What Do We Do about “America’s Sorriest Bus Stop”?

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.)awful-bus-stop-1024x639

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.

lv stop

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.

15 Responses to What Do We Do about “America’s Sorriest Bus Stop”?

  1. calwatch August 9, 2016 at 8:01 am #

    The next closest stop actually can be seen from the above photo – it’s at the traffic signal (which are what the advance warning signs are for), about 1000 feet away. There is a signalized crosswalk there, although the conditions at the stop (basically a sign on a pole) are the same. The people in the single family neighborhood on the east side of the street would have to walk more since their street doesn’t cross at the signal, but it would be safer for all involved and would speed up service slightly.

  2. Vladimir Zlokazov August 9, 2016 at 8:19 am #

    In Russia this would not qualify as a bus stop legally. Not that there are no pityful bus stops here but if you try to build a new one like that in the city like Yekaterinburg the prosecutor’s office would sue you for not complying with the standards. And those standards are gold-plated. There should be a 3-meter deep boarding area, a shelter, and the traffic engineers keep insisting on building bus bays for stops. So, building a simple bus stop here can turn out to be a very costly and time-consuming endeavor.

    To me this raises a question on how strict and close to ideal the standards should be. From one point of view with gold-plated standards nobody would get a pityful bus stop. From another everything turns out to be expensive and there’s no possibility for gradual development.

    • ararar August 12, 2016 at 4:46 am #

      I think those standards are a bit excessive because in some places there isn’t space to build a shelter or even a bus bay but there is a proper sidewalk with space for a bench and the disabled can still roll on without issue because there is enough space.
      Many stops are like that in my country and they are functional.

      I think what is critical that those stops are missing is an ADA-complaint way to get there. Having to wait without a shelter is not really an issue depending on how much wind there is.

      The expense for low-utilization stops (like the ones you have to click the button to have the bus stop) is simply not justified and is a waste of money that could be used where needed more. I think this may even slow down increases in coverage of the transit network,

  3. Jonathan P August 9, 2016 at 8:30 am #

    I agree that it most certainly could be and is worse in many other locations and the Washington Post has crowd sourced several other stops in the DC area that appear to be much worse than this one. Since winning the award, it’s worth noting the ‘sorriest bus stop’ story has already received some attention from local officials who are looking to remedy the situation. As you noted this is in the DC area, in a community and region that places a high value on transit. I suspect many other communities would not react with the same attention and call for action to actually fix the problem.

    Regarding highway or DOT control of stop placement and the surrounding pedestrian environment, this is the double-edged sword of the benefit of sharing street rights-of-way. In America we have probably tens of thousands of cases just like this where transit is essentially an afterthought in the street’s design. Not only should transit be on the way, but it should also be integrated into the street design to minimize situations like this. Unfortunately this is rarely the case.

  4. Michael Lachman August 9, 2016 at 10:26 am #

    I think that for many of these stops, the problems of available land and safe crossings are linked. Roads with multiple wide lanes make pedestrians play Frogger. They also eat right-of-way that might otherwise be available.

    Without knowing what the peak vehicular traffic load is on this particular stretch of road, we can’t say with certainty that six 12-foot lanes aren’t needed. But there’s at least some chance that four 10’ lanes might be sufficient.

    As an issue this has less to do with whether an individual stop is horrible – or wonderful – or even highly-utilized – and more with an overall approach to road-building and neighborhood design that has often discouraged walking. And transit advocates can discuss changes to that framework with policymakers without resorting to blame-and-shame tactics. My experience is that isolated complaints produce piecemeal and ineffective solutions.

  5. Lloyd Alter August 9, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

    I thought the runner up was far worse, outside Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City and wrote:

    The Silver Spring stop is appalling, but the Kansas City one is worse in so many ways, saying “we exist for fans who pay lots of money to come to our game and we simply don’t care about the kind of people who take transit.” In Silver Spring, everyone agrees it’s awful but denies responsibility. In Kansas City, it’s just a blatant statement of “we don’t serve your kind here.”

