Let’s Make the Super Stop Super

I live on the South side of Arlington, VA. Every morning, I ride the 16Y bus to my job in downtown DC. I get on and off the bus every morning at the corner of Columbia Pike and Walter Reed.

I was really looking forward to the grand unveiling of our new bus stop a couple months ago. When the day finally came after an excruciatingly long wait (much of it due to backordered light fixtures, verified by an Arlington DES tweet that I can’t find now), I was sorely disappointed by the result.

I’ve made my career in the design field. I understand that everyone makes mistakes, even architects and designers. But there is no excuse for a blatantly erroneous design that doesn’t serve the basics of its purpose. Below, I outline some areas where the new Super Stop falls short, offer suggestions for improvement, and provide another example that works. I hope this post can serve as open feedback to the Arlington County DES.

Site Plan

The site at the intersection of Columbia Pike and Walter Reed has unfortunately been misused. The placement of the bus stop leaves little room in front of the bus stop. Riders are unable to stand one in front of the other.

 

The placement of the bus stop forms a dead end for anyone approaching the stop from the green space to the South. There is an alley formed by the placement of the shelter that serves no purpose.

Here, from another view, the placement of the stop clearly allows for only one row of riders to stand at the curb. The man in the leather coat with the backpack, the woman in the red jacket, and the man with the dark coat and shoulder bag are all standing behind the shelter, waiting for the bus.

Suggestions

  1. Move the shelter back from the street, providing more room for riders at the curb and eliminating the “alley effect” behind the shelter.
  2. Leave walkways clear, unobstructed by the shelter structure

Seating

The seating of the shelter is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it’s too deep, so it is impossible to sit comfortably on the bench and lean back against the shelter, as one is often wont to do after a hard day’s work. Second, the materials for the bench–solid concrete and steel–make for an incredibly cold seat in the winter and will make the seat extremely hot to the touch in the summer. Finally, the design of the seat gives it a somewhat sharp edge on the front which could have a terrible effect if someone slipped, fell, and hit their head on the bench.

Suggestions:

Use a typical bench design that is ergonomically correct, forgiving in extreme temperatures, and curved to be safe in the event of an accident. 

Canopy Design

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the entire design is the canopy itself. The bus shelter does not serve its core purpose of sheltering riders from the elements while waiting for a bus–the sole purpose of a bus shelter. This design fails for a number of reasons.

Rain: As rain falls on the roof, it runs downward towards the back of the canopy. The rain then falls off the canopy at the back of the shelter. If the wind blows, in this case from South to North, then the falling rain is then pushed through the ~2′ gap at the top of the real wall of the shelter, directly onto waiting riders. This completely defeats the purpose of having a shelter. In fact, since the rain running off the back of the shelter is collected from the entire surface of the roof, this would cause riders standing in the shelter to actually get wetter in a rain storm than if they were just standing in the rain.

Wind: The glass panels in the rear of the shelter are wholly insufficient for blocking wind. What’s worse, there’s no protection whatsoever when the wind blows in an Eastward or Westward direction.

Sun: This isn’t so much of an issue now, but it is clear that the shelter will be swelteringly hot in the summer time due to it’s transparent glass roof.

Suggestions:

  1. Proper consideration of rain runoff, assuring that the structure of the shelter does not allow for runoff to affect waiting riders
  2. Side and rear protection from the wind 
  3. An opaque roof

The Arrival Board

I love the idea of the arrival board. Unfortunately, again, it has been poorly executed. The first thing you have to understand is that the arrival board is not completely accurate. In many cases, the board will say that the bus is arriving in as much as 3 minutes as it is pulling up to the stop. For riders, this means that you have to visually verify the timing stated on the board by looking down the street to see if your bus is arriving. All of this is manageable as a rider for better or for worse. Here’s the problem:  The board is on the right-hand side of the bus stop (when facing Columbia Pike), but the traffic is coming from the left-hand side. The process of checking if a bus is arriving is made into a tedious task as a rider must check the board, turn around and look to traffic, check the board again, turn around again, etc. The problem here is not the accuracy of the board, but the placement of the board.

