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How might we design better bus stop experiences in Toronto?

bus_stopOne of the most overlooked urban experiences is the process of waiting for a bus. Often placed in out of the way places, almost as an after-thought, bus stops can be very much unloved spaces. They exist primarily to serve one function; and while there is some minor thought around comfort (bus shelters and benches) these features are by no means universal and even this does not necessarily mitigate the experience of the surrounding environment that may exist: for example being next to an expressway or under a complex series of pedestrian unfriendly overpasses.

Yet the Toronto bus network and, by extension, bus stops are the workhorses of the transit system. With 8,721 bus stops city-wide, buses transport 10 million more riders per year than the subway and reach every single neighbourhood and major street in the city. Our design challenge was thus: could improving the bus stop experience help improve the commuting experience?

We set out to find out. Working together with a team from Civic Tech Toronto including Vicki Long, Zaid Khan, Rose D’Souza, Iliana Sergeev and Paul Erlichman we decided to prototype a design intervention at a particular bus stop in Toronto. We worked through a human centred design process to arrive (pun intended) at a potential tactical solution.

From a human experience design perspective, looking at bus stops could be an excellent opportunity to test out and play around with different design techniques and methods. Among the many things we wanted to look into:

  • Piloting out ethnographic techniques. From observation to passenger counts – what works and how many resources do you need?
  • What does the user experience means for a simple every day task like waiting for the bus? How do the users see this event? How would this information be collected?
  • How would Torontonians react to prototypes in unexpected spaces? There aren’t many examples in Toronto of this actually happening outside of official government processes. And would people be willing to give us instant feedback?
  • Test out scale. How big can the project be with the resources that we have?
  • Pilot out data collection methodologies and data analysis. There are many techniques from surveys to interviews – do they work well here on the street in Toronto?
  • Understand what this process feels like. There are very few case studies of scaling UX-type processes up to a city level and we wanted to know how that would work.

The Stop

1The bus stop chosen was the one beside Dufferin Grove Park, on the northbound 29 Dufferin bus route, across from Dufferin Mall. This stop was chosen for a couple of reasons: it’s a busy stop, on a frequent service route and there was a lot of extra space around it for a possible intervention. It was also familiar to many of the team members and the Dufferin bus is often cited as one of the worst in terms of service reliability.

Our team started out by conducting some user research on the current state of the stop and what passengers thought about it. We created a survey and approached people waiting at the stop over the course of 3 days at different times. We also observed what people did. We discovered the following:

  • The majority were frequent users of the stop
  • Users of the bus shelter were about 50%
  • Many cited the need for a larger shelter (especially in the winter when it is very busy) and more seating in the shelter
  • Most people felt safe at the stop, but less so at night
  • 73% felt that the bus service levels were adequate
  • 75% used the bus stop time info screen to learn when the next bus arrived
  • There was a desire for more lighting, higher bus frequencies, having the bus stop pole closer to the shelter and more orderly boarding
  • Most people were OK with the bus stop as is
  • Many people carried bags of groceries from the No Frills across the street
  • Most common activities were: checking for the next bus, checking mobile phones, reading or just standing
  • Path conflicts were common due to the width of the sidewalk when large volumes of passengers were boarding or alighting
  • A concern was the slope behind the stop leading into the park as a potential safety issue

The team then developed a list of insights based on these results:

  • Bus stop safety is a major issue at night
  • Seating and places to rest/place bags are important
  • It is generally easy to access the stop
  • Waiting at the stop can be quite an impersonal experience with most people engaged with self-absorbed activities such as checking mobile phones with very little social interaction
  • Bus service levels is top of mind and frequency is a major concern

With these insights in mind, the team then worked through an ideation session to determine the potential problem we wanted to solve and the intervention solution that we might try. The final design question we came up with revolved around how we might improve the social and spatial interaction at the bus stop? We believed that this issue captured much of what we heard and could lead to a good intervention solution that could address much of what passengers thought were problems.

