Streetsblog just completed a “Sorriest Bus Stop in America” competition, in which readers sent in photos of awful bus stops and then voted on which was sorriest. You can peruse finalists here, and via links at that post. Here’s the winner, in Silver Spring, Maryland, as hailed in the Washington Post. (Follow that link to the Google street view, which lets you look around.)
Here are some things to think about as you marvel over this gallery of horrors.
- It could be worse, even in America. My job takes me to some very dire and neglected places, and I can assure you this is not even close to being America’s sorriest bus stop. That little paved waiting area, with a capacity of maybe four people, looks downright luxurious compared to many stops I’ve seen, where you choose between standing in a ditch or in a traffic lane, or else on private property where someone will yell at you. I’ll dig up some pictures later, or maybe commenters will share some. But meanwhile: if you go to a low-income first-ring suburb or exurban area of your favorite US metro area — especially outside any incorporated city, and especially along an infrequent semi-rural bus route — I bet you’ll find contenders that will match or exceed the above.
- Be careful who you blame. Most transit agencies have no control over bus stops, but the media loves to blame transit agencies for everything. When talking about this, be clear that cities or highway authorities are usually the ones who created this situation.
- Ask: “Would no bus stop be better?” In many cases, the best way to get off of a “sorriest bus stop” list would be to remove the stop. That’s certainly the only option that the transit agency is likely to have, so if everyone agrees that this is the transit agency’s fault, you’re pushing them in that direction. This could even be a good idea in some cases. Wider stop spacing always means faster service, and a better case for good infrastructure at the stops that remain.
- Is the Issue the Stop or the Crossing? In this case, I’d argue that the big issue is the lack of a safe place to cross the street. Transit agencies sometimes get sued because someone got hit crossing the street at one of their bus stops. (Remember, transit agencies get blamed for everything.) I sometimes advise transit agencies to consider pulling out bus stops in places where it’s not safe to cross, for three reasons: (1) It reduces accidents for which the transit agency will be blamed, (2) stops where you can’t cross the street provide service in only one direction, which is never of much use, and (3) it helps put the onus on the city or highway authority to fix the problem if they want the stop.
- Ask: “How exactly would you fix this?” Want a larger waiting area? At this Silver Spring stop, you’ll have to cut into that embankment and build a new retaining wall, which is expensive. This stop looks like it’s in highway right of way, but many “sorriest stops” can only be fixed with land acquisition, which is really, really expensive. Adding a crossing here would also be expensive. I mean, you wouldn’t feel safe crossing here with nothing but a painted crosswalk, would you? We’re talking signs, lights, and probably a new pathway across that grassy median. It adds up.
- Ask: “How many people benefit?” Streetsblog advises us that 12 people per day board at this stop. I’m sorry, but that’s not very many in the context of a big urban area like Greater Washington DC. How much money should be spent for 12 people here that could be spent for the benefit of hundreds somewhere else? It’s a hard question. Of course, transit agencies are concerned for every rider’s safety, but if you have a safety problem affecting small numbers of people, removing the stop is actually the only choice that’s both safe and reasonable in cost/benefit terms.
- Ask: “Is the service permanent?” or “Does the service have ridership growth potential?” Many sorry stops are on coverage routes, which are low-frequency services in places where the development pattern is hostile to transit anyway. Coverage routes have predictably low-ridership, and low-ridership service is less likely to be permanent. These services are much more likely to be replaced by various new transportation options — including partly subsidized taxi/Uber/Lyft etc — than high-ridership lines are. Building permanent infrastructure around a service that may not be permanent is a bad idea. In the worst cases, transit agencies are forced to run inefficient service solely in order to maintain the illusion that the infrastructure has value.
- Some stops serve people getting off but not on. This outbound stop on the right side of Las Vegas’s Rancho Drive (to the left of the nearest telephone pole) is pretty sorry, but it’s approaching a low-demand end of the line, so not many people board. The stop on the other side, for going downtown, has a shelter, because lots of people board in that direction. Transit agencies do think about these things, and spend a lot of energy trying to get cities and highway agencies to think about them.
I share everyone’s visceral revulsion at horrible bus stops. But if you imply that something should be done, you should think about what that should be, and why it would be a sensible use of public funds. Often there is something that should be done. But not always, and sometimes, alas, the only cost-effective thing to do would be remove the stop entirely.
I hope this helps to explain why these situations persist, even despite media humiliation. Some of these problems have no easy answers, and certainly no popular ones.