“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” handyman George Smith, 54, said as he waited for his bus to work on a recent cold, misty morning. “It doesn’t feel like a normal bus stop. It feels like a little home.”
The homey feeling is precisely what Erin Cassell had hoped for when while working for months to get the shelter installed.
Cassell has never been a regular bus rider. The Elkridge resident and owner of Roll Up N Dye, a tie-dye studio in Columbia, gets around in her blue minivan.
But a few years ago she drove by the bus stop near her home at Route 1 and Port Capital Drive and saw people standing in the rain and mud as traffic whizzed past.
“It was pouring, just pouring,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe there’s no covered place for people.’ ”
So Cassell, 40, launched a mission to get more shelters in her outer suburb, where a missed bus can mean an hour wait. But not just any shelters. Cassell said she wants them to incorporate public art to boost passengers’ spirits.
“I wanted to bring art to the community, bring the community together and lift everyone up to feel they matter and are worth something amazing, rather than having to stand next to a pole in the rain,” she said.
First Cassell won a $10,000 grant in 2017 via the Changemaker Challenge, a contest held every two years by the Columbia-based Horizon Foundation and United Way of Central Maryland. The grants target innovative approaches to addressing community needs in Howard.
Cassell said she used the grant to hire Eileen Gillan, a Baltimore mosaic artist, and pay for her materials. She convinced Howard transportation officials to pay to pour the concrete slab and install the shelter and bench.
Elkridge developer Mark L. Levy of H&H Rock Cos., whose firm had developed the CVS, got the bus stop moved to a larger space a few hundred feet down the road. Others donated mosaic tiles. Students from Maryland International School in Elkridge helped do the mosaic work on the Little Free Library.
It was Cassell’s “good energy” and ability to bring people together that Jen Lara said prompted her to suggest that Cassell apply for the grant. Lara, a professor at Anne Arundel Community College, had been Cassell’s educational psychology teacher several years earlier when Cassell was considering pursuing a teaching career, and they had stayed in touch.
“She is all about taking her skills and interests and doing good with them,” Lara said. “She’s just a good citizen, and she’s brave. She’ll take risks where other people may not.”
Gillan, the artist, said she also wanted to encourage bus riders. She recalled how she rode the bus 20 years ago for a couple of months when she couldn’t afford her car insurance premiums after losing her job while also going through a divorce.
“I know how stressful it can be” to have to depend on a bus, said Gillan, 59. “I wanted people to come in here and have their mood lifted.”
She said she made the mosaic of “Welcome! Everybody!” in reds, oranges and yellows to evoke the joy of a sunset and wove in uplifting messages like “Trust yourself” because it’s what she would have wanted to see.
“I would’ve loved to be someplace this cheery then,” Gillan said of her bus riding days. “I looked for hope wherever I could find it. These messages would’ve meant a lot to me.”
Bruce Gartner, administrator of the Howard County Office of Transportation, said Cassell’s efforts come as the county is trying to increase bus ridership to reduce traffic congestion and better serve students and aging residents. The county has shelters at 85 of its 490 bus stops and is looking to add more “where it makes sense,” such as at the busiest stops, he said.
The county also recently received a $400,000 state grant to add bus shelters and make other improvements at county bus stops used by state commuter buses, he said.
Gartner said his staff is working with Cassell to identify more places where artwork can be incorporated into bus shelters, though it might need to be donated by the nonprofit or private sector.
“We’re open to it,” Gartner said. “It is something that fits into our efforts to improve the convenience and attractiveness of the transit system.”
Bus rider Anthony Jones said he’s wondered how the artistic bus shelter on Route 1 came to be. He gets off there in the late mornings after riding home from his overnight shift at a gas station.
“I think it’s a marvelous idea,” Jones said of the artwork. “It gives it a little charm. It makes it warm and inviting.”
Smith, the handyman, said he’s ridden the bus for several months, since a drunk driver totaled his truck. He said he enjoys seeing which new books appear in the little library. He seemed surprised — and touched — to hear that someone in his community had led the charge to provide him shelter.
“Knowing there’s a good person out there doing this, that’s also a good feeling,” Smith said a few minutes before his bus pulled up. “If you see her, tell her thank you. It makes the rest of my day go a little better.”