Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
In a handful of cities, citizen urbanists are crowdfunding projects to make these overlooked stops much more engaging.
The bus shelter is probably one of the most pitied—and ridiculed—pieces of urban infrastructure. By default, it’s often frustrating, as riders squint down the road, looking for headlights that always feel slow to arrive. At its most humble, it’s downright depressing, nothing more than a slab of concrete and a metal sign. This month, Streetsblog is pitting some of the particularly lackluster hubs against each other in a bracket to determine America’s sorriest bus stop. The competition is, unfortunately, fierce.
But it’s that same womp womp factor that offers the potential to reimagine these spaces—to infuse them with personality, and to cast them as creative solutions to problems specific to the communities they serve.
It’s a trend that David Weinberger, the city partnerships director at ioby, or “in our backyards,” a crowd-funding website for urbanism projects, has seen firsthand. The summer, the site is hosting its second Trick Out My Trip campaign, which encourages community groups to dream up ways to improve elements of locals’ commutes. Transit Center is putting up $10,000 in matching grants to be meted out across 11 projects around the country. Weinberger says that many of the proposals he reviewed hinged on reimagining bus shelters. “We’re starting to see the limits of what’s mutable in the streetscape expand, and starting to see bus shelters as blank canvases,” Weinberger says. “They’re great sites for placemaking.”
Grassroots transit projects, Weinberger says, can be a vehicle for community members who don’t necessarily have a seat at the urban planning table to make inroads where their respective governments haven’t. And many communities are finding that bus shelters—like alleys, subterranean spaces, and off-peak storefronts—are poised for a renaissance. From Cleveland to New Orleans, community groups are reimagining the bus shelter, starting with interventions that can be implemented quickly, and with little overhead.
In Cleveland, the Bus Stop Moves project encourages commuters to weave a little exercise into their waiting. The organizers plaster shelters with colorful infographics outlining some easy stretching and strengthening exercises. It’s one instance in which the lengthy wait times between buses could be bent into a slight advantage, says Allison Lukacsy, one of the coordinators who works as a planner in a nearby city.
The project was inspired by a survey in which many locals indicated a desire for more—and more accessible—fitness opportunities in the city, which has recently seen an uptick in obesity rates and an increased prevalence of diabetes. Of course, a few calisthenics won’t reverse the course of this public health problem—but they could contribute to promoting a healthier lifestyle. “If you happen to have just missed the last bus, that coincidentally could be the amount of time that health practitioners say is optimal to get in some stretching exercise,” Lukacsy adds.
The intervention requires little in the way of up-front investment: the total fee for the vinyl material, printing, and installation is quoted at $400 per shelter. The pilot program rolled out in the Collinwood neighborhood last year.
The city champions the project, too. Earlier this year, Lukacsy says, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s board of trustees agreed to take on the printing costs in-house, under the umbrella of their adopt-a-bus-shelter program.
Now, the group is using the funds they raise to sponsor pop-up fairs near the revamped shelters. The adhesives will be applied to an additional 10 stops this fall, and kick-off events will feature fresh fruits and veggies and Zumba classes in vacant, city-owned lots nearby. The goal, Luckacsy says, is to revise the narrative about healthy options in the neighborhood, “connecting health back into the community.”
In East Austin, a local activist is building shelters in response to the city’s fraught relationship with water. “Water is a major, major concern here,” Melissa Robledo told ioby. “Water quality, watering restrictions, keeping water. That’s a big deal.”
Robredo’s plan, dubbed Mi Jardin, would feature catchment-enabled shelters. Building on a pedestrian plaza she spearheaded earlier this year, these would give bus riders a refuge from the rain while funneling captured water to an assortment of native plants nestled around the base.
There aren’t many bus shelters on the Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard corridor. But Heidi Schmalbach, the associate director of place and youth initiatives at Arts Council New Orleans, thinks there should be, especially to help passengers weather the muggiest months. “It’s—forgive my language—balls hot in New Orleans in the summer,” she says. In the absence of shelters, riders are exposed to rain and the beating sun.
To give them some reprieve, she proposes partnering with students at The Net—a charter school for teens who haven’t thrived in more traditional academic environments—to fabricate shelters inflected with elements of the city’s front-porch culture. The students practice trades like construction, carpentry, and welding, and they often rely on the bus to get to and from school. “These are amazingly creative young people, and they want to be able to put these skills they’re learning to use for something that they and their peers are using every single day,” Schmalbach says. The budget includes a line item for student interns, who would be paid $10 an hour; encouraging them to brainstorm ways to build a lively transit stop seemed like a natural fit.
They haven’t hammered out a specific design, Schmalbach says, but the group is envisioning something that lends itself to mingling—maybe conversation prompts, interactive public art, or seats that face each other, nodding to the citywide pastime of congregating on porches.
Schmalbach acknowledges that, funds aside, the project’s stewards will have to contend with a lengthy bureaucratic process to settle on a site and obtain the proper permits. “We’re caught in one of those Bermuda triangles of budget, regulatory constraints and manpower,” she says. But she’s hoping that the crowd-funding process will give the group a leg up, insofar as it testifies to community enthusiasm. “Not everyone goes to RTA meetings,” Schmalbach says. “There are some people giving $10, saying, ‘yes, this is important, I hope this happens.’ It’s a visible way to show that there’s community buy-in.” And, moreover, Schmalbach adds, the project can set an example for other would-be tactical urbanists, encouraging people “to put what they need in their own areas.”