Bus stop design is the subject of this test of the usability of the transportation network of the Minneapolis - St. Paul Metro Transit. There are many configurations of stops and shelters by observation and by my experience it is clear that some configurations work a lot better than others. Bus stops and shelters affect several of my my principles of transit usability safety, navigation, and comfort are the most obvious, we will start with those and analyze bus stop and shelter configurations of Metro Transit of St Paul - Minneapolis.
Most of the usability and engineering of transportation should not be cutting edge stuff and it isn't, buses, trains, bicycles, walkways, roads, tracks and people using these methods have been around for many decades, centuries or millenia depending on the mode of transport. One would think that after all this time and experience people designing facilities may have a clue and they do, here is a typical standards document: Bus Stop Standards. And here is a study of bus and transit stop safety and environment done right here in the Twin Cities looking at local stops and Portland, OR: Personal Safety and Transit: Paths, Environments, Stops and Stations
Unfortunately, it seems that when the Metro Transit people went to the transit conferences they went to the seminars on drinking and selling advertising instead of transit stop design. This manifests as a lack of care and the lack of will to test basic usability of the transit system and use well known standards has made a mass transit system that is much more difficult, expensive and uncomfortable than it should be and much of it is manipulation for advertising instead of transporting people.
So, it is not as though bus stop design is a new concept or has never been done as there are many documents and design standards that do mention some of the following recommendations. However, there has never been a real usability test of observed behavior and existing configurations. Just look up bus stop design on Google and you will find many standards and maybe, in some city, they actually follow through on sane design. Minnesota Metro Transit may have a design standard but when it hits the street it lands seemingly higgledy-piggledy from a users point of view, it seems no one holds the contractors to standards. There is a force working on the configuration of the bus stops, I think it is advertising governing design instead of usability. The "street furniture" is a concession that is sold by a city or transit authority who gives control to an advertising agent in long term contracts, the result is a sophisticated design for advertising delivery but not for transit and usability. A cheap improvement on the basic usability and safety of transit can be done by surveying the existing bus stops and correcting the obvious usability problems and violations of common standards. I do not see that happening as no one is interested in inexpensively improving transit at Metro Transit and cities that control "street furniture" are usually too dazzled by promised revenue to consider any usability standards with a result that rarely yields any real benefits to the citizens.
So what are the components of a basic bus stop? They are actually fairly few. Occasionally the configuration actually works, but the random pattern of bus shelter components often are scrambled into an unsafe, unfriendly jumble when actually implemented on the street.
- Sign near transit stop on a post, the bus should stop close to it, yet not hit the sign.
- Cement bench ?'wide x ?'long covered with advertisements.
- Basic shelter is about 4-1/2 feet wide x 12 feet long x 8 feet high metal frame with a roof and and usually 3-4 glass walls.
- bench in metal frame shelter.
- lights in shelters, sometimes.
- lights near shelters, sometimes.
- heaters in shelters, sometimes.
- trash can.
Lets look at a stop that I use on University Ave, the bus stop is pretty typical:
Seems like simple components, right, so what can go wrong?
The shelter is 12 inches from the curb pinning riders that exit from the rear of the bus against the wall of the shelter; it is dangerous to get between the bus and the shelter, especially if there is a snow drift plowed up on the curb. The open wall faces away from the street toward the sidewalk.
The trash can is missing from the configuration, cigarette packs, spilled jumbo sodas in decomposing cups, broken glass, blowing paper are around the shelter.
Navigation aids are missing from the shelter, no schedule, no destination sign, no maps, no phone number for bus schedules, no transit web site URL. There are never maps at the shelters and rarely is destination marked on the route signs. A large map of the route should not be hard to create in this day of desktop graphics. Yet bus shelters never have large easy to read maps, even in the largest transit stations maybe a faded out of date folding map is posted on the wall, unreadable and eye-crippling small. Schedule pamphlets available on the buses will have teeny one color maps missing lots of information, like intersecting route destinations. But nothing is on the wall of a shelter to take up valuable massive ad space.
Instead there are advertisements: one wall of the shelter is covered by a message from the County Sheriff that shows a meth whore huddled into the corner on the inside of the shelter, the outside wall is backed by big booze ad, well lit. I guess the advertising message is that drug use is OK as long as some corporation profits from the addiction, don't try to start your own distribution of product. A problem with the advertising is that it blocks the view of the street when a person is in the shelter they cannot see down the street. This has both a safety concern and a feeling of uneasiness. It also sucks up the space where a map could be. I think this is the driving force behind bus shelter configurations. Advertising placement takes precedent over any actual transit use.
The lighting of the advertisement creates the dreaded "fishbowl effect". So, at night there is a little patch of light at the shelter and you cannot see beyond it very well, but everyone can see you.
The advertisement changes, so the CBS jerks do show up, but the same trash is still there, no schedules, no snow shoveling, no maintenance for the transit, just the advertisement.
