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How do you make buses cool? Design them to look and feel more like a train

A public transit bus passes a gas station on April 25, 2006 in the Los Angeles area city of Glendale, California.
A public transit bus passes a gas station on April 25, 2006 in the Los Angeles area city of Glendale, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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When Los Angeles announces the opening of a new rail line, there are huge celebrations. Bands, parties, TV cameras.

But you know what doesn’t get this kind of hype? The bus.
No hate against rail, but you kind of have to feel for buses. They’ve been around since the 1920s, long before Los Angeles went car crazy and the city's large middle class ditched their bus passes for personal cars.
And for everyone else who couldn’t afford — or wasn’t able — to drive a car, the bus became a necessity. But cool?

“I don’t feel cool riding the bus at all. I don’t,” said Law Murray.

He doesn’t own a car. And that’s by choice. For six years, he’s taken the bus and knows every route in the city.

He may not feel cool, he says, but “the fun part for me is just the fact that like, yeah, look at all this money I’m saving. And I get to chill, listen to music, people watch a little bit, observe, but I don’t think that’s a cool activity.”
Then there’s the social stigma.

Paul Felix owns a car, but he rides the bus every day from Pasadena to his job at Disney Studios in Burbank.
“Someone asked me if I still had my driver’s license, or something had happened that I couldn’t drive,” Felix said.
The idea that a person would actually ditch his car for the bus is not as preposterous as it sounds. Metro has been trying to attract people like Felix to the bus for decades.
One of its biggest efforts was in the late ‘90s with the introduction of Metro Rapid 720. Architect Doug Suisman was responsible for the redesign.

“As drivers, we see the buses stuck with us in traffic, lurching from red light to red light in many cases, so buses aren’t seen as special,” Suisman said. “They’re just seen as big cars that are getting in the way. And meanwhile, you look up and you see the train flying by overhead.”
Suisman had an idea: Make the bus look and feel more like a train. He coated the Rapid 720 with a distinct red color, made the windows bigger and added covers to hide the wheels on some buses.

“The look of the bus from the outside sends a message. It gives a kind of promise,” he said. “If it looks modern and clean and cool, it suggests maybe this will be a good ride and a good way to get around.”
To keep that promise, the 720 became the first rapid transit bus in L.A. to use a dedicated lane. During rush hour, only buses were allowed. That meant faster service, and fewer stops.
Suisman even armed each bus with special devices that messed with traffic lights to get buses through.

“Everyone will accept now and then if a ride doesn’t go well, but if on a regular basis it’s not good, I don’t care how cool the vehicle looks on the outside,” Suisman said. “You’re not going to use the system.”
The change was a success. Ridership increased and the sleek red rapid buses expanded throughout the city. The experiment laid the groundwork for the opening of the Orange Line’s Bus Rapid Transit system in the San Fernando Valley, with its dedicated busway, which created an entire street only for the bus.
Despite these improvements, buses still aren’t cool, even though they are the backbone of the city’s transit system. Buses reach parts of L.A. that trains can’t. They’re a solid complement to trains and bikes.
So. How can we get more people who still don’t ride the bus to recognize its inner beauty? Maybe another makeover might work again.

We reached out to high-end fashion designer Trina Turk for some ideas. Turk’s fashion graces department store windows and runways all over the world. Think big, we told her.

“One way to get people to be interested in riding the bus would be if it looked really futuristic or cool or something that they’ve never seen before. Something that did not fit the mold of what you’d think a normal city bus would look like,” Turk said. “I’m thinking of something really futuristic, something that looked more like a spaceship.”

Roy Choi, founder of the popular Kogi food truck said a cool bus would incorporate LA's transportation history.

"So you know some old bomber style, low rider style, I’d have some big ol’ Chevy Lincolns," said Choi, also adding, "something that will pay homage to bicycles and skateboards."

As for the interior, Choi would like to add music and subwoofers to increase the bass.

Trina Turk also asked her design team their thoughts for the inside of the bus.

“Everybody was very excited about the idea of having drinks served on the bus on the way home from work … and seats arranged in a conversational grouping so people can talk to each other.”
That will probably never happen. But if it did, more people would ride the bus in a heartbeat.