Malcolm X once said that “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” And so we found ourselves in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn at the first annual Bedford-Stuyvesant Malcolm X celebration, as guests of the Malcolm X Merchants Association (MXMA). We were there to educate ourselves about the community’s experience using mass transit in their neighborhood, with the intention of improving the transit service in the community by equipping local stakeholders with tools to influence the transit planning process.

When people think of the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, or Bed-Stuy as it’s better known, transit may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But as with many other urban centers, transit was a key factor in its development, growth, and sustenance.

In 1888, the Fulton Street Elevated line, operated by the Kings County Elevated Railway (KCERy), began operation. It connected the Fulton Ferry with Bed-Stuy. The next large transit infrastructure project was the development of the A subway line, which connected Harlem with Bed-Stuy. The new subway line led to an exodus of African-Americans from overcrowded Harlem to Bed-Stuy. From that point on, the neighborhood has grown into one of the most vibrant in the Brooklyn metropolis.

Bed-Stuy is now served by the A and C subway lines at the Utica Avenue, Kingston-Throop Avenue, and Nostrand Avenue subway stations, the B46 and B25 bus lines, and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). An extensive list of services compared to many other American communities. But is that translating into quality service for the travelers to and from Bed-Stuy?

The statistics tell us that the Utica Ave. subway station, which is at the intersection of Fulton Ave. and Utica Ave., on the A and C lines, carried 4.46 million passengers in 2008, making it the 101st busiest station out of 422 in the City. And although we don’t have a count for how many bus passengers board the B46 at that intersection, we know that the B46 carried 17.3 million riders in 2008, giving it the second highest ridership out of all NYC’s bus lines.  While these numbers are impressive, they don’t tell us the full story of transit service in Bed-Stuy. They don’t explain how and why people use transit, and what improvements could be made to accommodate even more users, and perhaps more importantly, to make the community a better place.

Before we get into the survey process and the results of the survey, I should describe the basis of this project. It is part of a Federal Transit Administration research grant intended to develop tools for public participation in transit-dependent communities. PPS has been working in two pilot study sites, one in LA’s Byzantine Latino Quarter and the other in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. Local stakeholders, community activists and merchants have been meeting over the past few months to try out some of these tools. In Bed-Stuy, PPS has worked with the Malcolm X Merchant’s Association and Bridge Street Development Corporation (BSDC) to hold workshops and focus groups that will pilot our public participation tools and, simultaneously, create a community vision for Malcolm X Boulevard and Utica Avenue Plaza.

We went to the Malcolm X festival to gather the type of qualitative information that traffic reports often lack. We set up a table on Malcolm X Avenue, in between a vendor selling homemade earrings, and another vendor selling very random trinkets, with the hope that a few interested people would stop by. We had with us two tools to understand the community’s interpretation of their transit service — one was a short survey regarding the quality of pedestrian journeys, and the other was a large neighborhood aerial for a Destination and Route Mapping exercise. The survey had basic questions that we used to determine people’s destinations, preferred paths, and thoughts on how transit stops could be improved. The map was used to determine positive and negative areas in the community, as well as the paths people chose to get to or avoid those places and why.

Before we knew it, our table was swarmed with community members. The wealth of nuance that they gave us was tremendous. Many of the participants in our research had been living in the community their whole lives and their family histories go back several generations. That’s no small measure in a city as transient as New York City! They described their streets down to the most minor detail, as if they knew them like the back of their hands. “Don’t go down Stuyvesant between Bainbridge and Chauncy after dark because it’s not lit well enough,” one woman said. Another woman spoke of the well-kept landscaping on Decatur between Malcolm X and Patchen. “What about that wine bar opening up on Lewis?” “I don’t like those drug dealers on Fulton,” “There’s Solomon’s Porch on Stuyvesant!” People were blurting out things left and right. Within a few hours our map was filled with green and red dots, and we had 25 completed surveys in our back pocket.

Many community members are not involved in the transit planning process, and as a result, transit service is not catered to their needs. Instead, it is designed to meet the parochial benchmarks of transportation engineers – “level of service” and so on and so forth. But “level of service” isn’t always the best measure for level of service; it doesn’t consider the café down the block that people might want to walk by in the morning to get coffee, or the fact that a vacant block across the bus stop might attract seedy characters. Our pilot project is intended to understand the reality of a community’s transit needs, and equip them with tools to influence transit service to it adapts to that reality – a bottom-up approach, not a top-down approach that we’ve seen far too often.

During our research the community’s main concern regarding their transit experience was safety. Participants mentioned fear of crime in places where certain infrastructure such as lighting was missing. Nevertheless, there was a clear sense of neighborhood pride that people shared. The community spoke with confidence that the streets were theirs, and there was always a glimmer of confidence in their words that they were restoring their community from an era where it suffered greatly from crime, poverty, and political neglect. With the tools that we are helping to develop for Bed-Stuy, and eventually, other transit-dependent communities, we can play a role in empowering them to improve their journey from point A to point B. We want everyone dancing while they wait for the bus, like this gentleman waiting for the B25 in Utica Plaza.