On April 9, LA’s first new bus shelter debuted without fanfare at the corner of Western and Olympic in Koreatown, over 15 months after the official start of the new bus shelter program in January 2023.

The shelter is pale green, matte, and modern like a computer tower — a notable departure from the muted dark green of older shelters. Instead of digital ads (which are being contested in court), one ad panel trumpets, “Grand Opening! Sidewalk and Transit Amenities Program (STAP)” with a QR code linking to a website to learn more.

Bus shelter panel advertising the grand opening of the Sidewalk and Transit Amenities Program (STAP).  (Maylin Tu / LA Public Press)

On May 20, shoppers from the nearby Koreatown Galleria, including Korean elders, wait for the 207 bus at the new shelter. Patty Shin, who is visiting from out of town, uses the e-paper display to see when the next bus is coming. She thinks that the new shelter is “wonderful,” unlike the Wilshire/Western metro station, where she was earlier.

“Oh, [it’s] much nicer. Clean here at least. Everywhere is clean,” Shin said.

Despite the milestone, there has been no grand opening. In fact, there have been no official email updates to bus riders about STAP since November 2023.

Contrast this with La Sombrita, the bus shade that first debuted on May 18, 2023 during a press conference that went viral. The “little shade” was widely derided on social media for providing, well, only a little shade, even as the LA Department of Transportation heralded it as an innovative solution for gender equity. 

La Sombrita was developed by Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) as a pilot to address the needs of women who take the bus as part of LADOT’s Gender Equity Action Plan. As part of the initiative, KDI assembled a focus group of women and gender minorities who use public transportation, and shade and lighting emerged as priorities for the group.

La Sombrita at 3rd and Union bus stop in Westlake. (Maylin Tu / LA Public Press)

Given design and regulatory constraints, KDI created La Sombrita, a bus shade that doesn’t require the approval of multiple departments, but also doesn’t offer the shade of a traditional bus shelter. Created to be attached to a bus pole and easily removed, La Sombrita was funded through a private grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“The community-led pilot monitoring and evaluation process found that La Sombrita improved rider experience at bus stops. Improvement varied between the four pilot stops, but was positive overall,” said Carolyn Angius, spokesperson for KDI.

One year later, the city of LA has four La Sombrita bus shades and only one new bus shelter of the 3,000 projected to be built by 2028.

Why is it so hard to build a bus shelter in LA and so easy to build a Sombrita?

Bus shelters are still delayed

In a March speech at the Curbivore conference in the Arts District downtown, Deputy Mayor of Infrastructure Randall Winston touted the plans for 3,000 new bus shelters with high tech options for “scooter docks, e-lockers, kiosks, and urban panels.”

Winston said, “For the first time, the City will generate sufficient revenue from the shelters to reinvest in the public right-of-way through ADA features, sidewalk enhancements, and curb extensions.”

The big change — some shelters will use digital advertising, bringing in more money than the static advertising of the past. 

Last year, LA City Council passed RAISE LA to establish a fund to reinvest bus shelter ad revenue back into building more shelters. Any additional funds would be invested in other improvements, like planting street trees and improving sidewalks.

STAP is a unicorn public infrastructure project — paid for with advertising, unlike street repaving or bike lanes. It’s meant to be self-sustaining, generating hundreds of millions of dollars to be reinvested back into more shelters and improvements in the public-right-of-way.

However, with the ongoing delay in adding new digital shelters, it’s unclear how the city plans to generate the required revenue to not only build 3,000 new shelters, but to also improve sidewalks.

While Winston presented sidewalk improvements paid for with bus shelter revenue as a boon, this actually represents the failure of the city to maintain its sidewalks to ADA standards. Last year, StreetsLA, the agency heading up the program, estimated that 95% of bus stops are not ADA compliant. More than half of the cost of installing a new shelter comes from preparing the sidewalk at the bus stop and bringing it into compliance, according to the agency.

In early reports, StreetsLA said that it would pursue an aggressive schedule to build all 3,000 shelters within three to five years. In 2023, the first year of the program, STAP built zero new shelters. According to recent numbers, StreetsLA plans to install 280 shelters this year, 400 to 500 shelters in 2025, and 600-plus shelters each year from 2026 to 2028. While the program has received $103 million in funding, it is still short almost $200 million, according to a presentation from StreetsLA obtained through a public records request.

“Bus shelters are a lot like the city’s sidewalks — they’re not treated as important infrastructure,” said Jessica Meaney, executive director of Investing in Place, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the public right-of-way for all Angelenos. “[It’s] still really an advertising contract and less so about providing a dignified place to sit and get shade.” 

StreetsLA did not respond to questions about the pending lawsuit over digital ads or why shelters have been delayed, but said that there are plans to build five more shelters “in the near future.” “We are working to install the shelters and conduct the required site preparation in coordination with City departments and the contractor,” wrote spokesperson Paul Gomez in an email.

E-paper screens on the bus shelter at Western and Olympic in Koreatown showing the current temperature and bus arrival times. (Maylin Tu / LA Public Press)

La Sombrita Redux

LADOT is still waiting to release results from its La Sombrita pilot as part of its Gender Equity Action Plan report, due this summer. LADOT did not respond to a list of questions about La Sombrita or future plans for the pilot.

“Future recommendations for the shade pilot will be informed by survey feedback,” spokesperson Colin Sweeney said in an email.

According to experts, La Sombrita is emblematic of how much of LA’s public space is taken over by cars, with everything from street trees to bike lanes to ADA-compliant sidewalks to bus stops left fighting for scraps.

“If you talk to tree advocates… they’ll say, ‘It’s not good enough to say there’s no space for trees; we have to make space for trees,’” Sam Bloch, who is writing a book about shade, said in an interview. “And that’s all well and good and true. But I don’t think the city of LA — again, I would love to be proven wrong here — has ever deliberately carved out space for trees where there used to be cars or where there used to be parking.”

Bloch points to cities like San Antonio that have prioritized providing shade for bus stops. In fact, San Antonio upgraded 1,000 bus stops in three years without relying on advertising revenue. 

That said, he doesn’t discount the benefits that La Sombrita could have for bus riders. He explains that direct solar radiation is the most important factor in thermal comfort, so anything that blocks the sun can help.

“That’s why you always see people standing behind telephone poles, scooting up against the edge of a building just to get a little sliver of shade. But that’s really just the bare minimum,” Bloch said.

Lack of shade and seating can make public space so hostile and uncomfortable that bus riders feel like they’re not meant to be there, said Bloch — almost like they’re “stealing shade.”

To Meaney, La Sombrita is another example of why the city needs a capital infrastructure plan to manage all projects in the public right-of-way. One year since La Sombrita, very little has changed. Bus riders are still waiting for shade.

“People are so frustrated with the current system and instead of changing the system, we just do Band-Aids, which I understand, but it leaves people who rely on the bus in the dust,” Meaney said.

LA Public Press reached out to Mayor Bass for comment about the delay. 

“Increasing shade, shelters, and amenities for bus riders is a priority for the City,” wrote spokesperson Zach Seidl in an email. “The Mayor’s Office is committed to implementing this program effectively and equitably.”

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

Leave a comment