L.A. Designer: Lorcan O’Herlihy Rethinks Big Blue Bus Stops

Written by

Lorcan O’Herlihy designed the perky new Big Blue Bus stops that have started popping up in Santa Monica. But not all riders are happy. O’Herlihy addresses riders’ criticisms, tells us why well-designed infrastructure matters, and explains what we can expect when all 300+ of them roll out.

LOH at BBBThe success of LA’s public transit depends not only on the ease and efficiency of the system itself but the infrastructure that supports it, specifically the bus and metro stops that riders wait at, often in blazing sun, sometimes in the rain; typically standing, at times in the dark or alone.

Add to that “coolness,” a factor Metro’s Michael Lejeune says is essential in wooing LA’s drivers away from their cars — especially so for buses, which tend to be perceived as the lowest on the totem pole of public transit.

Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus considered all of this when it garnered transit funds to redesign its bus stops.

The City hired Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, known for striking condo buildings in West Hollywood, and tasked the firm with providing  “iconic, recognizable stops” for over 300 bus stops, says City Architect Miriam Mulder.

The result is a “kit-of-parts” of bold “Blue Dot” stops: blue “uni-strut” posts bearing a combination of real time signage (designed by graphic designer Bruce Mau), disc-like canopies, seats and a trash can. The number and configuration of elements depend on the stop’s location and volume of riders.

Now around fifty in a multi-phase rollout of the Big Blue Bus stops have appeared on Santa Monica’s streets; they are for “low-volume” sites (49 or fewer riders per day), and they feature five or six feet diameter canopies and one or two seats.

But in proof of the adage that no good deed goes unpunished, there has already been a barrage of complaints from locals — about the closeness and discomfort of the intentionally compact seats with their low backs, the distance between the overhead disc to the seats, and the “ugly” look of the stops.

Rendering of stop for high volume site (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

A World of Tree Roots and Utilities

Mulder, who also commissioned Santa Monica’s eye-catching replacement 2nd Street Parking Structure, explains the designs emerged from numerous public meetings, involving riders, drivers and local business owners and reflected the general preference for “a light touch, not big bulky shelters which block visibility of business storefronts or residential views.” The city also asked for a seat design that would “discourage sleeping and camping out on them” (a “defensive design” approach that has become common to most municipalities.)

She adds that the kit-of-parts is intended to be revised in response to public feedback and that already seating is being reconfigured to provide more of a buffer between strangers sitting side by side, and more support for the infirm when they get up from the seat. She emphasizes the breadth and complexity of the project, in view of the multiple locations, each with their own specific needs and obstacles, and, at times, route changes by Big Blue Bus.

Not only does each stop have to contend with above-ground issues like distance from storefronts or alignment of stops with bus doors, it has to navigate around what’s underneath the sidewalk, says Mulder: “It’s a whole world unto itself of tree roots and utilities. Certain things are a total surprise like ancient utility connections; or we may know a tree is relatively nearby but then we might find a tap root.”

After getting the lowdown from the City, DnA also talked to designer Lorcan O’Herlihy, top left, and found out just why those canopies are at a distance from the seats, the infrastructure system he most admires, and what he’s working on next.

Headquarters for Skid Row Housing Trust in downtown Los Angeles, designed by LOHA (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: You’ve designed condos, offices, and large mixed-use projects. Tell us about how you approached bus stops.

LOH: Let’s start with the scope. There are 49 high volume stops where there are 100 to 1,000 riders per day. There are 37 moderate volume stops (50-99 riders) and there are 200 lower volume stops.

In the original RFQ (Request for Qualifications), they had a variety of features per site but at the moderate and low-volume stops there was to be no shade canopy, partly due to the limitations of the sites themselves. They are pretty tight and small spaces. So what we did, working with the City of Santa Monica and Big Blue Bus, is we came to a solution to provide canopies on all the sites; that’s an awfully important component and is something I am very thrilled with.

DnA: The canopy is not directly above the seating. Why not?

LOH: At the low volume sites the concept was to establish what time of the day to put people in shade based on the movement of the sun. The strategy was to find the one point during the day when most people come to the shelter which might be eight in the morning or noon or three in the afternoon and that dictated the placement and location of the seats in relation to the shade.

That was the system we established to make the sites with one canopy work; otherwise you’d need 10-12 canopies at each site. Originially they were to have unistrut pole and no canopy at all.

There were many variables in addition to the orientation — for example, if a stop was in the front of a store you couldn’t have canopy blocking the view into their stores.

Needless to say there were numerous meetings and outreach to riders, to business owners, to City Council officials, a lot of stakeholders; we held 14 neighborhood meetings because when you are building over 300 bus stops you are looking at the whole city.

