How Two Activists Are Improving Bus Riders’ Experience in Berkeley?

Bus Riders

Bus riders in Berkeley, California, have a new reason to smile: two local activists are installing wooden benches at bus stops that lack seating, making the wait for the bus more comfortable and dignified. The benches are part of a guerrilla urbanism project that aims to highlight the need for better amenities at transit stations and to spur the city and the transit agency to take action.

Bus Riders

The Origins of the Guerrilla Bus Benches

The idea for the benches came from Darrell Owens, an urbanist and writer who tweeted a photo of his 64-year-old neighbor sitting on the curb at a bus stop on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in November 2023. The neighbor, who has chronic pain and has trouble standing for long periods, had just returned from grocery shopping and was waiting for the bus to take him home.

Owens wanted to draw attention to the lack of seating for bus riders, especially seniors and people with disabilities, who make up a large proportion of transit users. He also wanted to challenge the perception that bus riding is a low-status and undesirable mode of transportation.

The tweet caught the eye of Mingwei Samuel, a software developer and Cal grad, who replied, “Which stop? I can put a bench there.” Samuel had been inspired by the Public Bench Project, a grassroots initiative that encourages people to build and place benches in public spaces. He had already built a few benches for his neighborhood and was looking for more locations to install them.

A month later, Samuel had placed a wooden bench, painted blue and adorned with a sticker that read “Public Bench,” at the bus stop in downtown Berkeley. The bench was a hit with the bus riders, who appreciated having a place to sit and rest. It also attracted the attention of the city, which removed the bench and replaced it with an official metal one within two weeks.

The Impact of the Guerrilla Bus Benches

The success of the first bench motivated Samuel and Owens to team up and build more benches for other bus stops. As of February 2024, they have placed more than six benches around Berkeley and Oakland, with more in the works. They have also received requests and donations from residents who want benches in their neighborhoods.

The benches have not only improved the comfort and convenience of bus riders but also sparked a conversation about the need for better transit infrastructure and service. Samuel and Owens hope that their project will raise awareness and pressure the city and the transit agency to provide more shelters, benches, and other amenities at bus stops, as well as to improve the frequency and reliability of buses.

They also hope that their project will challenge the stigma and stereotypes associated with bus riding, and promote it as a viable and sustainable mode of transportation. They believe that bus riding should be treated with the same respect and dignity as car driving, and that bus riders deserve a safe and pleasant experience.

The Response of the City and the Transit Agency

The city of Berkeley has responded positively to the guerrilla bus benches and has expressed its intention to bring more benches to more bus stops. Councilmember Kate Harrison, who represents the district where the first bench was installed, praised the project as a statement of public need and a catalyst for action.

“I think it’s lovely,” she said. “I like this as a statement of public need. People are expressing what they need to make riding transit effective.”

Harrison said that the city is working with AC Transit, the regional transit agency that operates the buses, to identify the bus stops that need benches and to expedite the installation process. She said that the city is also exploring other ways to improve the bus stops, such as adding trash cans, lighting, and art.

AC Transit, however, has been less enthusiastic about the guerrilla bus benches and has expressed some concerns about their safety and legality. The agency said that it has a contract with a private company, Outfront Media, to provide and maintain bus shelters and benches at its bus stops and that any unauthorized benches could interfere with its agreement and liability.

The agency also said that it has a plan to install more bus shelters and benches at its bus stops, but that it is constrained by funding, permitting, and site selection issues. It said that it welcomes public input and feedback on its bus stop improvement program and that it is open to collaborating with the city and the community to enhance the bus riders’ experience.

The Future of the Guerrilla Bus Benches

Despite the mixed response from the transit agency, Samuel and Owens said that they have no plans to stop their bench-building project and that they will continue to place benches at bus stops that need them. They said that they have not faced any legal or regulatory challenges so far and that they have received mostly positive feedback from the public and the media.

They also said that they are not trying to antagonize or compete with the city or the transit agency, but rather to complement and supplement their efforts. They said that they understand the challenges and limitations that the public sector faces, and that they are willing to work with them to find solutions.

They said that their ultimate goal is to improve the lives and well-being of bus riders and to make bus riding more accessible and enjoyable for everyone. They said that they hope that their project will inspire other people to take action and make a difference in their communities.

“We’re not trying to be heroes or rebels,” Samuel said. “We’re just trying to do something good for the people who ride the bus.”

By Andrea Wilson

Andrea Wilson is a talented junior content and news writer at Scope Sweep. With a passion for writing and a dedication to delivering high-quality content, Andrea has quickly established herself as a valuable contributor to the team. Graduating from the prestigious University of Sydney, she brings a strong academic foundation and a keen eye for detail to her work. Andrea's articles cover a wide range of topics, from breaking news to informative features, ensuring that readers are well-informed and engaged. With her ability to research and present information in a clear and concise manner, Andrea Wilson is committed to providing readers with accurate and captivating content. Stay connected and up-to-date with Andrea's compelling articles on Scope Sweep

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