The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nation’s neglected bus stops pose early test for infrastructure money

Bus shelters are a priority for riders but a rarity in American cities — exposing a gap between transit agencies and their customers

An R2 bus passes a stop tucked behind a crash barrier on Powder Mill Road near Hillandale, Md. (Ian Duncan/The Washington Post)

The shelter at Judy Stevens’s bus stop is no match for New Orleans’ fearsome rain. When it’s wet, she takes refuge under a gas station awning, then dashes to the curb in her rain boots when the bus arrives.

Even when it’s dry, Stevens, 56, begins the hour-long ride to her job as a medical technician in the dark. Riders shine cellphone flashlights on the bus stop sign to attract the attention of approaching bus drivers.

“When I go out of town, I take pictures of other bus stops and shelters and say, ‘This would be real nice if we could have this,'” she said.

Along much of the No. 94 route Stevens takes into the city, there are no shelters. That pattern is repeated across the country: Less than one-fifth of more than 122,000 bus stops served by 16 of the nation’s largest transit agencies have shelters, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

Shelters are a priority for bus riders looking for somewhere to stay dry or to sit down after a long day at work. As record levels of federal transit funding begin to flow from last year’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, plans for thousands of new shelters present a test of whether Washington’s promises to focus on racial equity and the environment can quickly translate into benefits for transit users.

Much of the new federal funding is likely to go to major projects like new rail lines or pricey electric buses, but advocates say transit leaders have a chance to show they also can cater to passengers who often lack other means of getting around.

Transit agencies are struggling to make ends meet. They’re also preparing for record federal investment.

Steven Higashide, director of research at advocacy organization TransitCenter, said the lack of bus shelters in American cities underscores a lack of interest in making basic improvements to transit service.

“Bus riders are more likely to be people who are marginalized in U.S. politics — more likely to be people of color and more likely to be low-income people — and that’s one reason why the state of bus transit has been so insufficient,” he said.

During a transit center ribbon-cutting ceremony this week in Illinois, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the Biden administration is breaking with the past in prioritizing transit investments.

“The commute has not always been an easy one, especially for people who had to walk blocks between transfers or had to wait outside in the elements, and otherwise found that their workday began on unpleasant terms sometimes, thanks to the disinvestment of past generations that has now been replaced by a commitment to investment for the future,” he said.

Many large transit agencies are planning for more shelters as they redesign bus networks, aiming to make the most widely available form of transit more appealing. The Department of Transportation is seeking to encourage those efforts, helping cities find ways to tap highway funding to rebuild sidewalks and improve bus access.

Wide disparities exist in shelter coverage on major bus networks. More than 40 percent of stops in the Las Vegas area have shelters, the result of a campaign launched a decade ago. In the Washington region, about 27 percent of Metrobus stops have a shelter. In Pittsburgh, the figure is about 8 percent.

“Why this number is low compared to our peer agencies would only be speculation on my part,” said Adam Brandolph, a spokesman for the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which operates the Pittsburgh region’s bus system. He said the agency is working to install more.

Higashide said the $109 billion in transit funding from the infrastructure law offers a chance to rethink who benefits from federal spending as agencies put a new emphasis on long-neglected bus stops.

Alex Wiggins, chief executive of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, acknowledged the region’s leaders haven’t always invested in the kind of infrastructure riders want most. The agency has set aside $1 million for the coming years to install shelters and won a federal grant for two transit hubs designed to protect from the weather.

“As we continue to provide transit mobility through the pandemic, the real focus is what do our customers need,” Wiggins said. “Comfort and safety are really at the top of our considerations.”

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Other transit systems have similar plans. The Maryland Transit Administration secured funding for shelters in Baltimore under a grant program expanded by the infrastructure law. A $414 million plan approved by voters in Houston in 2019 calls for overhauling bus service and expanding the number of shelters. The system in recent days celebrated reaching 2,500 accessible stops.

In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority launched a plan in 2019 to overhaul transit service that aimed to double the number of shelters. A rider survey that year showed passengers ranked shelters and benches as a top way to improve comfort. The agency also cited research that found better stops reduce perceptions of how long passengers wait for a bus.

The New Orleans plan also points to challenges. Shelters can be bought for as little as a few thousand dollars, manufacturers say, but prices can run much higher. The RTA expects to add 25 more by the end of this year at a cost of $33,000 each. Supply chain bottlenecks are also driving up prices and delivery times for aluminum.

“It has been a struggle to get material in,” said Larry Hagan, a project manager at manufacturer Austin Mohawk. “The lead times have gone from eight weeks to eight months.”

Red tape could also present an obstacle. In response to questions from The Post, some transit agencies said they couldn’t provide complete data on their number of stops with shelters because responsibility falls on the local department that maintains city streets. In other parts of the country, shelters are maintained by private companies who use them as billboards.

Transit advocates say passengers also need safe, accessible sidewalks to get from their homes or work to the bus stop.

Jessica Meaney, founder of Investing in Place, an advocacy group in Los Angeles, said the city’s sidewalks often don’t comply with requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, making it difficult to get more shelters installed. A sidewalk must be eight feet wide to accommodate a shelter, according to LA Metro.

Paul Gomez, spokesman for Los Angeles’ Department of Public Works, said officials are trying to address the problem. The city began a sidewalk repair program in 2016, he said, and “is in the process of having a new street transit and amenities program that will include more bus shelters.”

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The Department of Transportation in recent weeks launched an effort to help state and local agencies consider how to use highway dollars to repair sidewalks and improve transit stops. A significant chunk of the $350 billion in highway funding included in the infrastructure package can be shifted to projects on local streets, including bus shelters, according to the department.

The department highlighted a project in the Houston suburbs as an example of the possibilities. Texas officials used federal highway money to upgrade sidewalks with the goal of making it easier to get on buses.

Transit agencies are also facing a slump alongside the influx of federal money. Many lost riders and fare revenue during the pandemic while also struggling to recruit bus drivers. In the short term, some agencies are battling would-be riders’ fears about crime. In the long run, increased telework means some riders might never return or will ride less frequently.

Despite the difficulties, Higashide said adding more shelters and improving sidewalks wouldn’t have to be a huge effort in many cities.

“There is a lot of low-hanging fruit that would make riders’ lives better and draw new riders into the system that doesn’t require a lot of planning,” he said.

The experience of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada suggests major improvements are possible. In 2011, officials at the Las Vegas-area agency launched what became an $18 million campaign to move bus shelters back from the street and install more of them. The agency also tapped $4 million in federal funding to improve lighting.

In New Orleans, Stevens said making shelters more widely available would be a sign that leaders care as much about the workers who are as vital to the city as the tourists they serve.

“What about them not getting soaking wet when they get to work?” she said.