Why We Need a Bus Shelter at Every Stop

Too many bus stops in America look like this one in Suffolk County, N.Y.
Too many bus stops in America look like this one in Suffolk County, N.Y.

Activists in Buffalo and Cincinnati — fed up with the sorry bus stops in their cities — have started installing benches on their own.

While it’s inspiring to see city residents take this matter into their own hands, it raises the question: Why are governments leaving it to charity groups to provide basic infrastructure for bus riders? A wealthy nation such as the United States certainly has the money to add safe, comfortable bus stop environments.

We certainly find it for roads: Atlanta is spending almost $1 billion on a single interchange. Seattle’s new highway tunnel cost $3.3 billion. Texas is spending $5.2 billion on a 180-mile third outerbelt for Houston.

Yet elderly bus riders must wait in the rain in the mud?

What would it cost to put a bus shelter at every bus stop in America? Not very much, according to our — very rough — estimates. We could install a basic bus shelter, with a roof and a place to sit, at every bus stop in the U.S. for an estimated $2.85 to $5.2 billion, according to our own analysis.

Here’s how we came up with that estimate. The data folk at Transit App say there are about 519,000 bus stops total in the 100 cities they service — which is a good baseline number.

A bus shelter can cost about $5,500 for a basic model, according to a recent example from Cleveland. Detroit officials spend about $6,000 to buy and install a bus shelter with a bench and a roof. In Louisville, transit officials say it costs about $10,000. Columbus, Ohio has spent up to $12,000, according to the Central Ohio Transit Authority.

Activists in Buffalo have taken to installing these makeshift bus benches. The richest country in the world should be able to afford bus benches and shelters. Photo: Jason Thorne/Twitter
Activists in Buffalo have taken to installing these makeshift bus benches. The richest country in the world should be able to afford bus benches and shelters. Photo: Jason Thorne/Twitter

So on the low end, adding 519,000 bus shelters would cost $2.85 billion. At the high end, say a $10,000 bus shelter, the cost rises to $5.2 billion.That assumes no ad revenue from the shelters to offset the cost.

The $2.85- to $5.2-billion cost would obviously be spread out over many years, so in terms of national transportation spending, it’s peanuts. But to people like Brenda in the  video below by the Cincinnati transit advocacy group, Better Bus Coalition, a safe and comfortable place to wait for the bus is basic government service, like water.

In the clip, Brenda, a 66-year-old that suffers from rheumatoid arthritis in her knees, says it’s very painful for her to stand at bus stops that have no bench.

Better Bus Coalition has been making benches and installing them around Cincinnati at the cost of about $30 a piece.

Here’s another video from New Orleans, showing how a bunch of seniors were forced to wait in the rain every day, until they successfully lobbied their transit agency for a bare-bones shelter.

What does it say about our country that these are the facilities we’re offering bus riders like Ms. Sonja and Brenda, when every single one of them could have a safe, comfortable place to wait for far less than the cost of a single highway project in Texas? The problem of bad bus stops is not about money. It’s about the status and class of users and our perverse and outdated federal transportation spending formulas.

  • JZ71

    The capital cost is only a small part of the equation. Ongoing maintenance, everything from washing the windows and taking out the trash to repairing damage from vandalism all are costs that some entity needs to cover. And when it comes to the transit agency, it gets down to choosing between maintaining multiple small structures OR putting service out on the street and actually accomplishing their primary mission of moving people – dollars are finite!

  • carl jacobs

    Have you factored in the cost of rebuilding these stops every time you change the bus routes? Because the bus routes I remember from 2006 only vaguely resemble the bus routes in place today.

  • And the cost of maintaining interchanges and other high ticket roadway capacity projects also dwarfs the cost of maintaining bus stops, so again, a shift of priorities would solve that issue as well. Frequently, the cost of new roadway capacity projects is essentially infinite.

