Houston Metro working on solar-powered fans at bus stops, with plans to install 50 prototypes

Houston Metro working on solar-powered fans at bus stops, with plans to install 50 prototypes

A prototype shelter aimed at addressing some of Houston's unique needs, including solar-paneled fans, could evolve into new structures at many bus stops.
August 18, 2023

By Dug Begley | Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Breathing new life into the ordinary bus stop isn't as simple as it might sound, but Metro officials are giving it a spin in the hopes of slightly cooling riders down.

A prototype shelter aimed at addressing some of Houston's unique needs, including solar-paneled fans, could evolve into new structures at many Metropolitan Transit Authority bus stops. Right now, the steel shelter is version one of what is likely to be many iterations of trying to crank air at passengers while they wait on a bus. Changes are already planned, such as better placement of up to three fans, said Chuck Berkshire, Metro's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

"We have to start with the basics," Berkshire said. "Then we can modify it. We want to make sure we are getting it as best we can before we put it out there."

The idea originated from U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D- Texas, who reached out to Metro early in her time in Congress in 2019 about installing upgraded shelters with solar panels that could power fans so shelters were not so hot.

"It's something I have thought about for a long time," Fletcher said. "It's hot in this town... why can't there be a fan?"

What Metro found, taking the idea to vendors who make shelters, was that nothing like what Fletcher proposed existed. So working with one vendor, they are trying to build their own, with the shelter topped entirely by solar panels, delivering power to batteries hidden in the shelter that can maintain a host of technological amenities such as lights that illuminate once it is dark, a warning light that will alert bus drivers if someone is standing in the shelter at night, potentially screens that display updated bus arrival times and the fans.

If they pull off the fans, Metro might be the first transit agency to offer a little relief to riders using solar power. Officials are careful, however, to not over-promise the power of a fan.

"The idea is to create airflow," said Miguel Zavala, director of public facilities for Metro. "We are not cooling the air."

Riders will take whatever they can get, many said.

"If they put an umbrella out here, just a rain umbrella they left on the ground, it'd be an improvement," said John Dixon, 64, as he waited at an uncovered, sunbaked bus stop along Wayside. "To make people wait in the sun, depending on the person, can be deadly."

Conditions vary widely when it comes to where people wait for Metro. In downtown and many areas funded with management districts, bus shelters can be spacious, shady locations with benches. In tree-line neighborhoods, stops can be shady even if they are uncovered. Along some streets in Denver Harbor, Acres Homes, the bus stop is nothing more than a sign on a stick next to a drainage ditch on the side of the road.

According to Metro, as of June 28, the agency had 8,948 operational stops, of which 3,350 had shelters. As part of its long-range plan, Metro has a goal of adding 400 shelters annually.

Officials predict a slight wait for the fan-focused prototype shelters, too. Numerous factors remain unresolved before they start wafting air for waiting bus passengers. An initial try found that putting the fan in the walls of the shelter high up did not lead to enough airflow, so now Metro is remodeling the shelter to have up to three fans mounted in the ceiling, just below the solar panel array. Berkshire said officials are also seeing if they can redesign the shelter to have more surface area made out of metal screen, which provides shade but allows air to pass through.

The completed shelter, ideally, will be entirely powered by the solar panels — which have improved in efficiency over recent years — so that fans, lights and other features operate off either current or stored power within the shelter, and reduce use by relying on light and motion sensors to know when to operate.

The focus will be on getting one shelter designed and built, then modify from there, Berkshire said, for situations where a shelter might need to be smaller to fit along a certain sidewalk segment or have two-seat benches instead of three to accommodate a wheelchair user.

"Modifying, as long as we stay in the basic requirements, is easy once you have that first one," Berkshire said.

From there, Metro plans to install up to 50 of the new shelters as a test. Exact locations are undetermined, as is when the shelters could be installed as internal testing continues. What's likely, officials said, is some of the first riders to feel the breeze will be along the 82 Westheimer route, which is Metro's biggest bus line and coincidentally the transit workhorse of Fletcher's 7th Congressional District.

"I'd love to see as many out there as they can do," Fletcher said of the new shelters, noting how pleased she has been with Metro bringing the idea to reality — or close to it.

She called the project indicative of the Houston spirit.

"We see our challenges as opportunities," Fletcher said. "We are creative and collaborative and I love how this town works."

Even before the first fan blade spins, there is interest in exporting the idea to other areas, Zavala said, noting he has already fielded calls from other transit agencies.

That, Fletcher said, made her convinced Metro was on to something.

"I feel a lot of pride about this," she said, noting Metro deserves credit for actually building the shelter. "It is cool to see an idea come to reality."


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