artsy bus stops cost $20,000+ each

Art pulls out the stops Valley cities turn shelters into public art, giving communities a sense of place

Richard Nilsen The Arizona Republic Feb. 17, 2006 02:45 PM

You see them as you drive past: the Valley's many "special" bus stops, with interesting and colorful passenger shelters. They are public art designed to make the city more livable.

Some are playful, like theme-park exhibits, and others bring a kind of elegance to the roadside, with the hues and materials of the Sonoran Desert.

But the irony is, Valley residents are more likely to see them from their cars: There are 118 artist-designed bus shelters in the Valley, spread from Glendale to Mesa, and bus riders are likely to see only a few of them along whatever route they take.

But even for non-riders, the fancy transit shelters make the experience of living in the city more urbane. It is art out in the open, something that can give us pleasure just to drive past.

"Phoenix residents enjoy a more artistic look of a bus shelter," says Reed Caldwell, deputy director for the city's Public Transit Department. "It heightens the beauty of the city."

But what of the rider?

"It makes it more pleasant," says Ashley Flenoy, 22, as she steps onto a bus at 16th Street and Baseline Road, heading to work.

The Baseline Streetscape project, designed by Mags Harries and Lajos Heder, with Christy Ten Eyck, uses landscaping and wavelike canopies to create better bus stops from 16th to 40th streets.

"They are better than the old bus stops," Flenoy says, "and there's a little more room, too."

The Scottsdale look

In Scottsdale, the rebar and river-cobble look of shelters designed by Phoenix artist Kevin Berry has defined the look of the city for many. His bus shelters and his Tributary Wall (better known as the "Fish Wall") along Goldwater Boulevard, are made from the quiet natural tones of rock and rust. His core-ten steel, rebar and river rock thread through the downtown area.

"Kevin has become part of our downtown aesthetic," says Margaret Bruning, associate director of Scottsdale Public Art. "It suits our collective consciousness of colors and materials. The browns, rust colors and organic forms."

The downtown Scottsdale look is more integrated than most of the other transit shelters Valley-wide, but all the public-art shelters contribute to a sense of place.

"Transit shelters and transportation system art goes back a hundred years or more," says Ed Lebow, public-art program director for the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture. "We think of those great Art Nouveau Metro stops in Paris. It's a natural connection, a force in the urban landscape. And as far as art goes, brings the greatest benefits of good design to the greatest number of people.

"The advantage Scottsdale has is that the downtown area is concentrated and you can do an awful lot with it. There's the transit center and the Kevin Berry walls and you get a tightly woven fabric of good design. And people come awake and start paying attention to design."

Sculptural shelter

There are more than 7,000 bus stops in the Valley, and a little more than 2,000 of them have shelters, and of those most are the "off-the-shelf" shelters of simple and functional design. But most of them are boring: Brown and beige pipes backed with perforated steel and a long bench to sit on.

"I like to create shelters that are looked at as more than just a bus shelter, but are viewed as sculpture," says Berry, who has built 13 transit shelters in Scottsdale and Phoenix.

"You are walking on both sides of a line: They are miniarchitecture and a heavy dose of engineering, but as a sculptor, I care about the experience of volumes and weights and masses."

Berry's work is also metaphorical: It says something about the desert. Whether it's the fish by the canal or the streaks of rust on his canopies, they are about more than just their color and shape.

"It always has meaning, context, metaphor," Berry says. "It's hard to make them in just shape and color. You don't always need to know what the metaphor is, but I've always had a hard time making art without meaning."

Perhaps that is what gives Berry's bus shelters that extra elegance that makes them so popular, not only with the public, but with arts commissions, who continue to hire him.

"It's all about what you can do with the materials, what image you can create with the same materials everyone else is using," Berry says.

Making a statement

The work of Joe Tyler is completely different. Tyler, who has made 18 bus stops, including several in Mesa along Southern Avenue, is more extroverted. You almost expect a sports-team mascot to greet you, or maybe a giant Mickey Mouse in costume.

At the Bank of America building in Mesa at Alma School Road and Southern, he has a 15-foot-high "birdcage."

"There are lots of date palms there, and the posts of the shelter look like date palms, and they melt into steel palm fronds that melt into the real fronds above them," Tyler says. "It was trying to visually tie it in with the setting."

At Mesa Community College, there's a rose garden at Sycamore and Southern Avenue. The bus shelter imitates an old Victorian lathe house or greenhouse.

"There is also a pergola, to get people to take the path through the garden to the shelter," Tyler says.

The many art-shelters in the region vary from the Modernist steel swoop at Mill Avenue and University Drive in Tempe, designed by Gary Price, to the brightly colored, cartoonish canopy designed by Jeff Zischke at the corner of Curry and Scottsdale roads in south Scottsdale.

Guadalupe has a series of stops along Avenida de Yaqui, made to imitate the look of adobe and vigas.

Design limitations

But designing a bus shelter is not quite as free form as these different looks might imply.

The artist-designed shelters are contracted by individual cities in the Valley, usually through their arts commissions or councils, and there are strict engineering and safety guidelines they must meet that put serious constraints on their designs.

Each municipality has its own rules, but in general, they include not only things you would expect - seats and shade - but things you might not think about.

"The benches can't be so long that people will sleep on them," Scottsdale's Bruning says.

In Phoenix, Caldwell says, "We've done both long benches and the ones with the center arm rest and get criticized on both. One allows a person to sleep, but with the bar, it wastes space, leaving a six-foot bench with what is room for only two sitters. It's a double-edged sword."

Then there's the issue of transparency.

"People want to see what's behind the stop," says Lebow of Phoenix.

They may feel uneasy about a stop that a threat can hide behind.

"There is the element of openness and safety," Berry says. "People don't want to go into enclosed dark spaces, generally."

The materials used also need to remain as cool as possible in Arizona's summer heat. Metal tends to collect and radiate that heat. It is a design problem that is hard to accommodate, but some materials that do better than others.

Berry often uses a composite concrete substance for his seats, into which he embosses the fibrous shapes of palm leaves. It looks cool and remains cooler than steel.

"Shade is the main thing," Berry says. "When you're designing, you look at the angles of the sun and the buildings that surround the shelter and how much shade they provide, and how much shade your shelter can provide as the sun moves around in the sky all year. Creating shade in every direction is near impossible."

Trees are important, he says, and if there are no trees by the shelter, he asks the city to plant some.

Berry's newest shelters, along Camelback Road from 68th Street to Scottsdale Fashion Square, use large, scoop-shaped canopies to spread as much shade as possible without obscuring visibility.

Each bus stop also requires a trash receptacle. Some use off-the-shelf trashcans, but Berry fabricates his own, usually using rebar and river rock.

"The rebar looks sort of like ocotillo branches," he says.

The artists also have to concern themselves with graffiti and vandalism. In Phoenix, the regular bus stops cost $500 to $2,500 a year in maintenance, Caldwell says.

"Vandalism is a significant issue," he says.

But he points out that artist-designed shelters suffer less damage than the vanilla variety.

"That may be due to the surfaces used in the artist shelters," he says. "We give graffiti artists a flat canvas to paint his graffiti on" with the off-the-shelf shelters. "The artist shelters don't give that flat canvas to them."

The extra work that goes into the design and fabrication costs the cities more: An average off-the-shelf shelter costs about $10,000; the artist-designed shelters cost at least twice that.

If you include the reduced cost of vandalism on artist shelters, the price difference seems less pronounced.

"We think about that," Caldwell says.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8823.

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