After 21 years of piecemeal solutions, more than 75% of bus stops in the city of Los Angeles still have no shelter. But after years of inaction and months of delays, the city of Los Angeles is again attempting to (partly) address the problem. 

Most people who take transit in LA County take the bus — over 600,000 rides are taken on the LA Metro system daily — and most of the people who take the bus are low-income people of color. But while many other cities have basic protection from the elements, the lack of bus shelters in LA means little or no shade on scorchingly hot days and scarce protection from rain and wind. And with long wait times, lack of shade is a serious public health issue.

Last week, the LA City Council public works committee voted to approve a $30 million public works trust fund loan that would fund new bus shelters. In addition to the $30 million loan, the LA City Council is set to vote on a new program tomorrow, RAISE LA, that would reinvest money received from advertising on bus shelters into a new fund for transit improvements.

It’s a hopeful moment for bus riders and transit advocates who say that the program is a step in the right direction. But the new funding does not come close to meeting the $380 million needed to build the promised 3,000 new shelters.

The City of LA currently contracts out with Tranzito-Vector, a collaborative venture between a bikeshare and curbside operator and a transit advertising agency, to build and maintain shelters. In the previous contract with JCDecaux that started in 2002, the contractor paid all capital expenses for bus shelters in exchange for a majority share of the advertising revenue generated from ads on bus shelters and other street furniture. Although the 20-year contract was slated to add 1,285 new shelters and 150 public toilets at no cost to the city, only about 660 shelters and 15 toilets were installed over 21 years (the contract was extended for one year). 

By the time the contract ended at the end of 2022, LA had a total of 1,884 shelters, leaving 6,000 plus bus stops without dedicated shade.

“That’s a big issue here in Los Angeles, where our values are not aligned to our infrastructure,” said John Yi, executive director of Los Angeles Walks.

There’s no such thing as a free bus shelter

It might seem intuitive — reinvesting money generated from transit infrastructure back into serving transit riders. In 1999, the city set up a fund for councilmembers to do exactly that – but over the last 21 years the fund has been diluted and diverted for other purposes, to the point where bus riders have become an afterthought.  

Currently, 50% of revenue generated from ads on bus shelters goes into the city’s general fund and 50% is placed into the Street Furniture Revenue Fund, which is divided equally between the 15 council districts. The fund was initially intended for each individual councilmember to spend on “transit improvements and services” within their district, however, it’s unclear if any council district purchased a bus shelter. In 2006, the city council added an amendment to the ordinance that greatly broadened the scope of what the money could be spent on. Of the roughly $40 million received by councilmembers, some of the money was was spent on transit and pedestrian improvements, but they also used it for everything from staff salaries, to hold music for the City’s 311 phone line, to field lights at Hollywood High School, to a brass plaque at the Topanga Police Station.

By 2010, government watchdogs and Mayor Villaraigosa were calling out city councilmembers for spending money intended for transit, pedestrian and streetscape improvements on unrelated things.

“Councilmembers, please stop using the Street Furniture Revenue Fund as a personal slush fund,” wrote Darryl Ford of the now defunct blog Hollywood Unbound. “Please use it to improve our public streets, public transit systems, and beautify our public right-of-ways.”

The use of discretionary funds becomes “a political question,” said Yi. “Community groups that shout and scream the loudest are the ones that get the resources, because they just have more political leverage.”

Receipt of street furniture revenue was also in no way contingent upon individual councilmembers support for the bus shelter program. A councilmember could fail to sign-off on bus shelter permits, effectively blocking shelters in their district — but still receive their share. As reported by the LA Times in 2005, five councilmembers had signed off on less than 75% of street furniture permits, including future LA mayor Eric Garcetti, causing bus shelters to be delayed for years.

As councilmembers failed to approve permits in a timely fashion, ensuring that LA would never receive the promised number of bus shelters or public toilets, they spent money generated by bus shelters on the criminalization of poor people. Multiple councilmembers used street furniture revenue to purchase surveillance equipment for the LAPD or business improvement districts. While bus riders baked in the sun, city leaders purchased cameras to increase surveillance in public parks, in affluent neighborhoods and along busy streets.

In a motion to fund surveillance cameras along Hollywood Boulevard, then councilmember Eric Garcetti justified the eligibility of the project for street furniture funds “inasmuch as the safety and physical environment will be improved for pedestrians and users of public transportation.”

