Chairs appear at East Lawrence bus stops; city responds with plan for new amenities

Bus benches located at 15th Street and Haskell Avenue.

For the two years she’s lived in her East Lawrence apartment, Amber Hansen would frequently look out her window and see people standing and waiting at a nearby bus stop.

Hansen watched as bus riders sat in the grass, or — in the winter months — took shelter by stepping close to her building.

One day earlier this summer, Hansen and her fiance, Nicholas Ward, decided to do something about it. They painted the words “bus bench” on a metal folding chair and placed it at the intersection of Haskell Avenue and East 15th Street.

Bus benches located at 15th Street and Haskell Avenue.

“We thought it was really sad how everybody had to stand,” Hansen said. “There’s a particular man with a cane and he’s older and there often, and we were just like, ‘That sucks.’ So, on a whim, we got a chair and set it out there. The next day we saw somebody else sitting on it.”

Hansen’s and Ward’s action started a small movement that has led to more chairs and benches popping up at transit stops around East Lawrence. And Robert Nugent, the city’s transit administrator, said the makeshift benches “spurred the conversation” about Lawrence Transit System providing more amenities — a conversation that had been delayed during discussions about constructing a new transit hub.

The city’s Public Transit Advisory Committee approved a plan Nugent took to its Sept. 8 meeting that calls for benches to be installed at 15 bus stops around the city.

Lawrence Transit System will select high-priority locations and notify nearby property owners after city commissioners are updated on the plan, Nugent said.

A bus bench located at 11th and Delaware streets.

It’s uncertain whether any of the bus stops where people have placed their own chairs and benches will be chosen to receive more amenities from the city, Nugent said. He said he would “like to address some of that, if we can.”

“Usually on amenities, our standard policy is they have to have 24 on-boardings per day to justify a bench or a shelter,” he said. “None of the locations that have chairs in East Lawrence right now meet that standard. When you have 300 to 400 stops, you have to set some kind of minimum of activity.”

Nugent knew of three locations where people had placed chairs: 11th and Delaware streets, Haskell Avenue and Lasalle Street, and 15th Street and Haskell Avenue.

After spotting the chair Hansen and Ward placed outside their apartment, longtime East Lawrence resident KT Walsh added the two chairs at Haskell Avenue and Lasalle Street. She also put a bench at Fairfield Street and East 25th Terrace, which is now the pick-up spot closest to the Lawrence Community Shelter and Douglas County Jail.

Though some of the chairs are in the public right-of-way, they will not be moved until Lawrence Transit System can address peoples’ concerns and do an analysis about amenity needs, Nugent said.

Of the approximately 300 bus stops in Lawrence, 39 have covered shelters and another 21 have benches, he said. That includes Kansas University bus stops and shelters placed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and businesses such as Hy-Vee.

A bus bench located at 25th Terrace and Fairfield Street.

Nugent said the transit system had already identified four routes that need more benches and shelters. Those are route 9, 31st and Iowa streets to Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive; route 11, 31st and Iowa streets to KU and downtown; route 27, KU to Haskell Indian Nations University; and route 29, 27th Street and Wakarusa Drive to KU.

A program to improve amenities at bus stops has been on hold for almost three years while the city debated where to construct a new transit hub, Nugent said.

In July, city commissioners rejected the idea of locating the new hub on a piece of property at 21st and Iowa streets owned by KU Endowment.

Lawrence Transit System didn’t want to install shelters and benches before the city selected the new transit hub’s location, Nugent said. Construction of a new hub would cause routes and bus stops to change, and benches and shelters would have to be relocated.

“Pouring concrete and putting up benches is expensive,” Nugent said. “To pour $1,000 worth of concrete and have to take it out — it’s not free.

“Because the transit center is not on the agenda or on anybody’s radar screen right now, amenities is next. So, we’re moving forward.”

Improvised bus benches located at 16th Street and Haskell Avenue are pictured. The city is working on installing real benches at the location.

Nugent said it’s not yet known how much it will cost to install the 15 benches or when they will be set up. The city may hire a contractor to place all of the benches within a short time frame, or the Public Works Department could do it gradually, he said.

In the meantime, Walsh is continuing to place makeshift benches and encouraging others to do the same. She’s currently working to waterproof one chair for the intersection of 19th Street and Haskell Avenue.

Walsh is also hoping for the movement to spread outside East Lawrence.

At the Aug. 25 City Commission meeting, she asked others to set up chairs at bus stops throughout the city.

“We live in East Lawrence so we see a lot of people at the bus stops waiting, but now we have to keep an eye out for where the serious need is and constantly be collecting chairs and benches,” Walsh said. “I just think we should do the whole city.”