The Joy of High Ceilings (also called Low Floors)

DSCF7886 The marvelous post at Light and Air on the recent history of ceiling height is mostly about architecture, but it resonated for me as a transit planner.*

Over the past century, U.S. citizens grew taller while ceiling heights shrank.  Simultaneously, the U.S. lost world leadership in average height to the Netherlands and eight other countries, whose people grew taller faster.  It is difficult to find people who prefer low ceilings.  In wealthy western societies there seems to be no other time when ceilings and heads were so uncomfortably proximate.  What does ceiling height tell us about our society …?

There is a reason that dark, low-ceilinged rooms are still commonly used in literature to describe spaces that symbolize poverty, danger and unhealthy conditions.

Ceiling height is interesting because it’s one of those things that strikes most of us subliminally.  We aren’t always aware of why a high-ceilinged space feels better, but it does.

The low-floor bus (and LRT car) were invented mostly to make transit accessible to the disabled, but the result has been a significant shift in the psychology of the ride.  The lower floor, of course, means a higher ceiling relative to the vehicle floor, which permits larger windows and more air.   A crowded bus or rail car is never pleasant, but a few feet of space above you can lessen the sense of being complete boxed in.
It’s striking how little ceiling-height was talked about as the low-floor bus appeared in the 1990s.  The disabled-access issue got all the press at the time, but the low floor does so much more.  It makes the bus or train a little more like a civilised room, which is to say, a room with high ceilings.
There’s an interesting urbanist angle to the low-floor too, if our goal is to expand and enrich our shared experience of civic space.  When running along the street, stopping at sidewalk platforms, the low floor can suggest that the vehicle is an extension of the street; when a low-floor bus or rail-car opens onto a sidewalk, it’s almost like it’s a detachable part of the sidewalk that moves you along faster than you can walk.  It leaves you feeling that you are in the civic space of your city, rather than lifted out of it and boxed up for transport.

” and not just because at 6’5″ I move in a world where doorframes and chandeliers often hang too high for my line of sight but just low enough for me to crash into, yielding a more-or-less permanent sore bump on my head at an altitude just over 6’4″.  

7 Responses to The Joy of High Ceilings (also called Low Floors)

  1. Mad Park May 25, 2009 at 4:20 pm #

    Nice article – as a person of relatively diminutive stature (164 cm tall) I’ve never had to worry about low ceilings or short hotel beds. But when the first low-floor buses arrived here in Seattle they seemed so airy, and then the SLU Tram came into service – wow! Thanks for asking us to look at lowfloor from a very different perspective.

  2. Bob Davis June 2, 2009 at 8:25 pm #

    The second photo is in Portland, OR. Is the first in Melbourne, Australia? And I agree, headroom is important. I belong to a railway museum where, during the 1990’s, we ran an Irish double-deck tram on special occasions. On most runs, the enclosed lower deck was empty, and the open-air upper deck had all the passengers.

  3. Jarrett at June 3, 2009 at 1:15 am #

    Yes, the first pic is of a modern low-floor Melbourne tram, while the second of course is the Portland streetcar. TypePad really needs a captioning function.

  4. dale June 4, 2009 at 12:38 pm #

    Yes, I love that sense of the moving sidewalk!

  5. Bob Davis June 6, 2009 at 10:22 pm #

    Thanks for confirming my guess of Melbourne; those “boat anchor” standee handholds were the clue. I visited Melbourne in Feb. 2001, and thought I had entered a parallel universe where streetcars/trams were still an important part of a city–like Los Angeles was before 1945. Melbourne also has an electric suburban system that shows what our Pacific Electric could have become if history had played out differently.

  6. Jarrett at June 7, 2009 at 5:46 am #

    Thanks for the comments! Bob, Melbourne’s modern low-floor trams are very nice, designed to be roomy for standees but also comfortable to sit in when not crowded. Not at all like the pre-1945 Pacific Electric, I imagine!

  7. Robert Sugg August 2, 2009 at 10:12 pm #

    ____What about the height of the overhead grab bars ? Every so often I’ve ridden a bus, sat down, rode for a while, got up, and bonked the top of my head on the grab bar. I’m just over six feet in boots so it seems that some bars are set a little low. I haven’t made a note (yet) as to which bus’s have this problem.