Can L.A. Finally Build Better Bus Stops? 5 Lessons From Other Cities

The city’s last bus shelter contract fell short. We looked at what Los Angeles can learn from other cities to build the bus shelters its residents deserve.

A rider waits for a bus in Los Angeles during the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Chris Yarzab / CC BY 2.0)

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The city of Los Angeles is set to approve a new bus shelter contract that will impact L.A. bus riders for years to come. The previous 20-year contract — which was extended one more year to finish the RFP process — built only 660 shelters out of the projected 1,285. Currently, the city has an estimated 1,884 shelters serving over 8,100 bus stops, meaning that over 75% of bus stops have no dedicated shade, a ratio that has barely budged since 2016.

As the new contract moves to City Council for a vote, some things haven’t changed over the past 21 years, such as concerned citizens opposed to the new advertising that bus shelters will bring. What is new are concepts like climate justice and a focus on providing shade in dense urban areas as California experiences one of the hottest Septembers on record.

Can the city remedy the mistakes of the past and approve a contract that prioritizes bus riders? We talked to transit advocates and experts to look at what Los Angeles can learn from other cities that have successfully upgraded their bus stops.

Invest money in bus stop improvements

Agencies like L.A. Metro have historically underfunded bus stop amenities. Now, the city of L.A. is making long-term strategic investments in bus shelters, a decision that signals a greater commitment to bus riders. But in an ideal world, according to researchers at TransitCenter, L.A. Metro would take over control and funding of bus stop amenities for the 88 municipalities it operates in (including L.A.).

“My pie in the sky recommendation…would just be to [tell] transit agencies, ‘Show bus riders that they’re important to you and fund bus shelters,’” says Mary Buchanan, research manager at TransitCenter and co-author of the report “From Sorry to Super: Everything You Need to Know about Great Bus Stops.” That’s exactly what Metro Transit, the agency serving Minneapolis-St. Paul, did via a federal grant it received in 2016 to fund its Better Bus Stops initiative.

L.A.’s bus shelters are currently funded through advertising. In 2001, L.A. approved a contract with street furniture company JCDecaux to bring new bus shelters and up to 150 public toilets to the city at no cost. JCDecaux has partnered with various outdoor advertising companies (currently Outfront) to sell ad space on bus shelters, kiosks and newsstands. This advertising revenue funds the construction and maintenance of both shelters and the automated public toilets (APTs). Although the program did not work out as planned (only the minimum 15 public toilets were installed), the city currently doesn’t pay for bus shelter installation or maintenance and actually receives a cut of the advertising revenue, estimated at $6 million per year.

Now, as the city transitions from one private partner (Outfront/JCDecaux) to a new private partner (Tranzito-Vector), questions remain over who actually owns the existing bus shelters. For L.A. to retain ownership over transit infrastructure and to receive a greater share of the advertising revenue, the city is investing its own money into the Sidewalk and Transit Amenities Program (STAP), with $5 million currently coming from L.A. Metro and an estimated $42 million total needed to launch the contract.

“The majority of L.A. Metro ridership is on the buses — that’s a fact,” notes Madeline Brozen, deputy director for the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies. She believes that there is “untapped potential” for Metro to do more for bus stops. For example, the agency could offer grant programs specifically for shelters.

“There’s a lot of power that they wield as a regional funder.”

Prioritize equity in placing bus shelters

The new bus shelter contract has a goal of building 3,000 shelters over five years to provide shade for 75% of riders in each council district. StreetsLA is using daily ridership and heat index data to determine the placement of new shelters — but of course, shade has always been an equity issue.

“We’ve got some real heat disparity in Los Angeles,” says Bryn Lindblad, deputy director of Climate Resolve. “Our formerly redlined communities are where there’s the least greenery — the least [amount of] trees — cooling down our urban environment.”

However, the requirement of providing shade for 75% of riders in each council district rather than 75% of riders in the city as a whole has its roots in L.A. politics, not equity.

