Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bus shelter benches

So, recently the District of Columbia has undertaken a project to replace all of the crappy old bus shelters in the city with a shiny, modern version.

Now, in general this is a good thing. The old bus shelters? Well, not every stop had a shelter, for one thing. And they were generally old and rusty and most of them didn't have any information posted on them, and some of them didn't have benches. So a new, informative, clean (for now) shelter seems like a good idea. See?


But I do have a complaint about these new shelters. My complaint is that the benches suck. And this is a bigger issue than it seems at first.

So what's wrong with the benches? Well, they are very narrow, and they're also rounded at the sides, and they also have raised notches demarcating the seats (three in total). In short, they aren't comfortable, even to sit on for a minute. And if ever a bench should be designed with comfort in mind, it's in a DC bus shelter, given that often one has to sit there for a very long time because DC buses are not exactly known for their punctuality.

But this is not some accidental design error. No, the Washington Post quotes someone from the District Department of Transportation as saying that they wanted benches that were comfortable (whoops) but "discouraged long-term occupancy." In other words, DC doesn't want homeless people sleeping in their bus shelters.

I understand that having homeless people sleeping in bus shelters is less than ideal. But I think that comes from a larger problem. Having homeless people sleep in parks is less than ideal. Having homeless people sleep on the sidewalk is less than ideal. Having homeless people sleep ANYWHERE is less than ideal because people being homeless AT ALL is the problem to begin with. I really do not think that homeless people consider a bus shelter bench to be the ideal bed, either.

Originally, I thought this was a huge waste of money on the part of the District, money that could be better spent improving or expanding homeless shelters, for example. But the article in the Post says that the bus shelters are maintained by Clear Channel in exchange for control of the ad space, and that this contract to replace them is actually worth $150 million to the city.

In which case, one would think, some of that money could be used to address the homelessness problem in the city, right? Since we are apparently trying to kick homeless people out of our bus shelters? But no, the money is going toward DC's street improvement initiative. Another worthy project, of course. But I tend to think that providing for the basic needs of the worst-off people in the city is more important than a road improvement project. At the very least, the money could be split among multiple projects.

But instead this whole thing seems to me to be just another instance of marginalized citizens being pushed even further aside in DC's quest to make the city seem shiny, happy, and scrubbed clean.

What do you think?

36 comments:

JulyBug said...

NYC has the same new bus stops. Very futuristic, I expect a flying car to go by at any minute. I think you hit the nail on the head with the problem not being homeless people sleeping on the benches but people with out a home or place to go.

Aurora said...

There seems to be a lot of fear about the supposed power homeless people have to pick where they sleep for the night. I agree, making the benches uncomfy is a mean.

LA & BD said...

The benches don't even LOOK comfortable. ~LA

LoriD said...

You are so right. Uncomfortable benches will do nothing to help the homeless; it will just move these people, already down on their luck or mentally ill, to other parts of the city where they can be further maligned and marginalized. Messed up priorities.

Tessie said...

Are THAT many homeless people really sleeping on bus stop benches in the first place? Doesn't seem like it would be a very good option.

I never understand stuff like this because it obviously doesn't do anything to solve the problem they're trying to solve. It's just shifting people from one undesirable place to another.

lfar said...

But I tend to think that providing for the basic needs of the worst-off people in the city is more important than a road improvement project.

Isn't that the basis of communism?

I care about homeless people just as much as anyone else, but would you rather get an uncomfortable seat or not even feel comfortable waiting in the shelter because somebody is sleeping there?

I'm going to take the other side and say I support uncomfortable seats.

lspoon said...

I have a very strong opinion about the homeless. One that many probably don't share b/c it's harsh. By no means do I think myself cruel in my way of thinking, but realistic.

I feel like many of the homeless today feel like if they can't do a certain thing in life then they might as well be homeless. This is a completely ridiculous way of thinking. Is flipping burgers really worse than sleeping in a cardboard box...or an uncomfortable bus stop bench?

Becky said...

