THE MIDLANDS Transit Riders Association is proving that grassroots organizing still works.
When Midlands transit officials were exploring the best route to implement in restoring service to the Village at Sandhills, they designed a path from I-277 to Fontaine Road to Two Notch Road.
But the Transit Riders Association, which formed after the passage of the Richland County penny transportation tax that funds the public bus system, offered an alternative: I-277 to Parklane to Two Notch.
Bus officials accepted the recommendation, presented it to the public and it “was very, very well received,” said Bob Schneider, executive director of The Comet.
That’s the kind of impact the riders association has had. And the group is a welcome partner, Mr. Schneider said, adding that transit officials need to hear from riders. “They have the ears of the riders. We do too. But they have a different ear of the riders,” he said.
The transit chief said it makes sense to embrace input from a group whose goal is to improve riders’ experience. “Why can’t they decide how we get from A to B?” he said.
The group has a spot on the board’s monthly agenda to report on its efforts as well as a non-voting position on the service standards committee.
“It’s not automatic that whatever they want they get,” Mr. Scheider said. Nor do transit officials and the riders association agree on everything, he added.
But the partnership is critical. If bus officials don’t listen to their customers and work to meet their needs, how are they to build an effective system? At the same time, The Comet must strike a balance in terms of being cost effective and crafting a vision to draw new riders — people now driving cars.
During a recent visit to the newspaper, Walter Durst and Keith Seymour, president and vice president respectively of the association, rattled off a list of route and other service adjustments that have been made as the association and transit officials exchanged ideas. Mr. Durst said the change the association suggested in the Sandhills route came about because of information from riders.
The same can be said for efforts such as pushing for Sunday service to be restored sooner than The Comet intended. Mr. Durst said he was among those who had been unable to go to church because of a lack of service. “I hadn’t been to church in two years.”
Mr. Durst said said he appreciates the relationship with The Comet. “They actually listen to us, which I think is a plus,” he said.
Mr. Seymour said the idea isn’t for the organization to be antagonistic, although there are times when riders have to be forthright. “We basically advocate for better bus service,” he said, adding that this is the first time transit officials have had rider representatives that weren’t hand-picked.
“We don’t work for The Comet. We’re not anti-Comet either,” Mr. Durst said. “But we work with The Comet because of the fact that we’re the voice of the riders. They accept us because we work with them.”
The riders association isn’t publicly funded and sets its own agenda. The organization, in an effort led by the S.C. Progressive Network, officially launched in April 2013 with only a few dozen members. Today, there are about 300 members, Mr. Durst and Mr. Seymour said.
Their group’s focus is simple: Give riders more say in decisions made about public transit. The association’s goals include educating the public about the benefits and challenges of public transit, facilitating the voice of riders, pushing for affordable rider fees, advocating for efficient service with expanded routes and schedules and calling for safe, well-maintained shelters and stops.
During our conversation, Mr. Durst and Mr. Seymor said they’d like to see Lexington County embrace transit, more late-night routes and other improvements. And they’d like to see The Comet marketed in a way that more people at least give transit a try.
“If people would just think about riding it just once,” Mr. Durst said. “We’re not saying give up your car.”
Both say that ads on the buses as well as the way transit is marketed sometimes work against drawing a broader cross section of riders. “There is a stigma to the bus system where only thugs ride it,” Mr. Seymour said.
But that’s not true, he and Mr. Durst noted.
“There are all kinds of folks that ride the bus,” Mr. Durst said.
As the liaisons between bus riders and The Comet, association leaders do their best to get results, Mr. Seymour said. “We try to communicate with them as far as saying this bus was inexcusably late; you have to do something.”
“I think because of our existence there is more trust for The Comet,” he said.
Mr. Seymour said they are not only liaisons with top transit officials, but with bus drivers as well. They often keep the drivers in the know, he said. “We find out a lot of stuff even before the bus drivers find out.”
The drivers are key to rider safety and comfort, Mr. Seymour said. “They catch a lot of grief from riders,” he added.
That grief isn’t always warranted.
Mr. Seymour recalled a time when there was a downpour and a bus in the Bush River Road area was 45 minutes late. That naturally leads to rider complaints. While he’s among the first to let transit officials know when something is wrong, he said, this one wasn’t the driver’s fault, and he called to let transit officials know that traffic had been held up because of accidents.
Mr. Durst said the riders association makes sure it lets drivers know they are appreciated. “If we see a driver who goes out of his or her way to help a rider, then we recognize them,” he said.
As active as the riders association is, don’t expect to see it involved in the discussions as the transit authority board makes its biggest decision yet: choosing a new bus operator.
Mr. Durst said riders aren’t overly concerned about who gets the contract. “We don’t really care as long as the routes are improved and the hours are improved and the service is improved.”
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.