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Citizens make big impact with low-cost bus stop seating

For weary bus riders, especially seniors and people with disabilities, comfortable seating at bus shelters is a necessity. Even while many governments expand bus service, they often regard seating as an unaffordable or unneeded luxury. In one corner of northern Virginia, a group of residents have crafted a grassroots solution, giving their neighbors a place to sit while they wait for the next bus.


Residents have placed chairs at several bus stops.

Many cities have removed older bus shelters with wide, fixed benches, which had become viewed as havens for the homeless. Newer shelters are few and far between, and offer seating designed to deter or control people rather than comfortably accommodate them.

Without seating, many bus riders are forced to stand for 20 or more minutes. That is neither compassionate nor is it acceptable customer service. As governments are unable or unwilling to provide suitable bus shelters, maybe it's time for local communities to step in and help out their neighbors.

The fundamental problem is that quality bus shelters are not cheap. Standard shelters cost approximately $7,000, and a lighted shelter with an electrical connection can run $60,000 or more. Compliance with the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act can have the perverse effect of pricing improvements out of reach. Sometimes, compliance is physically impossible as many bus stop sites lack the required space for improvements that are ADA-compliant. In a bind, governments often opt to provide no seating at all.

Comfortable seats on the cheap

A solution to this seating problem has emerged at 10 bus stops along major thoroughfares in Arlington and Falls Church. A local resident and his helpers have been adding simple, comfortable chairs to previously bare bus stops. Taking photos, they have documented the use of these seats over time, confirming a latent need for dignified seating at the region's bus stops.

These guerrilla do-gooders scavenged on trash nights for durable and comfortable plastic lawn chairs. They modified the chairs with a drill to include holes in the seat for improved rain drainage, and a leg mounting point for a security chain.

Based on the number of bus riders they observed waiting and the availability of suitable space on the sidewalk or grass strip, this cadre identified optimal locations for the ad-hoc seating.

With used bike chains (also scavenged) and a chain tool, they secured chairs to bus stop poles within the public right of way, largely safe from tampering or vandalism.

Searching for "appropriate technology"

Ironically, in our industrialized, high-tech nation, these locals have followed an approach that harkens to strategies applied in developing countries. The principle of "appropriate technology" is characterized by grassroots, sustainable, lower-cost, lower-tech solutions to basic human needstechnology such as these chairs.

Still, Americans may yet find applications for the same lower-cost, lower-tech principles. Decades of underinvestment in public space and infrastructure have left a backlog of needs. Inflexible regulations and funding mechanisms sometimes discourage immediate solutions in favor of waiting for rare moments when large infrastructure investments can be made at once.

At a time when many House Republicans urge an end to all federal support of transit, it's unlikely we'll see large infusions of funds to support this old strategy. Our governments and our communities need to start making small, incremental improvements, with more appropriate technologies that can be adequately maintained.

Saving on seating

For many older riders, or those with disabilities, standing can be a significant enough imposition to drive them away from using the bus. If bus stops are more comfortable to wait at, some of these neighbors might be able to use convenient buses more often, and others might be able to choose buses over more costly paratransit vans.

Arlington has already begun an "adopt-a-stop" program to maintain public bus stops. Perhaps other residents there (or elsewhere) will be inspired to provide the low-cost "appropriate technology" seating solutions that government currently cannot.

After all, in just a few months, a group of engaged residents was able to provide a public accommodation useful to hundreds of people. All it cost them was their time and a few dollars of gas money.

Matt Caywood is a DC resident working in Tysons Corner. He is a neuroscience and computer science researcher, and a volunteer advisor and collaborator to Arlington’s Mobility Lab Transit Tech Initiative.  

Comments

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Arlington is miles ahead of Fairfax. They have an actual places to get off a bus.

This:


View Larger Map

is a bus stop on the corner of Pohick Rd and Souh Run Rd. People get on and off there. Please note that not only a side-walk is missing there, but the stop is actually on a slope! And to top it off, there is no pedestrian crossing at the light.

Funny that Google caught MetroAccess there.