Suggestion: Move the arrival board to the left-hand side (facing the street) of the bus stop.

There is Hope…

Given the attention that this stop has received, one may think that all is lost for Arlington’s bus stops. Thankfully, there is hope and to see it, one only need to get on the Eastbound 16G at Columbia Pike and Walter Reed and ride it to the end at Pentagon City. the two sites are not exactly the same–this is obvious, but there are tangible lessons to be learned.

A site plan that allows for the bus stop AND ample pedestrian access!

Plenty of space for riders and walkers alike! No awkward back alley!

A shelter structure with enough depth to allow for more than one row of riders!

Benches that are sized appropriately, perforated (not solid concrete), and finished with curved edges!

A canopy that shifts falling rain backwards, away from waiting riders AND shelter walls that are high enough to block the wind!

And all of this has been achieved with what looks like an off-the shelf shelter, rather than a custom-designed work of architecture.

Other Crimes Against Design Projects

Design Basics

Design decisions made regarding the Super Stop must take the basic purpose fo the structure into account above all else: does this provide a safe place for people to wait for the bus, sheltered from the elements? Unfortunately the current Super Stop design missed the mark entirely.

To the architects, engineers and designers who worked on this project, know that I am criticizing this from a positive and hopeful place. This bus stop is a part of my daily life, and it is a failure.

Costs

I have been disappointed with the costs of the new “Super Stop” and I’m not alone. In these economic times, there is an acute sensitivity to how tax money is spent. Personally, I believe in a substantial and well-run government, but that brings with it a certain social contract that tax money will be spent efficiently. In this case, poor design methodology led this project down a wasteful path. Now that there is an added level of scrutiny on this project, I hope those acting on behalf of the county will not only reassess its approach to design projects but take a moment to remember that they must, in every sense, be mindful of how the citizens’ taxes are spent.

Design decisions directly affect costs. It would seem, from the final product, that the bus stop was not researched and designed properly. I wasn’t a part of that design process, so I can’t account for what did and didn’t happen along the way. But the final product is indicative of a work where little to no research on the core function of the structure was done. The final product is indicative of a need to reinvent the wheel on a very basic type of structure. The final product is indicative of a wholesale failure of project oversight on the County’s part, as there was apparently never a reality check on whether this stop will actually work.

On Prototyping

Finally, I find it very unfortunate that the Super Stop is being referred to by the county and the media as a prototype. A prototype should never serve as a finished product. A prototype is, by definition, a tool for discovery, not a finished product itself.  If this stop were properly prototyped, with cheaper materials in a short timeline, then all the problems listed above would have been avoided.

If Arlington DES were to prototype a bus stop, I wish they would really address it as a prototype: book a local park as a workspace and bring in a palette of plywood, 2x4s, plexiglass, screws, and a labor crew, and do some cheap and fast prototypes. Then include citizens who use the bus shelter to offer their feedback. Every one of the problems described above would have been identified and prevented. Prototypes are not made of concrete and steel.

But most importantly–this is a bus shelter. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. There’s always an opportunity to create new and innovative designs, but the core function of the structure–keeping people out of the elements while waiting for the bus–must remain in tact.

In Closing

I never thought I would be so affected by something as seemingly mundane as a bus stop, but here I am and I know I’m not alone. I only hope the Arlington DES will do what it takes to address this properly and, even though it would be a huge inconvenience, tear down the Walter Reed super stop, replacing it with the basic but effective bus shelter that riders really need.

I think there’s another level of conversation that I’m not going into now: do we really need this? Isn’t a normal bus stop good enough? If the county is going to invest in new features for the bus stop like heated sidewalks and realtime arrival boards, then these investments are only justifiable if they are usable and useful. Anything else is a mistake.