According to Hamid Khan, an organizer with Stop LAPD Spying, the surveillance of public space targets Black and Brown people, as well as people who are unhoused. While a lack of shade serves as a form of hostile design meant to keep bus riders out of more affluent neighborhoods, increased surveillance criminalizes people forced to exist outdoors.

Because the bus shelter contract originated in the city’s push to criminalize public urination, a move targeting unhoused people, spending money from bus shelters on surveillance equipment only reinforced the “‘hardening’ of the city surface against the poor,” per writer Mike Davis.

With the new contract, LA has also eliminated a burdensome and bureaucratic permitting process that blocked bus shelters from being built. However, that doesn’t mean LA bus riders will see any new bus shelters this year.

Until the end of August, Mayor Bass’ office held up a $30 million public works trust fund loan meant to jumpstart the new bus shelter program. In early March, the CAO’s office told dot.LA that it would be issuing a recommendation report for the mayor to review within a few weeks. However, that report was not submitted until June 21 (after the city budget process had been completed) and the mayor did not approve it until August 31.

In response to a request for comment on the delay, a spokesperson said that the mayor’s office “did its due diligence to consider the financing mode as part of our ED3 review before approving the $30 million Public Works Trust Fund loan.”

“The Mayor’s Office, the Bureau of Street Services, and the contractor are working to quickly install shelters citywide, prioritizing deployment using equity metrics that were adopted when STAP was approved.”

City council maintains its piece of the bus shelter pie

A motion introduced last year by councilmembers Nithya Raman and Bob Blumenfield and former councilmember Mike Bonin, would create a new fund called RAISE LA. The initiative would provide a dedicated revenue stream by reinvesting ad revenue back into the program and capping the dollar amount given to council districts as discretionary funding. All the money received from advertising revenue would go back into street and transit amenities, with the exception of $4 million (adjusted annually for inflation) allocated to councilmembers.

Investing money from transit infrastructure on things that are not transit infrastructure didn’t work, says Eli Lipmen, executive director of Move LA. “The result is a massive inequity in the number of bus shelters and the quality of bus shelters. I think we need to right that historic injustice and this is a smart way to do it.”

But why not put all the money generated by bus shelters back into bus shelters?

RAISE LA wasn’t created to solve the problem of councilmembers using bus shelter money as a slush fund. Rather, it’s a political compromise: If councilmembers continue to receive hundreds of thousands of discretionary funding each year, they will be more likely to support the initiative.

“We didn’t want to change everything about the program,” said Councilmember Nithya Raman in an interview with LAPP. “But we did want to get to our goals, which was getting much more money for this work than we’ve ever had before in the city of Los Angeles.”

In a public works committee meeting last month, Councilmember John Lee proposed an amendment to increase the amount allotted from $3 million to $5 million, noting that the RAISE LA ordinance allows councilmembers to reinvest their portion of the money back into the new bus shelter program. After a discussion, the committee settled on $4 million.

“In council district 12, we don’t have as many shelters with different amenities, and so I just would like the ability to then use some of these funds to provide for some of those,” he said.

Raman clarified that there is nothing in the new ordinance that would incentivize councilmembers to reinvest their own share of the revenue back into bus shelters, but said that there’s a new energy at city hall to invest in public infrastructure for bus riders.

“We don’t know how it’s going to work,” she said. “But there is a lot of hope from both transit advocates and from people within the building who care about these issues that things will look different going forward than they have in the past.”

“We are hoping to spend [our district’s share of the revenue] on, you know, transit infrastructure and bus shelters,” said Raman, adding that her district is also considering speed mitigation interventions.

RAISE LA won’t undo decades of disinvestment, but it could build more new bus shelters than LA’s bus riders have seen in years. From 2010 to 2016, the city only got 41 new shelters, or an average of less than six shelters per year. From 2017 to 2022, LA bus riders got an estimated three new shelters — at that rate, 3,000 new shelters would take the next 6,000 years to build.

Support for RAISE LA and bus shelters in City Hall could help “rebuild some sort of trust” with bus riders, says Catherine Baltazer, policy analyst and organizer with Climate Resolve, which surveyed riders at the hottest bus stops in LA County.

“Most [bus riders] just stand out in the heat because they don’t want to miss their bus by hiding out somewhere in the shade,” she said. “They don’t want to ask for shelter because they’re afraid that they’re gonna get their bus stops moved.”

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