In 1961, Columbia Equipment became the first bus shelter manufacturer in North America. “At that time, if you told people that you made shelters, they thought bomb shelters,” says Arthur Cohen, co-founder of Columbia Equipment, who served as president for 40 years. “Not too many people knew what a bus shelter was.”
Cohen’s father, Al, worked in outdoor advertising in New York when he heard that the city was looking to build their first bus shelters. Hoping that this could one day be a new venue for advertising, he made a bid and won the contract to build and maintain the first bus shelters in New York, which were designed by a consulting engineer.
The original structure was simple — no signage and a 12-foot-high roof. However, the substantial height meant that the canopy did little to shield passengers from rain and wind. At the time, Cohen was studying to be an architect and worked on developing a better design.
Not long after, a more passenger-friendly shelter was introduced and spread across the country, which became the standard for decades.
Half a century later, transit has transformed and shelters are following suit. Many cities are looking for smarter, more user-friendly shelters that accommodate a wide range of riders.
Adding a personal touch
“If I was talking to you maybe 15 or 20 years ago, everybody wanted to have as many shelters as they could get for a given amount [of money], which means it was a white dome roof and a dark bronze or clear anodized shelter,” says Kevin Chown, director, sales, for Duo-Gard Industries. “Now, everything is going much more upscale, much more ornate.”
All of the manufacturers agree that custom-designed shelters are becoming the standard. Lower-priced materials are a huge factor in this shift, as many transit agencies can now afford to choose more personalized elements.
“Agencies are incorporating the branding or the new color scheme of their system into the design to show both riders and non-riders alike what they’re doing with their tax dollars,” says Patrick Merrick, executive VP for Tolar Manufacturing.
As a result, manufacturers are offering more colors and design options. Merrick says that Tolar recently developed a way to print branding directly onto perforated aluminum. Previously, they would need to print on glass and find a way to add that to the design.
Other companies have experimented with “floating” glass panels, color-changing LED lights or patterned powder coats to create unique design elements.
Jennifer Evans, director, sales and marketing, for Brasco International, says that their business is now 80% custom orders. Many of these products incorporate some design that is specific to the city.
“We’ve collaborated with photographers on incredible glasswork projects and student architects on roof designs inspired by local rivers. And they’re all focused on the same thing — bringing their community together with things they all have in common,” she says.
Scaling up (and down)
Many transit agencies are adding bus rapid transit (BRT) lines along their busiest routes to accommodate more riders. As a result, many are requesting bigger shelters that can accommodate large groups. Chown says that Duo-Gard recently built BRT shelters in downtown Minneapolis right outside of a college.
“Those are huge stops. When they have a game, you could have hundreds and hundreds of people, and they wanted to be able to keep them all covered at any one time,” he explains.
For regular bus stops, transit agencies are also seeking more shelters that can accommodate bicycles. As demand increases, some are finding that bike racks aren’t enough, asking for bus and bike shelter hybrids or even a separate bike shelter that can store many bikes at once.
“A lot of it is to take care of that first- and last-mile at transit agencies,” Chown says, while noting that, for many, demand increases exponentially once bike riders realize they will have a place to store their bike once they get to their bus stop."
At the same time, many agencies are looking for options that accommodate many riders while fitting within the infrastructure. Some opt for cantilever shelters, shelters with a large canopy with small walls or just columns.
“You have a very small footprint with a seven-foot canopy roof, but you get a ton of sun shade and weather protection,” says Evans.
Lighting was once considered a luxury item. Now, it has become a standard option for most shelters. Not only that, but many are choosing LED lighting over fluorescent and high-pressure sodium lights. LED lighting is not only environmentally-friendly, it is also long-lasting and requires little maintenance.
“It’s all about lighting,” Evans says. “That’s attached to almost every procurement we have now.”
Many agencies are choosing solar power, which can be harnessed to power lighting elements but can also be used toward additional amenities.
“There’s more solar than there would have been 10 or 20 years ago in shelters, just because the pricing is much more conducive to doing it in a large scale,” Chown says.
Bus shelters can now offer such features as heating, air conditioning, closed-circuit television (CCTV) and USB charging ports to keep riders comfortable while waiting for their bus. Some shelters are even being fitted to provide free Wi-Fi.
“People want to be connected,” says Merrick. “You hear that young people today are using mass transit because that way they’re texting or their communication isn’t interrupted. They don’t want that disconnect. And, it’s also a way that you can find out through Google Transit or whatever when the next bus is going to be there.”
The transition to newer shelters is not seamless, though. The bus shelter manufacturers say that a challenge to designing new shelters is being able to accurately predict what riders need and what can be accommodated. For this reason, they stress the importance of collaborating with the manufacturer to discuss all options.
“They’ll purchase our shelters and then insert the signage or the wayfinding later, and then they have exterior conduit running wires along the shelter when they could be running through the columns if we do it,” Evans says.
To combat this, Brasco has begun working with specific companies to suggest the add-ons during the design process that they know integrate easily with their shelter designs and power source. They’re currently working with CHK America to integrate their digital bus stops with their stops.
Cohen also says that agencies should consider all available options for their specific shelters, rather than choosing what is popular at the moment. For example, he says that although solar lighting has become a popular request in many designs, it is not the best option for all environments. Rainy or shady areas, for example, are not ideal for solar power.
Chown also notes that it can be difficult to predict demand for new amenities that didn’t exist before.
“We are seeing that as soon as places put in [bike] racks or shelters, they may think they’ll have 10 or 20 bikes per day,” he says. “All of a sudden, it’s quadruple that because they just don’t know the demand until they put it there.”
All of the manufacturers expect real-time updates to become standard in the near future and are preparing ways to incorporate this technology into their designs.
These updates will alert riders when a bus is arriving and alert a bus driver to how many people are waiting at an upcoming stop.
“People feel vulnerable at their bus stop,” says Merrick. “They are out there in the public hoping the bus comes on time, so they can get to wherever they want to go on time. The more information you can provide them at the stop, makes the perceived wait at the stop feel shorter. More information helps the passenger make a more informed decision.”
However, for these manufacturers, the future of bus shelters is about more than technology. Overall, the goal remains to provide a space that makes riders feel comfortable and adds visual value.
“I don’t think there’s really anything that new,” Cohen says. “We’re still trying to incorporate as many different features in a shelter to make it as user-friendly, as modular, as accessible as possible. And, we try to make the shelter fit aesthetically into the environment.”