The more riders who use a bus stop, the larger and more amenity-filled the stop should be. That’s the message behind this nifty infographic from Arlington, showing the basic types of stops, and when they’re appropriate.

Image from Arlington County

Much of the outcry over Arlington’s “million-dollar bus stop” seemed to stem from the widespread belief that all bus stops are the same. But while the Arlington stops did benefit from a redesign, the general idea that “a bus stop is a bus stop is a bus stop” is wrong. Actually there are several different kinds, appropriate in different times and places.

For very small stops, used by less than about 40 passengers per day, simple “flag pole” bus stops are perfectly fine.

Bigger stops serving up to a couple hundred people per day need a little extra space for waiting, and at that level it’s nice to provide basic amenities like seats and trash cans, so transit agencies step it up with sheltered bus stops.

But what if there’s even more passengers? What if you’re getting as many riders as a light rail or BRT station, on the order of a few hundred or even a thousand per day?

At that level you naturally need a station comparable to light rail or BRT, bigger with more waiting area. And it makes sense to introduce even more amenities that can speed up service or improve the customer experience, like high curbs for level boarding, off-vehicle fare payment, real-time arrival displays, and bike racks.

Meanwhile, when hundreds or thousands of riders a day are using a single space, it’s no longer just a bus stop. At that point, it’s a highly-visible civic gathering spot.

And as important it is to provide transit riders with attractive facilities, it’s also important even for non-transit riders that our civic spaces be attractive. Thus it’s appropriate for large transit stations to look nicer (and cost more, and last longer) than a row of mass produced bus shelters.

The continuum of transit stations doesn’t even stop there. For more than 1,000 riders per day you start to need entire buildings with space for multiple vehicles, bathrooms, a staffed information desk, and more. Or you need bus subway stations, which are vastly more expensive still.

What’s appropriate on Columbia Pike?

With about 16,000 bus riders per day, Columbia Pike is already the busiest bus corridor in Virginia. Buses on Columbia Pike carry more riders each day than the Norfolk light rail, and about as many as either of VRE’s two commuter rail lines. It’s a serious transit corridor.

And it’s only going to get more serious. With the streetcar, transit ridership on Columbia Pike is expected to approximately double, to over 30,000 per day by 2030.

That’s a lot of riders. That’s considerably more than any bus route in DC, and about 1/3 the expected 2030 ridership of the Metrorail Silver Line.  That many riders need and deserve good facilities. 

What’s odd about the debate in Arlington is that everyone seems to agree Columbia Pike needs vastly improved transit, but people are outraged about the costs anyway. Opponents to the planned streetcar aren’t saying “don’t build anything.” They’re saying “build BRT instead.”

Putting aside the fact that full BRT is impossible because Arlington isn’t allowed to dedicate Columbia Pike’s lanes for transit, these expensive bus stations are exactly what BRT looks like. No matter whether you favor streetcar or bus, big transit stations are necessary.

And no matter where you go, they’re expensive. For example, BRT stations in Eugene, OR run $445,000, while in Grand Rapids, MI they’re $662,000. Norfolk’s light rail stations are $762,000.

Naturally, Arlington isn’t building these larger transit stations at every bus stop. They’re only going in at a handful of the busiest stops, where passenger capacities meet that threshold of a few hundred per day, or soon will.

For example, according to Arlington Transit Bureau Chief Steve Del Giudice, the eastbound Walter Reed station is currently hosting about 525 boardings per day (that’s boardings only, not including alightings). Assume it doubles with the streetcar, and Walter Reed will soon have over 1,000 boardings per day.

That’s half as many boardings as the Arlington Cemetery Metro station. Far too many for a simple shelter.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Burke.