Bus stops and the future of digital placemaking

Bus stops and the future of digital placemaking

We have to remember public transit is public space

THE TYPICAL URBAN BUS STOP is a miserable thing: a piece of metal attached to a pole; a strip of colored paint on a curb; a beaten-up shelter. Such bad design is often compounded by locations only a vehicle could love: on lonely medians; next to terrifying off-ramps; along deserted and dimly lit blocks; and in all manner of beaten-down, neglected, and ignored scraps of urban space. As representatives of the MBTA, we feel particular shame at the egregious example pictured above, which nearly won an award for America’s Sorriest Bus Stop back in 2016.

Some agencies don’t care because it’s not their assigned role: most agencies just operate transit services and have no requirement to take care of the streets as well. Or perhaps they believe their job ends at the door of the transit vehicle, so they shouldn’t need to care about the places nearby. Other agencies feel they simply can’t care: their efforts and budgets are consumed by pulling together halfway-decent transit service. To them, the idea of thinking deeply about the transit agencies’ role in the public realm is an impossible luxury. Either way, this is tragic: agencies have more discrete points of potential influence on public space than almost any other city, state, or federal entity. Not making use of that influence is a luxury few cities can afford.

We believe there is much agencies can do, once they realize that placemaking is something they should and can care about. 

Should, because otherwise agencies are leaving their accessibility mission half done; there are no great places, and indeed places have no value to us, without a way to access them. Transit agencies must acknowledge they are already inextricably tied to place. Public transit itself is public space. Every origin and destination of any transit network exists in physical space, in or connected to communities of people. Even the vehicles themselves are public spaces. Transit agencies, as part of the public realm, have an obligation to make that space better. Better, meaning friendlier and more useful to people. A sad bus pole with an unreadable sign isn’t just a bad architectural feature, it’s anti-placemaking.

Can, because we believe that even the lightest touch can be effective. Real placemaking is more about shared values than fancy paving treatments. We’re taking this to heart at the MBTA, using lightweight digital tools as a bridge to more physical and enduring investment in transit agency placemaking. Our agency has over 8,000 individual bus stops, and we hope to ultimately touch every single one to help make the public spaces around them into better places for people.

As two officials of a distressed public agency facing down the consequences of a long history of underinvestment, we are acutely sensitive to the need to get things done on a budget. We are also technologists, which brings us to the idea and potential of digital placemaking for mobility infrastructure: the repurposing of web, mobile, and other software and hardware tools to bring new value to the places around the physical nodes and artifacts of the transit system.

Digital tools are often limited to a public engagement role in placemaking. We believe that they can play an important role in transit agency efforts to make its physical infrastructure work better for people. Here’s why:

Digital placemaking is lightweight: You can digitally placemake with the tools your agency already has. A website or mobile app, a data feed, digital signage, third party apps, all can be repurposed to placemake.

Digital placemaking is fast: You can prototype a placemaking initiative in a web app in a day. With digital mapping or augmented reality, there may even be no direct physical connection to any hardware.

Digital placemaking is cheap: Physical things and top-down planning cost time and money to prepare and install. Software isn’t free to develop either, but it’s certainly faster and easier and therefore cheaper to experiment with a digital product. We already work in a beta-first, prototyping mindset: doing so for placemaking purposes is a natural extension.

Digital placemaking is versatile: There’s an app for almost every conceivable need on the world’s app stores. We can turn a digital tool to almost any placemaking need: creating community, providing access to activities, provide opportunities for fun and rest, and giving a unique digital badge to every neighborhood.

Digital placemaking is what we already do: While we’re working on mostly software products, all our software is focused on making the experience of the physical system better. It’s a short step from there to thinking about the experience of place that our riders have.

