Commuting by bus has changed little since our grandparents’ days – we wait in line at a bus shelter and board a bus that takes us on a set route to our destination. A digital timetable with an approximate time for the next arrival is about as 21st Century as the average bus stop gets.
For electronics giant Philips, the bus stop is due a radical overhaul. Instead of buses sticking to the same old route every day, why can’t they adapt according to their passengers’ needs, asked the company’s designer Cheaw Hwei Low, who is based in their Singapore design studio. Why can’t bus stops themselves be physically transformed, and move away from the static shelters we are used to seeing on our streets?
So, Low has transported the concept of the bus stop to street light posts and even the smartphone we carry in our pocket. Low’s vision has street lights becoming mini bus stops by integrating bluetooth technology, which connects with transport and smartphone apps – possibly bringing to an end the sight of empty buses ploughing along set, fixed routes.
The Philips redesign has gone far beyond the physical and has completely redesigned the actual process; bus providers would be able to react in real-time to the demands of paying passengers. Using an app, passengers could mark where they want to go from and where they want to end up – with the bus company working out possible routes based on the current demand.
Low talks BBC Future through the concept behind his redesign – one he thinks could radically change the way the population moves around a city.
Why choose the bus stop?
We asked ourselves what is an object that we use and come across every day but do not give much attention, yet it is something we share as a common experience? We hit upon the bus stop, a universal facility seen in all cities, be they mature, developing or underdeveloped. But public transport touches on many aspects of lifestyle, city function, societal behaviour, public-policy making and infrastructure. This makes it complicated, and at the same time interesting to look at beyond its immediate form and function. It became clear we could not look at it merely as a bus stop, but as a total function system, which led us to reframe the problem.
What are the flaws in the original design?
The bus stop is only a part of a total bus transportation system... a fixed-route bus transportation system. So it was logical to look into the system and not just the bus stop. Solving the bus-stop part will not change the system, but we knew we could use it as a trigger point to improving the fixed-route system.
We discussed the benefits and limitations of the fixed-route system – it's clear such a system provided consistency in time and place (to get on and off), and to a certain extent convenience, but not completely. Flexibility is not what a fixed-route and fixed-time bus service system can offer. We have all experienced times when the bus is very empty or extremely packed, which means efficiency is best optimised at the bus-route level, but not individual bus level, since that bus is unable to respond to dynamic demand and traffic situations immediately. We all have all been in situations when there are only a few passengers in the bus and yet, the bus still has to plough through the entire fixed route, picking up no passengers along the way. The motivation was how to optimise the bus service by allowing the passengers and bus drivers to respond immediately to dynamic demand and traffic situations, not unlike a taxi that you can flag anywhere, anytime, and it will take you directly to your destination.