Sign post with transit marker (but no route designations), this is where the bus stops. The space between the sign post and the shelter is barely adequate for a wheel chair or baby stroller to maneuver. It is a pinch point.
A cyclone fence is right up to the side walk restricting the passage of pedestrians to about three feet, this makes it uncomfortable to pass people next to the bus shelter, it is another pinch point, and with the advertisement blocking a view down the street it makes for a feeling of uneasiness.
Other configurations are as bad and worse.
- The shelter up against the curb but open wall to the street means going into the street to get "inside". Dangerous. And when the shelter is too close to the curb it is open to the splashing of cars on the street or the plow windrow of snow; that makes it uncomfortable. Wheelchairs and strollers are mostly unable to use a shelter too close to the curb, so the vulnerable and the young can just endure the weather.
- The trash can placed near the curb but at the point where the rear door of the bus opens on to the sidewalk also is dangerous and uncomfortable.
- The "cement advertising bench" placed too near the curb meaning you must go into the street to sit on the bench and then your feet too close to the street, dangerous and uncomfortable or it blocks the bus back door.
- The "cement advertising bench" placed in the middle of the sidewalk or juxtaposed near a shelter so it blocks sidewalk traffic. Many times there are enough hindrances to pedestrians in our walk unfriendly town; if placed without care bus shelters, signposts, cement advertising benches and trash cans can make a walkway impassable to wheel chairs, assisted walkers, baby strollers and luggage carriers.
- The rectangular metal frame bus shelter that lacks a bench: old people, families with children and shoppers need a bench when waiting.
- The rectangular metal frame bus shelter that has a partial fourth wall: usually the openings to the shelter are then too small for wheel chair entry or difficult for baby strollers, these are people who may really need shelter, most of the small metal frame shelters should not have a fourth wall.
- Route sign placement is also overlooked, sometimes they are too close to the shelter making it hard for people or wheelchairs to squeeze between the shelter and the sign post and get in the bus. Post placement is covered in many design documents, but like many design elements it is one thing to design specifications and another to implement.
There are many more bad configurations but the prospect of describing them all has made me too sad to go on. A checklist of proper bus shelter configuration standards and a survey of transit stops would enumerate the many problems for a few thousand bucks, the small amount of money guarantees the job will never be done, no one will be able to rake off a cut from improving existing transit stops, in fact it will be seen as a threat by advertising interests which will kill any initiative in this area of usability. Maps, information and proper configuration would affect advertising revenue in a bad way, this project is born dead.
Now, the random configuration of components do occasionally land in a
setup that actually kind of works. What parts of a bus stop are actually
- The minimum is the sign post to mark the stop, and a navigation aid (sign) that marks the route and destination, maybe an information phone number and schedule.
- The next level up is a waiting area with a bench, a trash can and a sign (on post) for navigation including the route and destination, route information phone number.
- The next level is a metal frame shelter with built in bench, trash can and a sign post with navigation aids, including a schedule, a large map and route information phone number in the shelter.
- The Metro Transit bus stops and train stops get a maintenance crew visit. They are swept up, shoveled for snow, fixed, updated navigation and information aids. The commercial stops are not maintained for rider usability and comfort, only the ads get maintenance.
Place the basic configurations using the well known configuration standards for usability and design and there is a use for this street furniture on the streets. Basically the aim of the design is to have enough room on the sidewalk for the bus to pickup and drop off passengers and not block the sidewalk traffic while providing a minimum shelter and comfort. Sub-contract this out to advertising firms and you have junk cluttering the sidewalk, safety and access problems. The usability and comfort of the people is no longer the top priority, in fact it will be about the last priority, advertising revenue, cutting corners, advertising placement and limiting maintenance will be priorities ranking higher than the use of the shelter by people. In fact it could be considered an externalized cost to the transit users and citizens that have to deal with the imposition of advertising, safety hazards and dangerous obstacles.
I suggest testing the following configurations that seems to yield
at least minimal safety and use:
- Benches in all the basic metal frame, glass wall shelters. Old people, small children, families and shoppers need to sit or keep things off the ground.
- Enough space for a bus "landing pad", (a common design term) should be available for wheelchairs, pedestrian traffic, and everything else that a sidewalk needs to do.
- Position the shelter on the side of the sidewalk away from the street with the open wall toward the sidewalk. Keep the shelter away from the street for obvious safety and comfort reasons described above.
- Very few of the shelters I have seen have the 2-3 foot "half wall" on the short side walls of the shelter. This helps by not blocking traffic on the sidewalk and should be the default installment on most sidewalks as there is limited pedestrian space on most sidewalks. Only if there is room should the full width of the shelter be walled.
- Trash cans by all basic rectangular shelters. Trash can should not block front or back doors of the buses, including the double length buses or a line of buses. Trash cans should not make an obstacle course for pedestrian traffic.
