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Affective atmospheres at bus stops

Hoai Anh Tran and Per Schubert

What make a bus stop perceived as pleasant and attractive and another boring and desolate? This investigation calls attention to the affective dimension of bus stops and how it influences our waiting experience. Based on socio-spatial mapping of selected bus stops in Malmö, the paper highlights the role of the urban context, both physical and social, in forming affective atmospheres at bus stops. We argue that understanding constitutive elements of affective atmosphere is important for the design and planning of attractive transit spaces.
Publicerad: juni 2023
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Bus stops as transit spaces

As contemporary cities invest more and more in sustainable mobility and public transport, there is growing attention to the role of transit spaces such as bus stations and bus stops in the city’s urban and social fabric. In recent decades, planning authorities and public service providers in many Swedish municipalities consider the creation of attractive transit environments where public transport integrates with society’s other functions an important goal towards sustainable development (Gehl Architects, 2007, 2011). It is believed that transit stations can work as generators for urban and regional development as well as local meeting places. In short, it is believed that attractive transit spaces make more attractive cities (Gehl Architects, 2011). But even so, there is little knowledge regarding what makes a transit place attractive and safe for the users. What actually constitutes an attractive bus station or bus stop? Why are some bus stations and bus stops better liked and frequented by passengers and residents while others are neglected? What do planners and designers need to consider beyond the requirements for accessibility and safety? What makes a transit place lively and pleasant?

Based on a small survey, a socio-spatial analysis of bus stop locations, and an observation study in Malmö,  this article provides some reflections on these questions. The survey included 249 residents who were asked about their experiences regarding what works and what does not work at bus stops. The socio-spatial analysis and mapping of bus stop locations and environments were made with ArcGIS Pro, Google Earth Pro, and Google Earth. The observation study was carried out in Google Earth Pro and on-site to select illustrative bus stop environments. The article highlights the importance of studying transit spaces in their urban physical and social context, and the need to acquire an understanding of the affective dimension of travel and transit.

Mobility, affect, and affective atmosphere

This study joins the growing body of work that considers mobility as embodied practices (Cresswell, 2010) and looks into mobility experiences in urban spaces in relation to senses and emotions (Adey, 2006; Anderson, 2009, 2016; Bissell, 2007, 2009, 2010; Sheller, 2004).

The notion of affect is important for an understanding of the embodied experience of traveling and waiting. Affect is understood as a relation, referring to the capacity to relate between bodies, objects, and technologies (Adey 2008, p. 439). Emotions and feelings are “expressions of affects”. Studies of affect in urban contexts pay attention to how different configurations of bodies, objects, and technologies come together to form different experiences of ”being with” whilst on the move, and is important in the study of space sharing by unacquainted others such as that of public transport and transit spaces (Bissell, 2010, p. 272).

The notion of atmosphere reflects an understanding of affects as processes that “come via an interaction with other people and an environment” (Brennan, 2004, p. 3). Often described as something “felt” when an individual enters a place (Brennan, 2004), atmospheres are generated by bodies (human and non-human bodies as well as discursive bodies) affecting one another as some form of ”envelopment” is produced at a particular place and at a specific period of time (Anderson, 2009; Shaw, 2014).

Affective atmospheres refer to “the relationship between space and bodies” (Shaw, 2014, p. 88). Affective atmospheres envelop and emanate from ensembles that are gathered together for different durations around particular bodies (Anderson, 2016). The notion of affective atmosphere is useful to explore how changes in the constitution of a space, whether in its characteristics or in the bodies within it, alter the affective experience of these spaces” (Shaw, 2014, p. 88). Affective atmospheres are experienced differently by different human bodies (Bissell, 2010) and these bodies can in turn contribute (something) to the affectivity of that atmosphere with their presence (Adey, 2013, p. 305).

Different transit facilities create different “affective atmospheres” (Bissell, 2010, p. 272) that shape the conditions for movements and feelings. They create the “possibility of experiences” that opens up or narrows down the possibility of actions in these environments (Adey, 2008, p. 447). A particular atmosphere has the capacity to bring people closer together while another creates negative affects and is associated with feelings of unease, suspicion, and mistrust (Bissell, 2010).

The heterogeneity of bodies and ensembles of bodies from which atmospheres emanate makes it difficult to elucidate how atmospheres are produced (Anderson, 2016, p. 149). Michels (2015, p. 255) proposes to analyze the composition of affective atmospheres through three key dimensions of affect: spatial-materiality, sensuality, and instability. The materiality of the environment resonates, and in many cases, are made to resonate, with the human bodies. In turn, human bodies have different capacities to resonate with different elements of the material environment. The sensual capacity of human bodies can be determined by habitus (an attitude of the body or a way of reasoning unconsciously with its environment) but also by habitualisation, a process in which a body’s affective capacity is formed or transformed (Michels, 2015, p. 260). Atmospheres are produced when the material environment is “tuned” to the body and its sensual capacities.

