Gimme shelter as we wait for fewer buses
When I saw City Hall calling for new Bangkok bus stop designs, I was excited. The voices of regular people like millions of bus commuters would finally be heard. But when I went through the competition's requirements, I wasn't sure if there was anything worth celebrating.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) wanted the "New Generation Bangkok Bus Stop" competition -- the winner of which is to be announced next February -- to change the bus stop's image from a "shelter for sad people" to a "(practical) shelter for people".
According to the design brief, in the past, bus stop designs were entirely copied from other countries, without any adjustments for local needs. Now the agency has conducted an online survey, in which almost 700 respondents expressed their frustrations over the existing and impractical bus stops.
This represents a challenge for the BMA when making the new bus stop "Bangkok-belonging", that is, accommodating local lifestyles and needs and making users feel like they belong.
The BMA has also claimed in the brief that the competition, which resulted from the survey, is a good start for the agency to listen to the public and create infrastructure designed according to their needs. The number of respondents was too small to represent millions of bus commuters, though.
The requirements are divided into five categories; points will be equally divided for each. The first is convenience; the shelter should be able to accommodate crowds of commuters and for a period of about 30 minutes. Second is safety; the structure should be weatherproof and should not contain blind spots that make it a boon for thieves. The surrounding areas could also have surveillance cameras.
Third is site appropriateness; the facility should be easily accessed and shouldn't block the walkway while being able to fit Bangkok's pavements, many of which are as narrow as 1.5 metres. Shade is also a must. User-friendliness is the fourth; the bus stop should be informative, providing such data as bus routes and timetables. Creativity is the last; the design should represent Bangkok's identity.
The winning design will have to convince both experts and the public, as 80% of the score will come from representatives from the public and private sectors as well as civic groups; the rest from the general public.
This is not the first effort by the BMA to improve bus stops. In the last two years, it's adopted a user-friendly bus stop sign, designed by May Day Group. At the end of July, the agency also introduced "smart bus shelters" in some busy areas. The first 350 smart shelters, with USB ports, free Wi-Fi and CCTV, and some with LED screens, will be completed by next year.
At a glance, it seems the BMA has invested a lot of effort into modernising the city's infrastructure. But is this an attempt to conceal the flaws in public transport, resulting from the lack of synergy between state agencies and inefficient city development plans? (However, I'm always surprised how efficient state agencies can become when it comes to allocating buses, barricades and containers in just a few hours to block the way of protesters.)
I won't discuss if a Bangkok identity is needed for the shelter, but user-friendliness is a must. And that is not easy; imagine bus stops that fit into the 1.5m wide pavements, the typical size of pavements as the BMA give more space for roads to accommodate cars.
Do we need these convenient facilities, as commuters are likely to wait longer as the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority's (BMTA) rehab plan will see fewer bus routes, with the existing bus fleet halved.
Bus stop shelters I've used in many countries are very simple, with three-sided shelters most of the time or enclosed facilities in some cold countries -- to keep users out of the rain, heat or cold.
The most advanced technology at the shelter is often a screen with bus routes, timetables and approaching buses.
The most advanced I've seen is in Seoul where 10 smart bus shelters were introduced in August. The shelters are equipped with screens which give the timetable of approaching buses, air-conditioning, and free Wi-Fi, as well as protection against sunlight and dust. And to better cope with the pandemic, head-to-toe disinfectant spray is provided.
Most bus shelters are designed very simply -- we are not supposed to spend too much time there. If we can check bus schedules and the bus is punctual, is that not enough? Do we need fancy shelters with free Wi-Fi?
I'm sure the winning design -- likely to be equipped with USB ports and Wi-Fi -- will make the long wait pleasurable. Probably, some contestants may go as far as adding a "co-working space". And given the BMTA rehab plan, so many commuters will have to spend more time waiting at these bus stops.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.