An Interview with the Man Responsible for L.A.’s Bus Benches

These new metal benches began appearing late last year. In some cases they are replacing the old plastic benches, and in other cases are coming to stops that have had no benches at all. Photo: L.A. Urban Soul/Flickr

As Damien has noted previously new bus benches are popping up around Los Angeles as new bench provider Martin Outdoor gets up to speed following the city council awarding the contract in August 2011.

To find our the status of the program I contacted Lance Oishi, Contract Administrator for Streetscape Development and Coordinated Street Furniture Programs at the city of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services, who kindly responded to a set of questions I emailed him.

Gabbard: what is the status of the program?

Oishi: The contract with Martin Outdoor Media (Martin) was signed on October 4, 2011, so they’ve been moving forward with the City’s bus bench program for a little more than 4 months now. Martin started fabricating their new benches for Los Angeles as soon as the contract was signed and installed their first 25 replacement benches on October 25 & 26, 2011. Since then, they’ve been primarily focused on continuing the replacement of the existing bus benches left behind by our previous bus bench contractor. The City’s Holiday Street Closure moratorium and a glitch with their bench fabricator slowed Martin’s installation efforts in November and December; they’re moving forward as expected at this time without any further impediments. Martin will continue to maintain both their new benches and the older existing benches until such time, the older benches are replaced. To date, Martin has replaced/installed over 800 new benches.

Gabbard: Has working with Outdoor Martin been productive and positive?

Oishi: From our perspective, working with Martin has been both productive and positive. They have been very responsive to requests or concerns raised by the City.

Gabbard: It appears so far Outdoor Martin is replacing existing benches with the new steel ones. When will the next step (benches at stops that lack benches now) start?

Oishi: Martin’s plan to roll-out new furniture was to primarily replace the existing, old, plastic bus benches during the first program year, and ensure that all Council Districts had at least 225 benches by the end of the first year. So Council Districts that currently have less than 225 bus benches will see new benches at new locations during the first program year, and Martin began installing some of those new benches this month. During the 2nd Program Year, Martin will continue to complete the replacement of any remaining existing plastic bench, install new benches at new or requested locations, install trash receptacles at 50% of the bus bench sites, and ensure all Council Districts have at least 300 bus benches.

Gabbard: What will be the process by which bench locations are decided?

Oishi: Let’s start out by clarifying that there were approximately 5,250 existing bus benches City-wide when Martin’s contract went into effect. That means that after replacing all of the existing benches, Martin will need to provide/install another 750-800 new benches at new locations to reach the 6,000 benches contemplated by their contract. Replacing the existing benches is considered priority 1 right now.

Next, when Martin signed it’s contract with the City, there were 8 Council Districts that had less than 300 benches; 5 of those same Council Districts had less the 225 benches. Martin will need to install some 600-650 new benches in these 8 Council Districts to bring them up to that 300 bench threshold. Having a minimum of 300 benches in each Council District is a contractual provision to ensure there is some parity in the placement of benches City-wide and to ensure benches are provided where they might be needed most. In determining where the new benches will be placed in these 8 Council Districts, our contract specifies that the new bus benches are to be provided and installed according to the following priorities (1) transit ridership needs, (2) community demographics, (3) Council Office/District requests, (4) BSS/Department requests, (5) the availability of bus stops and bus stop zones, and (5) Martin’s site preference. i.e. a busier stop is going to be prioritized higher than a less busy stop; a stop serving multiple bus lines/transit connections will be prioritized higher that a stop serving only a single bus line. Similarly, placing new benches in communities designated as being transit dependent will be prioritized over placing benches in non-transit dependent communities, etcetera. Overall, placing new bus benches required to ensure each Council District has at least 300 bus benches is priority No. 2.

Priority No. 3 is going to be to install new benches at new locations in any of the 15 Council Districts. After replacing the existing benches and ensuring that all CD’s have a minimum of 300 benches, Martin will be looking to install at least 100-150 additional benches in new locations. The provision of these 100 to 150 new benches will be prioritized as mentioned above. i.e. (1) transit ridership needs, (2) community demographics, (3) Council Office/District requests, (4) BSS/Department requests, (5) the availability of bus stops and bus stop zones, and (5) Martin’s site preference. If the need and opportunities exist, Martin may install benches above and beyond 6,000 benches. Once Martin has installed 6,000 benches, the City and Martin will assess such needs and opportunities to determine an appropriate amount of additional benches that might be warranted.

Gabbard: How involved will Councilmembers be in deciding where benches should be placed?

Oishi: Starting in late November/early December, Program Management Staff began reaching out to individual Council Offices about the program. We are currently trying to work with them to set up public outreach meetings in their respective districts to let their constituents know about the program, how things are progressing, etc. Typically, when a Council Office receives a call, request, or inquiry about our Program, they come directly to either myself or Shannon Eastenson, who facilitate the program on behalf of the City and we then work with them to address the specific request or inquiry.

Gabbard: How will the program avoid the NIMBY parochialism that afflicted the street furniture program?

