Over the course of the last year, we have been a part of a research team at Duke University that includes Duke undergraduates and Durham high school students from refugee backgrounds. Because many of our students and their families rely on buses for transportation, we’ve made transit our area of focus this year. As part of the project, we rode the bus lines with the students, interviewed passengers and evaluated the safety and accessibility of stops. What we saw mirrored the city’s own data: Many bus stops that are serviced by GoDurham buses are without shelter, seating or even sidewalks. More troubling, though, is that conversations around transit improvements all but ignore the voices of those who need transit the most.
Though often called “amenities” by transit professionals, shelters, seating and sidewalks are essential not only to the livelihood of riders but also their safety. On rainy days, it’s shelters that protect employees from downpours on the way to their shifts, ensuring that when they arrive they are presentable and ready to work. It’s the benches that provide the elderly relief while on the way to doctor's appointments, and it’s the concrete that allows those with strollers or in wheelchairs to access what is often their only affordable means of transportation.
GoTriangle, the transit manager for the City of Durham, has developed the Better Bus Stop program to use tax revenue set aside from the Bus and Rail Investment Plan to add more of these indispensable shelters, benches and sidewalks. However, though this program reflects an understanding of the need for better bus stops, citizens have been given only very limited opportunities to express their perspectives. From our involvement in the bus project we have come to understand that the value of community input lies not only in helping GoTriangle order stops to be improved, but in emphasizing the need for urgency.
The six million people who use GoDurham transit annually are relying on buses to get to work, buy groceries, visit clinics and so on. As long-time residents are priced farther and farther out of the city’s core, it’s vital not only that we continue to invest in transit but that we ensure our investments reflect the interests of everyone. As Durham County prepares to invest in a $3.3 billion light rail plan, it’s worth questioning why this is the chosen priority. The need for more improvements to existing transit infrastructure is arguably just as great as the need for new modes of public transit.
Durham is known to be receptive to, if not appreciative of, community input. But GoTriangle’s over-simplified surveys, given to busy riders on the bus, do not meaningfully capture those riders’ input. If we continue to ignore their voices, riders will need to continue to fashion their own creative and pragmatic solutions to bus stop problems, whether it be resting on overturned shopping carts or using the light from their phones to illuminate dark bus stops and thereby make themselves visible to approaching buses at night.
We should provide citizens a place to direct their concerns and lobby for action on transit in a manner similar to that which was employed by the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC) when it successfully pushed for more and safer sidewalks. The input and perspectives of community members, as BPAC has shown, is what will make transit projects durable and ultimately successful going forward. Listening to stakeholders reminds us that strategic responsiveness to downtown development while ignoring longtime riders in other places is short-sighted. Stakeholders also remind us that it is creative problem-solving that is truly needed, not another recitation of the reasons why improvements can’t be made.
Better bus stops do not need to be prohibitively expensive. A good bus stop doesn’t require thousands of dollars in commissioned art or to be designed by renowned architects. Bus stops merely need shelter and seating, and just as importantly, bus stops need be improved in a manner that recognizes the responsibility that Durham has not just to its wealthy residents, but to all of us.
Olivia Simpson is from Durham and studying sociology at Duke University. Snehan Sharma is from Grayson, Georgia, and studying history at Duke University.