On May 18, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) unveiled perhaps its most famous piece of transit infrastructure in the history of transit infrastructure. The culmination of a sequence of tortured bureaucratic workarounds, “La Sombrita”  — its name translates to “little shade”  — is a flimsy piece of perforated sheet metal, hung on a bus stop pole. Heralded as a solution for providing shade and gender equity, the unassuming piece of street furniture took social media by storm, quickly becoming symbolic of everything wrong with city government.

But as bad as a press conference for a $2,000 bent piece of metal may seem, the reality is even worse. The city of LA already has a bus shelter contract, four years in the making, which it won’t even fund.

The city’s Sidewalk and Transit Amenities Program (STAP) officially launched in January of this year, under the auspices of StreetsLA (formerly the Bureau of Street Services), after a previous 21-year contract left over 75% of bus stops without shade. However, the city’s bureaucracy has so far failed to approve funding for the 3,000 new bus shelters and 450 new shade structures set to hit city streets. 

La Sombrita itself, implemented by LADOT in an effort to provide light and shade. (Maylin Tu / LAPP)

La Sombrita reflects an uncomfortable political reality: Rather than invest resources in bus riders, the majority of whom are low-income people of color, the city would rather celebrate a bus shade (and light) that provides very little of either. Hundreds of thousands of bus riders will wait without shade on the hottest days of 2023, but this hasn’t stopped city officials from touting new bus shelters as part of a response to extreme heat at the launch of its new awareness campaign, Heat Relief 4 LA.

“I don’t think our legislators at any level — city all the way through state — they’re not paying enough attention to [the effects of heat],” said Cynde Soto, bus rider and disability rights advocate with Communities Actively Living Independent Free (CALIF). “And it is absolutely dire that we get shade.”

Like La Sombrita, new bus shelters are not penciled into the city budget. Instead, funding must be cobbled together piecemeal from state and federal loans, Metro, etc. And progress of the STAP is reportedly still held up by a report from the CAO (City Administrative Office). In order to receive seed funding in the form of a $30 million public works trust fund loan, Mayor Bass must sign-off on the ED3 report submitted by StreetsLA to the CAO. Mayor Bass could waive the report at any time, but has not. When asked for comment the mayor’s office did not respond.

How did LA get La Sombrita?

Here are the facts: LADOT (which operates some buses specifically within the city of LA) enlisted a nonprofit design agency, Kounkuey, to develop a “gender equity action plan” (GEAP), following up on the Changing Lanes gender equity study LADOT released in 2021. As part of the project, Kounkuey convened two working groups: a resident advisory committee comprised of of women and other gender minorities; and a city working group composed of members of seven different city and county agencies including LADOT, StreetsLA, the city’s Bureau of Engineering, the city’s Bureau of Street Lighting, LA City Planning, Metro (which operates region-wide) and the LA Civil and Human Rights and Equity Department.

The resident advisory committee said that shade during the day and safety at night were important to them, so Kounkuey designed La Sombrita — a bus shade that also lights up at night — as a three-month pilot project. The GEAP and actual construction were funded by a private grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In an interview with LAPP, Kounkuey would not say how much grant funding it received, citing rules from the foundation.

Bus riders wait at 3rd St. and Union Ave. (Maylin Tu / LAPP)

And Kounkuey stresses that La Sombrita was not intended to replace a bus shelter. Shade and light were secondary considerations to an iterative design process meant to engage the community every step of the way. Over the three months of the pilot, community members in each of the four neighborhoods where La Sombrita has been placed will interview bus riders to get their thoughts.

In addition to La Sombrita, the GEAP will provide over 40 action items for LADOT to increase gender equity.

“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,” said LADOT spokesperson Colin Sweeney in an emailed statement. “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.”

A broken system

It might seem counterintuitive, but the region’s transportation agency, Metro (which could also fund bus shelters if it chose), does not manage its own bus stops. Rather, bus stops are part of the public-right-of way managed by StreetsLA, a division of the Public Works Department.

