Cambridge seniors collaborate with city to pinpoint public transit challenges

By Sara Feijo


Steve Demos recently walked the hallways of the MBTA Alewife Station, pinpointing the pros and cons of public transit for seniors in Cambridge.

His snow-white hair was pulled back, and he sported a neon yellow and black backpack with a stylish green cane as he recalled the frustration that can sometimes come with riding the bus.

"There are bus drivers that see you coming and pull away and bus drivers that see you coming and very generously stop and wait for you to arrive," Demos said. "I’m so happy when somebody sees me shaking the cane and they stop, and I’m pretty pissed when the opposite occurs."

For seniors like Demos, the city’s public transit system can, at times, be difficult to navigate. The bus service, they say, can be infrequent or unreliable, many bus stops are not covered, and there are some seasonal maintenance issues, especially when snow plowers push the snow into the stops.

"The cover waiting for the bus out there (at the corner of Cambridge and Lambert streets) is a big issue," said Elaine Shrewsburry, one of the seniors who lives at the Millers River Apartments. "There’s a long bench out there, but no cover."

According to Shrewsburry, seniors have to endure rain, snow and cold temperatures while waiting for the bus during the winter months, and many struggle to cross the curb on the corner of Gore and Lambert streets.

"The curb on the corner of Gore Street and Lambert Street is a mess," she said. "They have to put the rubber thing in there so that people in wheelchairs can cross."

In an effort to assess seniors’ experiences with public transit, the city is currently in the middle of conducting a two-year transit strategic process.

"We have had some really wonderful conversations with folks about some of the barriers and challenges to access the transit in Cambridge," said Jennifer Lawrence, sustainability planner for the Cambridge Community Development Department.

"The city is hosting a transit strategic planning process to look at all types of access issues, barriers to getting to transit, to funding transit, the kind of infrastructure that we have around buses and trains, and everything that has to do with public transportation in Cambridge," she added.

Lawrence and staff working on the healthy aging and public transit project hosted four meetings with seniors and 11 walking tours around Cambridge to get the inside scoop on the transportation barriers, she said.

The goal is to identify barriers and obstacles to using public transit in Cambridge, said Conor Semler, the consultant for the healthy aging and public transit project.

"In the end we are going to generate a list of all of the obstacles that we heard and identify the top priorities to go out and do a project," Semler said.

According to Willa Crolius, director of the user-expert laboratory and coordinator of public programs at the Institute for Human Centered Design, seniors raised concerns during the walking tours about the signs at bus stops, which face the cars instead of pedestrians, being unable to find staff at MBTA stations, and having a hard time understanding intercom announcements while riding the T.

"A big issue that came up over and over again was people not being able to find (T) staff to ask questions, which helps them feel safer to have people to talk to," Crolius said, adding that seniors were confused about the difference between Charlie cards and Charlie tickets and that many didn’t know about priority sitting in the subway system.

Staff working on the project will present a report to the Transit Advisory Committee in the fall, and the board will address the top priority using a grant from Cambridge in Motion, a community transformation grant that aims at promoting healthy eating and physical activity, Lawrence said.

"We will be implementing one of your recommendations this fall, and then the short-term, medium-term and long-term goals will be put into this plan," Lawrence told a group of seniors at the Millers River Apartments on June 25. "The short-term are things that we can do as a city. The medium are the things that we would probably still do as a city, but will take a little bit longer, and the long-term is the stuff that we will push the state and the T to do."

Willa Crolius, left, director of the user-expert laboratory and coordinator of public programs at the Institute for Human Centered Design, and Fernanda Jordani, right, also with IHCD, take a public transit walking tour with former Cambridge resident Steve Demos, now of Maine, at the Alewife MBTA station. Wicked Local Staff Photo / Brett Crawford

Serving my hometown at CEA

Cambridge is the city I have lived in for my entire life and it has always been a very “green” city to me. Having this idea in my head when I was assigned to work with the Cambridge Energy Alliance (CEA) I had the idea of it being a relaxed job, but it has been the opposite. The women and men that work in the CEA have one of the hardest jobs, because they are trying to teach the city about how to become energy efficient.

In the past week I have learned about the many challenges that the CEA is taking on and the programs that they are offering. I have been working very closely with the Race to Solar program, which helps non-profits earn solar panels by helping small business become energy efficient, by doing several different types of canvassing. These canvases have given me the opportunity to learn about the non-profits and the small businesses in the city. During these canvasses I go door to door, into non-profits and small businesses to promote solar panels and energy assessments.

Along with working with the Race to Solar program, I administer renter surveys. This part of my job has to be my favorite because I get to talk to people who live in the same city as me and sometimes the same neighborhood. I find great pride in administering the surveys because I know the CEA will use the information to help the renters.

It is has only been a week and two days and I feel that I have learned so much. I cannot wait to see what else I learn about the CEA and about the programs they run.


Internship at CEA

Looking out the window today, I can really see how different Cambridge is from my home back in Los Angeles, California.  It’s July 16th, dead in the middle of the summer, and storming; I haven’t seen anything like it before!  What brought me to the East Coast for the summer is an internship at the Cambridge Energy Alliance (CEA), where I get to learn about and advocate for energy efficiency and sustainability.  Interning at the CEA is providing me with an irreplaceable experience filled with learning, working, and having fun.

It’s already the middle of my third week here, and everything I’ve done has been amazing.  Most of my time has been spent doing outreach such as administering surveys and advocating for a solar paneling program.  From standing in the middle of the sidewalk waving people down, to walking in and out of non-profits and small businesses, I have had the opportunity to be the go-to spokesperson for energy efficiency in Cambridge.  People have even come up to me while on the job to ask me for directions around the city, as if I am a local!

Canvassing in its own has been quite an experience.  We do a couple different types of canvassing, like street canvassing and door canvassing.  Many times when I’m on the sidewalk, people ignore me as I try to engage them in a conversation, but other times people actually stop and take time out of their days to speak with me.  It’s awesome when people stop to talk to me, even when they are not eligible to take the survey or participate in the program.  My experience has taught me how to interact with people from various walks of life, and how to cope with whatever situation arises.  In order to canvass, you must always be on your toes, ready to react with speed and accuracy.

With only a week and a half left of my internship, I’m excited to see what’s left to come.  I will be sad to leave this whole experience behind, but I look forward to taking what I learned while I was here with me into the future.