gardening the bus roof: a pretty idea but …


What's shocking about this idea?

Bus roof garden

Nothing.  We've had a decade of people proposing to garden every sun-facing surface in the city, ideas I often support.  So it would be astonishing if doing it to bus roofs had not been proposed.  

What's astonishing is that when Marco Castro Cosio proposed it, calling it Bus Roots”, the result was this:

[Marco Castro] Cosio's “Bus Roots” idea has garnered loads of praise, earning the runner-up spot in Designwala's 2010 urban-design competition and landing in 2011's Festival of Ideas for the New City, an event in NYC meant to “harness the power of the creative community to imagine the future city and explore the ideas destined to shape it.”

Publications and websites from France, Japan, Canada, Germany and elsewhere have similarly swallowed Bus Roots uncritically, publishing Photoshopped images from Cosio's thesis that suggest these buses could be out there right now, carrying passengers. The most recent offender is Wake Up World, which ran with this Feb. 27 headline: “Gardens Flourish on Top of City Busses.” Three problems: “Gardens” should be singular, because there's only one garden, a small prototype atop the BioBus that's growing sedum. “Flourish” is much too enthusiastic a verb for what the sedum is doing; the ornamental stonecrop basically sits there at ankle height doing nothing. …"

You can find other misleading stories herehere and here.

That's from today's Atlantic story by John Metalfe.  And "misleading" is right, becuase this idea has serious problems of physics, which Metcalfe patiently explains.  How much more fossil fuel do you want to burn (and greenhouse gases do you want to emit) to haul hundreds of water-heavy gardens around your city, all located so that most people will never see them?

It would be nice to imagine a day when you can't win urban design prizes for things that are physically or geometrically impossible.  Violations of the laws of physics often look inspiring.  That's why we have the image of heaven as built on clouds, an idea that continues through many imagined cloud cities and shows up as Avatar's airborne land formations.  Those formations may deserve a film design prize, but if you called them landscape or urban design, some check against the facts of physics would be in order. 

But there's a also a humanistic problem issue with gardening the bus roof.  Like bus wraps, it implies that public transit design shouldn't be about public transit customers.  Riders, like most of the public, would never enjoy Cosio's roof, but they would certain experience the sensation of heaviness that comes from being under all that weight. 

As Metcalfe points out, there's actually a lot of important stuff on a bus roof, but there's also a question of who the design should be serving.  I would like to see much more transparency in vehicles, extending to the roof as you see on tourbuses, so that we can break down this sense that the bus is box in which you must be stored for transportation.  My goal is that you should be able to be on a bus while also still being on the street, engaged with the whole urban environment.  For more on that, see Chapter 15 of Human Transit

Hat Tip: Michael Setty 


26 Responses to gardening the bus roof: a pretty idea but …

  1. Aidan Stanger March 4, 2012 at 4:27 am #

    On a low speed city route it might be feasible as an unusual form of advertising (possibly for a garden supplies business?)

  2. Julian March 4, 2012 at 4:49 am #

    My brother once told me he went on a camping and hiking trip where he grew little alfalfa sprouts out of the top of his pack so he’d always have some fresh vegetables to provide him with energy. It seemed absurd to me then, but not half as absurd as the idea of growing a garden on a bus.

  3. JohnW March 4, 2012 at 5:22 am #

    Another practical problem might be putting the bus through a wash. Everything would have to be done by hand to keep from over-watering or soaping the plants.

  4. kantor March 4, 2012 at 7:03 am #

    Well, this goes straight to my “absolute f…ing nonsense” folder; however as a practical joke it is even funny…

  5. Alan Howes March 4, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    I’m afraid I totally fail to see any merit whatsoever in this proposal, let alone sufficient to win a design award (I went off any sort of awards some time back).
    Are we supposed to swallow the idea that anything green is necessarily good – and anything diesel is bad?

