By Kea Wilson
When I met Ms. Mary, she was lying on the ground two blocks away from her bus stop, her hip broken in two places.
It was a stroke of sheer luck that I was even on that road. Taking Jefferson Avenue is the fastest way to get to my favorite neighborhood park, but unless I’m particularly bored of my usual jogging route, I try to avoid it, because it’s a six-lane arterial with two highway on-ramps and notoriously short crosswalk signals. According to Ms. Mary, most of our neighbors avoid Jefferson, too: she had been lying there in the cold for about 20 minutes before I found her there, reaching desperately for a cell phone that had tumbled out of her purse and halfway down the grassy hill on the other side of the sidewalk. Ten feet away, drivers whizzed by, occasionally turning in to the strip mall parking lots that flanked the road, but no one stopped for her.
While I waited with her for the ambulance to arrive, Ms. Mary couldn’t stop crying from the pain. But mostly, she said, she was crying because she was ashamed of herself: she was on a new medication that made her feel dizzy sometimes, she explained, and while she was walking the five long blocks home from her grocery store, she had suddenly felt unsteady on her feet and knew she needed to sit down, and fast.
“I thought there must be a bench somewhere,” she said. “I was so silly. I thought I could find one in time, but then my feet just went out from under me. I should have known better.”
I thought of Ms. Mary again this week when Twitter erupted in outrage at the lack of seating at the newly minted Moynihan Train Hall (aka the new Penn Station), save a handful of chic Scandi-style lounging areas reserved for ticket-holders — or, as Streetsblog NYC succinctly put it, “the exclusive domain of the Haves, not the Have Nots.”
Like countless other sorry transit stops across America before it, Moynihan Train Hall seems to have been largely denuded of places to rest, the very architecture of the space all but demanding that that visitors pass the time by spending their cash in the station’s adjacent restaurants and shops.
Ms. Mary probably wouldn’t have fared terribly well if she’d had a dizzy spell there, either, but at least she probably would have gotten help from a bystander a little sooner than on the side of a car-centric road in the middle of one of St. Louis more populous neighborhoods.
When we talk about increasing access to sustainable transportation, many street safety advocates fail to talk about placing benches with anywhere near the fervor with which we talk laying train track or building bike lanes. Public seating is too often seen as a luxury: something to make the wait for a behind-schedule bus a little more tolerable, or to offer a pleasant respite during an afternoon stroll in a park. Attempt to assess the walkability of your neighborhood street using the AARP walk audit tools, and you won’t even see the word “seating” mentioned until the 12th page — in the section labeled “comfort and appeal,” sandwiched between questions about whether the street has flowers and if the landscaping is attractively maintained. It’s a nice-to-have, sure, but it’s not a page-one necessity.
But for countless people, comfortable public seating isn’t just aesthetic: it’s a matter of basic safety and essential dignity. And its absence in the transportation space sends a deliberate signal about who we welcome in the public realm, and who we don’t.