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Pandemic heightens concerns for bus riders

By John Railey

CSEM Reporter

   Brittany Marshall of Winston-Salem, who has ridden Winston-Salem Transit Authority buses for much of her 27 years, is used to waiting for buses in heat and cold and buses not always running on time. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened concerns for her and other riders.

   “You’re at a greater risk,” she said this week. Marshall was the subject of Diana Greene’s short documentary about local transportation, Bus Stop Jobs, that CSEM commissioned in 2018. Since then, Marshall has aligned with CSEM in promoting dialogue about improving local transportation.

   Marshall works as a receptionist for United Way of Forsyth County. With the pandemic, her in-office time has been limited, but she still needs go in a few days a week. She also needs the bus to get to the grocery store.

   The buses are not as crowded these days, she said, but “you don’t know who’s coughed on what or sneezed on what. You have to take extra precautions riding the bus. You have to protect yourself, You have to protect your children.”

   Her  9-year-old son, Elijah, rides the bus with her. She makes him wear rubber gloves and a scarf over his mouth. She wears gloves. She makes sure they both frequently wash their hands.

   For its part, to allow for “vehicle disinfectant procedures throughout the day,” WSTA says in a notice on its website,, it has temporarily halted some routes. That is understandable, and the disinfectant procedures are certainly necessary.

   These days, however, are especially hard for bus riders. Time has always been an issue for them. In 2018, CSEM commissioned a study of riders who use Winston-Salem Transit Authority buses to get to work. One of the study’s most troubling findings: Those riders spend an average of 12 hours a week on buses, time that could be spent on activities ranging from job advancement to helping their children with homework.  

   “The effect of urban sprawl and long commutes is that it places a hidden tax on folks without a car - a time tax,” Craig Richardson, CSEM’s founding director, said recently. “Everything from grocery shopping to job-hunting to accessing medical care now has an extra hour tacked on. That is equivalent to a car rider driving to High Point to see a doctor, Walkertown to get groceries, and Lexington to get to work- sometimes all in one day. All that means it’s very expensive to be poor.”

   Time is now all the more precious for bus riders. They might encounter long waits in grocery stores. People with cars can drive from one store to another to find commodities like toilet paper, but that is an ordeal for bus riders, who have to switch from one bus to another, now with limited routes.

   Other matters get put on hold as well. Marshall got her driver’s license last month, but her long-held dream of buying a car is stalled by delays associated with the pandemic.

   She will not give up on that, or in promoting better public transportation. She, CSEM, The Winston-Salem Foundation, Forsyth Tech, Wake Forest University and others are part of that effort.

   “There are lot of issues that still need to be dealt with,” she said. “But bringing attention to them is the first step.”

   John Railey is senior writer and community relations consultant for CSEM. He can be reached at