After a round of ideation on different concepts, we settled on creating a colourful milk-crate bench which would be placed in pods around the stop and shelter. Inspired by similar designs of people using milk crates to create lively seating and storage around the world, we felt that a bench could help address a few of the identified issues: more seating, a place to put things down (like groceries) and the potential for more social interaction by introducing play through allowing people to move the crates around (since we did not tie them down). Plus milk crates are easy to access and would allow us to fail fast and affordably. The team then worked to procure and paint the crates and pinned down the date of Jun 26 2016 as our Intervention Day.

So what happened?    

We arrived in the morning around 10:30am to set things up. With us we had 12 crates (arranged as bench pods in groups of 4), 3 stools, and 3 cushions. Our stop was laid out in the following way – with the shelter at the south end and the stop pole (where the bus stops) at the north. In between there is a rubbish bin.

2Our first setup was to place the stools near the bus stop and the pods closer to the bus shelter.  We thought that more people would want to try the stools while they waited. Initially, as the mall across the street had not yet opened, traffic was slow, but a few occasional people would use the stools or try the crates. We put the crates down and observed from afar. We placed an “informer” at the stop itself – one of our team who would sit on a crate so as to “use” it and observe what others were doing.

As the morning turned into the afternoon, we started to notice some trends in what people did with the crates:

  • More children than adults would attempt to sit on the crates and be curious about them. Many adults would see the crates but would give them a pass or ignore their presence
  • A few children actually moved the crates/stool around
  • Once the mall got going, more people came by and we started to see people put their bags down on the crates/stools
  • Among the more common activities included checking mobile phones, talking on the phone, just sitting and putting bags of coffee cups down to grab bus fare or checking a mobile phone
  • It was a hot and sunny, and the bus stop had little shade so many people would either duck into the shelter or try to find a tree nearby
  • One person thought the crates were a giveaway and we had to intervene to stop him from taking them

7As the day wore on, we started to play around with the setup of the crates. We first moved them to be closer together beside the shelter and later as an entire row in front of the shelter. Interestingly, this setup attracted the most usage and the most people wanting to use the crates.

We talked to some of the people who waited at the stop and the response was generally very positive. Most people appreciated the intervention and commented how there are not usually enough places to sit. More than anything, the crates invited curiosity from bus passengers as well as passers-by.

The project was definitely a success and we were happy to have made it come to life. It met its core objectives of adding seating, places to put things down and invited some social interaction. Some of the lessons we learned from the intervention:

  • The flexibility of the intervention design allowed for people to use the crates as they saw fit – whether to put things down or sit down themselves. The design also validated our initial hypothesis about
  • The project demonstrates that people are willing to engage further at bus stops and adding things that are out of the ordinary can help change the experience at the stop
  • Should definitely take into account the weather (hot and sunny day) as well as time of day & surroundings (wasn’t busy until the mall was open across the street)
  • There were some people who did not seem comfortable using the crates as they tried it out and it seemed unstable to them (the crates are light and can be tipped over if leaned on). Finding a way to make them more stable should be considered.
  • It might be worthwhile to consider some signage to mention what this is and why we are doing it. Doing so would also help with gathering feedback as people might be more willing to share their opinions once they know what is going on.
  • Keeping it simple helps – the project team were all volunteers and having a simple design made it easy to create, plan, setup and take down.

From a human experience design perspective, we definitely met some of our objectives and learned a few new things:

  • Ethnographic research and data collection takes fair amount of human resource time: As this was an all-volunteer project, the process was only as good as the amount of time that people had available to put into it and so we could not capture everything that we wanted to do.
  • Yet data is so crucial to the HXD process – ensuring that there is enough data from enough users to derive insights so that you can build a good prototype is very important. So resourcing HXD properly is an issue.
  • In addition, many urban spaces (such as bus stops) do not have currently have datasets on user experience. As such data has to be collected from scratch and it will require more time in order to start to see trends and patterns
  • As there isn’t much precedent for collecting this data, we had to experiment with utilizing different data collection strategies in order to see which ones would work better
  • While desktop analysis and insight generation is an important part of the process, we realized that like the world of UX design, building cheap prototypes and putting them out provides the best way to verify insights and collect more data in order to build a more desirable and robust prototype.

4So what’s next? We plan to review our findings and see what other case studies we can embark on. We hope to forward these findings to the TTC.

Many thanks again to the entire team who made this a reality! We look forward to working with you again in the near future to create some more fun human experience design projects.