On the US Downtown Bus Plaza

Lately, Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic has been riding the bus.  We’re seeing more good press for buses lately, as more national commentators focus on urban mobility problems.  Friedersdorf’s figuring out most of what I’ve long advocated …

I’ve already argued for simplified routes, system maps, and route numbering schemes. Other innovations that you should lobby your local bus agency/municipal government to adopt: dedicated bus lanes, express routes, GPS on the bus, estimated time of arrival signs on bus stops that change in real time, clear signage, and easy methods of payment that don’t require exact change.

But it’s interesting that this struck him as new:

Were I a city planner trying to improve bus service, I’d try to design or exploit a public square where a lot of buses could meet and people could transfer between lines, and invest heavily in that area as a permanent transportation hub.
It would have dedicated bus lanes going into it and out of it, vendors would be invited to sell goods there in an open air market, coffee shops and bars would be encouraged, food trucks would be permitted to park there, a corner would be dedicated to a skate park, a small police substation would sit at another corner — basically I’d try to have an area where there were always a bunch of people around, a bunch of different stuff to do, pleasant places to sit, lots of places within walking distance, etc.

And the investment, the permanence it implied, would go some ways toward stoking the kind of development that subway stops bring. In fact, a city like Los Angeles where more subway stops are likely in the future would do well to build a future subway stop location as a bus hub now pending future development.

Such places have been tried in America, perhaps not with all these features but certainly some of them.  The most successful has been the Portland transit mall, along 5th and 6th Avenues through the center of the city, which was bus-only from its inception in 1978 until light rail was added to it in 2009.  This is how it looked in the pre-rail state.


The mall featured many of the urban features that Friedesdorf mentions, though of course they varied along the length of the street according to the nature of the surrounding district.  The midpoint of the mall, where it intersected light rail, was the site of the Pioneer Courthouse and Pioneer Courthouse Square.


The Pioneer Courthouse Square is often called “Portland’s living room,” the absolute center of downtown Portland.  So here is Friedersdorf’s central square, while the mall constitutes the “bus lanes going into and out of it.”

It’s interesting that one of the desired outcomes Friedesdorf mentions is “permanence,” because this calls to mind the permanence that rail advocates insist comes only from rails in the street.  The creation of the Portland Mall, especially in the political context of the 1970s, was a massive statement about the city’s commitment to transit, and included a range of high-cost features designed to make clear that this commitment was there to stay.

One telling moment in its history was when the Hilton, which faced the 6th Avenue side of the mall, did a remodel in which they could have moved their main entrance to the other side of their building, where it would have faced a car-oriented street, Broadway.  They chose not to, even though the mall gave them only one car lane on a street otherwise devoted to buses.  The bus mall was a better front door address.  (The flagship store of Nike was once right across the street.)


The high-end central bus plaza has been tried at various scales in other American cities.  The success or failure of these has depended a lot on how the city views public transit in general, and how well the plaza relates to whatever else is going on.  The Spokane Plaza in Spokane, Washington, for example, is a fully enclosed block with bus stops around it.  The interior of the block is not just a heated place where you can watch monitors to see when your bus arrives, but also contains commercial spaces, with skybridge connections into adjacent retail and office buildings.  This sequence of photos takes you from outside into the ground floor and then up to the skybridge level.  (My photos are from 2005; Spokane readers are welcome to send more recent ones.)




Spokane’s plaza is unusual for its very central location in downtown. There are similar but less elaborate facilities in Las Vegas, Denver, and Boulder, among other cities.  Often, though, these central stations are slightly removed from the center of downtown, hence cut off from its commercial energy, and hence not really credible as centroids of urban life.  Bus operators are always tempted to advocate a facility that’s optimised for bus circulation and storage, and this always conflicts with what you can accommodate in a place that feels like the center of the city.  So often you get outcomes as in Boulder, a bus station under a parking garage on the edge of downtown.

The result is a functional station, and often these are the least-bad sites given a city’s geography and politics.  But of course, transit should ideally bring you deeper into downtown than you can get with your car, whereas a bus station in a parking garage implies that transit and cars deserve exactly the same degree of proximity.

The development of downtown bus stations — especially in cities that do not yet have rail — can be a critical test of a city’s commitment to transit.  Spending a lot of money on infrastructure, bus or rail, locks the service into place in a way that is hard to dislodge.  The centrality of Spokane Plaza has been controversial in Spokane; there have been many business-driven proposals to move the buses to a less central location.  But it has survived, partly because the magnitude of the built investment — that celebrated “permanence” — made it difficult to move.

Ultimately, the creation of activity hubs around transit — even buses — relies on the city’s eagerness to encourage whatever level of commerce the market will bear, in addition to making the pedestrian connections to other commercial activity as strong as possible.  It may start with pushcarts, and then grows into permanent retail opportunities.  This may correspond to a growth from bus facilities into bus+rail facilities, but there’s no necessary correlation between the level of commercial activity and the type of wheels that the transit runs on.  Commerce will always be attracted to where people gather, so if people are gathering anyway for a transit connection point, commerce can help turn that point into a place.

9 Responses to On the US Downtown Bus Plaza

  1. nb June 8, 2010 at 8:53 am #

    Also checkout Capital Square in Madison, WI for a good central bus hub.

