Evidence that the buses will soon be gone is scattered all over Williams Park. The shelters are now missing, torn down in the middle of the night this past weekend. Signs warn riders of the impending changes.
For decades the downtown St. Petersburg park has been a hub for routes in and out of the bustling core. Come Valentine’s Day, those stops will be scattered throughout downtown to make the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority route structure more of a grid and less of a hub.
But like anything, the change won’t always be easy. Walk through Williams Park during the day and into the evening and the sight has always been the same: Buses come and go almost constantly while riders shuffle on and off the buses sometimes as a final destination, others to hop on a connecting route.
Now those people will have to figure out where to catch their preferred lines and how to get around the city in a new way.
To answer questions, PSTA CEO Brad Miller has spent time this week at the park. Clad in a neon yellow safety vest with PSTA emblazoned on the back, Miller bounced back and forth between stops, braving the unseasonable February heat to talk with riders and answer questions.
On Wednesday, the mood was mostly consistent. People didn’t care so much about why the buses were moving out of Williams Park or even how the changes would affect the system as a whole. Words like hub and grid didn’t mean much to riders who rely on public transit to get to and from work, doctor’s appointments and even the grocery store.
They just wanted to know, “Where do I get the bus?”
Miller dutifully answered.
“The 5 runs along,” he paused satisfied with the correlation, “along Fifth Avenue.
Of course it runs along Fifth Avenue North heading out of downtown, but because the street is one-way through much of downtown, it runs along Fourth Avenue North going East into the city.
A similar correlation between route and street number also exists for route 4. It runs along Fourth Street.
Some listened to Miller intently as he pointed to dots on a map showing them where their new stops would be. One man who usually caught a bus to and from St. Petersburg College downtown, just across the street from Williams Park will have to walk a few blocks to his new stop to hop on the 5 out of downtown.
Another woman who works for All Children’s Hospital at their call center will actually commute less with the changes. Miller explained how she can now catch the bus right outside of her house and get off a few miles later. Under the current system, that same woman had to ride into Williams Park to switch buses and then double back toward the hospital.
Miller handed each rider he spoke with a pamphlet of the new routes. Each page shows one of the downtown routes with one map showing an overview of the entire route and another showing a zoomed in map of just the downtown section.
The result is more bus stops spread throughout downtown instead of just Williams Park. Routes spread closer to the waterfront. They span farther north and south. They plop riders, ideally, closer to their destinations.
While the maps were meant to be a resource for riders, many found them hard to read.
“That’s my 10-minute focus group,” Miller said, acknowledging that several riders had lamented the maps were hard to understand. One man reminded him he wasn’t a college graduate and said the maps were “made for morons” even though it seemed likely what he meant was actually the opposite.
That’s why Miller, along with PSTA board Chairwoman and St. Pete City Council vice Chairwoman Darden Rice canvassed the park to reach as many frequent bus users as possible.
Though there were more than a few glazed-over eyes staring at the new maps, people were generally accepting of the changes to come.
“They really do just want to know how this change is going to affect them,” Miller said.