- Remove the cement advertising bench if near a shelter. they block the side walks and many times are too close to the curb creating a hazard to people getting on and off the bus. They are ugly and everyone knows they are just an advertising billboard masquerading as an amenity. If there is a bench in the shelter as recommended above there is no purpose for these "mini billboards", they are just a commercial infliction of ugliness and depression on the street as well as blocking pedestrian traffic.
- The sign post should have transit marker and route number signs with destinations next to the route numbers
- Do not install heaters in the basic shelter, they are usually broken and the cut off power lines at the base of the shelter are a walking hazard. A heater does not really do anything in an open shelter in a Minnesota winter.
- In a shelter lights are also prone to breakage, if there is adequate street lighting do not install lights. An external light pole is preferable to inside the shelter lighting. Broken lights and cut off power cables are a safety hazard.
- Navigation aids like large maps with intersecting routes marked and information phone numbers. A large map is in every rail transit station in the world, as well as on the train itself. Why is this different for buses?
- Other sidewalk blocking items such as newspaper boxes, utility boxes, hydrants, etc should be part of the configuration and evaluation of bus stops.
The majority of the Metro Transit stops and shelters that I have seen do not follow good design practices or have some problems. A checklist and survey assessing the usability and design of bus stops along routes or areas would be cheap to execute, a few people, digital camera, some recording method for the data, an analysis of problems, recommendations for fixes, start with the high traffic routes.
If a usability survey of the transit stops is done there will be a large list of improvements that could be ranked by safety, usability effect and cost and a small budget could make a real improvement on the usability of the system. But instead the unusable badly configured stops will remain and the budget will be blown on an "award winning design" fancypants bus stop that will have extra expensive, award winning, "arty" shelters with heat blowing into the winter night, broken lights, put too close to the curb for wheelchair use, lacking a legible map or destination navigation signs and the trash can placed in front of the rear door of the bus so passengers curse every time they stumble off the bus into the night thinking "why didn't I drive instead?" while brushing some fast food goo off their coat from the overflowing garbage can. Oh, and a huge advertisement in a prominent place to govern the placement and configuration of the shelter and the lighting of the shelter.
The influence of selling advertising on bus shelters and benches is obviously a real detriment to transit usability and livability of the city. Most of the advertisements that make money are lighted and placed to be seen by car traffic. That is why there are so many one foot from the curb bus shelters, these are really billboards and the usability and safety problems can be traced to the companies that "maintain" them, the closer to the street the more they can charge, the configuration is governed by advertising placement and not transit use. Useless and dangerous, the billboards do not really serve well as shelters. In many cases they are worse than nothing.
Complicating any usability improvements will be the myriad of jurisdictions and contracts that transportation systems and civil divisions have entangled themselves in. An article describing past and future stupid contracts that get us crap advertising instead of usable transit infrastructure. Subcontracting bus shelters to any advertising firms is a mistake. Losing control of bus stop infrastructure and entangling in advertising contracts is plain stupid. For a few bucks Metro Transit or other jurisdiction has externalized advertising economic costs onto transit users, driving people away from the system that is now uncomfortable and unsafe to use, giving up power to make usability improvements on infrastructure no longer controlled by the transit authority. I bet the contracts are long term (one was for a 50 year monopoly in Minneapolis), immune to improvements in layout, maintenance and usability and somehow we the public are just screwed as the money promised by advertisers never quite materializes in the public coffers and the "street furniture" is basically dangerous, ugly and worthless.
Transit stops, vehicles, bus benches, way finding signage, navigation aids, all must be carefully designed to get a usable transit system. So called "courtesy benches" and advertising billboards disguised as transit stop infrastructure are carefully designed but not for the usefulness of the transit system. They are designed to make revenue for advertising companies. I do not ever remember an advertising company getting me to work, I take the bus.
For economic gain the people making the advertising money have put a usability cost and safety cost on the person that has no power, the transit user and the transit drivers. There is no contest between organized economic power (advertising companies) and the transit users; in our society most people who have even a little bit of money avoid bus transit like the plague, the transit user has nothing, is unorganized and has no power. A slick lawyer and lobby firm getting the "street furniture" contract has no competition from a 9-5 straphanger running to pick up the kids after school and trying to remember what dinner, activities and housecleaning has to be done. Making the the transit infrastructure controlled by the government transit authority could shelter citizens from paying these externalized costs in safety and usability to private advertising interests. It also allows the transit authority to improve the infrastructure instead of negotiating with multiple entities that do not care about transit stops but really want billboards.
So the usual lack of usability and bad design of bus shelters by the Metro Transit and its subcontractors and the externalized economic forces make transit shelters that are unsafe, ugly, uncomfortable and barely any use. If this was the only usability problem of Metro Transit a person might not think it was part of a campaign to drive away riders to automobile use. But when crappy shelters and stops are combined with the many other usability "worst practices" of Metro Transit the only conclusion is that the political managers of Metro Transit have an agenda to drive ridership away from transit to automobiles.