COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

How a Humble Bus Stop can Anchor a Whole Neighborhood

Nidhi Gulati
Sep 6, 2019
Jul 14, 2020

What would it take for our bus stops to go from barely adequate to something extraordinary? What if we treated our bus stops as nodes to cluster convenient goods and services? What if we recognized them as part of our social infrastructure, rather than simply as part of our mobility infrastructure? What if we made decisions about locating stops based on neighborhood assets as well as transit service?

Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain provide an international benchmark for how public space and public transit can support one another. | Paulo Miranda, Flickr

Project for Public Spaces is excited to announce the launch of its Portals to Places initiative that focuses on creating transit facilities and a public realm that support riders, with a special emphasis on buses. With this concerted effort, we hope to support the global momentum around creating better public transit for all people, prioritizing those with fewer means and higher dependency on these systems. By rethinking stops and stations as hubs for community activity, we believe that transit can reclaim its place as the backbone of mobility in our ever-expanding cities. 

At a time when funding for public transportation development and operations is shrinking around the country, the importance of such systems to move people efficiently and in larger numbers is more widely recognized than almost any moment in the past half-century. Trains are often looked at as the most attractive public alternative to private automobiles, however, new subway and rail construction usually comes with a price tag that the majority of cities at least in the United States can’t seem to afford.

Buses, on the other hand, are often forgotten as part of a great public transit system both by decision-makers and ultimately by the public at large as evidenced in the percentage of public dollars allocated for bus systems in the United States and declining ridership around the United States (with a few notable exceptions). Private investment and innovative technological solutions have made it much easier to spot the next arriving bus or to hitch a ride to the nearest stop, but it is clear that improving service and infrastructure is largely controlled by elected officials who hold the purse strings. The increasing number of better-bus coalitions around the country is a fantastic development and we are here to support it because buses are still the best. 

One of my first experiences with an American public transit system occurred at this bus stop in Houston, TX. My able-bodied, non-driver self was greeted by nothing but a pole in the ground with no amenities to improve my 15-minute wait time in the heat. Compounded by the lack of safe connectivity to adjacent businesses, it made for an unpleasant experience—but a "normal" one in most American cities. | Google Street View

But one important and often overlooked feature of a great bus system is a built environment that treats that system as its lifeblood. A bus system’s stops and stations can and should serve a multitude of functions themselves and be surrounded by everyday destinations beyond just transportation infrastructure. Even Transit-Oriented Development strategies, which match busy transit stops with high-density, mixed-use zoning, don’t always capitalize on the many Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper opportunities to add new uses and amenities nearby without new construction while also building community. Neighborhoods that open up to their stops and stations and cluster everyday uses around them—in ways big and small, formal and informal—are much more livable for those using the humble bus to get around. 

That is where Project for Public Spaces and Portals to Places comes in: to help you transform the places where you depart from, wait, or arrive at, into great community destinations. 

Public spaces play a crucial role in the overall wellbeing of people, especially those who live in cities and have greater spatial and mobility constraints. When created in close collaboration with the community, these spaces become shared resources for all people to occupy, to interact with their neighbors, to gather and celebrate their community, or to simply walk through. UN-Habitat estimates that cities around the world will be home to three-quarters of the world’s population by 2050, putting several competing demands on the space available to them. In this context, it will be important for public spaces to align as closely as possible with other public infrastructure, including public transit, to make our cities work. While these conditions differ between the Global North and South, the same rings true in North America where inequality often falls along lines of geography and mobility, and where an accelerating climate crisis is likely to invite increasing numbers of domestic and international refugees to our city streets. From ferry landings to train stations to bus stops, our transit nodes have historically been focal points of our communities as well. There has never been a more important time for us to revive this proud history of portals as places. 

The rise of Bus Rapid Transit systems, like TransMilenio in Bogota Columbia, not only demonstrate the potential of buses as a viable alternative to rail, but also the importance of stations and amenities in addressing the full rider experience. | WRI Brasil, Flickr

Project for Public Spaces has been at the forefront of this cross-agency and multidisciplinary advocacy for over two decades, beginning with our our 1997 publication on the role of transit in livability for the Transit Cooperative Research Program. With the launch of this new initiative, we plan to build on this history by helping transit providers, planners, and advocates create stops and stations that are well-integrated into the communities they serve at the local level; meeting the needs of passengers through useful amenities; and serving as accessible, active, sociable and comfortable public spaces. All-purpose riders of most transit systems in the United States and many other places tend to be low-income and to reside in historically marginalized communities. Improving the transit experience and overall quality of life for these underappreciated, overachieving riders will be our primary goal.

Whether you are directly in charge of planning and designing a transit stop, or you are a land-use planner whose work intersects with transit planning, or you are a local advocate putting your energy toward influencing transit service and access in your community or neighborhood, this initiative is for you. In the next several months, Project for Public Spaces will release tools and resources to encourage communities around the world to look at their humble bus stop in a different light:

  • Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Lite: We will create tools to support transit and land-use agencies and advocates to jointly reimagine stops and stations as not only transit portals, but neighborhood focal points that cater to people’s day-to-day needs within a short walking and bicycling distance. 
  • Place-based system redesign: When cities and towns undertake a transit system design or redesign process to improve service, they often overlook. the need to ensure proximity to existing and future destinations. We will create a series of engagement techniques to enable transit riders and others to share that information with transit agencies, thereby informing crucial decisions such as stop location or consolidation. 
  • Placemaking at Transit Stops: A stop can be a destination in itself, with multiple things to do for a variety of user groups, and with a strong sense a place. Our easy-to-use placemaking tools will support communities in auditing their stops and stations and identifying opportunities for making them better together. 
Imagine if we could meet all of our basic needs and participate in community life within a five-minute walk of our everyday bus stops. Read the full one-pager on the Portals to Places homepage.

Head over to the Portals to Places homepage to learn more and find the latest updates from this evolving initiative. We also want you to be a part of this journey, and to share your challenges, successes, and stories with us and your peers. We’re ready to help you and your passenger communities design transit stops and bus stations that will benefit the full rider experience and the community as a whole. 

Want to bring Project for Public Spaces to your community? Reach out to our Portals to Places team at

Nidhi Gulati
Nidhi Gulati
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space