Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority employees spent weeks canvassing Williams Park and other parts of downtown St. Pete to educate bus riders on the new and updated routes coming in and out of the area. As of Feb. 14 bus stops are dispersed throughout downtown rather than being centered at Williams Park.
The swap was an intentional shift from the decades-old hub system to a more modern grid system.
Twenty PSTA employees responded to a survey asking how many interactions they had while serving as a “bus ambassador” and what the most common feedback was. The respondents indicated there had been at least 1,000 interactions during the days leading up to and following the change.
Among the most reported issues were riders wanting to know where their stop will be now that buses are no longer making stops at Williams Park. PSTA officials anticipated that would be the biggest question on riders’ minds and created a pamphlet filled with maps showing the current route and the updated route for each one that stopped at Williams Park.
But that led to another commonly lamented issue with the new system. Several PSTA respondents said residents were confused by the book and found difficulty making sense of it. Most respondents, however, indicated that riders seemed satisfied once the changes were explained.
One PSTA employee wrote older people were not happy with the changes. One PSTA rider, a woman described as elderly and living near First Avenue, told a PSTA ambassador she had to walk home from the grocery story with her groceries. It’s not clear from the description of the woman’s issue where exactly she could have caught a bus. However, stops are available at the downtown Publix and all along both First Avenue North and South. Another elderly woman reportedly claimed she had to walk farther than before.
That rider complained that the homeless should have to be the ones leaving Williams Park, not the buses. That theme was reportedly common among PSTA users who complained the changes were only being implemented to rid Williams Park of the homeless.
Both PSTA and officials with the city have repeatedly assured residents and PSTA customers that was not the case. Instead, the new system is meant to better serve bus riders and tap into more potential transit users with stops spread throughout downtown rather then centered at one location.
Still others complained there are not enough bus shelters or benches now that changes have been implemented. PSTA officials say more benches will be added in the future.
Many riders also expressed the need for more stops. PSTA officials remind users that more stops mean longer ride-times on the bus.
PSTA is working with the city to find ways to increase transit use. Mayor Rick Kriseman is pushing for implementation of a bike share program that would help solve the “first-mile, last-mile” problem associated with riding public transit.
And in a separate move, PSTA announced Monday a new pilot project to give discounts to bus riders who take an Uber or United Taxi to and from the bus stop. If successful, CEO Brad Miller hopes to expand the program to other parts of the city. If such a program were available in downtown, it could alleviate some of the concern with having to get to the bus stop if it’s a long walk or during inclement weather.