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Crosscurrents
Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Buses, bromance, and bureaucracy: A love letter to public transit

The Bench Guys / Boys / Brothers of the Bench. Mingwei Samuel and Darrell Owens in Downtown Oakland preparing to install one of their DIY guerilla bus benches. March 21, 2024.
Leenah Bassouni
The Bench Guys / Boys / Brothers of the Bench. Darrell Owens and Mingwei Samuel in Downtown Oakland preparing to install one of their DIY guerilla bus benches. March 21, 2024.

This story first aired in the June 12, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

Darrell Owens and Mingwei Samuel are two twenty-somethings born and raised in the Bay. And they’ll do just about anything to keep public transit alive. Some might say the two Bay Area twenty-somethings are partners in crime, but in reality, Darrell and Mingwei just really love buses.

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Mingwei Samuel is having a hard time getting into his friend Darrell Owen’s Car.

Darrell pleads, "Bro, no. Just don't break my window. I know it's beat up, but I don't want it beat up even more."

Mingwei's trying to crawl through the window.

Darrell points to the roof of the car and says, "The nature of the straps makes it so that we can't open the back door."

So, what’s strapped on the top of Darrell’s beater? A homemade bus bench.

"In most cases, I think people who might be a little suspicious towards the bench just think we're doing something sinister. Like, why are these two young guys putting this bench out? What is this? Like a crime sting?"
Darrell Owens

Mingwei Samuel and Darrell Owens strapping their DIY bus bench to the top of Darrell's beater car. March 21, 2023.
Leenah Bassouni
Mingwei Samuel and Darrell Owens strapping their DIY bus bench to the top of Darrell's beater car. March 21, 2023.

I’m in the car with the Bench Guys or Brothers of the Bench, or...

"Bench Boys? CBS said Bench Guys, I think," Mingwei says.

"Oh, okay," Darrell responds.

"Which I like better than Bench Boys."

"I like boys better. "

"You like the alliteration?"

"Yeah, BBs. That's kinda cute."

The BBs and I are driving slowly through Rockridge, diligently dodging cats and pedestrians. They're going out of their way for buses and bikers, but they say the city is not.

The city's problem is that they don't care about bus riders. It is presumed that you ride the bus because you're poor, and if you make more money, you'll buy a car. 
Darrell Owens

There’s only one reason these two transit activists would be caught dead in a car. They’re trying to get a message to the city.

Build the bench. Every bus stop should have a bench. Prioritize transit riders just as you prioritize automobiles. Actually, ideally, even more so.
Darrell Owens

Their campaign— like a lot of them nowadays — all started with a tweet.

The tweet that started it all. November 1, 2023
Darrell Owens (@IDoTheThinking) on X.
The tweet that started it all. November 1, 2023

Darrell’s always noticed how many bus stops don’t have benches. Every time he saw a bus stop without a bench, he’d snap a photo, tag the city, and post it on social media to his large following of fellow transit defenders. The picture would inevitably go viral but his complaints and calls for action would fall through the cracks.

Darrell recounts, "Transit officials would see them and not really do anything about them."

Everything changed when Darrell’s somewhat socially adjacent online slash IRL mutual, Mingwei Samuel, saw one of the posts and decided to take things a step further.

As Mingwei recalls, "He posted to Twitter this picture of his neighbor who recently had, I think, knee surgery or something sitting on the curb, legs in the road, sort of askew, because there's no bench at this bus stop." 

Darrell Owens (@IDoTheThinking) and Mingwei Samuel's (@MingweiSamuel) first scheme on X. November 1, 2023.
Darrell Owens (@IDoTheThinking) and Mingwei Samuel's (@MingweiSamuel) first scheme on X. November 1, 2023.

Mingwei took matters into his own hands. He just built a bench, towed it over on his bike, and installed it at the bus stop and, he says, "It sort of launched this whole project."

Mingwei Samuel (@MingweiSamuel) posts on X the first bus bench he built and installed. December 17, 2023.
Mingwei Samuel (@MingweiSamuel) posts on X the first bus bench he built and installed. December 17, 2023.

The pair teamed up and learned how to makeADA-compliant benches on YouTube and from other local bench DIYers. Five months later they’ve installed more than 26 benches around the East Bay. And there’s no better bonding activity than talking buses and building benches.

