Riding the Wave (transit shelters, San Francisco, USA)

It’s quite unusual for a city to come up with a bespoke design for its bus shelters. It does happen occasionally, although sometimes the bespoke designs are so similar to standard bus shelters that it hardly seems worth the bother. Transport for London and its shelter supplier Clear Channel called in industrial designers Lacock Gullam to develop the “Landmark London” shelter which has been appearing on the streets for the last few years (see here for more). Tellingly, however, Lacock Gullam says that the shelter builds on the existing (standard) Landmark range, and in fact it’s hard to say that it really represents a step forward in design. I suspect most bus passengers don’t even notice they’re in a bespoke model shelter.

So, when a city comes up with a bus shelter design that is actually different enough to be noticeable, it’s got to be worth a look. I think you’d agree that it’s hard not to spot that the following isn’t your typical bus shelter:

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Shelter on Market Street, San Francisco. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

This is San Francisco. Its transport network is often described as one of the most European in America. I think this means that it is as comprehensive and multi-modal as that which you might find in many European cities, although I harbour suspicions that the resemblance has as much to do with the fact that the city’s transport operates in changeable weather conditions which are all too similar to murky British weather.

San Francisco is a city that knows a thing or two about stylish transport. It has as part of its transit network a ridiculous (but quite, quite, wonderful) heritage streetcar line (Line F), many of the tramcars on it being PCCs rescued from other American cities. The PCC tramcars are extremely attractive, their design arising from a meeting of the leaders of various American streetcar companies (forming the Presidents Conference Committee, hence the PCC name). They wanted a standardised streetcar because bulk orders would save money, but also one that looked modern, stylish and attractive. In other words, although it was to be designed by committee, the last thing the PCC streetcar should do is look as though it was designed by committee. In a lesson that contemporary mass producers of public transport vehicles could still learn, I rather think they succeeded:

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A PCC streetcar in Castro, San Francisco. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

But back to San Francisco’s bus shelters. In fact, they’re transit shelters, serving not just buses but trolleybuses, as well as the historic streetcars on Line F (as you can see above), and San Francisco’s emblematic cable cars.

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This is a gratuitous photo of a San Francisco cable car at the route terminus California Street/Van Ness Avenue, to demonstrate that the modern San Francisco transit shelters serve the cable car routes. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

They feature transparent coloured roofs with a wavy design, and come in red and yellow versions. The prototype models appeared on street for the first time in 2009 (you can read America’s Metro magazine’s coverage of the story here), followed by production versions which have now spread across the entire city.

Just like in London, the shelters are supplied by Clear Channel, but the bespoke design is by a specialist architecture practice Lundberg Design, after the city’s public transport operator Muni decided it wanted something bespoke. Lundberg Design tried to create something which according to the company, “celebrates function, is visually arresting, and [is] specific to San Francisco.” That’s no mean ambition, and represents a very welcome level of concern to bring something extra to the often overlooked bus/transit shelter.

Particular design elements that Lundberg brought to the design included not just that eye-catching roof, but also a graded frit pattern (and yes, this was my first time encountering the concept of ‘frit patterns’) on the glass wall panels. The patter is supposed to mirror San Francisco’s (in)famous fogs: dense at the bottom and becoming clearer towards the top. The shelters are also intended to be more efficient and sustainable. They feature LED lighting which illuminates them beautifully at night, at considerably lower energy costs than traditional incandescent bulbs.

Photo by Matthew Roth [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Photo by Matthew Roth [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

The prototype shelters featured solar photovoltaic cells in the transparent roofs, efficient enough to feed excess power into the local grid, though it appears that not all the subsequent production shelters have actually got the solar PV cells fitted. The steelwork forming the main structure of the shelter contains 70% recycled content.

The distinctive roof, however, is the main selling point of these shelters. Lundberg Design suggests it can be thought of as “recalling a seismic shock wave, a pattern of surf, a ribbon in the wind, even an abstraction of the curvy MUNI logo.” If you’re not familiar with the logo of Muni, this might illustrate the final element of inspiration:

MUNI and BART logos, Market St, San Francisco (20 May 2014)
Muni and Bart logos seen on Market Street in San Francisco. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

You have to wonder whether seeking inspiration from seismic shockwaves is really in good taste. Yes, San Francisco is not too far from the San Andreas Fault, and the whole area is earthquake-prone. But with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake having killed around 3,000 people, I’m not sure seismic activity is something I’d be consciously linking to the design of a San Francisco transit shelter.

So what are these new shelters like to use? Well, when the sun is out, waiting inside one is quite an experience, as you are drenched in red or yellow light. It’s a most intriguing sensation.

Wave shelter roof, Market St, San Francisco (CA) (20 May 2014)
Under a shelter on Market Street, San Francisco. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

The design is clearly eminently adaptable. The modular steelwork means that shelters can be sized to fit the space available and expected passenger numbers. It also means that San Francisco’s challenging topography can be easily accommodated.

Wave shelter on Washington St, San Francisco (CA) (20 May 2014)
Shelter on Washington Street, San Francisco. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

That said, the steelwork is somewhat industrial-looking, with rather too many exposed bolts on view for my taste. In this, users might be reminded of Muni’s buses, which are also somewhat industrial in appearance, interior styling, and in terms of customer service delivery. The SFGate online news magazine suggests that they would rank in the Bottom 10 things about San Francisco and it’s just possible that, unusually, the city’s bus shelters might be more appealing than the buses which serve them.

Concerns have been raised about how weather-proof the shelters are (see here), but Lundberg Design tested the shelters to ensure that rain wouldn’t get inside provided it was falling at less than a 45° angle. Over that, and all bets are off, I suppose, and it does get pretty stormy in San Francisco from time to time.

San Francisco’s transit shelters are not, perhaps, a perfect design. They probably aren’t the bus shelter that completely cracks the problem of making on-street public transport waiting facilities look desirable and attractive, whilst also being practical and affordable for widespread use. But I like the fact that Muni actually tried to come up with something distinctive, rather than accepting the boring bus shelters so many world cities put up with. That’s something that’s worth emulating elsewhere.

how to find San Francisco’s transit shelters

It’s not too hard. Just go to San Francisco (a wonderful city and well worth a visit anyway), and the shelters are absolutely everywhere.

references and further reading

Details of the shelter contract through which the new shelters have been delivered, here

Materials specialist 3-form worked on the transit shelter canopies, see here

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