Oishi: We hope/anticipate that our outreach efforts will off-set some of that parochialism that you mention. Outside of that, all existing bus bench sites have a “grandfathered” permit in place so for a large majority of the bus bench sites, Martin will have the ability to simply replace the bench. At new bench locations, Martin will be providing Program staff with a list of sites and we’ll be approving them at the department level. Any sites that might contested by a property owner, community group, etc. that can’t be resolved administratively between City Program staff and Martin will be referred to the Board of Public Works for a hearing. The Board will make a determination one way or the other on contested sites, and the Board’s determination will be final.

Gabbard: What is the status of the trash cans that half the benches are supposed to have?

Oishi: As mentioned above, Martin will begin to install its trash receptacles in year 2 of the Program. Martin will assess all of the bus bench sites to determine where they’ll be placing their receptacles. Bus stops with trash receptacles provided by others (a community group, BID, CBS Decaux, or other City program) will be by-passed and Martin will know, based upon the amount of litter they remove during their regular maintenance visits, which stops will need a receptacle more than others. In the interim, if there is an existing receptacle provided by our previous bus bench contractor that was left in place, Martin will continue to maintain that receptacle until they’re able to replace it with their own.

Gabbard: Where is the phone number benches are supposed to have for the public to request maintenance?

Oishi: Martin had a bunch of stickers made up late October/early November last year with their toll free number (855) 441-1300 on it, and their crews were supposed to be placing them on the benches as they did their maintenance rounds. This is the 2nd or 3rd time I’ve heard from folks in the past month that they didn’t see a phone number on a bus bench, so I’ll check on it with Martin. It could be that they didn’t adhere properly to the (old) benches, or that folks are peeling them off, or any of a number of things. At a minimum, the numbers should be found on the new benches. One or two complaints from different areas of the City could just be an anomaly, but 3 or 4 complaints starts a pattern so we’ll get this resolved quickly. UPDATED

FOLLOW-UP….We checked with Martin on this situation and they confirmed that they were placing the stickers with both the phone number and a bar-code (to track inventory and maintenance) on the benches. The stickers are being placed on the back-side of the benches on a lateral support bar. Upon further discussion, we mutually agreed that the stickers were perhaps too small to be noticed, so Martin is producing larger stickers with more prominent lettering and will be replacing the smaller stickers with them (in the same location on the back-side of the benches). We asked Martin why they weren’t placing their stickers on the front-side of the benches and they told us that when they’ve done that in the past, the stickers were subjected to incessant vandalism and were usually peeled off.

Gabbard: Has Outdoor Martin started making presentations to local neighborhood groups and/or Councils?

Oishi: Please see my reply above regarding your question about how involved the Council Offices will be in deciding where benches should be placed. While we/Martin have spoken to a few interested community groups that were directly referred to us by the local Council Office, we are still working on the logistics of setting up community outreach meetings City-wide.

Gabbard: How durable is the paint?

Oishi: One of the reasons why we selected Martin as our finalist through the RFP process was specifically because of the coatings used on their furniture. Their bench coatings are a type of proprietary thermal plastic that not only facilitates cleaning, graffiti removal, and repair of scratches/etching, but it also dissipates heat so it enables folks to sit on a bench, even in the middle of summer in direct sunlight, without scorching their back-side. This coating is similar to what is found on a lot of commercial playground equipment, and it is applied to the bench seat and back. The bench arms and legs are covered with a high-gloss nylon powder coat that also facilitates maintenance and graffiti removal. Both coating types have proven to be extremely durable and are anticipated to out-last the program’s 10 year term.

Gabbard: Has cleaning of graffiti begun?

Oishi: Upon execution of their contract, Martin was/is required to maintain not only their new benches but also the older benches left behind by the previous contractor. While they’ve attempted to keep the old benches clean, we’ve come to find out that the pebbled surface and in many cases, the age of the benches, have made it very difficult to remove graffiti from those benches. The age of the bench material is critical because the recycled plastic resin that the old benches are made of oxidizes over time with exposure to the sun and this oxidation facilitates the adhesion of paints to its surface. Outside of that, Martin continues its twice weekly site visits and removes litter and other detritus from the benches and their surrounding areas.

Gabbard: And has there been testing to verify if the benches will become uncomfortable to sit on during hot summer days?

Oishi: Unfortunately, we have not gone through a summer season yet with these new benches so we’re unable to verify how much heat gain actually occurs with this new coating material. We’ve had a few 80 degree Santa Ana days but nothing in the 100′s just yet; so far, no complaints. That being said, Martin’s previous base of operations was in south Florida which has its share of hot days; their operations manager guarantees us that this material performs as claimed. We’ll find out soon enough.

Gabbard: I have been told the e-mail for the local Outdoor martin office is martinoutdoorinfo@gmail.com Can this be used to report benches that need maintenance?

Oishi: I’m not familiar with that e-mail address. For maintenance requests, the preferred method for contacting Martin is to call their toll-free number, which is once again (855) 441-1300. Constituents may also call the City’s 311 Service Request line, or the BSS Call Center at (800) 996-2489, or e-mail BSS at bss.boss@lacity.org. As a last resort, constituents may contact Thavern Kim of Martin Outdoor Media at their office (310) 559-1600 or tkim@martinoutdoormedia.com.