book. This piece is one of hundreds that are constantly being refreshed and added to across the network to enrich traveller’s experience.

In California, USA, highways snake like ribbons across the sprawling city of Los Angeles. Recently Marisela Norte’s poetic artworks were translated into an installation for the city bus network’s TransitTV. As the buses pass through specific intersections, the poems are triggered to appear on screens inside the buses. Norte’s work forms part of a wider project, ‘Out of the Window’, which gives people the opportunity to experience art in unusual ways.

“There has been a consensus that a video displayed on TransitTV has the potential to meaningfully reach riders,” comments Anne Bray, director of Freewaves, a media arts organization that works to place video art on Los Angeles buses. “The themes of hopefulness, social transformation, communication and community were voiced again and again by the various people interviewed.”

Meanwhile in New York, Dot is an initiative that sees artists transforming the infrastructure of the cityscape to delight citizens with unexpected interventions. Installing 85 inspiring projects since 2008, DOT's Urban Art initiatives rely on partnerships with community organisations and the creativity of artists to present site-responsive artwork. One example of this is the ‘Barrier Beautification Program’.

Here, The New York City Department of Transportation, The Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit and New York Cares have partnered to transform the barriers separating traffic lanes with murals. The programme sees artists working with community volunteers to realize the public artworks.

Art is on the move and dynamic cities throughout the world are providing innovative platforms for emerging and aspiring artists to display their talent through 'urban expressionism’.