Los Angeles and the Dignity of Bus Stop Shelters

Chicago bus stop shelter

With Ryan and I having already decided to move to Los Angeles seriously considering moving to Los Angeles, the specter of becoming an L.A. transit rider has been on my mind. Can you survive in Los Angeles without knowing how to drive a car? Absolutely. The question is how much ease and dignity will you manage to retain while you’re riding across the county by bus and rail. Especially by bus.

L.A. Metro operates a surprisingly large (more than 90 miles) and quickly growing network of subway and light rail lines–a fact which still shocks some Angelenos–as well as the second-largest public bus system in America. And contrary to what Angelenos who don’t take transit assume, Metro keeps the trains, buses, and rail stations in pretty spectacular shape.

The problem is the bus stops. I believe they are the main reason why transit in L.A. gets such a bad rap, both within the city and beyond. Why? There’s no dignity there.

Dignity is important when you’re journeying from place to place.

When you’re driving, you’re guaranteed not to endure unpleasant weather conditions. Whether the sun is shining mercilessly, the rain is pelting endlessly, or (in cities beyond L.A.) the wind chill is waiting to freeze your glasses to your face, you get to sit, comfortable and cozy, inside your vehicle. You’re guaranteed a journey during which your basic needs for adequate seating, shelter, and travel information will be met.

In New York and Chicago, L.A.’s peer American world cities, it also works the same way for rail and bus transit. Waiting for a transit train? You’ll do so in a weather-separated station, or on an open-air platform with windbreaks, canopies, and in Chicago even heat lamps. Waiting for a bus? Both cities have bus shelters at most bus stops. In fact, Chicago kits  out its bus shelters with a bench, a full system map, lighting, wind protection on three sides, and, lately, an electronic readout of next-bus arrival times–all with the same construction and maintenance vendor that L.A. uses, CBS/Decaux.

Los Angeles transit works this way, too, if you’re a rail rider. Metro Rail riders get full-blown underground, elevated, or surface stations that help shelter them in comfort and orient them along their way.

So what’s wrong with Los Angeles bus stop shelters?

Unfortunately, Metro’s bus riders don’t receive the same dignity at bus stops. They key problems:

  • Bus shelters barely exist. At this Streetsblog post points out, bus shelters are simply absent in most of L.A., particularly in working-class neighborhoods. Most of the few bus stop shelters that L.A. does have are located in high-traffic, high-income commercial areas. That may not seem like a big deal in a place with generally pleasant weather. But when you think about it, that means most Anegelenos waiting for a bus must stand in direct, unshaded sunlight–except for the few winter weeks each year when they’ll be waiting out in the rain.
  • There is no standard for the few bus stop shelters that do exist. L.A.’s existing few bus stop shelters do not share a consistent design. Some are old and falling apart. But even the new ones cannot be counted upon to offer useful amenities like benches, maps, and adequate protection from sun and rain.
  • Existing amenities are awful. The majority of Los Angeles bus stops are simply furnished with a bus stop sign and a filthy, open-air plastic bench. The signs carry little information on them beyond route numbers. The backrests of the benches carry an advertising panel, making clear that ads–not riders–are the main reason for the benches. Worse, in an attempt to improve bus stop amenities, Streetsblog reported that L.A. has begun replacing those filthy, open-air plastic benches…with soon-to-be-filthy, open-air metal benches.

Would you want to use a bus system like that? Or if you had a choice, would you drive, instead? Especially if while driving down most streets, you regularly got to see how awful the local bus stops looked? That’s the same conclusion for many Angelenos, too, and it’s why taking the bus in L.A. still carries a stigma.

Is it the transit agency’s fault?

You might think that a city’s transit agency would be instrumental in identifying and selecting appropriate bus stop furniture and kitting out bus stops with amenities. You’d be wrong. In most of America, that responsibility lies with City Hall–and City Hall doesn’t always care what transit riders want. Especially bus riders.

From my own professional experience, that’s how New York City ended up with bus stop signs that were too tall for people actually standing at the bus stops to read in the 1990s–an NYC DOT official wanted them and that was that. It didn’t matter what riders really needed. Crane your necks. (It was the same official responsible for making neighborhood names more prominent than far-more-useful street names on NYC subway maps. Yes, Norm, I’m writing about you…)

It’s also how Chicago suffered through bus stop shelters with zero amenities at all until the former Mayor Daley traveled to Paris and experienced handsome, illuminated bus stop shelters with benches, maps, and great protection from the elements. By the late 2000s, Chicago had the same bus stop shelters installed citywide.

Although L.A. Metro is the expert on amenities riders need at bus stops, the city’s Bureau of Streets and Services is responsible for selecting street furniture and setting the contractual terms with vendors. In 2001 the Bureau entered into a 20-year contract with CBS/Decaux to install and maintain all Los Angeles city street furniture including bus stop shelters, based on a street furniture design plan (PDF), the details of which include:

  • No goal for consistency of bus stop shelters or amenities–instead, the plan lists four different bus stop “design collections”.
  • No mention of transit-specific amenities to meet the real-life needs of bus riders, like maps, real-time signage, or full sun and rain protection.
  • No mention of potential cross-jurisdictional cooperation to help meet the systemwide needs of bus riders by encouraging consistent bus stop shelters beyond city borders.
  • No requirement for CBS/Decaux to install bus stop shelters citywide–or even to install shelters at most bus stops, even though they’re guaranteed citywide advertising profits from all signage.

