What Aristotle would say about the bus of the future.

Aristotle’s ergon argument and the question of a “good” bus design

Stefan Handt
Sep 26 · 6 min read

Unattractive, too packed, old-fashioned. Those are common preconceptions, which are being brandished against the use of public means of transportation such as buses, for example. At the same time: traffic chaos in the inner cities, climate change and the desire to make cities more livable. This conflict situation results in the necessity for us designers to keep reimagining the bus as a means of public transportation. What the philosophy of Aristotle has to do with the future design of a bus, I learn from Sarah Brehmer, Felix Beißel and Philip Khosh of Bayreuth University. They built the bridge between classical philosophy and modern technology. Because we designers like to draw inspiration also from unconventional, lateral approaches to reimagine the bus design. The basis for their line of arguments is Aristotle’s famous ergon argument.

Basis for the line of arguments: Aristotle’s ergon argument

According to Aristotle’s ergon argument, a human being must be a good being to fulfill his or her specific function, his or her ergon well. “Where things of their kind have a specific function (ergon), we talk about them fulfilling this function better or poorer, and where a thing fulfills the function well, we call it a good thing of its kind. (…).”[1] There are therefore many things of a kind that fulfill a specific function (e.g. there are many doctors that belong to the doctor kind, who fulfill the function of ‘healing’). All things of this kind fulfill their specific function better or poorer. When a thing fulfills its function really well, it is a good thing of its kind.

But when is a human being a good human being? What goal should he or she aspire to in his or her actions? According to Aristotle, that is the happiness of (eudaimonia). A person is a good person when he or she fulfills his or her specific function (according to him, that is the ability to reason) in a way that achieves the greatest happiness. And the specific function (ergon) can be identified when one recognizes what is unique to a person.

Ergon of the bus: Flexibility and public space

Transferred to the bus, this means — especially in differentiation to other means of transport: The uniqueness and thus also its specific function (ergon) lies in its flexibility and its public space. Compared to other means of transport, such as e.g. trains, buses are flexible as a matter of principle, because they are not bound to rails. And compared to private means of transport, such as e.g. cars, they are characterized by the fact that they are publicly accessible and can transport a greater number of people, i.e. social encounters are possible. The ergon of a bus therefore is — in short — to be a flexible public space. To be a “good” bus and thus be competitive and sustainable, a bus must fulfill its ergon well. It therefore finds the optimal compromise between both traits.

Do buses already fulfill their specific functions well?

If you look at a bus, you will see a flexible means of transport that can easily change its routes and destinations if the infrastructure allows. Nonetheless, it is bound to fixed schedules, defined routes and bus stops. Our times in particular offer countless possibilities and efficient systems to expand the flexibility. One can conclude from this that the aspect of flexibility has not yet been optimally utilized.

The fact that buses in local public transport are open to the public and that people can come together on buses makes buses a public space. However, conventional line-service buses often don’t look especially inviting. They could be given a more inviting design so that people like to spend time there. The aspect of the public space is therefore also not optimal. Ergo, buses currently are not fulfilling both aspects well — that of the public space and that of the flexibility — and there is potential for improvement.

To fully utilize the potential offered by its specific function, a bus should fulfill both aspects well: The goal is to get the best out of the flexibility and the public space. To this end, the students invoke the Aristotelian concept of the golden mean: The golden mean is between abundance and deficiency. This means that it is found where a thing does not have deficits in fulfilling its specific function, but also does not overshoot its target.

Solutions for making buses more inviting and conducive to communication

The starting point of Felix Beißel, Sarah Brehmer and Philip Khosh is: The public space should more strongly reflect the interests of the passengers and be designed as a hub for people. Besides commuting from A to B, a bus can also serve as a source of inspiration. Active participation could also make buses more attractive. For example, buses could be seen as a platform where people can engage in exchanges. For instance, displays could be installed for this purpose, on which passengers can express themselves in the form of poems, images or thoughts. They could also show information or advertisements. Today’s line-service buses transport no identity or inspiration whatsoever. For the design, this means creating a relaxed, stimulating, communicative and inviting atmosphere, tailored to the needs of the passengers. A city bus can counter the scarcity of nature in the inner city with the use of forest motifs. The other goal is to create a space where people can mingle to make commuting more pleasant. For example, (coffee) lounges, dining areas or presentation spaces can be used to create a forum for social exchange.

Solutions for making bus operations more flexible

And how could we improve the flexibility of buses? The philosophy and economics students from Bayreuth invite you to a thought experiment: Buses drive their fixed route as usual, but there are no fixed bus stops. Passengers can now use an app on their smartphone to communicate with the bus system and enter their location and their destination. Since it would be difficult to pick up each passenger individually, an algorithm determines the optimal boarding location for all passengers. The departure point and the associated time as well as a prompt to deboard at the destination are displayed to the passengers. With this or a comparable system. Quite incidentally, this would also create a kind of collective, because the new bus stops are determined by consensus.

In addition, the Bayreuth students propose a modular system to satisfy the needs of the local public transport users of every transport company. A bus will never have a definitive identity but can constantly change its space concept. The idea is to offer both standard as well as special modules. Buses used for commuter traffic should never have too many seating areas. Other scenarios might involve modules for older or individual disabled persons or entire lounges that offer comfortable seating. Depending on the requirement, these modules can be swapped out and modified as needed, which literally creates space for innovations.

Ergon argument focuses on the essential

For me as a designer, the ergon argument provides very good clues about the design development in general, but also in the specific to the bus. And that underscores the fundamental benefit of this approach. Due to the traffic situation and the fundamental restructuring of the cities in order to, for example, improve the quality of life, we will automatically gain new users. The objective is to recognize and fulfill their needs. Gaining new users and fulfilling expectations of the new users are dual events.

Flexibility and the design of the interior are key starting points for the bus design of the future. Because different needs require differentiated bus services. In the future, vessel sizes may therefore differ significantly depending on location and use. The time spent on the bus should not only be for transport, but should also be fun — ideally, a bus ride should not be seen as lost time. As a result, future buses will reflect the private aspect much more than before — they are living space.

Our sincere thanks go to Felix Beißel, Sarah Brehmer and Philip Khosh of Bayreuth University for this inspiring and exciting article! They prepared it as part of a think tank of the Philosophy & Economics Department and Daimler Buses.

Sarah Brehmer, Philip Khosh, Felix Beißel

[1] See page 13, Wolf, Ursula (2017) (editor): Aristoteles. Nikomachische Ethik [Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics]. Rowohlt.

Stefan Handt

Written by

Head of Design at Daimler Buses

Transportation Matters

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