Engaging Pittsburgh's Bus Stops

Engaging Pittsburgh's Bus Stops: Bus Stops as Public Spaces
By David Leyzerovsky

As the host of 18th Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference in Pittsburgh, PA, Project for Public Spaces vowed to install community-based Lighter-Quicker-Cheaper (LQC) projects that brought placemaking to Pittsburgh and connected our conference to the community. As part of the initiative, we collaborated with Pittsburgh's Local Host Committee, Pittsburgh's Department of City Planning and the Port Authority of Allegheny County. We wanted to generate an exciting project that combined the spirit of active transportation and Placemaking with Pittsburgh's unique neighborhoods.

After deliberating the scope of our project, we decided to think beyond the station and activate Pittsburgh's bus stops. We wanted to reshape Pittsburgh's bus shelters into something more than static transit infrastructure, but as vibrant public spaces that foster community engagement and enhance the rider's experience.

We chose this project for several reasons, there was already local and national precedent for bus stop engagement work, and because we thought city bus stops were the perfect incubators of life on the street. We also wanted to create a project that was community-driven and not dependent on corporate sponsorship. As such, our project was to serve as a proof of concept that demonstrates that it is possible to regard transit stations as valuable community assets.
We had three months available to accomplish our project, and zero budget. We relied entirely on conference funds, and generous donations. However, because the project was characterized as a temporary installation, proof of concept, many of the materials we acquired were lent for free and were given very quickly thereby avoiding a lengthy and expensive permitting processes.

Once we determined the shape of our project, we worked closely with our local partners at Pittsburgh City Planning, Public Works, and the Port Authority of Allegheny County. We relied on the expertise of our partners who selected the Hill District as a neighborhood that could benefit from bus shelter improvements, and worked closely with the Port Authority to determine stations that had the most usage. We selected a bus shelter at Centre Avenue and Addison Street in the Hill District and an accompanying station downtown by the newly constructed August Wilson Center. The latter site was selected due to its close proximity to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center (the location of the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference), and due to the design afforded to us by the August Wilson Center-its extensive setback from the curb provided needed space for a successful activation.

Following site selection it was imperative to hold a community workshop to get a sense of what it's like to wait for the bus, assess community needs, and to determine successful cultural institutions that could serve as programming partners. We set up our workshop at the bus stop at 6am, and left at 7pm to get a sense of the AM and PM rush, as well as the stop's usage during the off-peak times. To accompany our observation, we developed a questionnaire designed to evaluate rider's experience waiting at the bus shelter. Our questions asked riders to estimate the time they spent waiting for the bus and rate their general experience. We also asked specific qualitative questions to determine the use of the space like, "how often did riders converse with fellow riders while waiting?"; ‘how often did they smile?' Lastly, we provided riders a more open-ended question asking them to assess the "activities and amenities they would like to see at the bus stops," and to "describe a memory they had at the bus stop." Our final question was arguably our most important because it determined our ridership's connection to the stop and how they viewed it as a space in their neighborhood rather than just as a bus shelter. After all, memory is inextricably linked to place and experience.

The questions fielded many interesting results including two different gentleman who told us their fondest memory was meeting their wife at the bus shelter. Other responses mentioned meeting and talking to old friends, making new friends, as well as hearing children playing at the playground of the adjacent YMCA. Not every response was positive. Many respondents commented on drug deals and drug usage, fights, shootings, and what was described as general police harassment at the bus shelter. For our question asking respondents to describe the ‘activities and amenities [they] would you like to have at the bus stop,' most responses were characterized by a desire for modest improvements like more seating, and a cleaner stop, a schedule for the bus shelter, and a greater commitment to safety and crime prevention. Other responses asked for a community garden, heating/AC for the winter/summer, music, etc.

The engagement gave us a greater sense of the neighborhood and the community. Our personal observation on site also demonstrated that the stop serves as a social nexus for the community on Centre Avenue. The shelter is adjacent to Big Tom's Barbershop, and Jack's Joint, a local grocery/convenience store. Both shops act as a meeting place where people gather, stop, and chat. People's conversations typically spill over to the bus shelters. Furthermore, Jack's Joint storefront provides a map and timetable for the bus shelter thereby acting as almost an extension of the transportation node itself. Also adjacent to the bus shelter is a senior citizen community. We observed seniors during the day hanging out by the bus shelter with no intention to take the bus anywhere. Their behavior further solidified that the shelter already serves as an informal public space.
Sadly, we lacked time and budget to successfully complete a community engagement in the downtown area.

