The new transit system that carries riders to and from New York City's JFK airport is illuminated with a simple, but elegant, T8-based fixture that simplifies maintenance.

»There is a reason people fear flying: the logistical nightmare that is involved in making a flight. This fact is not lost on planners that mastermind public infrastructure systems, and in several cases, a noteworthy effort has been made to salvage the traveler's experience.

The recently completed Light Rail System, or AirTrain, that connects the terminals at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport with the city's subway and commuter train network exhibits this sensitivity toward its riders. 'The design has to do with comfort level first,' says Robert Davidson, the former Port Authority chief architect, and program architect for the AirTrain. (Davidson is now the senior vice president for transportation aviation facility design with STV Group.) 'These systems have to be designed with the clearest path of travel in mind, especially in airports where your anxiety level is high, and you're rushing to catch a plane and navigate security checkpoints.'

In addition to its progressive sympathy for travelers, the AirTrain also employs an innovative project delivery system referred to as DBOM. Pronounced 'dee-bomb,' this acronym is not a rap cover of a Parliament tune, but rather an increasingly popular scenario for large-primarily public transportation-systems and facilities, through which a contractor or consortium finances the project, designing, building, operating, and maintaining it (hence the acronym) for a prescribed period of time. Many in the industry see this as the future standard for transportation system project delivery.

'Maintenance and operations, and streamlining the process, are always paramount on rail system projects,' says Domingo Gonzalez, principal of Domingo Gonzalez Associates, the lighting design firm for the system. 'But with DBOM it becomes a shared interest.' Operational integrity moves to the top of the design agenda with this approach, since it is no longer solely the client's problem if the infrastructure begins to fail several years out. With the AirTrain project, the sheer volume of fixtures to maintain across the system necessitated a carefully planned lighting scheme. Gonzalez proves this with a bit of math: 'We have 10 stations, each with a 240-foot-long platform with fixtures on either side, so you have almost 5,000 feet of product. And then there are the connectors, which are also about 250 to 300 feet. When all is said and done, there is about two miles of product on this project.'

Gonzalez's approach: Keep it simple. The lighting firm custom designed a direct/indirect fixture based on a typical 4-foot 32W T8 fluorescent lamp, with 3500K and 84 CRI. This luminaire was then used in various orientations throughout the 10-station infrastructure. 'The idea was to standardize on a tool that would be around in 20 or 30 years,' says Gonzalez. 'Plus, the Port Authority is already using this technology in its pantheon of projects, so it's familiar to the maintenance staff.' Furthermore, since the AirTrain is an electric monorail system with platform-edge doors and air conditioning, it does not have the steel dust normally created by brake shoes grinding against a track. The fixture, therefore, did not require the clamp and screws that usually protect the socket from dust. The clean environment also enabled a bare-lamp design. No screws means toolless access, shaving time and money off the relamping process, while eliminating the lens around the lamp avoided the issue of a dirty covering that would need to be cleaned and replaced. 'With this luminaire, when you change the lamp, you have a brand new lighting system, as opposed to a lens that has to be washed and pretty soon looks shabby,' explains Gonzalez.

Conveniently, the lighting fixtures' simple, familiar form also played into Davidson's quest to create an easily navigable environment for riders. 'No matter how well you think you have designed the signage,' he says, 'people tend to misinterpret it because of the level of anxiety and exhaustion.' He notes that many travelers who use an airport regularly are arriving or departing at night, thus the electric lighting needs to create the same comfortable environment after dark that natural light provides during the day. 'People need to know where they are.' Expressed as either vertically or horizontally oriented lines, the custom luminaires were easily adapted to the wayfinding vocabulary. 'In the stations, the fixtures are set parallel to the path of travel. In the connectors, they are perpendicular,' says Gonzalez. 'This helps demarcate the difference between the two spaces.' The direct/indirect system also establishes an even light level that is reassuring to riders traveling after dark. At 1.2 watts per square foot system-wide, the number came in 'right on code,' notes Gonzalez.

Spatial identity is also established through various architectural forms (platform, at-grade lobby, connector, elevator shaft, rotunda, and so on), which are standardized across the 10 stations in what architect Jonathan Cohn, the design director on the project, refers to as a 'kit of parts.' Together, these common forms unify the facilities visually, clarifying options for people inside the spaces, as well as making the stations recognizable to travelers outside. Luminosity plays a critical role in this process. 'Light is the identity of the system at night,' says Cohn, who is with STV Group. The 240-foot extruded-polycarbonate-panel vault over each platform is turned into a translucent 12-foot-wide tube of light, easily identifiable from a parking lot or street. To further alleviate doubt, metal halide floodlights on the track catch the movement of the train as it glides into and out of the station, creating a low-tech kinetic effect. 'The airport is a confusing network of garages and roads, and it is important for people to clearly identify system,' explains Cohn.

Despite the rigid programmatic requirements for the JFK AirTrain, the lighting scheme still takes a moment to symbolically recall the system's original purpose. 'It's all about movement,' says Gonzalez, 'whether in the rotunda, where the luminaires form the spokes of a wheel, or on the platforms, where the linear arrangement carries you forward.' The custom linear fixture-which incorporates metal rods to both maintain the fixture's mechanical dimension and serve as starting aids for the bare lamps-also makes a special reference: 'It reminds me of the tubular luggage racks on old train cars,' says Gonzalez. 'What could be more appropriate?' emilie sommerhoff

projectAirTrain JFK, Queens, New York
client Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ)
architect PANYNJ, in collaboration with STV Group, New York City
lighting design firm/consultantDomingo Gonzalez Associates, New York City
signage/wayfinding Louis Nelson Associates, New York City
engineering PANYNJ, in collaboration with STV Group
structural engineer Severud Associates (Jamaica AirTrain Terminal)
structural engineers Severud Associates, conceptual documents; Ysrael A. Seinuk, P.C., engineer of record (Howard Beach AirTrain Terminal)
mep Lizardos Engineering, Long Island, New York (Jamaica AirTrain Terminal)
photographer John Bartelstone, New York City