This paper explores the compositions of affective atmospheres through the relationship between the material environment and human sensory experience. Based on a study of bus stops in Malmö, the paper explores how different constellations of materialities help forming a particular affective atmosphere at a certain place and the ways they contribute to a particular transit experience.

Affective atmospheres at the bus stops in Malmö

Our first step of the research was the survey. We found that the physical and social environments nearby the bus stops play significant roles in producing affective atmospheres.

Respondents appreciate when the bus stop is “well-kept”, “tidy”, and “well-lighted”. They highlight the significance of the proximity to residential areas, services, and greenery for a positive transit experience. The proximity to services is mentioned by many as a quality of the bus stop location: “near the service shop”, “everything is nearby”, as well as “place to eat”. Respondents are dissatisfied when the place is “dirty”  and “littered”. They emphasize that “it is important that the bus stop is not a stand-alone structure in the environment and that it is close to home and other residential buildings. The experience of the bus stops is negative when the location feels “generally desolate” or ”boring” and at locations “where there is a lot of traffic and no greens” (Figure 1). Human activities at the bus stop also contribute to an affective atmosphere: “rowdy immigrant youths that crowd the bus stop”, for example, is reported by some passenger as a negative transit experience.

The survey shows that the surrounding physical and social infrastructures at the bus stop location serve as a “situational affective context” (Adey, 2008, p. 439) shaping the conditions for feelings (negative or positive) at the bus stop.

Figure 1 a, b, c, d: Locations considered having negative affective atmospheres by respondents. Photographs by Hoai Anh Tran.

Secondly, we proceeded using a geographic information system (GIS) to map the distribution of the bus stops in relation to buildings, greenery, and services – their potential positive affective capacities. The bus stops are marked as in proximity to these attributes when they are visible to passengers who stand at the bus stop. The map shows that the distribution of urban bus stops with these attributes is rather equal across different socio-economic areas in Malmö. We found bus stops in proximity to these three attributes in both central and peripheral areas, in both low and high-income areas. In the map shown in Figure 2, bus stops are marked as green when they include all of the three attributes, and red when at least one is missing.

Figure 2: Distribution of urban bus stops with potential positive affective attributes (buildings, greenery, and services) across socio-economic areas in Malmö. Sources: City of Malmö (2021), City of Malmö (2022), ESRI (2022), and Region Skåne (2021).

When looking specifically into the access to services near the bus stops, and connecting this with the findings of the survey, we found that the proximity to services has a positive affective capacity. Those bus stops that are centrally located, with a lot of other activities going on nearby, were among those reported as attractive and pleasant, while desolate bus stops were reported as unattractive, which tend to be located in rather desolate locations outside the city center, not in proximity to any type of services. The below map in Figure 3 shows the lack of services in proximity to the bus stops marked in red.

Figure 3: Proximity to services of urban bus stops in Malmö. Bus stops marked with green are in proximity to services while those marked with red are not. Sources: City of Malmö (2021), City of Malmö (2022), ESRI (2022), and Region Skåne (2021).

As a third step in the research, we decided to investigate further clues from the broader environment surrounding the bus stops. We realised that the mere presence of potential affective attributes (buildings, greenery, and services) is not enough for a bus stop to be perceived as “pleasant” or not.

We selected two bus stops for further investigations: one located in a higher-income area, Fridhem Square, and one in a lower-income area, Nydala Square. The observations indicate that locations with different types of buildings and social environments produce different affective atmospheres. The Fridhem Square bus stop is located in a medium-high income neighbourhood dominated by ownership housing, in an area of many villas and medium high row houses with a lot of greenery, especially around the villas (Figure 4). The Nydala Square bus stop is located in a lower-income neighbourhood dominated by high-rise rental housing in an area of medium to highrise buildings, large parking lots, and fewer green areas (Figure 5).  Apart from the greenery, which we learned from the survey is an indicator of a “pleasant” bus stop, building type, and probably more important, the scale of the urban environment also plays a role in the affective atmosphere. Locations surrounded by physical structures of human scale tend to be described in positive affective quality terms such as “pleasant”, while locations surrounded by large-scale structures are described as “desolate” and “empty”.

Figure 4: Fridhem Square bus stop and its surrounding. Sources: Google Earth (2022a) (4 a). Photograph by Per Schubert (4 b).
Figure 5: Nydala Square bus stop and its surrounding. Sources: Google Earth (2022b) (5 a). Photograph by Per Schubert (5 b).

Concluding remarks

The above study shows how the affective atmospheres of transit spaces such as bus stops are inseparable from the physical and social environments of the neighbourhoods in which the bus stops are located.