Perhaps most importantly, digital placemaking for mobility is an easy entry point for transit agencies that are uncomfortable with or unwilling to extend investment into the physical environments and communities around their infrastructure. For a transit agency without the budget, it’s impossible to argue for hundreds of thousands of dollars to revamp a bus stop, waiting area, and curb as part of a placemaking initiative. It’s a lot more possible to deploy a digital presence at that bus stop, such as through an augmented reality app, in a way that meets an important service need. Perhaps the app is primarily about orienting the rider to which services are coming next, but it could also work harder to placemake by communicating directions to the nearest barber shop, how to get to City Hall, or even layer on historical context to a view of the street.

As technology specialists at the MBTA, it’s not strictly in our remit to get involved in traditional placemaking. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what we’re doing with some of our ongoing projects.

PATI: Before our time, our System Wide Accessibility group, led by Laura Brelsford, initiated the Plan for Accessible Transportation Infrastructure (affectionately known as PATI).  PATI involves the intense surveying of all the MBTA bus stops and nearby places, including measurement, pictures, and professional judgement on the accessibility of stops to the public, and particularly to those of our customers with additional accessibility needs. The effort has been mammoth, and is leading to all sorts of projects, from reinvesting in the physical infrastructure of key stops, to removing stops that are unused and unusable, to updating the locations of our stops in our open data platforms for where they actually are, to collecting contextual clues for Blindways to help people with visual impairments find a bus stop.

Beacons: In Watertown and Cambridge, we’re partnering with the Perkins School for the Blind to augment the Perkins Blindways app. We’ve installed bluetooth beacons on two bus lines, and are integrating them with BlindWays, which is already a fantastic tool for layering on rich contextual directions to app-based navigation. This integration lets the user know how close they are to a bus stop. Not only is this good for transit ridership (more accessible stops means more riders carried), it also makes the street environment around our bus stops a little bit more friendly, a little bit safer, and a good deal more useful for people. If it works the way we hope it will, we’ll be able to expand this initiative across the system. And we’re building it as an open platform first; once we get traction, we plan to open up the SDK so that all developers can use these beacons.

What might digitally connected citizens do with them? We imagine that they’ll:

  • Make accessibility the default standard in all apps
  • Improve geolocation and findability of bus stops
  • Trigger local notifications about community meetings or block parties
  • Send back estimates of how many people are waiting and for how long
  • Find uses that we haven’t even thought of yet

Digital signs: We’re exploring the deployment of e-Ink displays at outlying Green Line stations and bus stops around the network. While we can install real-time displays of bus arrivals information in some larger shelters, the ubiquitous pole-and-sign combo presents more challenges. The cost of installing digital signage is not in the signs themselves, it is in the civil work to get power and communications to a far flung site. e-Ink is lower cost and potentially more durable than other screen technologies, and can open up a world of displayable content for a bus stop. Remember, we have 8,000 bus stops: imagine a screen at your stop, providing not only useful onward journey information but also community-generated content to make you look up, around, and into the local neighborhood.

We’re just getting started. For us, placemaking is not our core objective, but we’ve come to see that placemaking is as much the point of what we do as our broader efforts to improve the transportation experience. We can’t pour as much concrete as our city partners who own the streets and most of the bus stops, or even other departments at the T. But with the right tools, we can offer a digital presence almost everywhere, at very low cost, to help make our cities places worth living in.

Meet the Author

David Block-Schachter

Chief technology officer, MBTA
Meet the Author
How can you help? Spread the word in your city.  Tell your elected officials and all your friends that we need to invest in infrastructure and technology at the same time,  And, if you’re a technologist, come join our team.

David Block-Schachter is the chief technology officer and Beaudry Kock is head of product at the MBTA.

  • J Powers

    “come join our team” …should be posted with a word of warning, Charlie Baker and most of the leadership at the T could care less about “the team”

  • Alfie Tennyson

    Perhaps I could be more excited about this if it wasn’t for my first hand experience of the MBTA bus system. Well over 50% of the T’s core ridership exists in areas where past bus stop improvements has only been met with rapid vandalism.
    The dirty secret for the T and the state is this: The T’s biggest problem isn’t the Governor or the T employees. It is the consumers. You fix NOTHING until you address that truth.