A bus stop worth designing for

What’s your idea of an ideal bus stop? A/C and/or mist sprayers? Indoor seating with a cute little coffeeshop? Whatever it takes, as long as the bus comes on time? In a project for a design class, I had to ‘improve on the design of a bus stop’. More than that, I had to actually sit at a stop for an hour and pretend to be waiting for a bus. This approach is a real eye-opener because of the empathy it brings out in you; the bus stop and the people who wait there become much less of a concept in your brain, than actual people and physical objects outside, in the elements, with you. Being able to interact with these people and the bus stop itself challenges the assumptions in your head that would have developed if you just sat and said “hmm, I wonder what it’s like to sit at a bus stop with other people…”. Less assumptions = designing for actual people = better design. This design challenge was to be a week long, and eventually included sketches, interviews, and a paper prototype.

So I sat there, at Figueroa and 3rd in DTLA, and recorded my observations and developing insights. I realize these observations may sound like a list of complaints — which, to be honest, they mostly are. Sitting and walking around this bus stop for around an hour did a good job of putting me in the shoes of someone who might have to wait here every week or every day. This bus stop isn’t a particularly pleasant place to be and could be much better for the people that actually use it. With that said, he goes:

The first sensory observation with which I recorded was through my nose. This spot stank — literally. Whomever decided to place the trashcan about 5 feet from bench must’ve not planned to sit there for ten or twenty minutes.

Trashcan proximity to the rest of the bus stop

If you really need it there, just move the trash can farther away from where people are actually sitting? It’s also quite noisy. This is more par for the course, being that most bus stops are on busy thoroughfares. However, this stop seemed to be especially set on the edge of the sidewalk, with cars going right past your face. Setting this bus stop back a few feet wouldn’t be a problem — there’s definitely lateral space on the sidewalk. This would give people sitting there some much-needed breathing room while not compromising adjacency to the bus door.

Looking above me, I noticed a cement monolith straddling the street, connected down by a set of stairs.

Quite an experience, isn’t it? — one of DTLA’s elevated walkways

Structures like these always make me think that I’m in Blade Runner or some future city with imposing industrial infrastructure. Hyperbolic, I know. I walked up the stairs and found myself on one part of DTLA’s once-tried and long-forgotten elevated walkway. Like the bus stop, the walkway concept could’ve been pleasant, but ended up being an eyesore and something that adds to the feeling that I’m in a concrete jungle. Any aesthetic change that could mitigate this feeling probably would impart a more soothing, comfortable emotional experience. One concept would be to plant vegetation around the bus stop — small trees, grass, or other aesthetically-pleasing leafy items.

There was only one person waiting at the bus stop from the time I arrived until the time I left. I struck up a conversation with him, and he said he had been waiting here for at least a half hour. After about five minutes of my arrival, he got up and left, not caring to wait any longer. I checked Google Maps — a bus was supposed to arrive in 7 minutes, but during the entire time I was there, I didn’t see a single bus go by. The signs were no help, either. Every bus line listed the same location: Downtown LA and Figueroa/Sunset.

Must be a popular location

Is this a stop? The end stop? I had no idea. The only other object that demarcated this place was a sad, sordid piece of paper that said “Bus Stop” laminated and zip-tied to the metal pole.

“This is a bus stop” — the piece of paper

Which did a good job of summing up how I felt about standing there.

So what makes a good bus stop? Through my experiences, I know that a bus stop firstly must be functional. If buses don’t stop, or you don’t know when they’ll stop, or which bus, then the bus stop has failed its primary purpose. Solve these functionality problems, and go from there.

With this in mind, I thought about the other extreme: what would my ideal bus stop be? How could I design the pinnacle of bus stops? By considering these ideals, I started drawing and thinking about possible designs that could significantly improve upon this bus stop or bus stops in general. Sketches like these are quick & dirty and efficient; easy to draw, easy to throw away — a canvas to generate lots of ideas both ‘bad’ and ‘good’.

