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About that Bus Shelter Tweet: Street Services’ Demo Draws Attention to Sorry State of L.A. Bus Stops

Earlier today, a tweet from Metro in support of the Bureau of Street Services' pop-ups on potential bus shelter designs featuring the above image quickly drew a lot of, er, shade.

People across the twittersphere dunked on a design that proposed minimal seating for minuscule bottoms, provided zero protection from the rain, and offered less protection from the sun during the times of day/year when it was needed most.

Screen Shot 2021-07-22 at 3.50.15 PM

For what it is worth, the story behind Metro's tweet is (only somewhat) less alarming than many had imagined.

The Sunshade blade proposed by Outfront/JCDecaux is not meant to replace existing shelters or be used in places where more traditional shelters might be built now or in the near future. Instead, if it were to be deployed, it might be at a subset of the stops around the city currently populated by just a pole. It could also be used in places where the sidewalk is too narrow to accommodate more substantial street furniture.

Though the image was taken in 2012, this little no-man's land separating a service lane from busy travel lanes on Vermont (at 81st) continues to be abysmal. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

As a choice between that or nothing, the Sunshade could help bring many of L.A.'s forlorn and neglected stops into the semi-modern age, with real-time bus information and outlets where phones and other devices could be recharged. [You can see some of the other designs for more complete shelters at the pop-up demonstrations here, here, and here.]

Screen Shot 2021-07-22 at 6.11.10 PM

But the fact that it is being considered as an option at all speaks to how broken our approach to serving bus riders is.

For one, in most cases, it is the municipality, not Metro, that has a hand in determining which bus stops get blessed with shelters or benches. And where the street furniture contract is negotiated with an advertising firm (e.g. in L.A., West Hollywood, Inglewood, Long Beach, Pasadena, and Alhambra), the amenities are likely to show up in wealthier, less transit-dependent communities where the advertising opportunities will generate more revenue.

As we noted in our 2012 story about L.A.'s 20-year contract with Outfront/JCDecaux,

Because [Outfront/JCDecaux's] profits are tied to advertising, they have a greater interest in placing shelters nearer more affluent commercial districts. On their website, they market themselves to potential customers as being strategically placed in “top locations,” namely “Main Upscale Neighborhoods,” “Key Entertainment Venues,” “Major Sports Venues,” and the “Largest Universities.”

Meanwhile, the convoluted permit process the city imposed so councilmembers could better control where shelters went and how much advertising cluttered their sidewalks proved a significant barrier to getting structures approved. Thus, the contract L.A. signed back in 2001 that should have put 2,185 shelters on our streets by 2011 allowed for just a third to be installed during that period.

With that contract expiring this year, advocates have called attention to the need for any new contract signed to truly serve bus riders and to properly protect them from the elements, among many other things (check out Investing in Place's full thread on twitter).

Over the last several months, Street Services has been evaluating the proposals it received and conducting public outreach around the street furniture program. After identifying Tranzito and Outfront/JCDecaux as the top two bidders, Street Services subsequently asked them to conduct public demonstrations of some of the technology they could be populating our streets with... which led to the demo/pop-up tweet that sparked this whole kerfuffle.

Hopefully Metro and Street Services will welcome the clamor. It is not always easy to get people hot and bothered about buses or long-term contracts for city services. What we saw on twitter today was a revolt against hostile architecture - specifically, ableist designs meant to discourage the unhoused from being able to rest in public places but which also end up making spaces hostile for everyone - and a desire to see bus riders treated with dignity.

With the climate crisis upon us, that call for better, more attractive, more inclusive, and more environmentally responsive infrastructure (and more non-palm trees!) aimed at encouraging more bus riding couldn't come at a better time.

Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A man stands in the shadow of a telephone pole on Figueroa near 85th. Image from our 2012 story, Desperately Seeking Shade: How South L.A. Bus Riders Weather the Elements. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Find the city council files on the street furniture program here. For additional information or to offer feedback, see the Streets L.A. STAP webpage. See the Sunshade in action here. The bus shelter pop-up demonstrations will continue this week from noon to 10 p.m. at the locations below:

July 23-24: 19040 Vanowen Street, Reseda
July 25-26: West L.A., 1645 Corinth Ave.
July 27-28: South L.A., 8475 S Vermont Ave.
July 29-30: San Pedro, 638 S Beacon St.

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