“It’s a governance problem that we have in Los Angeles…There’s not a city-wide vision for [meeting] the most need, it’s the most need within my district,” says Brozen.

Councilmembers want to ensure that their districts get their fair share of new transit infrastructure. But in L.A., transportation infrastructure is not evenly distributed across districts and that gap can prove deadly — Black and Latinx Angelenos are more likely to be the victims of traffic violence.

Eliminate red tape and streamline the process

Most of the blame for L.A.’s failed bus shelter program has fallen on the 16-step approval process requiring signoff from eight different city agencies — all for a single bus shelter. The current contract bundled street furniture with public toilets meant to address the homelessness crisis — the advertising on bus shelters was meant to fund the toilets, which are expensive to install and maintain.

But although shelters were originally slated to receive blanket permits for approval, L.A. residents opposed to public toilets on city streets convinced the City Council to add a more rigorous approval process at the last minute, according to TransitCenter’s report.

Buchanan calls this process “unique” out of the cities that she studied.

“To allow veto power over individual shelters really sets [it] up for NIMBYs to say, ‘No, I don’t want that.’ And they’re never going to use the service,” she says.

The report recommends unbundling transit amenities from other street furniture. StreetsLA (the agency responsible for sidewalks) said that public toilets were not required as part of the city’s new request for proposals and that no companies included them.

Nevertheless, there has been some backlash over the lack of public toilets in the new contract, even though of the 150 proposed only 15 were installed — groups opposed to the advertising meant to pay for public infrastructure (such as toilets) are some of the same groups also flagging the lack of public toilets in the new contract. The city is currently moving forward with its own bathroom plan.

“There’s a historic pattern of considering transit riders as ‘others’ or as people that bring crime. because they are people with lower incomes,” says Brozen, who noted that this is not unique to L.A. “You hear tones of classism and racism against installing bus shelters.”

Manage a successful public-private partnership

One key to the success of bus shelter programs is successfully managing the partnership between the city and the company contracted to build and maintain shelters. The New York City Department of Transportation also partnered with JCDecaux to install bus shelters, but was able to build 3,500 in five years versus 660 in 20 years.

According to an NYC DOT official, the franchise agreement with JCDecaux included deadlines for the first five years and required that bus shelters be installed within 30 days once requested. There were financial penalties that would apply if contract requirements were breached.

The TransitCenter report notes that while NYC DOT’s Franchise Division doesn’t have transit operations experience, it has been highly successful at holding JCDecaux to the terms of the contract. Perhaps also a key to New York City’s success: Bus shelters were given blanket approval, so individual shelter locations did not have to be approved by City Council.

Reinvest advertising revenue into transit infrastructure for bus riders

In their report, TransitCenter recommends cities reinvest advertising revenue into bus stop improvements rather than use bus shelters to generate money for the general budget.

In L.A.’s existing program, money from street furniture advertising revenue is split, with 50% going into the city’s general fund and 50% going into the Street Furniture Revenue Fund, which is further divided between the 15 council districts. The money in the fund was originally earmarked for projects that would benefit transit riders, but in 2006 the L.A. City Council added a provision that broadly expanded the types of eligible projects. This arrangement has led to criticism over how the fund is used, with money going to non-transit-related projects such as surveillance equipment for the LAPD and staff salaries.

Currently, this division of revenue remains the same with the new contract. But with the visibility of the new street furniture program and a renewed vision for equity, the City Council might face new scrutiny over the use of funds.

As the contract goes up for a vote, advocates say that there is a sense of urgency for the city to provide shade for bus riders.

“There used to be — and there still is to some extent —finger pointing, passing the buck,” says Lindblad. “And there’s been enough public outcry and demand for high quality and more bus shelters that it’s been hard for different government agencies to ignore.”

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Maylin Tu is Next City's Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Social Impact Design. A freelance reporter based in Los Angeles, she writes about transportation and public infrastructure (especially bus shelters and bathrooms), with bylines in the Guardian, KCET, Next City, LAist, LA Public Press and JoySauce. She graduated with a BA in English from William Jewell College in Missouri.

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