After collecting our responses we looked for community partners who could use the data we obtained from our workshop to create a program that transforms the bus shelters and improves the experience of the riders. We were able to solidify the Thelma Lovette YMCA, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Hill House Association, and the Duquesne University Pharmacy to do engagement in the Hill District. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation with assistance of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership completed its programming at the downtown bus shelter.

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF) came up with an innovative three day program that would test riders' transportation knowledge by asking them transit trivia, showing riders old Pittsburgh photos with architectural detail, and lastly asking riders to name their favorite place in Pittsburgh and share their Pittsburgh bus-stop stories. PHLF also provided their participants with cookies that that were donated by Pittsburgh's Eat'nPark, and were able to sit their participants on bistro chairs and tables graciously donated by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. Their engagement was an enormous success and we observed firsthand riders of all ages participating, smiling, and enjoying their time at the bus shelter. More importantly, we heard interesting stories from riders about the development and growth of Pittsburgh and the historical significance of the places they cared about the most. Their engagement not only bolstered excitement at the stop, but also served as reclamation of space by the August Wilson Center that was largely devoid of activity.

In the Hill District, the Carnegie Public Library and the Thelma Lovette YMCA did one day of engagement and split the bus shelter up for two types of programs. The YMCA provided a stationary cardio bike placed directly at the stop that allowed riders to exercise while they waited for the bus.

The Carnegie Public Library set up a book corral aimed at kids in the neighborhood with accompanying educational games. On the second day of engagement in the Hill District, the Hill House Association created an innovative program with music, dance, poetry, and art all created by local artists. Historical photography adorned the bus shelter capturing the old neighborhood feel, and pots of flowers were brought to the stop and placed adjacent to the shelter. The Hill House was also able to partner with the Duquesne University Pharmacy to do an informal health program at the site, where riders could have their blood pressure measured and receive important health information. Both engagement strategies were successful, however, the Hill House program was especially noteworthy for its ability to source local art and music, and for having a firmer understanding of its environs. Their programming drew people to the bus shelter and facilitated a festive feel for the entire block.

When we asked Terri Baltimore, Hill House's Vice President of Neighborhood Development, how her programming came together, she laughed and replied, "friends and neighbors." Her comment is an affirmation that the community knows what's best for it, and is capable of instituting a successful program for a public space given the opportunity. This conclusion is further validated by the Hill House's ability to reach out and connect with Duquesne University Pharmacy whose services during the programming were much appreciated by the large senior citizen community. Similarly, Louise Sturgess and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation understanding of Pittsburgh's unique history and character made for a successful program that was celebrated by riders passing through downtown.

While the overall engagement was a tremendous success it is important to stress that it is very difficult to accomplish an LQC project in a disinvested neighborhood like the Hill District that is struggling with high incidence of crime and poverty. The Hill District requires greater investment than two days of programming could ever provide. The bus shelters lack basic amenities like seating, and the neighborhood often deals with excessive vandalism and crime. Numerous respondents described drug deals and vandalism at the bus shelter. Moreover, riders we spoke with felt overlooked and distrusted City officials. As such, the success of our work in spite of these factors speaks volumes to the programming of our partners in the Hill District and their understanding of their community.

We believe that our project succeeded as a proof of concept and we hope that our partners are given the opportunity to continue these engagements on a more annual basis. The project proved that that corporate sponsorship is not essential for successful community project. The beauty of this project is that with the right organization and vision any community can activate a bus shelter and make it function as something more than a transportation node but as a vibrant community asset.

Our approach is also featured in the ioby's 5 Projects Any Community Can Do to Improve the Transit Experience in 5 Easy Steps, as part of an initiative to activate bus stops throughout the country. Through the Trick Out My Trip initiative, a partnership between ioby and The Transit Center, communities will receive up to $4,000 in matching funds per project and access to ioby's crowd-resourcing platform for citizen-led neighbor-funded projects. We can't wait to see the creative bus stop-public spaces communities will create using these funds and the guide.

This project was conducted by David Leyzerovsky and David Nelson of PPS in September, 2014. Outreach was conducted in June of 2014. For more information and inspiration on how to trick out your trip go to ioby.org.


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