Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Hold the concrete. These prefab plastic platforms are helping cities experiment with bus infrastructure, without spending so much time and money.
Bus transit is often treated as an afterthought in American cities. Building out the infrastructure needed to make it reliable—like dedicated bus lanes or better boarding platforms—can require costly and disruptive roadwork. That can make local governments hesitant to take on such projects, even though evidence shows that improving bus networks is key to increasing ridership. (Just look at Seattle.)
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some cities are now showing the rest of the U.S. that building better bus stops doesn’t have to be a daunting endeavor. That it can be, quite literally, a snap.
New York, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Oakland are now experimenting with quick-build platforms made with recycled plastic panels that snap together like puzzle pieces and bolt into the ground. Some are floating boarding islands, which leave room for bikers to safely pass by. Others are bulbs that jut out from sidewalks, allowing buses to stop without leaving their lanes. Transit experts says that small change can shave 5 to 20 seconds per stop.
Some assembly is required, but it doesn’t involve heavy equipment. They’re environmentally friendly, too: The Barcelona-based company Zicla recycles city-generated waste into products that those very cities can use to protect cyclists and pedestrians.
These may not be the fanciest bus stops you’ll ever see— they’re certainly not the high-tech bus stops that Singaporeans use. But consider how many truly awful bus stops there are, and how slow and costly it can be to upgrade them. According to the blog People for Bikes, each of Zicla’s platforms costs around $50,000. But perhaps a better way to think about this is what cities don’t have to spend on.
“Where it really saves on cost is the elimination of the need for that really complicated engineering, like when a city wants to change the curb line and pull it out to bring the platform to the bus,” said Aaron Villere, senior program associate with the Designing Cities Initiative at the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
More than cost, the snap-on platforms are the kind of tactical urbanism that give city planners flexibility, as they can be just as easy to disassemble and reorganize or move. That’s ideal for testing out different platforms—a floating bus stop versus one with an integrated bus lane—or testing the efficiency of just one type in different areas. So while it won’t solve all that’s wrong with bus transit in the U.S., it’s a starting point for cities looking for solutions.
“Cities have a lot of urgency around changing their street, and waiting for a five-year or 10-year capital project to come through is too long,” Villere said. “Using low-cost and more flexible materials, it opens up the opportunity to change the street quickly, and not have to wait for restricted funding to come through, and to be able to extend the work farther.”
In fact, several of these projects remain in the trial phase to test their impact and durability. In January, Oakland began piloting several of these boarding islands along Telegraph Avenue, which has been undergoing massive street improvement. One includes speeding up buses along the corridors as part of an effort to drive up ridership, which dipped after the installation of bike lanes in 2016 slowed down buses, according to People for Bikes. If the island proves to be efficient, Oakland city planner Sarah Fine told the blog that it will upgrade to concrete platforms as early as next year.
Meanwhile on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, the bus bulb was just removed this week after having been deemed a success, according to NACTO. In its place soon will be a more permanent concrete bus stop.
There’s a benefit to showing people results, as opposed to just telling them about it, said Villere. “Sometimes the design changes that really improve service and experience are a little more subtle,” he said. “Trying to explain why it’s important to, say, pull the platform out so that the bus can stay in its lane is less compelling than installing flexible platform and say, ‘This is the actual improvement. We’re speeding up the bus route in real time.’”