  2. Nqrw.blogspot.com June 8, 2010 at 9:37 am #

    At worst, Friedersdorf’s idea could be interpreted as the creation of one single space which intends to concentrate all the activity of transit users, with bus lanes helping to take buses quickly away from downtown. That risks creating a ghetto of captive transit riders that doesn’t contribute to the surrounding streets, and reduces the extent to which buses are visible to other potential riders.
    This is different from a good transit mall, the surroundings of which, as you describe, vary with the character of the particular area of downtown through which it’s passing, and helps create vibrant and attractive streets in such a way that businesses like the Hilton who might not identify their clientele as transit riders themselves.
    While enclosed spaces with skybridges might provide useful facilities for transit users, they are even more cut off from the street, and risk coming to be thought of as spaces to be used only by those who really can’t afford cars.
    On the other hand, concentrating buses in one place is very useful for transfers. I think, then, that in some networks (radial ones more than grid ones, where as you’ve covered before, transfers work differently), a central facility can be useful. However, it is probably best that transit services run through on a logical axes (this is common practice in British cities), share common routes with other buses through other parts of downtown and make stops along those routes.
    If done well, this approach should enable most of the downtown area to be accessible by either a short walk from the closest stop, or a transfer in the central hub. What cities don’t need is an island that leaves transit cut off from the rest of the city.

  3. EngineerScotty June 8, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    Actually, the Portland Transit Mall has three major interchange points along it. Pioneer Square is one; but you also have Union Station and the Greyhound stop at the north end of the mall, and PSU (and interchange with the Streetcar) at the south end. The Milwaukie MAX line will essentially extend the transit corridor southeast to the South Waterfront area, and across the river to OMSI.
    But two important things about Portland mall:
    1) It is equally important as an interchange point, and as a destination point.
    2) It is located in an area where there was already existing activity.

  4. Nqrw.blogspot.com June 8, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    The above comment should have read “in such a way as to attract businesses like the Hilton…”.
    And indeed, those are the qualities that make good transit malls like in Portland a good thing. Building a good interchange point without any of the other characteristics is less of a good idea.

  5. Anc June 8, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    Seattle seems to be going for a 3-Hub Strategy, how do you think this will stack up?
    The Westlake/McGraw Plaza seems like a progress.

  6. Richard Masoner June 9, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    Boulder’s transit center isn’t optimal, but it’s only a block away from the Pearl Street Mall.
    Santa Cruz Metro Center is another decent example — it anchors the end of downtown Santa Cruz, California along Pacific Avenue which is fairly lively.
    Diridon Station in San Jose, CA is an example of a major transit hub with little commercial life — thousands of people come through daily for Amtrak, 3 heavy commuter rail lines, employee shuttles, light rail and a dozen or so bus route connections from three different agencies that all converge on Diridon Station, but it’s surrounded by acres and acres of parking.
    None of these are anything close to the ‘high end’ plazas like some of your other examples — they’re basically very large bus shelters with multiple lanes.

  7. Scott June 11, 2010 at 1:38 pm #

    While it’s in a somewhat smaller city than Spokane, I think well of the purpose built, very central transit mall in Salem-Keizer, Oregon (“my old home town”). It meets most of the criteria under discussion, and was built some time ago despite virulent opposition from the local Gannett newsrag.
    Sadly, having the mall has not brought stable support for transit funding from either voters or, perhaps even more importantly, the powerful Chamber of Commerce. Service has been slashed heavily over the last few years.

  8. Westnorth August 15, 2010 at 9:55 pm #

    I’ve always been somewhat indifferent towards bus transfer centers; bringing all those loud and smelly buses together hardly creates an inviting environment, even before you add the bum-proof benches and inevitable P&R garage. On the other hand, they’re usually the only place in town which offers adequate transit network information. I’d also be curious to see where the break-point is between having a bus grid, a bus mall, or a single bus transfer point — the former two being for much larger downtowns.
    Anyhow, I’ll mention two good ones: Bellevue, Washington thoughtfully placed its transfer depot in the middle of its new-ish downtown, right along the main pedestrian spine. It was easy to find my way around from there, and overall it’s a pleasant space. Raleigh, N.C. tucked its Moore Square Station bus terminal in the middle of a block with three street entrances, so none of the surrounding streets are overwhelmed with buses; good signage and landscaping make it a surprisingly pleasant urban room.

  9. Brad November 9, 2010 at 9:03 am #

    I live in Portland, a block off the bus mall in the NW section, and about 3 block from Union Station. I get around by bike, transit and walking. I have mixed feelings about the mall. The mall runs a considerable distance, but it is not exactly commerce friendly for the whole way.
    Broadway and 4th Avenues have considerably more storefronts, main building doors, and nightlife. At night, with less frequent service and less downtown working commuters, the mall is considerably darker and uninviting with it virtually no nightlife. Though Portland is not a dangerous city, there are dangers.
    I get that its purpose is to be a transportation hub to quickly get transit through a congested downtown center and is a model that can be used for other cities.
    I wanted to bring your readers to the attention that good planning is required to make a bus mall equally a center of life and commerce. Dissect Portland’s bus mall a little more and you will find areas where Nike is and areas where the homeless call home, even in the day.