One of the other interesting things was they really wanted this solution to enhance the streetscape. In a sense they wanted it to be a solution where people would know exactly where the bus stop was and that’s why they are called the Blue Dots. In my opinion the US, in terms of these marginal infrastructure projects, doesn’t bring much design to bus stops. If you go to Europe you see strong design.

I am interested in these marginalized elements of the cityscape like transit stops and billboard structures.


DnA: What would you say to those who say we don’t care about design, we just want something functional?

LOH: Well, remember there was meant to be no shade at most sites and we added shade at every site, even if at low-volume sites it was just 20 square feet. We spread the wealth through all 300 with this simple pole structure and canopies. Big Blue Bus were very much in support; they built two mock-ups in their facilities and showed them to riders and drivers. But when you have 300 sites, you have 5,000 people are affected and some will have comments. But BBB was very happy with the kit-of-parts.

DnA: Is it challenging to read the negative comments?

LOH: It is interesting; but people need to know that in most projects there is always a story behind why things are made as they are. And many sites are not finished; it’s hard for people to be patient. There’s a long way to go. I think this kit of parts is pretty good where you can add or subtract. After all most bus stops are fixed; you can’t move them.

And remember, we get a lot of nice comments too.

DnA: Did you research by riding?

LOH: We went on the buses a number of times and you noticed that stops were just not that welcoming. Big Blue Bus was looking for architects to provide a branding of their bus stops and that was part of the goal.

1280px-BikeDispenser at Lent station in the Netherlands
Bike Dispenser at Nijmegen Lent railway station in the Netherlands. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Where is your favorite infrastructure design?

LOH: I think Holland is pretty wonderful in terms of infrastructure, there is an effort to provide good quality, signature design that I still think is crucial. Most of the bus stops you see in the US are the most minimal and nondescript.

The shelters should be designed as a piece of functional art and will become an iconic symbol for the city of Santa Monica. So the argument from Big Blue Bus was let’s do something interesting, with vibrancy.

Bruce Mau was on the team, and they did the branding. There was a time when Big was the big word in the Big Blue Bus logo; now the big word is Blue; Bruce’s team were involved with little subtle moves like that. On the signage you’ll see overlapping discs in variety of blues; Bruce said, we love the blue discs and we are going to fold those into the graphic design on the post.

DnA: Do you like working for the public sector?

LOH: We are doing a lot of public projects right now, and it’s fascinating to see how people react.

We are doing three projects on the LA River right now, and one of them is homeless housing and we hold meetings, and some people will say, hey, I didn’t know you could do this with homeless housing; and others will say, why do we need this?

Then we have under construction right now, a mixed-used including a Walgreens with four affordable housing units and 16 apartments, in West Hollywood, on the corner of Crescent Heights and Santa Monica Boulevard, and it includes a park. My point is we are doing a lot of projects involving neighborhood feedback, and I like getting comments because sometimes they can make the project even stronger.

Sunset Boulevard billboard, designed by LOHA (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: You are also designing billboards? Who is the client?

LOH: ACE Advertising. Stephanie Reich (Urban Designer for the City of West Hollywood) called saying these infrastructure projects never got looked at from design standpoint. The City of West Hollyood challenged the billboard structure clients to address the structure; they said we want to bring design to these elements, they are always leftover, very standard boxy structures.

We are doing three right now and there has really been an incredibly strong response; the wishbone design is unusual, unexpected.

Habitat 825 in West Hollywood, designed by LOHA, emphasizes connectivity. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Your projects to date have a very graphic, strong presence to them. How do you see the bus stops fitting into your work?

LOH: I would say I am fascinated with urban culture, whether in Santa Monica or in West Hollywood or in any of the cities we are working in. I’m very committed to social connectivity. Projects need to address the sidewalk and the street and how buildings interact with passersby.

I can’t do autonomous objects, so that’s why Habitat 825 (above) has bench in front and Formosa (below) has a pocket park. A lot of architects believe in a commitment to community.

I also believe the work I do is very aware of the tactility of materials. I don’t just do stucco buildings, I’m interested in working with wood and metal and color; color is an architectural material and that plays a big role. I also call it creative pragmatism. I never shy away from tight budgets like for Clifford Beers housing or the Skid Row Housing Trust, with a tree in the interior. Believe you me, when they hired me they didn’t expect a project like that.

LOHA’s Formosa 1140 in West Hollywood integrated a public pocket park. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Tell Big Blue Bus what you think:

Big Blue Bus is holding public meetings this week in regard to potential changes to their routes and stops with the coming of the Expo Line. More info here.