All across the United States, cities and towns celebrated their transit drivers for doing their jobs well on Transit Driver Appreciation Day, held every March 18. In Pine Bluff, however, not only was March 18 recognized, but the entire week leading up to Saturday was celebrated as Pine Bluff's Transit Appreciation Week.
Pine Bluff Transit Director Cassandra Shaw, who has five years with the company, said she learned about appreciation day in 2019 while in Pittsburgh for job training. "I wanted to bring that idea here to Pine Bluff because people don't think about transit if you don't have to use it," she said. "I want our operators to appreciate the job that they do and know it's a service job. We provide a service to people who sometimes don't have other options. We're working on making sure we can provide those services which can be challenging at times."
According to Nationaltoday.com, a website that tracks every calendar holiday and national day, transit drivers have existed for decades, but the day to honor them was not created until much later. This turnover in history occurred in 2009 after Hans Gerwitz and Shannon E. Thomas published a blog post regarding Bus Driver Appreciation Day. Once the concept was pushed on a media platform, the idea simply caught on and was promoted by local transit-oriented blogs in Seattle, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., according to the website.
In 2013, busdriverday.org was created in Portland, Ore., to encourage the day. The very next year, the idea further evolved and the website also added rail operators to the list. The name of the day was changed to Transit Driver Appreciation Day.
March 18 is the day chosen because the first bus line, 'Carrosses a cinq sols,' was launched on this day in 1662. This was the first modern form of public transport in the world when it became functional in Paris.
According to Pine Bluff Transit officials, Pine Bluff Transit is the oldest transit system in the state of Arkansas. The city of Pine Bluff has had a transit system since 1870 when it was operated by the private sector. In 1974, Pine Bluff Transit became a city-owned and operated transit system.
Every day last week Pine Bluff transit employees were given gifts of appreciation, such as complimentary cards and free lunches, by numerous sponsors. City Council Member Lanette Frazier, who is also the chair of Public Health and Welfare, stopped by daily to celebrate with the staff.
"I did work there, so I know how hard they work," said Frazier. "I know, especially since we don't have everything we need as far as drivers and buses, that they do the very best that they can and work tirelessly to make sure citizens get to and from where they need to go."
Frazier said Council Member Steven Mays also stopped by as well as other community members. "I'm so grateful for the people who donated the food," said Frazier. Frazier commended Shaw and her staff and said they did more than just drive your typical bus route.
"They even have a few organizations that utilize them so their clients can get to and from their destination," she said.
Shaw said they have several partnerships within the city that the city allows them to operate under.
"We have partnered with the food pantry to commute the homeless to get free meals, we offered free rides during the election to go vote, we worked with the Black Pilot Association when they come into the city by providing ground transportation because they fly in, and we partner with Parks & Recreation when they have their Forward Fest at Regional Park," said Shaw. "We do try to partner with the public as much as possible within the guidelines that the city entails and allows us to do."
Shaw is also working on strengthening her fleet of buses, expecting two brand-new ones to replace those that have exhausted their useful life dates by May.
"The past two years,... covid limited what we could do. The fleet is not as strong as it once was, but we are working on building that back up so we can provide a better service for the riders and the public," said Shaw, who added that the pandemic caused a delay with the buses being on back-order. "They have begun building our buses and we should have them soon."
Frazier said she also hopes for route expansions in the future as she sees similar-size communities expanding.
"I would like to see expansion in Pine Bluff to provide better coverage for our city," said Shaw. "We're kind of limited right now and I think if we could provide better transit access to a wider area of the public, I believe it will benefit the growth of the city."
Frazier agreed and said she and Shaw have had countless conversations about the possibilities and future of Pine Bluff Transit. With the two new buses on the way and a brand-new fuel dispenser in the works, Frazier said she is excited about the direction that transit is heading.
"It is about us all working together because we can't do it all by ourselves. It really takes city hall, the citizens, businesses and the support of the community," said Frazier. "I'm looking forward to what we can do to expand our services."
Buses operate from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. All routes originate from the transfer point, currently at Second Avenue and Pine Street.
There is no service on Saturdays and Sundays or on certain holidays. For more information go to https://www.cityofpinebluff-ar.gov/pine-bluff-transit.