Residents have placed chairs at several bus stops.

For weary bus riders, especially seniors and people with disabilities, comfortable seating at bus shelters is a necessity. Even while many governments expand bus service, they often regard seating as an unaffordable or unneeded luxury. In one corner of northern Virginia, a group of residents have crafted a grassroots solution, giving their neighbors a place to sit while they wait for the next bus.

Many cities have removed older bus shelters with wide, fixed benches, which had become viewed as havens for the homeless. Newer shelters are few and far between, and offer seating designed to deter or control people rather than comfortably accommodate them.

Without seating, many bus riders are forced to stand for 20 or more minutes. That is neither compassionate nor is it acceptable customer service. As governments are unable or unwilling to provide suitable bus shelters, maybe it’s time for local communities to step in and help out their neighbors.

The fundamental problem is that quality bus shelters are not cheap. Standard shelters cost approximately $7,000, and a lighted shelter with an electrical connection can run $60,000 or more. Compliance with the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act can have the perverse effect of pricing improvements out of reach. Sometimes, compliance is physically impossible as many bus stop sites lack the required space for improvements that are ADA-compliant. In a bind, governments often opt to provide no seating at all.

Comfortable seats on the cheap

A solution to this seating problem has emerged at 10 bus stops along major thoroughfares in Arlington and Falls Church. A local resident and his helpers have been adding simple, comfortable chairs to previously bare bus stops. Taking photos, they have documented the use of these seats over time, confirming a latent need for dignified seating at the region’s bus stops.

These guerrilla do-gooders scavenged on trash nights for durable and comfortable plastic lawn chairs. They modified the chairs with a drill to include holes in the seat for improved rain drainage, and a leg mounting point for a security chain.

Based on the number of bus riders they observed waiting and the availability of suitable space on the sidewalk or grass strip, this cadre identified optimal locations for the ad-hoc seating.

With used bike chains (also scavenged) and a chain tool, they secured chairs to bus stop poles within the public right of way, largely safe from tampering or vandalism.

Searching for “appropriate technology”

Ironically, in our industrialized, high-tech nation, these locals have followed an approach that harkens to strategies applied in developing countries. The principle of “appropriate technology” is characterized by grassroots, sustainable, lower-cost, lower-tech solutions to basic human needs — technology such as these chairs.

Still, Americans may yet find applications for the same lower-cost, lower-tech principles. Decades of underinvestment in public space and infrastructure have left a backlog of needs. Inflexible regulations and funding mechanisms sometimes discourage immediate solutions in favor of waiting for rare moments when large infrastructure investments can be made at once.

At a time when many House Republicans urge an end to all federal support of transit, it’s unlikely we’ll see large infusions of funds to support this old strategy. Our governments and our communities need to start making small, incremental improvements, with more appropriate technologies that can be adequately maintained.

Saving on seating

For many older riders, or those with disabilities, standing can be a significant enough imposition to drive them away from using the bus. If bus stops are more comfortable to wait at, some of these neighbors might be able to use convenient buses more often, and others might be able to choose buses over more costly paratransit vans.

Arlington has already begun an “adopt-a-stop” program to maintain public bus stops. Perhaps other residents there (or elsewhere) will be inspired to provide the low-cost “appropriate technology” seating solutions that government currently cannot.

After all, in just a few months, a group of engaged residents was able to provide a public accommodation useful to hundreds of people. All it cost them was their time and a few dollars of gas money.

Matt Caywood is a DC resident and co-founder and CEO of TransitScreen, which brings live transit information displays into public spaces all over the world. He co-founded Mobility Lab’s Transit Tech project and is an advocate for open transportation data.