Making Transit Attractive

One of the first things you notice about public transit, especially bus systems, is that they seem to have been designed to make riding the bus the very last option for anyone with choice.

Many transit centers, at least in New England, are located in parking garages, which are so dimly lit and unfriendly to the person on foot — as everyone is after they have parked — that the person who first built one was either incapable of feeling any sympathy to people, only to cars, or they were designing a rape dungeon on the side and accidentally brought the drawing of that to the meeting with the client about the parking structure. (And in fact 25 percent of rapes take place in parking garages, according to Women Safe Network.)

Even the ones that aren’t in rape dungeons are still unpleasant. In Springfield, Mass, the bus station is in the midst of a long-dead industrial zone and passengers must crowd together under a roof with spikes hanging down from it held together by bird droppings and rust. In Boston, even apart from the too usual smell or urine in these things, the Haymarket bus stop is in a kind of concrete half dome so that all sounds are amplified enormously. It also offers no protection from the elements whatsoever, which is a problem if you have to wait for any length of time to catch your bus.

The bus shelter at Kenmore, which looks like the Sydney Opera House (and probably cost the MBTA the same money) is a big glass thing that provides no protection from the elements. Where bus stops have shelters, the shelters are tiny and provide no protection from the elements. Just because the weather is crap doesn’t mean that people don’t need to use the bus, but bus systems punish people who use them for no reason.

It’s a lost opportunity for Modernist architects, their chance to prove they have something to offer cities aside from Corbusierian totalitarian nightmares. All you need is a glass house with a door so that people who have tickets or RFID cards can get in, but homeless people can’t use it as a toilet. Obviously you’d need some ventilation, as well. Inside you could have an LCD screen that tracks the bus, maybe even a button that would let you alert the driver that someone is waiting at the stop, so they could go by without slowing down if no one was waiting for them. It could be a first step on the path to prepaid fares.

I admit there is a space issue and you could probably never put even a small glass house at every bus stop, or at least not one that was bigger than the current coffin-sized shelter. But it could be a way of narrowing the street, especially in places where the streets are too wide already, and could be combined with those things where the sidewalk pokes out so that the bus doesn’t have to pull out and then back into traffic.

Transit needs to be as good as it can be. I don’t think cars would have gone over quite as well if Herr Benz had started with the Nissan Cube and you can’t imagine that the Model T would have sold so well if buying one involved a trip to Abu Ghraib.

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5 thoughts on “Making Transit Attractive

  1. I just want to note that the Springfield bus depot will be moving to the train station as soon as the re-build and renovation is done, and it should be decently nice (http://www3.springfield-ma.gov/planning/union_station.0.html), and the Government Center Garage project seems like it will upgrade the transit experience there as well (http://www.bostonredevelopmentauthority.org/projects/development-projects/government-center-garage-redevelopment). I completely agree though. (Though I do think it’s getting better.)

  2. To some extent, though, bust stations and depots are unavoidably either dingy or inconveniently exposed or both. The problem is the buses, or rather their exhaust, which contains lots of smelly soot, as well as deadly carbon monoxide. You can’t make a bus station too enclosed, because the soot (and CO) have to get out somehow, and even if you make it nicely enclosed (unlike, say, Kenmore), it’ll end up filling with soot and looking dingy eventually. Streetcars and trolleybuses are the only way to avoid this particular problem, it seems.

  3. There’s a simple solution for that though: separate the waiting from the loading area at bigger busier stations. See for example South Station. The waiting area is pretty nice, then there’s the terminal which isn’t beautiful but is decent enough, then for five seconds there’s the more parking garage-like part which isn’t as nice but so long as it’s kept from crumbling, isn’t an issue. Many train stations use the same principal: South Station, North Station, Back Bay (not pretty, but it tried to be and could be made better), Grand Central, Glasgow Central Station, Glasgow Queen Street Station. Probably hundreds of others.

  4. Right, and that works fine for intercity buses, and intercity trains, where you can take 5 or 10 minutes to complete the boarding process. But it doesn’t work for urban transport where dwell time is critical for all the people already on the bus/train. Look at Back Bay: the station itself is nice enough as a place to wait for your train, but as soon as they announce its imminent arrival, you have to go into the thick diesel haze at platform level and wait there for some five minutes breathing in the cancer fumes, because the train stops for only a minute, and the passengers to have to on the platform and ready to board as soon as it arrives. The same principle applies to urban bus stations. Then again, it’s not like they’re doing all they can even given that constraint.

  5. Pingback: The Trouble With Complete Streets | Urban Liberty

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