Downtown’s transit stations: from wastelands to place-lands

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The warm weather has accelerated our annual rediscovery of the outdoors in downtown and the glory of patios, food trucks and sunshine. That is unless you were a member of the 40 percent of downtown workers that walk, bike, or ride transit to work throughout the winter —  in which case you’ve been spending time outside all year. Despite making up almost half of downtown’s daytime population, the daily arrival and departure points for these tens of thousands of people are remarkably unwelcoming. 

It’s not that all of these transit stops are ugly, dirty or barren — though many are — it’s that so many of them just don’t provide much value to users or surrounding properties. In Christopher Alexander’s “Pattern Language” (a step by step guide to city-building and placemaking for laymen and professionals alike) he notes that bus stops are an essential part of a city’s fabric, but are often dreary when they are modular units, placed without thought to how they interact with their surroundings and the experience of those waiting there.

This certainly rings true for most of our bus stops in the downtown core. The worst being those facilities along 7th Street that serve the buses carrying passengers to North Minneapolis and Philips/Powderhorn neighborhoods. Here, the stops with some of the highest ridership offer (essentially) no seating, protection from the sun/wind/cold, maps, or adjacent shops to purchase news, snacks, etc. It’s no wonder that there are so many reports of negative behavior at these stops; the experience is so bad it drives away everyone except for those that have to be there for the buses.

But the poor experiences at bus stops extend to the spiffy and newly installed stations, like along 2nd Avenue, as well. Sure they offer real time arrival information and new, semi-heated, glass enclosed shelters – but they certainly aren’t interesting places to be. The shelters are small, the shade features often misplaced, and they are boring. Waiting for something, whether for an appointment, food, the bus, or otherwise, is one of the most stressful experiences of our day. Studies have shown that humans perceive time to move two to 10 times slower than reality when waiting for something to occur.

Certainly a clean facility that protects riders from the elements, with useful and timely information should be the bare minimum for any transit facility. But great cities turn their transit stops into great places, full of life, broad usefulness, and joy.

Turning Transit Stops into Places Where People Want to Be

What can be done to transform our bus and light rail stops into places where people want to be, bringing joy and value to riders, visitors, businesses, and property owners alike?

While Metro Transit should be lauded for their recent commitment to expand the number of shelters throughout the system, this won’t fix the fundamental problem that almost all of the facilities are ill-adapted to their surroundings and provide no other forms of utility for non-transit riders.

We shouldn’t expect the folks at Metro Transit to know and understand the idiosyncratic needs of every microenvironment around each transit stop. Nor would it be simple for them to apply a uniform maintenance procedure to facilities that were adapted uniquely to each intersection. These factors point to an ultimate solution that re-thinks the way we design, fund, and maintain our public realm: putting the design and care of small transit facilities in the hands of the communities and riders themselves.

An ideal set up could have Metro Transit establish a handful of pilot project sites chosen based on the ability of capacities of local groups that came forward. For each site, Metro Transit would ensure quality control over the process: that riders, businesses and property owners drive the process, that each station meets minimum requirements (shelter, seating, structural integrity, etc.), and that there is an accredited entity with proper insurance and capacity (non-profit, adjacent small business, etc.) that commits to build and maintain the station up to an agreed upon standard.

Metro Transit could in-turn use whatever funds they otherwise would have spent on a standard off-the-shelf shelter and its annual maintenance cost and transfer those funds to the local group that has been pre-approved by the agency.

This process would unlock a tremendous amount of creative energy throughout our downtown, city, and region. Eventually, every corner with a bus stop would have its own “branded” station, perfectly attuned to local custom, utility, and whimsy.

Applied more broadly, this sort of place-based approach would make our downtown and city more vibrant, safe, and attractive. Empowering countless smaller actors to make an infinite number of small positive changes is a far more effective, affordable, and humane approach than embarking on a bland and expensive mega-project.

I look forward to exploring these concepts further with readers in this space going forward!

Max Musicant is the Founder and Principal of the award-winning, Minneapolis-based placemaking and public space management firm The Musicant Group.