  6. David March 4, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    I’m glad you brought up bus wraps. It’s is painfully obvious to me that the marketing department that allows the dot matrix images covering windows have never, ever ridden on a bus.
    I’ve never understood why they expect passengers to enjoy a ride on a bus where you can see less than 50% outside the windows and cannot make out street signs or address. Seems to me that in this case, the passenger experience is second place to gaining a few dollars from satisfying an advertiser that has a moving billboard without any annoying interruptions for windows.
    Edmonton Transit is a big offender in this area.
    On the other-hand, I applaud transit systems that do not allow the covering of windows for advertising.
    Victoria Regional Transit is one of these (though there have been a few cases where the images obscures a bit of the window.
    If it was such a good idea, why wouldn’t they also dot matrix over the driver’s windows too?

  7. Max Wyss March 4, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    When seeing this picture, I got a flash of Meret Oppenheim’s Pelztasse through my mind… Pretty nicely done, and showing you can do quite a bit with Photoshop (even without creating a Photshop Disaster).
    From the practical point of view, it would not work well, considering the weight distribution. And one can be sure, a bus roof is essentially a thin piece of sheet metal…
    Thanks for the chuckle.

  8. Anne March 4, 2012 at 10:18 am #

    Isn’t this article about 4 weeks too early?

  9. dorkmo March 4, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    if the bus was electric and the grid was powered with renewable energy. then…

  10. Tom Spuhler March 4, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    I’m quite disappointed in Jarrett’s (and others) immediate put-down of this concept (gardens on Buses). While Cosio doesn’t seem to have really looked at the practical aspects of this concept – no surprise really. Artists are often like that, just the media reaction, which Jarret described as “astonishing”, indicates that there just may be something to the concept. In his just previous post, he points to an article which discusses the poor reputation that buses have. If putting plants on buses would improve their perception by the public, which the attention indicates is possible, I believe that its worth spending at least a few minutes considering how it could be made to happen. Franky, I am concerned that (some) professionals in this industry seem much more focused on why not to do something than making it happen.
    Thanks to Metelfe/Overman for enumerating some of the the challenges, fortunately, most of them are rather easily overcome – or don’t really apply to areas where it rains :). Take fuel usage: I would be interested in knowing the impact of an additional 13 passengers (2000 pounds) on the MPH of a large bus. But really, why so heavy? It seems like it would make the bus top heavy (did Overman mention that?). But why haul around all that dirt? There are better, cleaner, much lighter alternatives which would also better retain moisture. I bet it could be done better with <200 pounds of material including the plants. As for the leaks Overman suggests, don't the buses in DC come weather tight? And so on for the other challenges.
    I feel that a cover of plants on the more glassed European style vehicles (Jarrett chapter 15) would only require a small root box, but provide a rather pleasant oasis interior and a respite from the harshness of many urban bus environments to those outside. And if it got more people on the bus, it would be worth it. Note: not every bus has to be that way. Might be better if it was an occasional treat!

  11. voony March 4, 2012 at 10:40 pm #

    I am not sure that using buses to move purposelessly flower pots will do anything to improve their images.
    Jarret is right, if you want to improve the bus image, you have to make them more appealing to their users…
    I had a post slightly touching this topic:
    Hynovis or the Hydrogen bus where the idea of extended windows to the roof is integrated into the hynovis bus.
    and obviously if you want make use of the roof real estate, solar panels could be a much option than flower pot.

  12. anonymouse March 5, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    @Tom Spuhler it depends on whom you’re improving the image of the bus for. If it’s for the people actually inside, then the way to do that is to make the buses more useful and nicer to ride. If, on the other hand, you want to improve the image to the people who don’t ride them and don’t want to see the smelly buses full of smelly homeless people, well then, I suppose you can put flowers on top, but keep in mind that this is designing something explicitly for the people who don’t use it, rather than for the people who do, which has all sorts of implications about the relative importance of the two groups.

  13. Tom Spuhler March 5, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    I am not sure that using buses to move purposelessly flower pots will do anything to improve their images.
    There is a purpose, just not the usual transit metric (pity), and the Plants/flowers are what’s important, pots not so much.
    Nothing is certain with this sort of thing, esthetics being what they are, and other factors such as reliability – lack thereof – are vastly bigger deal killers. Just as fern bars attract a whole different clientele then the neighborhood dive, the plant bus could have a bit of nature, color, calmness, whimsey, humanization to a often very dehumanizing environment while improving the overall cityscape, kind of turning that “have to” to “want to” which describes some of the appeal of trains v. buses.
    Jarret is right, if you want to improve the bus image, you have to make them more appealing to their users…
    Exactamundo! And appeal involves more then just hard numbers.
    and obviously if you want make use of the roof real estate, solar panels could be a much option than flower pot.
    From an efficiency perspective, especially in a couple of years as the price/performance increases, but they will do little to encourage people to want to ride the bus, just make it a little less painful for when they have to.

