When the Los Angeles Department of Transportation rolled out La Sombrita, a shade structure that’s been compared to a skateboard or a cheese grater, critics were flabbergasted by the bus shade’s modest width (24 inches, so as not to qualify as “street furniture,” which would require a permit), perforated surface (the holes prevent wind drag), and its general lack of shade.

According to emails obtained by LAPP through a public records request, LA Mayor Karen Bass’ office was only alerted to the existence of La Sombrita through a media advisory sent to the press by LADOT. The emails also indicate many officials and agencies relevant to the construction of bus shelters around LA were not extensively briefed. 

Shade for bus riders is an enduring pain point for the city of LA. After a 21-year contract failed to deliver, the Los Angeles City Council voted in a new contract last September to build 3,000 new shelters

In an email sent May 17, Colin Sweeney, public information director for LADOT, apologized to the Mayor’s team for emailing the press release about La Sombrita “after the fact.” The advisory provided few details about La Sombrita and incorrectly identified the neighborhood where the press conference would take place as Pico-Union (it was held in Westlake). 

“I have no prior emails about this project … I think we should discuss at next week’s team meeting,” Ryan Jackson, director of public works for Mayor Bass, wrote in an email the day after La Sombrita was announced at a press conference. 

“We can discuss indeed,” replied Randall Winston, deputy mayor of infrastructure, who is in charge of infrastructure and public works for the mayor. “Spent some time with Comms earlier this evening triaging the fallout from this.” 

Crucially, the media advisory did not contain a photo of La Sombrita, so reporters and the mayor’s office did not know what it looked like before the press conference.

LA Public Press reached out to the mayor’s office and LADOT, but neither returned a request for comment about any changes they have made to facilitate collaboration and knowledge-sharing between departments in time for publication.

LADOT did not collaborate with other departments

In another email to staff, Winston expressed concern about the lack of collaboration between LADOT and the agency responsible for LA’s bus shelter program, StreetsLA (aka the Bureau of Street Services). 

“Do either of you know the extent to which LADOT currently coordinates with StreetsLA on bus stop shelters?” he wrote. “Not clear if this is a one-off shelter, or if more are planned.”

“I’m not familiar with this project but it feels unusual to me,” responded Daniel Rodman, deputy director of transportation. “LADOT has some kind of administrative/processing authority over bus stop locations, but I can’t remember them implementing bus shelters.”

“Got it,” said Winston. “It would be helpful if you could discreetly find out more about this from LADOT staff (I’ll hold off on reaching out to Connie [Connie Llanos, interim general manager for LADOT] for now). I’m concerned that LADOT is not working in concert with StreetsLA on this and vice versa.”

La Sombrita is unusual in that instead of being developed by StreetsLA, the agency responsible for managing the bus shelter program, the LA Department of Transportation built La Sombrita itself using private grant funding. Although there was a seven-agency working group including members from StreetsLA and LA Metro that contributed to developing the parameters for the bus shade, the agencies themselves did not collaborate on the project. In fact, the team at StreetsLA that actually manages bus shelters did not know that La Sombrita existed, according to emails reviewed by LAPP.

“​​The City Working Group helped shape the actions contained in our forthcoming gender equity action plan for LADOT called Next Stop,” said Naria Kiani, senior planner with KDI, in an email. 

With Metro publicly disavowing the bus shade on Twitter, it’s unclear how agencies and departments will coordinate in the implementation of the Gender Equity Action Plan set to come out at the end of this year. 

After the press conference and the public mockery that ensued, LADOT attempted to shape the narrative around La Sombrita. Sweeney, calling the Twitter brouhaha “absent of nuance and mostly cynical,” advanced the following two points:

One, the bus shade was not a waste of taxpayer dollars, but entirely funded by a grant from a private foundation. And two, it wasn’t a complete solution but would provide shade to “dozens of people daily.” 

So far, StreetsLA has tried and failed to get funding to launch its bus shelter program, the Sidewalk and Transit Amenities Program (STAP), including a $30 million public works trust fund loan that is “currently under executive review and approval,” according to a spokesperson for the agency. The loan, which was approved by the Board of Public Works, has been going through this review process since December and is pending approval of a report from the CAO by Mayor Bass. And while the city budget for this fiscal year includes $8 million for bus stop improvements, that money has yet to be released to StreetsLA, according to emails reviewed by LAPP.

LA was supposed to build new shelters at the rate of 600 per year to reach 3,000 by 2028. The timeline for new bus shelters has repeatedly been pushed back, from summer, to fall, to late fall, and now to early 2024. As of August 2023, the city of Los Angeles has built zero new bus shelters.

Read the emails for yourself:

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