An announcement from the Winston-Salem Transit Authority about the suspension of fares was direct, and disarmingly so.
“Effective Wednesday April 15, 2020, all WSTA fixed routes and paratransit services will be fare free until further notice,” it said.
Obviously, in a rapidly constricting (and possibly collapsing) economy, that’s good news. A $1 a ride, particularly for those with limited or fixed incomes, adds up fast.
But there’s a Part II to that welcome news, a sequel orchestrated by a 15-year-old girl named Sarina Jarrahi Horner who thought that WSTA’s limit of two bags per rider — which includes a purse — added a level of difficulty to the already onerous task of grocery shopping with a bus as your only transportation option.
“We have relaxed that rule,” said Donna Woodson, the general manager of WSTA, “and we’re working to change it (permanently).
“It’s been interesting. I did wonder why (Sarina) was interested in transportation.”
It’s a good question. And the answer is even better.
‘Really persistent kid’
That a 15-year-old high-school kid, a student at Forsyth Country Day, would be interested in the policy details for public transportation is, to put it mildly, unusual.
Relying on city bus service to run errands, get to work or visit the doctor just isn’t in the day-to-day for most teenagers.
Indeed, the first time I spoke to her on the phone, her mom had to call her inside from skateboarding.
“She’s a really persistent kid,” said Shaida Horner. “We’re really proud of her.”
The way forward for a high school student to start lobbying public officials was a straight line, one that required some patience.
Government policies, for good reason, don’t change overnight. Input from many sides is required, as is consideration for unforeseen circumstances. Don’t solve one problem only to create three more.
Take the two-bag rule. At first blush, to those of us used to dumping five or 10 at a time in trunks or backseats, it sounds overly restrictive.
But when you consider the reasons behind it, the rule isn’t as far-fetched as it would seem.
“It can be hazardous if somebody has more bags than they can handle,” Woodson said. “They can block aisles and create a tripping hazard. Rolling cans, too. They can be projectiles.”
Still, limiting carry-ons makes shopping more difficult for people who can’t just hop in a car and drive a few blocks to a grocery.
Food deserts are real things, and stores just aren’t on every block in some neighborhoods. Choices can be limited.
Sarina developed an interest in food deserts while attending last summer a leadership camp, and heard about the two-bag rule while doing research on it.
She learned about the challenges faced by users of public transit by reaching out to the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility at Winston-Salem State University and its director Craig Richardson.
“I just thought ‘Why is (the two-bag rule) necessary?’” Sarina said. “So I asked a few adults ‘What if I tried to get it changed?’
“Nothing bad can happen if I try. All they can do is say no.”
‘A great outcome’
Armed with the necessary facts and background, Sarina started at the top with Winston-Salem City Council and the city manager’s office.
From there, she was guided toward WSTA and made her way to Woodson. She emailed, called and got some face time — a key for any successful lobbying effort.
Better, Sarina didn’t just go to complain.
She came with potential solutions including proposals to install floor-level racks similar to what you might find for luggage on an airport shuttle or overhead storage bins like those found on planes.
Those options, as you might expect, are going to involve more study for feasibility and for expense, always a consideration in spending public money. “So many things to consider,” Woodson said.
The ultimate answer may be complicated, but note that it is not an outright, “No.”
Sarina, as you would expect from a bright person absorbing leadership lessons at an early age, has been quick to deflect praise to Woodson and WSTA staff for being willing to listen.
“I know that was hard (to relax an old rule),” she wrote in an e-mail. “WSTA is listening to what citizens are saying and is being flexible with the times by being open to exploring all kinds of alternatives.”
The times, of course, is a reference to the coronavirus outbreak — another smart talking point. Allowing riders to carry more groceries and limit exposure in grocery stories.
“I didn’t expect this great of an outcome,” Sarina said by phone after her skateboarding excursion. “I just wanted to impact my community.”