“I can get cross, and I can get angry,” says Charleston attorney and public transit advocate William Hamilton. “But, when we toy with the time of people’s lives — people don’t live forever.”
Enduring persistent, burning pain, Hamilton’s colleague, Mary, sometimes donned eye-catching costumes, hoping to light a new passion and need in her community for public transportation. She went to farmers markets and community events, bringing others into her life and becoming a voice for them until she was no longer able.
There came a point for Mary when she was too sick to continue her work and too sick to wait on transportation to a hospital. She spent a painful life showing people why accessible transportation was so important for Charleston.
Mary’s story, and others like hers, keep Hamilton going. “Every hour of Mary’s life was important, and she spent hours waiting on buses in the rain.”
Reflecting on how Mary’s life could have been different with better transit, Hamilton sighs. “So when they say that I need more patience — I don’t know how a city that is facing the ocean covering it in the next few years won’t hurry.”
Not everyone is spending their final days at bus stops. But, there are others dedicating too much time traveling local roads and sidewalks because of transportation issues in the area.
“Those are dramatic things, but what about the person that can’t get home until 6:30 at night?” Hamilton asks. “How much of their children’s lives do they miss? How many empty seats are there at PTA meetings and community theater performances?”
Fortunately, people like Hamilton have been a voice for this group of people for some time now. Hamilton has been a fixture at public meetings and speaking up for the last 33 years, but he has taken an even more active role in the last decade while maintaining his active law practice.
“He’s a hero …” says Dana Beach, founder of the Coastal Conservation League. “There have been very few people who have been out there consistently from the beginning, saying we’ve got to have a better transit system. He’s one of them.”
Hamilton reaches out to his community through public demonstrations, letters, conversations, flyers, leaflets, and more. No method of communication goes ignored. And with his group, Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit, he isn’t alone.
“He did what a great leader does and saw that things weren’t going as well as they should have been,” Beach explains. “He ramped up this group to put pressure on local governments to get citizens involved, and all of that has been necessary, and apparently not yet enough, to get things moving.”
One of the major challenges with transit advocacy is the people who need transit are often the ones who struggle most to get to events and meetings. Many are held at night, and when the buses stop running, they can leave people stranded. Over time, Hamilton says, many local bus riders are demoralized to the point of apathy.
Not only that, but the obvious financial hurdles are on the front of some minds.
“The lack of funding from various sources, particularly the state level, makes it very difficult to expand services the way everyone wants,” says Daniel Brock, regional strategist with the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments. “A lot of good is being done with the resources in place, and if we add to that from the state level, I think we would see some progress.”
Between the need for more money to make meaningful change, and the ever-present need for people demanding it, it’s easy to lay down and ignore the problem. So, advocates for transit often need to be voices for those who have already given up.
“We looked at the historical pattern of growth and land consumption, and Clemson’s Strom Thurmond Institute came up with a predictive model,” Beach explains. “The question was this: If we don’t do anything different, what is this region going to look like?”
Hamilton believes that it isn’t a question of what it will look like, but rather, what it is already becoming.
“The struggle became picking your way through the tourists to reach the locals,” he says. “If locals can’t reach each other, there is no city. The reason we need this transit system is that we won’t have a community anymore — you’ll have a bunch of people in cars fighting each other for space … I can remember a radically different Charleston from 1980.”
While Hamilton admits we have more sheltered bus stops than the community had in the past, he says transit is still trending downward. Bus service to the beach and the western side of the peninsula has been cut. Worse, he says this service has dropped while the people who need it are still there.
Besides local people, the environment as a whole has felt the impact of car-centered planning.
“The growth in Hilton Head is a good illustration of what could have happened everywhere, and more of it,” Beach concludes. “The trajectory of growth and environmental abuse was clear and devastating. The challenge we had was to, one: wake people up, and two — and both of these were equally important — was to give them an alternative.”
The alternatives are already planned and all-but-ready to be put in place. One of these options is the Lowcountry Rapid Transit line, a 26-mile corridor planned that would provide accessible and efficient public transit connecting Summerville and Downtown Charleston.
Hamilton and Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit have proposed other transit hubs and centers that will become the hearts of communities built around them. In either case, these types of projects may not be prioritized without support from others as driven as Hamilton.
“If you’re under 30 in Charleston, you need to stand up and get involved now,” Hamilton says. “You need to demand a community that works for you and rewards you the way Charleston rewarded me when I was 30 … You’re told the system won’t listen, but you show up with 20 people, it will listen. Show up with 100, and they’ll do something. Show up with 1,000, and it will happen the next day.”