Here's another view:

View Larger Map

by Jasper on Jun 25, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

I have seen some colorful adirondack chairs at stops along New Hampshire Ave in the Takoma Park area. My guess is that something similar happened there. Great story.

by dano on Jun 25, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

I know some people need/like seating, but me personally I value shade more than anything. Especially on wider streets and roads. Nothing more awful than broiling in the sun and feeling completely exposed.

by spookiness on Jun 25, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

AFAIK, DoTank Brooklyn (and the guys behind Tactical Urbanism) were early adopters of the pallet chair. http://dotankbrooklyn.org/22
A friend and I did a few and put them in front of a laudromat and a local grocer. They were quickly (within 2-3 days) taken by the city, the owners, or vandals. That said, the investment was minimal (a few hours and $0.00) so there was no great loss. I think if we had done a better job and had more refined chairs or painted them, they would have had a better chance at longevity.

by thump on Jun 25, 2012 3:20 pm • linkreport

While I appreciate what these people are trying to do, chaining the chairs to bus stop sign posts is a bad idea. For one thing, you can't just go around chaining things to other people's property. For another, it causes problems for the transit agency involved if they need to replace/remove a post.

by nevermindtheend on Jun 25, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

@Jasper -- another GGWash article also featured some bad bus stops in PG, Montgomery and Fairfax.

The River Road stop pictured above appears ADA compliant, but no bus rider, including wheelchair users, would want to wait there because it's unaccommodating, inaccessible, and totally exposed to traffic.

by Matt Caywood on Jun 25, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

@ Matt: It's insane!

by Jasper on Jun 25, 2012 4:03 pm • linkreport

@nevermindtheend -- the bike chains are actually just looped around the post, so there's nothing stopping the pole from being moved or replaced.

you can't just go around chaining things to other people's property

Newspapers and advertisers chain up newspaper racks all the time. (See the second picture in the article, which has a chair next to a trashcan next to a newsrack). While they benefit from First Amendment protection, they are in general much more abusive to the public streetscape.

by Matt Caywood on Jun 25, 2012 4:07 pm • linkreport

@Matt Yes, newspapers and advertisers do this all the time, but it's still wrong. I don't expect them to stop doing it, since they clearly don't care about transit infrastructure. (As far as I know, transit agencies are completely within their rights to clip anything chained to their posts, though.) Since the people putting chairs out are clearly acting with good intentions, I think they might modify their behavior.

by nevermindtheend on Jun 25, 2012 4:11 pm • linkreport

@Matt - Woops, missed the part where you said the chains are just looped around the post. I agree that that makes it better, but I'm still not sure I entirely approve. Doesn't it interfere with mowing? I've seen chairs out at bus stops around Prince William County that have been at stops for well over a year without being chained to anything.

by nevermindtheend on Jun 25, 2012 4:14 pm • linkreport

This has been happening in the outskirts of Bethesda (around River Road) for a long time. Not sure whether it's been done by local residents for themselves (many of whom ride the bus) or their service staff/nannies/etc, which many of them have, but I've always thought it was an appropriate response to a lack of seating provided by RideOn/WMATA. No sense spending $7k on a bus shelter when an appropriately placed free or $15 lawn chair will do...

by Ryan on Jun 26, 2012 5:36 am • linkreport

Yep, shade is better than a chair.

Another great example of how the ADA is strangling America....

by charlie on Jun 26, 2012 7:55 am • linkreport

Republican priorities: massive tax cuts for billionaires and on trillion dollars of military spending proposed by Mitt RMoney but bus passengers have to provide their own seats.

by Tea party go home on Jun 26, 2012 8:33 am • linkreport

As a transit supervisor in charge of bus stops in another city, I think this is great! I would throw a party if I could find funding for shelters and benches! A shelter with lighting easily costs a minimum of $10,000 and thats if there are no major issues with the site. This sends a message that YOU the customers need/want/demand better service...and hopefully the powers that be will take notice.

by Steve on Jun 26, 2012 8:57 am • linkreport

@ Steve:A shelter with lighting easily costs a minimum of $10,000 and thats if there are no major issues with the site.

