Spending the last decade living in LA, it’s become incredibly apparent that while the public transit system of 2023 is considerably better than in years past, it still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the comfort and safety of its ridership. One great example is bus stops.
See, Los Angeles – and this may come as a shock to some of you – is a pretty hot place to live, climatically speaking. Summers easily reach triple-digit ambient temperatures, and all the pavement everywhere makes those already high temperatures much worse. Add in that around three-quarters of LA bus stops lack shade or seating, and that situation can go from uncomfortable to dangerous really quickly. To help combat this, the LA Department of Transportation put out a contract for a new kind of low-cost bus stop shelter, designed with input from a survey of female transit riders. It’s called La Sombrita, aka “The Shadow,” and was debuted last week.
The need for something like La Sombrita goes beyond the limited sidewalk space of many of LA’s bus stops which makes normal shelters unfeasible. A large issue is that those bus shelters have been installed and maintained by third-party companies (Outfront/JCDecaux until 2021), with part of the ad money going to the city. That’s problematic because those companies want to make the largest possible return on their investments and, therefore, almost solely focus on putting those bus shelters in higher-income areas. What’s more problematic is that these contracts prohibit LADOT from spending money on building freestanding bus shelters, which La Sombrita is supposed to work around. The La Sombrita pilot gets around this by being entirely funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation.
Still with me? Good. Now, while getting people out of the sun at bus stops is a good thing, and finding ways to work around poorly written or shortsighted contracts is also good, the execution of La Sombrita isn’t great. First, the size of the unit provides very little actual shade from a square-foot perspective. This means that one or two people can get out of the sun, but anyone else is left out to cook, especially when the sun is at its zenith.
Next is the cost. This simple piece of perforated and powdercoated steel and piping with a little solar-powered light stuck to it costs around $10,000. That’s per installation, of which four are planned as the initial pilot, though according to the firm that came up with them, that includes the cost of designing, building and installing them. I hate to sound real “Dad,” but there has to be maybe $100 in material there and an hour or two of labor to assemble them with the same again to install it. If the costs don’t come down, these lil guys are dead in the water. LADOT estimates place the cost closer to $2,000 if they go into production.
The solar-powered light does seem like a good idea, and it was one of the issues brought up by female survey respondents as a safety concern, which is totally understandable, but again, is it enough? Would it be smart also to include some kind of callbox with a police line, similar to the blue light systems seen on college campuses? Probably. Will an idea like that ever get funding? Doubtful.
“We are committed to making it easier and safer for people to get to where they need to go in LA and testing all possible solutions that help us get there,” said LADOT spokesperson Colin Sweeney, in a statement. “La Sombrita — entirely grant-funded at no cost to the taxpayer — is not a replacement for critical investments we need more of like bus shelters and street lights. This pilot treatment is designed to test ways of creating small amounts of shade and light where other solutions are not immediately possible. Clearly, folks are ready to talk about this topic, and that has given us tons of feedback that we’ll use to inform this and future initiatives.”
If the La Sombrita project is the start of a push towards making public transit safer, more comfortable, convenient and generally better for the LA county residents who use it daily, then it’s a flawed but important first step. If this is where LADOT and the city leave things, then we, as Angelenos, need to push them to do considerably better because it benefits all of us.