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At the Bus Stop: design interventions for waiting

A Research and Design Case Study

While exploring how people navigate public spaces in Pittsburgh, we found that the wait at the bus stop was a frustrating experience for many people. Through design ethnography and participatory research, and bound by real-world constraints, we identified four key points of intervention in the environment—bus tracking, seating configuration, signaling arrival, and creating a sense of space—that might work in tandem to relieve some of this anxiety and make the wait for the bus stop a productive and social experience. 

Watch the video for a succinct overview of the proposed solution!

Team: Kate McLean and Lisa Otto.
Contributions: Exploratory research & design ethnography, insight assimilation & concept generation, rapid prototyping, proposal presentation

Advisor: Austin Lee


Through ethnographic studies at the bus stops in Pittsburgh, we identified three groups within which the diverse bus-riders could be classified.

Though loosely based on age, these groups are more clearly defined by their attitudes and level of comfort in the bus stop environment. 

The phone-dependents 

Generally Younger, very comfortable with technology,  but unfamiliar with their surroundings. Often visibly impatient and fidgety. Limited interaction within others, usually within the group, and about the schedule. "Did I miss it already?"

The dominant group At the center of social activities; Often the ones that initiated conversations. Comfortable with technology, but not heavily reliant on their phones. Usually familiar with the bus schedule, or comfortable with the wait time. "It'll come when it comes!"

The hyper-alert Very alert and watchful of their surroundings. Tend to isolate themselves, but interact with people within their group. Not adept with technology, but use analog methods of tracking the bus. 

These charts reflect the Dominant Group's comfort in the space. We tried to determine how we could replicate this comfort for the other two groups without disrupting the established social dynamics. 

Rapid Prototyping

Based on these insights, as well as observations from additional research trips, we generated some ideas for possible interventions in the space. We created very stripped-down, low-fidelity versions of our concepts, and went back to introduce these

artefacts into the space.

These included printed out maps, real-time information about bus schedules, a large chalk drawing of the bus routes on the sidewalk, and even chairs we set up both in sheltered and shelter-less bus stops.

Insights and implications Through this exercise, we confirmed (quite predictably) that scale played and important role, and that objects that seemed to not belong in the space were ignored completely. However, we also found that by taking control of the space, we disrupted the dynamic of the dominant group, and as a result, social interaction came to a standstill. We were able to identify this as the main implication for our design proposals.

Proposed Solutions

Based on our research, we created a design proposal that tackles the problem not through a single product, but rather as a set of interventions in the environment. These take into account existing patterns and behaviours of the user to enhance their experience, rather than try to create a new paradigm. 

Bus tracking We found that the large number of bus tracking apps available to riders contributed to the level of anxiety they experienced at the bus stop. Having a precise-to-the-minute countdown led to frustration at even a small deviation. A map that shows the location of the bus instead leaves the estimation of an ETA to the riders, encouraging a more forgiving attitude towards wait time. This map also begins to orient people to the illegible geography of Pittsburgh. 

Use of the space We saw that most interaction occured at bus stops with deeper shelters that could accomodate up to 5 people. Additional fluid seating that utlises the additional space around the bus stop and allows replication of the in-shelter dynamic. This flexible setup also acknowledges the tendency of riders to organically occupy the space around the bus stop.

Signalling Arrival Riders tended to ritually check their phones or move to the curb to check for an incoming bus. Using light and sound to signal the arrival of a bus might allow for riders to direct their attention to other more meaningful activities. Lighting would also help to identify bus shelters from a distance and create a sense of security at night. 

Belonging in a space Bus stops (specially those without shelters) lacking conspicuous markers are a challenge to find for new riders. Colourful patterns in the concrete create clear indicators for the space, and also allow for an unintrusive way to create a “proxy” shelter in locations where space is a constraint. These could be designed by artists and distinct to neighborhoods to foster a deeper sense of belonging to the community and add to the legibility of the city. 

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