“People were doing their best to work around a bad system. That’s what they came up with,” said Alex Contreras, bus rider and co-found of the Happy City Coalition, an organization fighting freeway expansion. “And — that’s not a good answer to ‘The system that we have is objectively terrible.’”

Bus stop at adjacent to MacArthur Park with improvised seating (Maylin Tu / LAPP)
Bus stop near MacArthur Park with improvised seating. (Maylin Tu / LAPP)

La Sombrita is a symptom of a larger problem in the city of LA, says Jessica Meaney, director of Investing in Place, a nonprofit trying to bring a capital infrastructure plan to LA. Though LA has 7,500 miles of streets, 9,000 miles of sidewalks, 621,000 street trees and almost 2,000 bus shelters, the city has no long-term budgeted plan for funding or repairing desperately needed public works infrastructure or prioritizing underserved communities.

For example, the only official plan in place for LA to fix its broken sidewalks is a response to a class action lawsuit, Willits v. City of Los Angeles. As part of the settlement, the city is required to spend almost $1.4 billion on sidewalk repairs, with preference given to plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Despite the settlement, repairs are proceeding at a glacial pace

Could La Sombrita be the shade that breaks the camel’s back, providing LA with the push it needs to finally develop a capital infrastructure plan? “I hope that this finally tips the scales and people go, ‘We can’t plan for this infrastructure one project at a time, one neighborhood at a time, one street at a time,’” said Meaney.

Because there is no general plan in place, the various agencies and companies involved in bus stops end up at odds, with overlapping responsibilities and often competing priorities. There are at least seven or eight different agencies or private companies operating at a typical bus stop. StreetsLA manages bus shelters (partnering with Tranzito-Vector, itself a joint venture of Tranzito, a curbside management and micromobility company, and Vector, a transit advertising firm), the Bus Bench Program (operated by Insite Street Media), street trees and the sidewalk. Then top of that, there’s the Bureau of Street Lighting (street lights), LA Sanitation (trash cans), LADWP (underground utilities and power lines), Metro (bus pole with sign) and LADOT (bus pole with sign).

Of these pieces of infrastructure, LADOT only has jurisdiction over its bus pole with sign, hence the jury-rigged invention of La Sombrita.

The bus bench program, run by Insite Street Media under the oversight of StreetsLA, is even developing its own shade structure (a previous attempt with umbrellas was criticized as insufficient). It’s not hard to imagine each element at a bus stop with its own personal version of La Sombrita — a sea of shades affixed to trash cans, benches, streetlights and bus poles, each designed and developed by different organizations within the constraints of the system.

La Sombrita prioritizes process over product, intent over impact, a perforated piece of metal over an actual bus shelter.

A history of disinvestment in bus riders

Bus riders have been waiting for shade for over 40 years. In 1981, the city signed a contract with Shelter Media Associates, a private company, for the fabrication, installation and maintenance of 2,500 bus shelters in exchange for the right to advertise on them. It was an attractive proposition: LA would get bus shelters at no cost and receive a share of advertising revenue, an estimated $14 million over 10 years.

To this day, not only does LA not devote any money in its budget for bus shelters, the city actually makes money from bus riders. Half of the ad revenue goes to the general fund, while the other half is split between the 15 council offices as part of the Street Furniture Revenue Fund. Although money in the fund is meant to fund transit improvements, council members have spent it on everything from landscaping to staff salaries, to surveillance equipment for the LAPD.

Six years into the 1981 contract, only 700 shelters had been built and most of those were located in affluent neighborhoods, where advertising was more lucrative (bus shelter ads are not targeted at bus riders but at passing motorists). But instead of holding Shelter Media accountable and requiring the company to build shelters in communities with more transit riders, the city extended the contract to 20 years in 1987.

At the end of that contract, in 2001, LA signed a new 20-year contract, this time with JCDecaux, a Paris-based street furniture company, to provide 150 self-cleaning public toilets, 1,285 bus shelters (plus 900 replacement shelters for existing furniture) and $150 million in advertising revenue in exchange for exclusive rights to advertise in the public-right-of-way (basically the sidewalk).

