The Austin Chronicle

Cap Metro Pitches in as Mobile Cooling Center

As temperatures rise, bus stops serve as shelter from the sun

By Benton Graham, July 8, 2022, News

Edward Hardword spends 20 to 30 minutes each day waiting for the bus near the UT campus. That time outside has taken a toll on his body, as he had two heat strokes in June. "I sat down. I ate a sandwich. I drank some water. Then next thing you know, [when] I stood up, I couldn't talk, I couldn't see, I couldn't even walk," he said of the first episode. "I felt like I was drunk."

This year saw the hottest May and June on record in Austin, and the 100-degree days keep piling up. With extreme heat an inevitable and increasing part of life in Austin, Cap Metro has an important role to play in alleviating dangerous conditions with shaded bus stops, air-conditioned buses and trains, and perhaps other innovations.

Other Cap Metro riders we spoke with shared Hardword's sentiment about the physical cost of waiting for the bus. When asked about access to shade, Silvia Perez shook her head as she stood in the midafternoon 99-degree sun at a bus stop just south of Hardword's. "Poquito," she said, while conceding that the bus itself provides a nice respite from the oppressive summer heat.

The public transit agency has nearly 700 total bus and rail shelters, said Cap Metro spokesperson Tawaun Cole in an email. Cap Metro has upgraded 175 bus stops with new silver cantilever shelters that provide more shade; it plans to deploy another 500 in the next five years. Cole added that "customer comfort and safety in all weather" will be a key consideration for how rail stations are designed as Project Connect advances.

Cap Metro is hardly to blame for the rising temperatures in the city. On the contrary, Kevin Lanza, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health, said, "Shifting [from a] fossil fuel-powered vehicle to public transit is a climate change mitigation strategy. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from a full, or close to full, bus or train will be better for the environment … than everyone driving their own personal vehicle around."

In 2021, Lanza co-authored a study on the impact of shade on bus ridership in Austin, after noticing on his route to work that one of his bus stops had great shade while the other offered none. The study found that having a tree near a bus stop modestly enhanced ridership numbers, while bus shelters offered no significant ridership impact.

"What I'm positing is [that] the majority of individuals who are using public buses in Austin may not have another transit mode available to them," Lanza said, adding that heat tends to be even more extreme in low-income neighborhoods due to disinvestment in public spaces that can be traced back to redlining policies a century ago.

To improve existing shade and heat mitigation, Lanza suggests opportunities for further innovation. Bus stops could have misters and fans similar to bars and restaurants with outdoor patios. A navigation app like Google Maps could present pedestrians with choices of the most-shaded walking route.

Hardword said that after his heat strokes, he has a new plan to ensure that he avoids the experience in the future. He tries to get out of the sun for as long as possible, preferably in two-hour chunks, and stay hydrated. But there's only so much he can do about the soaring temperatures. "It's hot, man," he said.

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