  6. p August 9, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    I always wonder why stops like that exist. You have to walk across three, probably six lanes of fast moving traffic to get to the stop.

    Looks like a motorist designed the stop locations?

  7. South Texas Vocational Technical Institute August 9, 2016 at 5:07 pm #

    We need to spend more in mass transit. Pointing out the sorriest bus stops is a good start.

  8. Pete B August 10, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    Here is an uninviting bus stop from my home town in the UK. You can see the bust stop sign on the lamp post just in front of the petrol station sign. Passenger have to wait on the grass verge with no shelter and next to a busy road. To cross this road safely you need to walk away from the camera where you can see the deflector island on the approach to a roundabout.: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@51.4490515,-2.1404014,3a,75y,86.44h,86.88t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s5gfxYAnCe-6umgbThrNtTg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

    The stop for the other direction is actually beyond the roundabout, and in contrast this stop has a shelter. The Google car hasn’t been past for some years as the street view image shows the stop before it was sensibly relocated nearer the roundabout and given a raised kerb for accessible boarding onto low floor buses:

    The route frequency is every 20 minutes Mon-Fri daytime, every 30 minutes Sat daytime. Every 2 hours Sunday.

  9. Federico Marin August 11, 2016 at 4:23 am #

    This is the ugliest bus stop i know:
    There are a lots with similar building conditions over here, but this stand out becasue it is unnecessary in the middle of the block instead of beign in the intersection forcing you to walk in the street. There is another one very similar down the street but at least that one have puppies generally

  10. Laurence Aurbach August 11, 2016 at 4:47 am #

    The competition included several bus stops that were nothing but a ditch by the side of a highway; for example a stop on Highway 70 in Asheville, NC. Readers chose the Silver Spring stop as worse because 1) the slope along the roadside makes walking difficult and presses people toward the high speed traffic lanes; 2) the steep hill prevents future development on that side of the road that might increase ridership and justify improved pedestrian facilities; 3) the stop is somewhat redundant (a stoplight, crosswalk, and bus stop are 900 feet away), and 4) the money spent on the paved area and little retaining wall could have been used for other safer and more accessible bus stops.

  11. Sam August 11, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

    Jarrett, I think you miss a little bit of the point here. A big part of the problem with these stops in cities I’ve lived and been involved in transit advocacy in is that the transit agency doesn’t focus on stops as an essential part of providing bus service. I’ve seen a lot of agencies that don’t have proper bus stop design or spacing guidelines and often just throw a sign up on the nearest post if a customer requests it, no matter how close the next stop is. If transit agencies aren’t more proactive, it’s not reasonable for us to expect DOTs or cities without transit expertise to do better.

  12. Al M August 12, 2016 at 9:41 am #

    You know what I find somewhat disengenous, the issue of “how much money should be spent”

    That never seems to come up when discussing executive salaries, perks, pensions, and capital projects.

    It only seems to become relevant when talking about riders or union transit employees.

    It’s called technocratic BS

    • Kenny Easwaran August 16, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

      It comes up all the time in talking about pensions and capital projects. (You’ll find a lot of Jarrett Walker’s comments on this blog talking about over-spending on dubious capital projects.)

      You hear it more when talking about transit employee salaries than executive salaries, mainly because employee salaries affect a much larger amount of money than executive salaries do. For instance, Los Angeles Metro has about 60 executives, each making between $150,000 and $340,000. That’s less $20 million total. Metro has about 10,000 total full-time employees, so zeroing out all executive pay would save about as much as a $2,000 pay cut for all union employees.

      And if you’re talking about negotiations over $30,000 of annual pay when trying to hire a new CEO, that’s about as significant as negotiating about $3 of annual pay for the union employees. There are fights over both these things, but they’re just not that much, compared to the big expenses (both capital and operating) of adding new lines.