Reliably Austin
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Streaming troubles? We've made changes. Please click here on kut.org/streams for more information.

Do Austin's new bus shelters cut it in the Texas heat?

A new CapMetro bus shelter on a hot day in July. The sun is shining at an angle, so the bus bench is not shaded. But the structure is casting a shadow on the sidewalk where someone could stand to avoid direct sunlight.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Most of Capital Metro's new bus shelters are 5 feet deep by 12 feet wide, smaller than the hulking steel structures that served transit users for decades.

Under Austin's scorching afternoon sun, Elijah Archie finds himself at the outskirts of Capital Metro's service area. He's on Decker Lane, earbuds in, eyes scanning for the bus. He's standing next to one of CapMetro's sleek, new silver bus shelters.

Archie wasn't impressed with the shelter's modern design. He didn't really care about its lightweight aluminum build or how easy it was for CapMetro to install. What concerned him was the size of the roof.

"They don't got enough shade. Take 'em back!" he laughed, but only half-joking.

Last summer, CapMetro's board of directors greenlit up to $10.5 million for 562 shelters from California-based Tolar Manufacturing over the next five years. Just in time for a brutal summer heatwave, the first batch has been hitting the streets.

And riders are feeling the heat.

"I need shade," Suzanna Galvan complained while waiting at one of the new shelters on Stassney Lane in Southeast Austin. "I can't handle the sun very well, and these don't seem to cover much."

The new bus shelters are smaller than the ones they're replacing: Most are around 60 square feet, while the old shelters are closer to 100 square feet.

An older CapMetro bus shelter. A six-foot wide bench rests under the partial shade of the canopy. A white SUV is driving by in the background.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Most of the older shelters are either 7-by-14 feet (pictured above) with a 6-foot-wide bench or 10-by-10-feet with a circular bench. The roof on both structures is about 100 square feet, compared to a 60-square-foot roof on the most common replacement. The old structures don't have vertical side panels that provide additional shade.

But CapMetro is quick to defend the choice. It points out the new shelters have perforated side panels that offer extra protection from the weather.

"The biggest difference we've been able to add to the newer style shelter is that it has vertical style elements that provide shade and not just the roof," Capital Metro CEO Dottie Watkins told KUT.

Tolar's shelters are easier to install. The old steel ones needed a fresh concrete base; the new ones can be bolted into pretty much any existing sidewalk. The new shelters are also easier to repair. Parts can be swapped out relatively easily, the company says.

The shelters are a lighter color to bounce off more heat. They have solar-powered lights that turn on when it gets dark. Plus, CapMetro's branding is easier to spot.

But perhaps the biggest selling point of the slimmer shelters is their versatility. They can fit in more locations than the "the old steel behemoths."

"Those [old ones] only fit in a certain number of spots, and a lot of places we didn't have the right-of-way," Watkins said.

A new bus shelter on the sidewalk, taking up a few feet of space. A blue CapMetro bus is seen pulling away in the background.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
CapMetro's newer 5-by-12-foot shelters can fit in places where the older ones could not.

A side-by-side comparison

CapMetro has more than 2,300 bus stops. Less than a third — 761 stops — have at least one shelter, according to CapMetro's own data.

For years, Austin's public transit agency has tried to put a shelter at any stop with at least 50 bus boardings a day — a standard practice among transit agencies.
Under that rule, only about 20 stops lacked shelters — mostly because of space limitations, CapMetro staff said.

But the CapMetro board changed the agency's service standards last month to make it easier for stops to get a shelter. Now, bus stops where people have to wait longer will be prioritized, even if there are fewer than 15 boardings a day.

This change in policy and the new, more versatile structures means at least 125 stops will get shelters. The rest of the new shelters will replace old ones that have seen better days.

Still, many riders said they prefer the older shelters and benches.

That message came through loud and clear last month when Watkins shared a side-by-side comparison of the old bus shelter and the new one on Twitter. The reaction was fast and fiery. The tweet was viewed more than 300,000 times, a staggering number given Watkins' modest following of fewer than 700.

"We probably didn't use the best pictures," Watkins said. The comparison image showed the old shelter shaded in a nearby tree's shade, while the new stop looked stark with the sun low on the horizon.

"Lesson learned. A picture's worth a thousand words," Watkins conceded.

But for regular CapMetro user Jen Ramos, it wasn't about the choice of images. Her long simmering frustrations lay with the new shelters' smaller size and lack of seatbacks on the benches.

"What about people who have mobility issues? That's an awkward angle," Ramos said of the perforated panel behind the bench that can serve as a makeshift back rest. "It doesn't make up for the lack of a back."

Others, like Austinite Jen Wireman, expressed outrage over the middle armrest in the new benches, which prevents more than two people from sitting and makes the benches impossible to lie down on.

"Anti-homeless architecture," Wireman labeled them. "The blatant use of it is when it comes to these public use benches."

"It also seems pretty impractical, because you're just assuming a certain size that everybody is. Some people are bigger," she said.

Ramos went even further, calling the new benches "fat-phobic."

Tree canopy

Neither Capital Metro nor Federal Transit Administration guidelines specify how big a canopy should be at a bus shelter. The City of Austin simply requires that the shelters should "protect against exposure to the elements as best as possible during peak demand periods."

But for some Austinites, the shade of a nearby tree is more comforting than the city's modern shelters.

Researchers, such as Kevin Lanza from UT Health Houston, have observed that shade from trees, not bus shelters, help sustain ridership during the hottest months of the year.

"Bus stop shelters did not have a protective effect on ridership during extreme heat days," Lanza said of his 2021 study analyzing CapMetro bus boardings at each stop in the city. "Yet having nearby tree canopy around bus stops did have a modest protective effect on ridership levels when it was hot outside."

Tree canopy covers about 36% of Austin, according to the city's climate plan, but East Austin has much lower rates of tree canopy coverage.

"These trees are not in the neighborhoods where potentially there are the most folks who use the [bus]," Lanza said.

Austin hopes to achieve 50% citywide tree canopy cover by 2050 with a focus on areas that are most lacking in tree canopy.

 A map showing high and low priority areas for planting trees on public land. Most of east, north and south Austin is shaded pink, indicating high priority. Most of west Austin is shaded green, indicating low priority.
Community Tree Preservation Division
/
City of Austin
This City of Austin map from 2020 identifies where trees should be planted on public land based on existing tree canopy and other factors such as temperature and air pollution. Areas shaded pink are considered high priority for tree planting. Areas shaded green are low priority.

CapMetro has considered planting more trees. But logistically, it's difficult.

"The hardest thing about planting a tree is watering that tree," Watkins said. "Because we're installing our bus stops in the public right-of-way, we don't have access really to the water service of that property."

"Honestly, the best person to plant a tree toward the sidewalk is going to be whoever owns the land," she added. "But we're huge fans of trees."

So as Austin wilts under what is becoming its second-hottest July on record, CapMetro's new bus shelters are just one piece of a larger question: How will the city adapt to the intensifying Texas heat?

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
Related Content