Alright. I think I've done enough posts about what design can't do, and about our inferiority (both actual and perceived) as designers. I mean I'm starting to depress myself. Particularly when I happen to believe in the power of design. So let's start a little chain of posts about all the incredible things design can help change. First up: transit.
Let's just start by leaving city planning to city planners for today. We won't even discuss whether or not cities should be investing in light rail, improved bus service, more bike lanes, street cars, subways, flying cars or jetpacks (though jetpacks seem like the obvious choice). These are matters I have thoughts about in my own city, but I'll harp on that later. Let's address the branding of transit, particularly bus transit.
Busses are probably the cheapest and fastest way for cities to invest in improved mass transit. Yet there is often resistance to investing in busses and additionally there is a certain stigma to actually riding the bus. Some of the gripes with bus service is actually the service. People tend to have the opinion that bus systems are difficult to navigate, take too long to get from A to B, poorly designed or simply no shelters at stops,and have unkempt, rundown and dirty buses.
Three of these four things are issues of design (and of course money, but this will be a pie in the sky post). First navigation. We'll use TARC (Louisville's own Transit Authority of River City) as an example. There are a few ways riders get navigational information. There are maps. TARC's map is actually pretty decent in that it's legible and gets a lot of info across in one shot. However, there are some issues with this map. Part of what riders are interested in isn't just where a bus goes, but when it goes there. Frequency is key and knowing if you wait 8 minutes for a bus or 30 is a big deal. Some folks are working on good ways to indicate routes with high frequency and TARC should investigate this further (more than you want to know about frequent routes and their mapping here).
Stops themselves also serve as navigational tools. Full shelters generally have system maps. Though stops that have only a sign can help folks navigate by simply stating which routes stop there and perhaps how often. Busses themselves also communicate their route with electronic signs on the front and back of the bus. This should certainly use things like street names, neighborhoods and landmarks along the route.
Proper bus shelters are equally important to the vibrancy and use of the bus system. More and in some cases larger shelters would be significantly beneficial. But these can serve as branding devices of a transit system ala the exceptionally cool subway stations in Washington DC (note: I wouldn't think they'd be that extravagant). in certain perfect worlds they have wifi, and have maps that tell you exactly how long until the bus arrives and other technology hasn't been invented yet. This helps to also alleviate the stigma of riding the bus.
San Francisco's New Bus Shelters
An Impressive Shelter by Maurice Nio in The Netherlands
A Washington DC Subway Station
Which brings us to an interesting question. Trains – be they trams, monorails, subways, bullet – seem to be held in esteem. Busses on the other hand are somehow the red-headed stepchild of transit. This is partially due to the design of busses, exterior, and as or more importantly their interiors. There is a movement afoot to make buses seem more like other modes of transport in their design. Increasing the appeal of commuters to use busing the way they use trains in larger east coast cities would be an environmental coup.
I Would Ride in This
These are enormous challenges that face transit agencies around the country. And frankly, design is the only way to tackle them. A world where there are more bus riders is a world with less cars, less pollution, less barren empty parking lots, more walkable communities both downtown and in the suburbs, and a more sustainable community. Design has a chance to accomplish that. Well, design and money. Those two things might be a little bit chicken and egg, but design is a great place to start. Oh and as you can see below, a bus can practically be a brand for your city.