By Eve Critton and Jeb Polstein
Imagine getting off the bus after a long day and finding everything you need — grocery store, pharmacy, gym, laundromat, library, daycare — right there. You could run your errands in minutes on your way home, saving time, meeting neighbors, supporting the local economy, and reducing your carbon footprint. This type of convenience is not revolutionary; it is part of the allure of urban life. But, in too many places in our cities, it is lacking. At Project for Public Spaces we recognize the combined power of transit systems and land use to make life better for city residents. We are sharing our learnings in our latest report, Destination Station: Transforming Bus Stops through Community Outreach.
Bus stops in particular offer a chance to improve urban living: They disproportionately serve low-income communities and communities of color, and offer flexible, cost-effective opportunities for agencies to meet the needs of their riders. In today’s context of declining ridership, paired with growing inequality and displacement, bus lines remain an essential component of every transit system.
Project for Public Spaces has years of experience thinking beyond the station in cities across the United States. But as always, the community — in this case New York’s bus riders — is the expert. So, in order to get a better sense of what makes a bus stop great, Project for Public Spaces transportation interns Eve Critton and Jeb Polstein took to the streets.
First, we researched the most heavily-used bus lines the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn and rode four of them from end to end, observing ridership, stops, and routes. We wanted to focus on areas where people are most reliant on public transit, car ownership remains low, and access to subway lines is less reliable. But observations made while riding the buses still left us with unanswered questions, so we chose one area on each route and began to talk directly with people waiting at bus stops. We selected stops based on the following criteria:
The four stops we selected are: (1) Fordham Rd & Grand Concourse in the Bronx on the Bx12 SBS; (2) 108th St & Van Cleef St in Queens on the Q58; (3) Eastern Parkway & Utica Avenue in Brooklyn on the B46 SBS; and (4) Rockaway Parkway Station in Brooklyn at the terminus of the L line and on the B6. We visited each during both the AM and PM peak hours this spring. There, we asked riders who were waiting for the bus a series of questions about their usage of the area around the stop, including where they go, what they do on their way to and from the stop, and what they would like to be able to do in the areas proximate to their bus stop in the future. We also asked how comfortable the bus stop felt, and how the area around the stop could be improved. For specific survey questions used, take a look at our full report here.
We noticed right away that each of these bus stops was already surrounded by a multitude of destinations, full of people, shops, vendors, and community institutions extending for blocks in almost every direction. We realized that we needed to focus our efforts on ways to build upon the existing clusters of destinations.
After speaking with 124 people over the course of two months, we had three key takeaways:
We are all busy people. We have places to go and things to do, and usually not enough time in a day to accomplish everything. We found that 76% of bus riders visit destinations near their bus stop. Places like grocery stores and grab-n-go food and coffee establishments were the two most-visited types of destinations. These would appear to be a key part of people’s daily routines and can reduce the number of additional trips that people have to take to meet their daily needs. People who arrived at the bus stop on foot (as opposed to by subway, a different bus, etc.) and who presumably live nearby cited community-oriented destinations, like religious institutions, libraries, and community centers, as especially important.
When asked how comfortable the bus stop felt, the large majority of participants responded that it was “fine” or “okay” (coded as a three on the scale below). People communicated that bus stops were a means to an end and nothing more. Many were accepting of the condition of the bus stop and the surrounding area as standard and unchangeable. One participant responded by saying the bus stop was “fine,” and rhetorically pondered, “what makes a bus stop not fine?”
No surprises here! In our conversations about improving the area around bus stops, people’s first reaction is to think about either the stop itself — 59% focused on infrastructure and amenities such as shelters/shade, seating, and cleanliness — or on the larger bus network — 46% of people discussed timeliness and speed of buses or overcrowding at bus stops. Many of these complaints are addressed in a recent report from TransitCenter, From Sorry to Superb, which takes a deep dive into how better bus stop design can improve network performance.
124 surveys later, what’s next? Our answer is called Portals to Places, a re-imagined Project for Public Spaces initiative of work with transit advocates and agencies on placemaking around bus stops, which will be debuted this fall.
It turns out that New York City, along with dozens of other cities worldwide, is undertaking a complete redesign of its bus network. This is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence: it has been over half a century since the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) last redesigned its network. The MTA started with a blank slate in each borough and has used robust community outreach to find which bus lines and stops will best serve the needs of transit riders. Project for Public Spaces recognizes that a strong sense of place is a key need, though one that might go unnoticed in an effort based on achieving network efficiency in moving people from point A to point B. So, a core piece of Portals to Places is to engage with New York and other cities undergoing bus network redesigns to ensure that creating a sense of place is included in site selection criteria and station area planning. We have mapped out a participatory process through which agencies and advocates can generate a spatial destination “layer” representing how people use the areas around bus stops. This layer can then be used alongside other important considerations of network efficiency and cost as agencies develop their designs. You can see our proposed process here.
Conducting these surveys not only helped us shape our Portals to Places initiative, but also had an impact on us. We rode these bus lines for the first time, met interesting and engaging people, and ate delicious food in neighborhoods we had not previously visited. More broadly, we rethought the role of transit, and specifically buses, in our daily lives. Between the two of us, we have lived in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Havana, and Madurai, and in each city, public transit is a unifying force. It connects people with their daily destinations and with each other, all while mitigating spatial inequalities and climate change. In this way, bus stops are an entry to larger societal issues. They are powerful, if unlikely, nodes in the journey toward cities that are truly just and sustainable.
Stay tuned to learn more about Portals to Places, our ongoing effort to make bus stops more than mere places to move through!