  • Webster

    I actually don’t think it’s the cost…
    It’s likely moreso the question of 1) who’s responsible for maintaining stops (usually municipalities, not agencies) and 2) how much ROW exists to put in a shelter (ie. sidewalk width, utility poles, parking/travel lanes, easements, etc).

    It’s probably would make for an interesting study…but I think cost isn’t really the main issue to focus on here: Maybe bus stops should be like other utilities where local governments can simply demand easements to establish necessary space to add shelters and other facilities?

  • FrankinVA

    About 25 years ago as part of a study of bus operations in mid-sized east coast city I proposed adding a map and timetable at each bus stop. At a meeting the local transit policy board asked how much this might cost. I said about $100,000 based on 100 per stop. I was then asked how many riders this would add. I could not answer , so the group responded that $100,000 was too much if there was no certain return on the investment. In retrospect I should have noted that no agency would build a highway and fail to mount directional signs in spite of not knowing how many more drivers would use the road if sings were added. So often the basic features that make transit usable are ignored because no specific ridership gain can be demonstrated. Adding comfort for exiting riders does not seem to merit consideration.

    Note that the University of Utah using funding from Utah DOT has done some valuable recent work showing that improving bus stop conditions does lead to an increase in ridership.

  • Ian

    I get it, but if I had $2.8b to $5.2b to spend on bus service in this country, stop shelters would be a pretty small portion of that spending.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Angie apparently doesn’t understand opportunity cost. So a stop that has single digit on/offs should get a shelter? As opposed to spending that money where it has a greater impact? And how about space? Having worked for a transit provider handling stop amenities, there are plenty of stops that don’t have enough space for ADA sidewalk requirements and a bench, much less a shelter.

    Typical from someone that has never had to actually do the hard work and deal with real-world constraints. Sitting on the sidelines and sniping about all the deficiencies is much easier than actually being a practitioner.

  • AuggieEast

    No doubt we need many more bus shelters, but I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to put them up at every single bus stop. I actually take the bus for over 90% of my local trips, so I’ve waited at many bus stops. Some are on very quiet streets in suburban neighborhoods where you’d be building the shelter basically on someone’s lawn. You can expect huge opposition from the neighbors, worried that the shelter will attract the homeless and antisocial activity. So why even worry about putting them up at every bus stop when there are plenty that need them and are appropriate. Just start there.

  • Louis

    Many bus stops have zero or one rider and the cost analysis forgets maintenance costs, repairs from vandalism and wear and tear. This is why Communism failed. One person makes a grand, sweeping, also rather idiotic pronouncement that there should be one shelter at every stop in the country, and the country goes about doing it, even though it’s a tremendous cost and waste of money. For instance, the stop that has 500 riders a day gets one shelter, the basic Communist Model 1 for $5K. The stop that has 0 to one rider a day gets the Model 1 for $5K. Explain that sh*t to me? The beauty of the free market is that resources are designated where resources are desired. People vote with their money, and yes, while there are countless cultural distortions that make this unfair, it’s the least unfair system invented so far. Communism is one of the MOST unfair where a small group of mostly male party members get to decide what EVERYONE gets regardless of whether they want it or not. But even a poor person gets a voice in the free market and spend his paycheck on booze or a technical degree or corporate chain restaurants where profits go overseas or local restaurants where profits stay in the community. Even the poor get to vote. With Communism, the poor get zero votes. Again, the free market system is not perfect, but it’s a system where at least the poor get to vote on something with their money. And if you want to know why the poor are poor, you can start asking questions about why it’s so restrictive to build affordable, small housing units or why it’s against the law to open your own business without onerous licensing and training requirements that have nothing to do with public safety.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Many roads have zero cars and and the cost analysis forgets maintenance costs, repairs from vandalism and wear and tear. This is why Communism failed.

  • nlpnt

    The shelters can be made so they can be moved quickly and easily in a pickup truck with minimal dismantling.

  • I can only conclude that they don’t really want us to ride the buses.

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