The material environment of the neighbourhood clearly seems to resonate with the affective capacity of the bus stop users. While all users are differently “tuned” to various components of the material environment, greenery seems to be a significant affective quality. Building types (million program housing) and material (grey concrete) are mentioned as contributive to affective atmosphere. Whether building types themselves are contributive to the creation of affective atmosphere or the association of the building types to a population with a certain socio-economic condition is a question that needs further investigation. Maybe not building type but the scale of the built environment is significant for the affective environment? Scale is part of the sensory experiences, and buildings that allow legibility at eye-level may seem more accessible and relate well with users, compared to high-rise and large-scale buildings that allow little legibility and overwhelm or belittle people, which leads to the atmosphere being experienced as less pleasant. These questions need to be explored.

The respondents are also found to be well “tuned” to the affective qualities of the material environment such as being clean and well-kept. Although the physical infrastructures and buildings in areas that are populated by people of higher socio-economic standing tend to be well-kept and orderly, the affective quality may not only be about cleanliness but also reflect the prevailing perception of social structure and hierarchy.

Further questions can be raised: Whether and in what way perceptions of affective quality is socially and culturally constructed? What constitutes the affective social environment of bus stops apart from and beyond “well-kept” and “orderly”? In what ways do descriptions of affective qualities of environments vary between different socio-economic groups? Gender? Age? Ethnicity? The study highlights the need to develop appropriate methodologies to investigate the different dimensions of atmosphere.

The study resonates with previous studies that show how motion and emotion are not separable (Sheller, 2004), and that the composition of affective atmospheres are complex and need to be further understood (Adey, 2006; Anderson, 2009; Michels, 2015). The study highlights the roles of the physical and social environments in forming affective atmospheres and points to the need for further studies to elaborate on the effects of each aspect and their various combinations on users of different socio-economic groups. This knowledge will greatly contribute to the design and planning of attractive transit spaces.


Adey, P. 2008. ”Airports, Mobility and the Calculative Architecture of Affective Control”. Geoforum 39 (1): 438–51.

Anderson, B. 2009. ”Affective Atmospheres”. Emotion, Space and Society 2 (2): 77–81.

Anderson, B. 2016. Encountering affect: capacities, apparatuses, conditions,. Ashgate, Farnham.

Bissell, D. 2007. ”Animating Suspension: Waiting for Mobilities”. Mobilities 2 (2): 277–98.

Bissell, D. 2009. ”Travelling Vulnerabilities: Mobile Timespaces of Quiescence”. Cultural Geographies 16 (4): 427–45.

Bissell, D. 2010. ”Passenger Mobilities: Affective Atmospheres and the Sociality of Public Transport”. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28 (2): 270–89.

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Michels, C. 2015. ”Researching Affective Atmospheres”. Geographica Helvetica 70 (4): 255–63.

Shaw, R. 2014. ”Beyond Night-Time Economy: Affective Atmospheres of the Urban Night”. Geoforum 51: 87–95.

Sheller, M. 2004. ”Mobile Publics: Beyond the Network Perspective”. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 22 (1): 39–52.

Data references

City of Malmö. 2021. “Administrative areas”. (retrieved by personal communication)

City of Malmö. 2022. “Facts and Statistics”. (visited October 21, 2022)

Esri. 2022. “Imagery” [basemap]. Scale Not Given. ”World Imagery”. September 21, 2022. (visited October 21, 2022). World Imagery source: Maxar.

Google Earth. 2022a. “3D data for the Nydala neighbourhood in the city of Malmö, Sweden” (55.573882° N, 13.021745° E). (visited October 21, 2022)

Google Earth. 2022b. “3D data for the Fridhem neighbourhood in the city of Malmö, Sweden” (55.597432° N, 12.970410° E). (visited October 21, 2022)

Region Skåne. 2021. “Bus stops”. (retrieved by personal communication)


Hoai Anh Tran is Associate Professor at the Department of Urban Studies, Malmö University. Tran’s research focuses on urban development and housing policies, urban space production and inclusive public space. Her research in Vietnam highlights the role of ‘informal’ initiatives in the production of affordable housing and infrastructures, as well as in the shaping of urban and housing policies. Her research in Sweden focuses on the discourse of public space in relation to planning regulations, as well as the planning and design of inclusive public space.

Department of Urban Studies, Malmö University


Per Schubert is a lecturer in physical geography with focus on didactics at Malmö University. He has, for instance, participated in research about implementation of the ecosystem service approach in Swedish municipal planning, and research about peri-urban expansions of small rural towns in South Africa. He is mainly teaching geography, science, and geographic information systems for societal planner, environmental management, and teacher students.

Department of Natural Science, Mathematics and Society, , Malmö University


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