We aren't a big city, but Duluth has a lot of homeless people (supposedly they come here because we have good programs for them - probably because it's 40 below 0 all winter and letting people actually sleep outside would be the equivalent of murder). I agree that instead of using all the money to repair the roads in DC, at least SOME of it should go to support organizations that help homeless people get back on their feet.

When people say that we should not help the homeless it is usually because they assume that they are all in that position by their own fault. Many times that is not the case. It could happen to any of us - especially in this economy.

pessimisticredhead said...

I agree 100% with you. Our country's homeless problem is a tragedy. We spend more time and money shuffling these people out of our ATM cubicles, off our bus benches, and away from our store fronts when our time and money should be spent getting the people the help they need. Thanks for posting about this.

Erin said...

Did you know that in some cities, it is a crime to be homeless? Okay well not the homelessness itself, but the sleeping somewhere that is not a "normal" dwelling? Yeah--there are places where people get arrested for sleeping on the sidewalk or even in their cars! So, even though the seats are supposed to discourage people from sitting there, at least your city won't arrest someone and slap them with a criminal record (making finding a job and a place to live even harder) for sleeping there.

Deutlich said...

I agree wholeheartedly.

Sizzle said...

It saddens me that this is where our priorities lie- in making a buck, not in helping a fellow human being. But all over the world we see it. If big business could put their money towards changing social problems, we'd be a lot better off.

Nilsa S. said...

Personally, I believe bettering a city involves many steps. Sure, there should be priority to those steps. But, if a very large corporation is willing to contribute to one over another, it will allow the city to focus on the hundreds of other things to improve. Having said that, it would be nice if Clear Channel (a freaking enormous conglomerate hated by many) would donate X% of its advertising revenues to the homeless shelters in DC. Then, they are making an even further impact.

Michelle & the City said...

i completely agree with you. they've obviously addressed that homelessness is a problem when they released the bench project. why not add to that and say, so because of that the proceeds of this project will help the homeless in our city find a better place to sleep! i mean that makes more sense to me.

Swistle said...

I was all "Hear, hear!" all the way through this post.

Julie said...

My first thought at seeing the picture was Jeez! those benches are super tiny! Interesting explanation for their tinyness, though. Having worked with homeless persons in the past, I am unfortunately pretty cynical. There are those who are legitimatly homeless and they will come to shelters with genuine need. Then there are those who CHOOSE to be homeless and sleeping on a bus stop bench is just fine with them. Perhaps these new bus stops will address the homeless issue, just coming at it from another direction?

L Sass said...

They don't even put benches in any of the NYC bus stops near me. We have lots of new fancy glass bus stops too... but I find them kind of creepy for some reason!

bren j. said...

Any time that material things take precedent over human life - I have a problem with that. I'd be perfectly willing to stand at a bus shelter for an hour if it meant that a hundred extra dollars could be spent to help out somebody who really needs it and would appreciate it.
I feel the same about the whole 'blood-diamond' debate. It's one thing to decide you're not going to buy a 'bad' diamond, but what are you doing to directly help the families and children who mine them for a living? Just buying a fancy 'good' diamond isn't enough.

And as much as standing at a bus shelter that long can't be fun, I guess I would consider it calories well burned.

nancypearlwannabe said...

Out in Rochester, NY, where Chris is from, they had a contest for anyone who wanted to enter. They had to redesign all the city bus shelters around a common theme. I can't say that the results were comfortable, but they sure are interesting looking.

sid said...

Our bus shelters doesn't have seats. Instead of a bench it is just a pole. Maybe I'll take a picture one day to show you what I'm talking about.

Penny said...

As an occasional bus passenger, I have to applaud the effort to create benches which will not be used as beds, toilets or homes, because it certainly isn't doing mass transit any favors to have all their stuff stink to high heaven all the time. But I do agree that perhaps the city could have donated a part of their profits to homeless shelters as a nod to the (however inconvenient) previous use of the benches.

Sucks that they're so uncomfortable for everyone now though.

Jennifer @ The Cubicle's Backporch said...

I agree with everything you said. It's like 'plan around the homeless' instead of 'help the homeless'.

