Infra/Extraordinary: Pedibus, a school bus without a bus

The Infra/Extraordinary column is devoted to zooming in on intriguing objects and practices of the 21st Century. Adopting a design-ethnography perspective, we will question informal urban bricolage, weird cameras, curious gestures and wonder about their cultural implications.

Pedibus1

, “Lausanne Pedibus” by Nicolas Nova, CC BY-NC on Flickr.

Running across this “pedibus” sign on the streets of Lausanne the other day made me think about the cultural implications for such practice.

Pedibus are commonly found in European cities such as Geneva, Lausanne or Lyon and one can see them as an intriguing type of school bus line that collects students at scheduled stops located in the city, except there’s no actual “bus”. Children are “picked-up” in accordance with a predefined and fixed timetable. They are then brought to school on foot by volunteers (parents or people from the neighborhood).

The name is a portmanteau word formed from the latin root “pedester” (which means “going on foot“) and “bus”. This semantic combination highlights the ambulatory character of the system, with the participants walking without any other mean of transport (that being said, I sometimes see kids on scooters when “in” the pedibus).

In general, pedibus systems can be created by urban institutions, or by a group of parents who are interested in a healthy and cheap way to deal with pupils’ schedules. Of course, such collective services are necessarily bound to the structure of urban environment. They are indeed more likely to be found in dense (and safe) city centers than sprawl-like suburbs, but one can also run across a pedibus in the countryside in France or Switzerland.

Pedibus2

“Lausanne Pedibus” by Nicolas Nova, CC BY-NC on Flickr.

The pictures above have been taken in Lausanne, a Swiss city with a population of nearly 130’000 inhabitants making it the fourth largest city of the country and 41.38 square km2 (15.98 sq mi). The website about the pedibus in this town indicates that the network is 21 km/13 miles long with 40 “lines” (approximately 575 m/0.3 mile long).

These numbers are intriguing but that’s not what I’m most interested in. Looking at the picture above, several elements caught my eye:

  • A very casual form of signage: it’s made of a wooden plaque with bright colors and a hand-drawn typeface, which is a bit unusual in Switzerland with its high standard of graphic design. It is also attached to existing urban infrastructures (signage, wall, etc.). This highlights the informal character of this system: disconnected from the other urban signs (which have a more structured visual identity). Pedibus stops like this one are sometimes removed during summer vacations, as if to tell us the temporary existence of this means of transport (and the rythm of the “school season”).
  • Unlike other bus stops, the timetable is pretty basic and limited to certain moments of day: morning, end of morning, beginning of the afternoon and end of afternoon (based on school schedules).
  • There’s a short description of what a pedibus is (with words and a drawing representing the bus): even if the system is 14 years old in Lausanne, it may tell us that it’s still important to explain what it is; probably for newcomers.

Beyond my interest in alternatives means of transports, I find pedibus systems fascinating for two reasons. First and foremost, they show the importance of bottom-up innovation as well as citizen participation. That’s probably what could be called a “Smart City” from a human perspective. Second, they also reveal how innovation can be based on “removing” elements from an existing system. In this case, and because it makes sense in terms of distance, this mean of transport corresponds with the removal of the main artifact that was involved in the process: the bus. I think that this is more than the “less is more” ethos commonly found in design circles, and which strives for minimalism. To some extent, the pedibus may be another example of “innovation through subtraction“, a sociological concept that I recently encountered in this research paper: “innovation founded on reducing a practice or ceasing to use – subtracting, detaching – a given artefact.“. From a design POV, I’m fascinated by this move: you take an existing technological system (e.g. school bus), you remove the main component (i.e. the bus), and then you try to find a workaround.

Do you see any other examples in your everyday life? Can you invent other examples of pedibus-like innovation with other technological artifacts/services?

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Categories: Columns, Infra/Extraordinary

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