The criminal and heartbreaking destruction of dozens of bus shelters in Halifax this month has got me thinking about bus stops, and not just in terms of their potential (or lack thereof) to withstand future attacks.

Along with Halifax Transit’s route network redesign, a new Integrated Mobility Plan setting its sights on bus rapid transit, and a Centre Plan calling for higher design standards in the city, the time is ripe for considering the street-level real estate of the transit system: its bus stops and shelters.

With some care and attention devoted to stops, Halifax Transit could improve rider comfort, increase navigability, market the transit network to new potential users, and even speed up buses.

“Really it’s pretty simple stuff, like offering enough space for the people who are going to be using it,” says Ross Grant, a local urban planner and one of two presenters who talked about bus stops at a Pecha Kucha night devoted to transit in February. “So you don’t put a bus shelter for four people at a stop where there’s 40 people waiting for the bus in the morning. That’s something we have to work on, knowing who’s going to be using it, and designing the stop accordingly.”

Beyond size, there’s physical elements at bus stops that could make buses actually run faster. Accessible, raised platforms can make it easier and faster for passengers to board, including those using wheelchairs, pushing strollers, or walking on.

Stops also have plenty of unused potential in the navigability and marketing of the transit network. While smartphones have done wonders for the ability of even the most infrequent transit rider to figure out how to get from A to B on the bus, they simply can’t compete with the potential for Halifax Transit’s 2,600 stops to communicate how the network works.

Street signs provide immediate, in-your-face information. Unless they are Halifax Transit street signs, of course, in which case they present a series of numbers without much significance to people not already very familiar with the system.

Way back in 2005, then-NSCAD student Michelle Jospe redesigned Halifax’s bus stop signs to give riders (and other passersby) access to a bunch of different information on where they could go from a given stop, including schedule information and next major destinations.

Jospe’s work met with some curiosity from Halifax Transit, but ultimately a lack of resources was blamed for not pursuing the excellent design. (Since 2005, Halifax Transit has replaced all of its bus stop signs twice, but they have steadfastly refused to improve upon their design.)

Michelle Jospe’s award winning redesign included new stop signs grouping routes by destination, and a street level sign with schedule and basic route information.

It’s not just the potential to give riders information at a glance that Halifax Transit is passing up. It’s also the ability to market the whole transit system, by letting passersby know where it goes and what it does.

I’ve written about Jospe before, and will likely write about her award-winning project again, at least until Halifax Transit finally puts out a call to improve their sorry signage.

Jospe is not the only one to consider the amount of information that could be brought to the streets with sign redesign. Check out this video by local YouTube celebrities, Planifax:

Ross Grant thinks that Halifax bus stops have potential not only in terms of accessibility, size and signage, but also in terms of the kind of public space they create.

“In Halifax right now we have these very standard bus stops that are virtually all the same, and they do what they need to do but in a very pre-manufactured kind of way. There’s not a lot of creativity to them,” says Grant. Whereas we could be “imagining bus stops as an opportunity for interesting public spaces people would actually want to go to and maybe actually add character to the neighbourhood they’re in.”

A Baltimore neighbourhood turned heads in 2014 by installing a bus stop designed by a Spanish artist collective, featuring enormous letters that spell BUS, with a modicum of shelter and seating in each. While this is not the shelter I would want to find myself at on a particularly stormy Halifax night, the appeal of it is undeniable, and its clear that part of the purpose of this stop/sculpture was to make a statement about its neighbourhood.

Then there’s this Singapore bus stop which has placed rider comfort and convenience at a new high, with books, bike parking, a swing, and copious amounts of way-finding information available.

“The design of a transit network reflects the values of a community,” says Ross Grant. “If it is designed well, it shows the community agrees that transit is important and we should invest in it. This includes everything from the route design, to the buses themselves, to the shelters.”

I think its time for a home-grown, Halifax version of what a bus stop can be, and I have the perfect spot for Halifax Transit to test out a new shelter or stop design that can help show how much we value our transit network.

Right now, there’s a gaping hole across the street from the Central Library on Spring Garden Road. Eventually, that hole will be filled with this Westwood Group development. Presumably at that point Westwood will rebuild a public sidewalk, and Halifax Transit will relocate its displaced bus stop (currently shunted down a block). This stop’s placement, across the street from the award-winning and streetscape-transforming Central Library, is the perfect place to feature something innovative, something eye-catching, and something thoughtful in stop design. And as a heavily used stop, it’s also a golden opportunity to test out a prototype of sorts. It’s time to get experimental.

And since Halifax’s draft Centre Plan includes a policy directive to “encourage the use of design competitions for public works to seek design excellence and promote public interest,” I suggest we throw out this challenge to the city’s architects and designers. Give them the geometrics of this stop, hold a meeting or two to get input from the public, and let them have at it. To make it extra challenging, ask them to work within our usual shelter budget (around $6,000 for a single shelter) to construct the thing. Maybe Westwood Group would consider furnishing the prize money, since it will be its tenants who benefit most from having a well-designed bus stop outside their door.

“If a bus shelter is designed warm, inviting, comfortable and with an attractive aesthetic, the users will feel valued, and are more likely to enjoy their trip,” says Ross Grant. Let’s take a chance on Spring Garden Road, and instead of just putting up a sign, let’s give riders and non-riders alike a sign that transit is a valuable part of how this city works.

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  1. Let’s face it: Halifax weather is downright miserable for much of the year. Despite this, the city has not provided adequate shelters for the thousands who use transit daily. A likely explanation for this is that HRM Councillors (and planners) don’t use transit. If they did, shelters would be more plentiful. This, and the lack of public washrooms speak to the meanness of the city.