May I ask why? Sure, you can't put el-cheapo stuff there and chain it, but why so much?

by Jasper on Jun 26, 2012 9:49 am • linkreport

@Jasper Just to put in a shelter with no lighting, you need to prepare the site, lay a slab and install the shelter. Lighting requires it to be hooked into the utility system (unless you use solar lighting). In Virginia, shelters count as structures, so there are even more hoops to jump through.
That's just if you have a flat area on land you already own/are allowed to put a shelter on. If you have a tricky site, there's all sorts of extras you may have to deal with - acquiring land, installing sidewalk to the the shelter if there isn't one already, new drainage systems, retaining walls, handrails, etc.

by nevermindtheend on Jun 26, 2012 9:55 am • linkreport

Shelters HAVE to be ADA compliant, meaning a concrete pad and a commercial structure, usually made of lexan and alluminum. Also, there may be legal fees associated with getting right of way clearance. A commercial shelter alone costs about $2500...plus lighting, concrete, labor to install etc.

by Steve on Jun 26, 2012 12:59 pm • linkreport

IE the River Road stop...in my case, I have authority to move a stop if I deem it unsafe, unused or in a bad location. THIS stop seems stupid but we can only see one direction in that pic...but still, it needs sidewalks to feed the stop.

by Steve on Jun 26, 2012 1:03 pm • linkreport

I love this movement. I really hope that transit agencies focus on quality over quantity. Focus your dollars where you can provide frequent (20 minute headways at max) stops and quality shelters rather then trying to serve every place in a sub standard manner.

by Kevin Diffily on Jun 26, 2012 1:14 pm • linkreport

@ Steve:Shelters HAVE to be ADA compliant

Thanks. A case of unintended consequences.

by Jasper on Jun 26, 2012 2:08 pm • linkreport

I love the intent of this movement! People can and do change the world around them.

by L A Cochran on Jun 26, 2012 4:14 pm • linkreport

@LA Cochran, @Kevin Diffiliy, @steve: Thanks! Very glad you like the idea and the implementation. Hopefully it could expand into an individual and localized civic infrastructure enhancement 'movement' for other aspects of the built world around us.

@spookiness: Absolutely right. I've often seen people standing next to the chairs instead of sitting due to the high surface temp. of the sun baked chairs. The next comfort enhancement might be the installation of simple curved panels above the chairs to make a shade patch. Perhaps with the ability to revolve around the sign post and match the sun approach angle.

@nevermindtheend: (Non-destructively/non-permanently of course!) and, the chairs can always be lifted and rotated/repositioned to allow for grass cutting, maintenence, etc..

@everybody else: Comments or suggestion for other simple future civic enhancements (not just for bus stops) are welcome! Also, feel free to get in touch if you want to help out, or have outdoor type chairs to donate.

by ChairInstaller on Jun 27, 2012 3:37 pm • linkreport

Regarding ADA -

As a transit planner in another city, don't overstate the implications of the ADA to whether or not agencies can provide shelters and benches. Coming up with the funds to do anything can be challenging, and at many sites ensuring ADA compliance can be a smaller incremental cost (if any) and not a total dealbreaker. To me, the bigger issue is that many transit agencies lack the funding to do anything, and those that do have the funds don't have enough to do what's needed. It's another facet our general lack of investment in transit.

That said, I agree with the supervisor who posted accolades for this. Go for it, but make sure it's safe - don't block boarding areas, traffic sightlines, or existing ADA-compliant accessible paths. And like the comments above, don't make it hard for your transit agency to maintain its signage.

by atlin83 on Jun 27, 2012 5:01 pm • linkreport

@Jasper

ADA compliance requirements for bus stops are a feature, not a bug. A greater proportion of disabled people use buses or other transit to get around than other methods (walking, biking, driving, etc) and not making transit accomodative of their needs would be deciding to exclude them from using the system or relegating them to only certain parts of it. I get that we want to have bus shelters and seating and anything making those more expensive makes it harder to get them. I ride buses and I wish that all the stops had shade/rain cover too. That said, blaming regulations for forcing quality shelters to be built that all transit riders can use instead of allowing agencies to skimp on "unnecessary" things like building a solid shelter and having an adequate foundation for it is not a good starting point.

by Ben on Jul 3, 2012 2:54 pm • linkreport

Finneytown is a first-ring suburb of Cincinnati and has no shelters/seats. I would love to hear your ideas of how you & your community are working to provide a shelter for many who now wait in the rain, snow for a bus.

by Nancy on Feb 20, 2014 4:00 pm • linkreport

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