"I don't know. I mean, yeah, we're kind of like bro's now. What is it like? Men have a male friendship problem. Hey, this is the solution. Go build guerilla benches."
Darrell Owens

That’s what we’re doing here today. We’ve pulled up on a bus stop in downtown Oakland. The pair throw on orange vests and crank loose the straps holding the bench to Darrell’s car.

Darrell zeros in on the right spot and riddles off the game plan, "That's perfect. This is good, just like that. Yeah, let's get to work. Mingwei will drill the holes. I’ll put the bolts in. And that's it. We should be able to do this in record time."

Leenah Bassouni
Mingwei and Darrell in Downtown Oakland. March 21, 2024.

Darrell isn’t exaggerating. The two programmers by day have got this down to a science. They dance around the stained wooden bench, carefully measuring the distance from the bus and the sidewalk. They drill long screws into the cement and blow the concrete dust away.

Mingwei preparing the drill for the guerilla bus bench installation. Downtown Oakland. March 21, 2024.
Leenah Bassouni
Mingwei preparing the drill for the guerilla bus bench installation. Downtown Oakland. March 21, 2024.

In about five minutes there's a new bench installed in downtown Oakland — just in time for the next bus to shimmy into the stop.

Mingwei and Darrell after their completed "sting" operation. Downtown Oakland. March 21, 2024.
Leenah Bassouni
Mingwei and Darrell after their completed "sting" operation. Downtown Oakland. March 21, 2024.

We run back to Darrell’s now benchless beater. Mingwei opens the door (he doesn't need to climb through the window anymore). And already, the boys are scheming their next “sting”.

As Darrell drives, he locks eyes with each benchless stop.

"All I start thinking about is more places that need a bench. And I'm looking at this stop here," he says.

There’s a certain sentimentality to Darrell’s passion for buses that melts into every level of his life. He and his girlfriend used to live along the same bus line and would travel up and down so often— friends dubbed them the 12-line bus couple.

"Riding the bus is romantic in many ways."
Darrell Owens

So the project is not really a "crime sting". It’s a love letter to public transit. And like any good love story, there are often invisible forces that get in the way. In this case, Darrell says those forces are city bureaucracy, public transit defunding, and inequitable public policies. This love letter is a challenge to those forces, a call to action, and a promise to hold city officials accountable.

Darrell explains, "You can complain but if there’s no threat to do anything, then people don't care."

And at first, it worked. When Mingwei installed that first bench last December, the City of Berkeley replaced it with an official one a few weeks later. So Darrell and Mingwi kept putting in benches in Berkeley and Oakland. But the cities didn’t replace any more of the benches.

Darrell says, "The response to it has mostly been actually pretty positive by government officials. And they've said like, wow, you know, this is awesome. These guys are going to put up the benches, you know, cool. And it's kind of like, eh, that wasn't exactly what we were going for. We wanted to shame them into doing it, not like cheer us on."

There isn’t publicly available data on the number of bus stops that have benches (there is however a list of bus shelters in Berkeley and Oakland).

The city governments are the ones that pay for benches, not AC Transit. I reached out to the cities of Berkeley and Oakland, but they didn’t provide comments. AC Transit said they don’t authorize the “citizen-installed bus benches”.

Darrell thinks that as funding for AC Transit got cut, ridership went down, which made cities less incentivized to invest in transit infrastructure. And then there’s the maze of bureaucracy to contend with.

"It takes years of effort just to do something basic like a bench. So I'm showing people, I'm showing the city. You can really do it if you want to do it. Matter of fact, the city even did it themselves when they replaced Mingwei’s first bench. They could have done that for years and they never bothered to do it until we did it ourselves." 
Darrell Owens

For the cool price of eighty bucks, a bucket of YouTube carpentry videos, an uncomfortable round trip in a beater car, and tons of determination, Darrell and Mingwei’s legally ambiguous project did indeed send a message. They got the city’s attention — and started a conversation about how most bus stops have nowhere for people to sit.

The thing is, the two buds wish they didn’t have to make benches. But, as we all know, love can make you do just about anything.

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Crosscurrents Audio Academy 2024Crosscurrents
Leenah Najeiah Bassouni is a 2023 Audio Academy Fellow. She is a Libyan archivist and open source investigator. Her work centers on Islamic dream theory, surveillance, and subversive radio histories. She is interested in the silences of the archive, dreaming new futures, and rugs. In her free time, you can find her digging for textiles or road-tripping.