What L.A.’s Pilot “La Sombrita” Shade/Light Structure Does and Doesn’t Do
5:39 PM PDT on May 19, 2023
Yesterday, the city of Los Angeles Transportation Department (LADOT) held a press event to reveal "La Sombrita" - a pilot bus stop structure designed to offer shade and lighting.
LADOT describes La Sombrita as a "new design [that] allows shade structures to be installed more quickly and at a lower cost and is the result of LADOT's survey of women who rely on transit and requested more shade and lighting at bus stops."
The design process was led by the nonprofit Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), which notes that "La Sombrita 1.0 was designed within the existing design regulations to establish a baseline of what is possible. The participants in our resident advisory committee for the Gender Equity Action Plan expressed a clear need for lighting and shade, this is a way to move the needle on that, now." KDI notes that the grant-funded pilot "is not meant to be an alternative to bus shelters but instead is designed to work in all the places where traditional bus shelters aren’t feasible, such as on narrow sidewalks."
According to KDI, the "low-cost" structure "required zero permits and could be rapidly implemented." The four pilot Sombrita structures cost "less than $10,000 each" to design, fabricate and install; if future versions are mass produced the per-unit costs is expected to be much lower. "La Sombrita costs 14 percent of the cost of a traditional bus shelter" KDI asserts, "and takes approximately 20 minutes to install, with no coordination with other departments." Further:
La Sombrita is designed to adhere to existing regulations to avoid lengthy permitting and review processes that can mire transit and sidewalk innovations in delays. For that to work, we designed a solution that overcomes very real bureaucratic and regulatory constraints. We had to leave 4 feet of space for the sidewalk, make it no wider than 24 inches, keep it entirely on the DASH pole without touching the sidewalk or infrastructure under the jurisdiction of any other agency, and make it low-maintenance, durable, easy to install and completely removable. With time and evaluation, we can see what needs adjusting and then negotiate changes and/or go through existing permitting processes to make those changes. This demonstrates the imperfect example of what works today.
There are four pilot Sombrita structures installed around the city of L.A.:
- Boyle Heights - Gage Avenue and Hammel Street
- Panorama City/Van Nuys - Saticoy Street and Kester Avenue
- Watts - 103rd Street and Juniper Street
- Westlake - 3rd Street and Union Avenue
At yesterday's press event at the 3rd Street location, L.A. City Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez emphasized the project's benefits for working families relying on transit. In a statement, Mayor Karen Bass called the pilot "a good step towards increasing the accessibility of our City's public transportation system" adding that, “Improvements like La Sombrita will make our neighborhoods safer, healthier and more livable."
LADOT Interim General Manager Connie Llanos noted that "Pilots like 'La Sombrita' allow us to test new, flexible, and low-cost ways to close gaps and remove barriers, getting us one step closer to providing Universal Basic Mobility in our City."
The Sombrita announcement was promptly trounced on Twitter, Reddit and other social media. If you read only one sombrita thread, it should be this one by SBLA Communities Editor Sahra Sulaiman, who has reported on L.A.'s failure to provide much needed shade for L.A.'s transit riders. Also read her coverage of the last time Twitter dunked on L.A. shade structures back in 2021, when it was "the Sunshade Blade."
A few more Sombrita tweets are at the end of this post. LADOT even acknowledged the social media attention in an explanatory tweet thread today.
Can a solar light attached to a flimsy narrow strip of swiss-cheesed metal attached to bus stop pole really make much difference for L.A. bus riders?
No and yes.
It is important to acknowledge that the Sombrita project is an attempt to address some real issues.
About three-fourths of L.A. bus stops lack bus shelters. Bus shelter distribution is tied to advertising revenue, meaning well-off neighborhoods get more than their share of shade and lighting, while many riders in low-income communities of color wait standing in the hot sun. Lots of bus stops in older, population-dense communities of color are located on sidewalks too narrow for standard city bus shelters. Women and gender minorities riding transit face significant issues.
The Sombrita project tries to find a constructive niche in a highly inequitable L.A. already suffering from severe disparities. It tries to navigate the byzantine street furniture allocation mechanisms hamstrung by having tied transit shelters to advertising revenue.
But... La Sombrita still feels inadequate.
L.A. doesn't fund fast frequent reliable bus service (more a county/Metro issue than a city/LADOT one). Higher frequency bus service would mean less waiting, which would do a lot more to get riders out of the heat than any kind of shelter or shade.
L.A. doesn't allocate enough road space to walkable sidewalks, because so much space is given over to drivers. Wider sidewalks would accommodate shelters, trees, and buffer space from loud polluting car traffic.
L.A. doesn't install enough actual bus shelters, due to constrained space, constrained funding (advertising revenue). and constrained political will.
But L.A. did take the time, effort, and tens of thousands of dollars to design and pilot La Sombrita. Sure a few riders will benefit from a bit more shade and lighting, but such a modest inadequate intervention communicates loud and clear that the city continues to fail to prioritize bus riders. Transit riders' lives, their time, their needs, their safety continue to be a low priority.
The La Sombrita pilots are installed now through mid-August for a three-month evaluation. For each pilot neighborhood, LADOT and KDI will be collecting data on "La Sombrita’s impact on comfort during the hottest part of the afternoon and feelings of safety after dark through observation and surveys" and "findings from the evaluation will inform future design iterations."