That doesn’t sound like a design plan that takes full account of the needs of bus riders who will be among the primary beneficiaries of the street furniture called for by the plan.

So who’s really to blame?

In L.A., when the discussion of bus stops and bus shelters comes up, fingers usually point at three groups:

  • L.A.’s aldermen. Some L.A. City Council members oppose bus stop shelters as “advertising blight“–they want less advertising signage on city streets, not more.
  • Municipal leaders beyond L.A. Metro operates buses across L.A. County, through many different municipal jurisdictions, some of which have their own separate bus systems. Local leaders in those jurisdictions  control and decide on their own  street furniture. They don’t always want–or want to pay for–bus stop shelters.
  • The bus stop shelter contractor. CBS/Decaux, L.A. Metro’s supply and maintenance contractor for bus stop furniture, gets to decide where to locate bus shelters. Some suggest Decaux refuses to locate bus stop shelters where where poor people live because they won’t be able to sell ad panels in those areas.

But while some limitations in the above areas do exist, they aren’t limitations unique to Los Angeles. It’s always challenging to do transit planning across city lines. City council members always want to protect the feel of local neighborhoods. And service providers will always want to make as much money as possible.

“Cowboys don’t ride buses.”

There’s an old, widespread attitude in America that bus riders can fend for themselves. Even in places like New York and Chicago that finally respect their needs, this was the attitude for a long time. It took decades for American cities to realize that economic development goals can be met more easily in places with good public transit. That’s why L.A. embarked on the still-ongoing construction of its rail system in the early 1990s.

It took longer to realize that good transit doesn’t just include rail systems, but well-functioning bus systems, too. That’s why there are relatively new light-rail systems all across the America of 2013, but far fewer innovative bus transit solutions like limited-stop Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). In fact, L.A. Metro was slapped with a 10-year civil rights consent decree in 1996 ordering it to improve and maintain bus service in neighborhoods of color after systemic cuts that coincided with the initial construction of the rail system.

For the past several years, L.A. has had a small but modern BRT system. The San Fernando Valley’s Orange Line, and to a lesser extent the South Bay/San Gabriel Valley Sliver Line, with their dedicated surface stations for limited-stop rapid buses, are the only parts of the Los Angeles transit system where bus riders can reliably expect a convenient, dignified waiting area.

Yet even after the consent decree, they’re promoted as part of the rail network. Huh?

It’s a problem of misplaced priorities.

What’s really going on is that the City of Los Angeles and L.A. Metro have decided to pick their battles. Their priority for more than twenty years has been to build out the subway and light rail system. A lot of political capital has been and remains to be spent making that happen. Aldermanic and inter-regional cooperation happens all the time over local transit issues. It just happens most of the time over rail-transit issues. 

There could be closer cooperation between the city and the transit agency. There could be closer cooperation between L.A. Metro, a countywide agency, and municipal leaders outside the city. The original contract with CBS/Decaux could have required bus stop shelters at all city bus stops where construction was feasible. (That’s how the contract was written for Chicago’s 11,000 bus stops, and Decaux abides by it.)

But the build-out and continued operation of the rail system through diverse municipalities requires careful political balancing, and in recent memory bus service has been a highly politically charged issue. So even though everyone can see there’s a problem, why rock the boat?

I think that’s the attitude that really keeps L.A. bus riders from enjoying the convenient and consistent amenities that bus riders enjoy in other world cities–and deserve in Los Angeles, too. Unfortunately, it’s an attitude based on fear, not on wise transit planning.

The punch line is that L.A.’s rail system can’t succeed without L.A.’s bus system.

Here’s why it’s important to rock that boat and establish closer cooperation at all levels to plan and roll out convenient, consistent bus stop shelters across Los Angeles County: the bus system feeds riders into the rail system. There is reduced usefulness for L.A.’s rail system without the bus system. Most Angelenos don’t live near rail stations and never will. Most, however, do live near bus routes–and the rail system has been planned around the idea that the bus system will serve to get riders the hypothetical “last mile” between the rail lines that can get them from one side of the county to the other and the streets on which they actually live.

It will never matter how many rail lines and rail stations are built in Los Angeles if Angelenos don’t want to use the bus stops that would get them on the buses that would get them to the rail system. The key to success for L.A.’s rail transit system is, literally, the bus system. Ignoring the need for bus stop shelters now will not make the need go away. It will just delay the success of the entire system.

It would be nice for Ryan and me to get to Los Angeles and not feel like we have to live and work solely along rail lines for me to survive. After all, I’ve made it 43 years not knowing how to drive a car. I’d like to continue my record. And honestly, lack of bus stop shelters won’t keep me from riding the bus in L.A. But it would be nice if riding the transit system in L.A.–all parts of it–reminded me that I was living in a fully post-millennium world city.

The idea that cowboys don’t ride buses is so 20th century.

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