Sigh.

SLynnRo said...

Way to miss the mark, DC. I mean, I see their point, but if they are making so much revenue here, why are they not using it (at least some of it) to help people? Regardless of why someone is homeless, it is in all our collective best interest to help them. I don't think comfy benches encourage homelessness!

Banana said...

It is terrible, but unsurprising that priorities have shifted away from the neediest causes. It seems to be a really depressing trend.

Vanessa said...

I think Clear Channel controls entirely too much in our country and the idea of independent advertising, or playing independent bands has become totally lost. I hate it. When I go to a different city I want to hear local music, not the same music from the city I just came from. I understand every band wants to make it big and be national, but Clear Channel squashes the little guys.

Ashley said...

How funny, I work for Clear Channel. Should I really publicly say that?

I completely agree with you though, the money should be spent on other necessities, such as helping the homeless. I think every big city wants to seem so squeaky clean and it is the wrong way to go. I think, regardless of the comfort the homeless will be around.

Way to go CC...geez! In regards to Vanessa's comment...I could go on for days and days, radio is in the blood. I'll spare everyone.

Stefanie said...

I tried to take a nap over my lunch break in a park near my office one day (What? It was nice outside! And I was really, really tired that day!), and I had the same suspicion about the benches--that they were intentionally designed to be comfortable for only a few minutes at a time. And the city I work in doesn't even have a homelessness problem. (No. Really. I doubt there's a single homeless person there.) I guess city government figure they can never be too cautious?

Leaf, probably... said...

I'm all for having a pretty city, but sometimes I do think that the funds could go towards something a little more worthwhile.

j.m. tewkesbury said...

I think there isn't a jurisdiction in this country that doesn't wish homeless people would just somehow disappear. It's easier to pretend the problem isn't that bad, or pawn it off on multiple agencies, or appeal to the goodness of people's hearts and wallets than it is to actually find lasting solutions.

While I don't relish the thought of seeing homeless people sleeping in bus shelters, I'd much rather see them there than on the sidewalk or in the dirt. If we can't figure out how to be part of the solution and how to help them be part of the solution, the least we can do is not exacerbate the problem. Clear Channel and the city government should be ashamed of themselves.

My two cents...

Kate said...

It's hard- I'm appalled by the meanness and the money, but I do hate it when there are people sleeping in *my* bus shelter, or when it smells like a urinal.

But overall- I'd rather the homeless have somewhere to sleep than I have somewhere to park my butt.

Amber T. said...

That doesn't make any sense to me...why sacrifice comfort for asthetic value?

Are You Willing to Change? said...

I completely agree with your whole post!! It makes me glad that I don't live in a large city...We only have a few bus stops, and I don't see them replacing the benches anytime soon.

Artemisia said...

I GUARANTEE those benches are PURPOSEFULLY made to be uncomfortable so that no Unsavory Types might not use them as a bed. Mustn't let the Unsavory and Unfortunate interfere with the daydream of the Well Off.

Piss me off.

Sorry - that sounds really bitchy, doesn't it? Eh - I am leaving it in my comment.

And everyone is uncomfortable with them, too!

You are right - it is part of a larger problem and part of censoring what is and isn't The Public. And of who decided what and whom The Public are. (this is related to my thesis - can you tell?)

Princess Pointful said...

I'm actually reading a book right now called Sidewalks, which is about sidewalk culture (homelessness, street vendors, etc) in Greenwich Village. It talks a lot about how stupid little decisions like that can change where hundreds of people sleep at night.

Anonymous said...

A lot of people are complaining, but I don't see anyone inviting the homeless to crash on their couch for a few weeks while they get things sorted out...

lacochran said...

Well stated! You've hit the nail on the head.

Years ago I read how McDonald's changed to uncomfortable plastic benches so people wouldn't get too comfortable there, either. Turnover, you know.

For all the nasty things that Marion Barry did while he was Mayor, I was told that he opened up City Hall on cold nights so homeless people could take refuge when the shelters were overcrowded and the streets were lethal.