By the time the contract officially ended last year, JCDecaux had built even fewer bus shelters than its predecessor, an estimated 660 total, bringing the total number to about 1,884 or less than 25% of over 8,000 bus stops. In 21 years, JCDecaux built fewer shelters than Shelter Media Associates built in six (660 versus 700).

According to the 2001 contract, installation of each shelter required the stamp of approval of eight separate agencies including the LAPD and LAFD as part of a 16-step approval process — miring the permitting process in so much red tape that the rollout was a disaster. 

The contract also required councilmembers to sign-off on each bus shelter (though no deadline for the signature was given), leaving hundreds of shelters in limbo. And of course, residents in more affluent neighborhoods opposed new advertising on city streets. Council offices had the option to require JCDecaux to do a presentation and community engagement process with neighborhood councils, HOAs, or any other group the office deemed appropriate.

For example, in Westwood and Century City, HOAs and neighborhood councils opposed to advertising blocked shelters from being built on a 2.2 mile stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard from the 405 to Beverly Hills, despite lucrative advertising potential, abnormally wide sidewalks and multiple privately-owned billboards advertising luxury goods.

Hidden in plain sight is the real reason some communities oppose bus shelters — they don’t want unhoused people to use them as a shelter. And, more affluent residents oppose bus shelters for classist and racist reasons, often believing that more poor non-white people means more crime.

Local homeowner’s associations and neighborhood councils had more say in where bus shelters were sited than bus riders themselves. The contract, dominated by NIMBYism, hyper-local control and red tape, is emblematic of how affluent residents can block transit improvements that would improve mobility for their underserved neighbors.

Under a new amendment to the program pending in committee, district offices would still be paid the highest yearly amount received under the previous contract, but any additional revenue would go back into funding STAP and other transit improvements.

Anatomy of a bus stop: 3rd St. & Union Ave. in Westlake – Pico-Union

At the site of the press conference that launched La Sombrita (and a thousand Twitter takes), cars whiz by on 3rd Street, a busy four-lane arterial. The sound of traffic is deafening. High school students wait for the bus, absorbed in their phones. Mothers and fathers push baby carriages past the bus benches. Two cars collide just before the restaurant next door, blocking a lane of traffic.\

La Sombrita is situated in Westlake (though some say it’s in Pico-Union, neighborhoods being fuzzy), one of the densest and poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles with about 85% of the population identifying as Latino, and a median income around $33,000.

In-person, La Sombrita looks even less like a shade structure with its perforations and modest 24-inch width. Bus riders could presumably get more shade from overhanging bushes from an adjacent property.

On any street, one can look at the built environment and see policy and power in action. At 3rd and Union, pedestrians, bus riders and cyclists (and bus shades) compete for limited sidewalk space while cars dominate the road. There is no bike lane and no bus lane. People in neighborhoods like Westlake and neighboring Pico-Union drive less than people in affluent neighborhoods but have more air pollution than the affluent.

In the context of Westlake, La Sombrita feels like a cruel joke.

But because La Sombrita was ostensibly created to address gender-equity, false equivalences abound: Within the discourse critics of the structure have been accused of both hating women and not wanting poor people to have shade. If you are doing something for gender equity, so the thinking goes, no one can criticize you. 

Bus riders have been asking for shade for over 40 years. LADOT didn’t need a two-year study, a working group of seven different city and county agencies or a nonprofit design agency with a rigorous community engagement process to know that everyone, including gender minorities, needs shade. La Sombrita has become a symbol of how LA treats bus riders.

In the end, La Sombrita contains multiple truths. If observers read the little shade as a symbol for rampant bureaucracy, the nonprofit industrial complex, or lack of state capacity, it also reads them, with each critic attaching their own pet grievances to its perforated surface.

Maylin Tu is a freelance writer covering transportation, mobility and equity in Los Angeles.