Tangible designs that have been incorporated in other bus stops
Blueprint of the ideal bus stop

It’s likely that no bus stop would implement most or all of these characteristics, but at this stage in the brainstorming process, there’s no judgements. If it popped into my mind, I wrote or drew it down.

During this time I also conducted some interviews with a couple friends who take the metro around LA. The more constructive and valuable situation would have been to sit myself at 3rd and Figueroa (or a similar stop) and chat with more people at these bus stops. However, time pressures made this difficult to accomplish. Some interesting quotes were “I want to stand next to Totoro and take the CatBus”, “It’d be cool to have an app-tracker”, “provide wifi at bus stops”, and “it’s hot af waiting”. These interviews helped to confirm some of my design assumptions and informed me that I was roughly on the right track.

Your new bus stop companion — Totoro

I especially though about the ‘Totoro’ quote — although I knew I couldn’t actually provide Totoro and CatBus, what would be an equivalent concept that I could provide? Is that entertainment? A video? I set this idea on the back burner for the time being.

The next step was to hone in on a type or types of people that might be waiting at the Fig & 3rd stop. I tried to capture one segment of the population in a proto-persona that I named “Brian Ferguson”.

Brian Ferguson, my proto-persona

This exercise’s weakest point may be its lack of inclusivity — Brian does not represent every person waiting at this bus stop. Rather, personas like these help to generate empathy and highlight differing needs/wants/desires of people who could (and hopefully were, based on observations) be standing at Figueroa and 3rd. What emotions is Brian feeling standing at the bus stop? Why is he there? What would make him feel less bored or more comfortable standing at the bus stop? Does he watch Hayao Miyazaki movies?

Crafting a story around Brian also helped to direct myself towards solving design problems. The fact that ‘Brian’ wanted to meet his girlfriend across town in DTLA gave him some unique needs and paint points. If the bus is late, does he use Google Maps? If Google Maps isn’t accurate, what does he try next? If he’s late for dinner, how does he feel? Frustrated? Dubious of the entire LA bus system?

“Brian Ferguson” became a jumping-off point for my first prototype. Although I had a few awesome ideas floating around (like VR sets that kept you entertained while you waited, or a bus that could scale past buildings and parks and didn’t have to take city streets), I decided to design for functionality. If Brian knows which bus he has to take, gets to his date on time, and learns a little bit about his city along the way, then, owing to my research, I’ve already solved a number of important problems. The first prototype was a paper screen with details such as bus avatars and an ‘alternate routes’ button.

Bus stop prototype video link: https://youtu.be/9NeaMniYomU

Google Maps and hand drawn prototypes

Far from perfect (as it is supposed to be), this prototype was a good basis for developing further concepts, if the project was extended. At this point, the week was over, and the design challenge finished.

Post-challenge: although I’m not sure if I would follow through with my first prototype, it was part of a trio of concepts that I would push to improve the bus stop. If I could make these three adjustments, I would firstly add a clear, well-marked map of the bus lines with multiple routes. This map — such as what I prototyped — would also have digital updates of when the next bus will arrive. Sure, this could be in an app format, but not everyone these days has a smartphone. Possibly this could be a screen at the bus stop itself? Secondly, I would move the trashcan. Just a little further, okay?? In seriousness, I would promote a little more upkeep of the stop. Clean sidewalks, better lights, no zip-tied laminated pieces of paper— more maintenance = looks like it is cared for by people and money = appears to have more value = becomes more attractive and pleasing to stand there. Thirdly, I would add some minimal aesthetic touches. A new coat of paint or pleasing, hip color scheme, some plants, or even a bench with a backing and more seating would be great. Bonus: maybe I’d splurge for that tiny coffeeshop.

All in all, the bus stop at Figueroa and 3rd needs a few improvements to be an adequate, functional bus stop, and a few more to approach being a pleasing or even nifty one.

Check in next time for my new design challenge: The American Mall! This new project will be about 3–4 weeks long, giving me a chance to dig into the challenge more and hopefully produce higher-fidelity outputs.