  14. Kathy March 5, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    Hahahaha! I am a serious gardener and gardening advocate, on a community gardening board, etc. and truly it is a beautiful sight to see a garden anywhere but that is just ridiculous! Dirt, even the lightest potting soil is heavy, On top of a bus it would dry out soooo fast, it would need constant (heavy) water and – from where?. There is not that much of a land shortage or food shortage. Maybe they could just paint a garden on top of the bus.

  15. Kathy March 5, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    It would be better to put flower pots inside the bus where passengers could enjoy them and they wouldn’t dry out so fast.

  16. Jarrett at March 5, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    Tom. Plants on top of the bus add nothing to the experience of using
    the bus, except for some initial charm appeal that may attract riders
    but will not retain them. If you want to make the bus more civilized,
    focus on the experience of people inside it.

  17. Pete March 6, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    I agree with Jarrett, make the bus nicer for the riders. IMO that means attractive design, tasteful livery, ideally with route branding. Definitely no external advertising for cars or car insurance! Interiors should be durable but stylish. Increasingly UK bus operators are using leather seats as these are more durable, and give a premium brand appearance compared to fabric seat covers:
    Contemporary UK bus interiors:
    Contemporary UK bus exteriors:
    In Brighton they used local people’s images in an innovative ‘I’m on the bus’ campaign:

  18. John W March 7, 2012 at 5:37 am #

    Following up on Pete’s comment, here are some images of the new Bus for London (the replacement for the classic Routemaster double-deckers), which just went into service. It’s stylish, bright and there’s plenty of attention to detail. Can’t wait to ride on one.
    And, hilariously, a semi-serious review of it in an auto magazine:
    [exterior view, rear]
    [interior view]

  19. John W March 7, 2012 at 5:44 am #

    Blast! Put the same link for both. This is the interior view (lower deck, looking rearwards).

  20. Tom Spuhler March 7, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    Jerrett, et al, thanks for your comments, we may be at last getting to the heart of the matter.
    Plants on top of the bus add nothing to the experience of using
    the bus, except for some initial charm appeal that may attract riders
    but will not retain them.

    Hey, I agree! Mostly. And my retort at this point could be “I got um in there, now its your job to keep them”. Generally, the first time “buyer” is the hardest to get (unless your product really – ahem – “stinks”), so I don’t consider just that to be a failure. But there’s more to it then that.
    Buses have an image problem ( I know, despite all your-all best efforts 🙂 . Anything that improves the perceptions of buses is likely a good thing (beware of costs), and will usually enhance the experiences of using them (its the way people work). If people think buses with plants to be cool/cute, people riding them will feel cooler/cuter even if nothing else changes. Hence plants could add something to the bus experience even if they aren’t visible to the rider (btw, my proposal is that they are visible to the riders). So that “nothing” becomes “something”. Skeptical? How many people consider the outside appearance of an automobile during the purchase process? Answer: Many. How much of that appearance can be seen by the occupants? Not much. Need more? Okay, you meet a hot person of the appropriate persuasion (HPAP). Somehow, the topics of buses come up. The HPAP a) gushes “ Those are so cute/cool” or b) wrinkles nose “Aren’t those full of smelly homeless people” (quote taken from the comments above). Which of those responses is most likely to increase your “ridership” – and thats not strictly a transit question. I encourage you to read the comments on the various articles Jerrett/Metcalfe linked to – and read the articles too. They contain some important details.
    If you want to make the bus more civilized,
    focus on the experience of people inside it.

