The Mallport and the Bibliometro

As I travel around Europe to launch State of the World 2010, I’ve done a lot of schlepping from airport to metro station to bus terminal to train station. And while transiting through these many stations, I’ve discovered two surprising additions to station infrastructure that I hadn’t encountered in earlier travels.

First, the bad one: several of the airports I’ve visited have become more shopping mall than transit hall. Sure, airports have always had shops and restaurants, but this is the first time I’ve been forced to actually wind my way through stores because they were the only ways to the gate. Literally, the hallways are completely integrated with the shops, so passengers have no choice but to walk through stores selling duty-free alcohol, clothing, sweets, and perfume. In fact, as I walked to my gate, I often had to look carefully to figure out where to go next (and, of course, be exposed to several products that I didn’t realize I needed until I saw them).

The level of manipulation was truly amazing and was most striking in Copenhagen and Dusseldorf (Oslo, you get an honorable mention). In Barcelona’s airport, where I write this, it’s not as pronounced (at least here you can walk around the stores), but since the last time I was here in 2007, an entirely new terminal was created, seemingly to create a more open and more shopping-friendly space. It was just one more reminder of how ubiquitous the reinforcement of consumerism has become everywhere.


Madrid's Bibliometro

But now here’s the good discovery: When in Madrid, I saw another potential future of public transit centers. Not saturated with stores, but clean, simple places, with one central feature: The Bibliometro.

I had been so wary of little shops in every station that I had to stop and really study this Bibliometro closely to discover that it was not a bookstore, but a small library! In this unimposing structure (about 9 feet by 15 feet) were many books—mostly popular new releases—and a librarian.

What a perfect thing to put in a metro. No need to have huge libraries that are out of the way and cost municipalities significant funds in rent and maintenance, when instead you can have dozens of libraries exactly where thousands of people are moving through already everyday!

If there’s a certain book you want, order it and it can be in your home station in a few days. If you have 10 minutes because you missed the trainthat always seems to pull out of the station just as you arrive, simply browse through the new releases. If you finish the book on your commute home, then just drop it off at that Bibliometro (or any other one in the city). They’re all connected, after all, and the transferring of books should be no problem at all (as they’re right on the metro platform).

Map of Bibliometros in Madrid

Map of Bibliometros in Madrid

This isn’t to say that all city libraries should disappear. In Washington, D.C., they play many other roles than supplying books—including as job centers, learning centers for children, lecture spaces, and places that provide basic social services to D.C.’s large homeless population (from bathrooms, to a respite from the cold or heat, to access to the Internet and information). But for a dozen salaries and some small, inexpensive buildings—no heating, no need to protect them against the elements, and no rent as the city owns the metro system—we could increase library access dramatically, and with it, the frequency of reading.

This subtle “choice editing” might even have surprising side effects, like cutting down junk food consumption. When people are bored waiting for the metro, they often are lured by the hum and bright colors of a vending machine (fortunately not in D.C., though, as food is not allowed on the system). But for metros outfitted with candy machines, perhaps instead of stopping to get a Twinkie riders will instead go into the Bibliometro and get Twinkie Deconstructed .

As the final part of this vision (I might as well dream big), a sustainability theme could be embedded in many of the book choices and poster displays. Nothing heavy handed, but maybe include Walden in the small collection of books, a bit of poetry by Walt Whitman, some science fiction by Octavia Butler, the newest State of the World report, and a few books on social entrepreneurship. And, of course, some books about the value of social services like libraries, and how these depend on us paying our taxes. Maybe, slowly, these libraries can help remind us that taxes are what provide services like the Bibliometro, the metro itself, and clean running water and sewers—to name just a few.

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