    I was somehow reading a HT entry from a few years ago and couple of the commenters reminded the readers of the importance of playing to the community. The happier non-transit users are about buses, the more likely they will support funding for them, access for them, overheads for the trolley buses, bond issues, and maybe even use them. Sure, focus on the rider experience (don’t forget soft factors), but without the support of the community, you better hope that the desired rider experience is limited to slow, smelly rides around the parking lot. Hey, since every driver thinks everyone else – all other drivers, at least – should take the bus 🙂 you might as well make then feel a bit of envy that they aren’t.
    I’m sure that many readers are saying “But no one has ever asked for plants on the top of the bus at any of our focus groups or public hearings!”. And they probably never will, except for the recent publicity about them. I’ll save the longer FG diatribe for later, but if you ever propose but-top plants instead of addressing fundamental passenger issues, you will have earned the job search opportunity you will likely get (However, I believe there is an effective play).

  21. Matt the Engineer March 8, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    To be fair, in a hot, dry city these might provide quite a bit of cooling to the occupants, and at a much lower cost than air conditioning. With the wind on top you’d be evaporating water like crazy – probably to the extent of having to drive under a sprinkler once per route.
    No idea if the added fuel use from drag and weight would balance out the fuel saved from air conditioning, but it’s possible.

  22. Jarrett at March 8, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Matt.  So now we add the costs of overhead sprinkler installation at every terminus?  J

  23. Tom Spuhler March 9, 2012 at 6:02 am #

    Matt. So now we add the costs of overhead sprinkler installation at every terminus? J
    I look forward to Matt’s thoughts, however, I propose that the answer is “maybe”. It depends on what the most cost, procedural and structural effective method turns out to be in a given situation. I’ve generally been thinking of plant watering occurring in conjunction with the bus wash (how often do most systems wash their buses?), but at the fueling station seems quite feasible. In some locals, such as Las Vegas, doing something tied in with misters for waiting passengers at popular stops sounds like a double win. BTW, most plants take in the bulk of their moisture needs through their roots, so a sprinkler may not be necessary.
    I sense “Acoustical and Thermal Insulation” may be the best non-esthetic opportunity from Cosio’s list, and Matt may well be correct that there could be cost savings.

  24. Tom Spuhler March 9, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    I finally got around to going through all of the linked references that John Metcalfe and indirectly Jerrett Walker cited in this post, and I discovered the following in the reference (second “here”):
    The garden is made from an aluminum frame with Tyvek, a strong, tear-resistant synthetic fabric, that supports the plants, which sink roots into similar textiles used in the green roofing industry. The system, covering 340 ft2 (32 m2) and weighing approximately 355 lbs. (161 kilograms), only adds the equivalent weight of about two average adult male riders.
    “The experiment on the BioBus has not shown any change on gas mileage,” said Castro in an email.

    So I’m thinking “Hum, cloth, yah…WHAT THE #@&%@$!” (actually, I probably used the word “blimey”). “Why are Walker and Metcalfe/Overman et al blathering on and on about how there are grievous “Violations of the laws of physics “ and disparaging Cosio and the writers and editors who picked up the story along with anyone else who might be interested in the concept, when there is specific experienced-based data (that was linked to) that is quite different then what was used, presumably, as the basis for all this negativity. I have already groused about how transit professionals and other consultants, should spend 5 seconds thinking (and maybe asking around a bit) about how a concept might actually be realized before zooming off to Poo Poo land, but this implies much worse: insert negative attributes here It may (hopefully), be none of those, but without serious clarification, it will be harder to feel comfortable with the accuracy and integrity of any output from those involved, both past and future (Jerrett, I’m willing to let you slide, mostly, in that you should have been able to trust Metcalfe, and The Atlantic usually is a class act – but didn’t your mother tell you you should never believe what you read on the web? :). Aaron, I hope you just got bad data. Mr Metcalfe – does that European 155 mph superbus project really exist?

  25. solar power June 7, 2013 at 4:52 am #

    Wow, i think this is a brilliant idea – just make sure the plants being planted don’t need to be watered often! Aloes might be a great plant to use.

  26. Dave November 24, 2014 at 7:06 pm #

    They would actually work but the plants being planted should survive well with lesser soil base and lesser water and in addition the whole equipment weight should not be more than the AC’s being used now. Then there will be definite gas saving