Last week, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation held a press conference for something it is calling La Sombrita, a “low-cost infrastructure [sic] that can be quickly installed to improve the transit experience” for people taking the city’s buses. It appears to be a modified version of a metal bench, approximately 18 inches wide, that attaches to existing bus stop poles. The idea is it will provide shade during the day and a light at night for people waiting for the bus on sidewalks too narrow for a full bus shelter.
What you see here may be in the eye of the beholder. To those speaking at the press conference, La Sombrita is an innovative solution to adding shade and lighting to the approximately 6,000 bus stops with no shelter. To others, such as the many, many replies to the above LADOT tweets, it is a pathetic non-solution to the many indignities LA bus riders face.
La Sombrita is a descendant of the “sunshade blade” which was making the rounds in 2021 as LA did a kind of road tour of next generation bus stops and shelter amenities. Like La Sombrita, the blade is attached to existing street poles. Unlike La Sombrita, the sunshade blade could rotate and pivot to provide maximum shade at all hours. Also unlike La Sombrita, it was a solid piece of metal—its creators told Curbed that it was coated in a special paint so it wouldn’t overheat and become hot to the touch even in direct sun.
For their differences, La Sombrita and sunshade blade are both capitulations to a city bureaucracy that is simply not capable of serving its bus riders with dignity. It is tempting to make this about urban design and the six-lane West 3rd Street right behind La Sombrita that hogs some 75 feet of road space while bus riders are forced to choose between a seat or some shade because the sidewalk isn’t wide enough for both. But even if redesigning West 3rd Street and installing a real bus shelter was an option, that too would be a multi-year, contentious, drawn-out process rife with angry community meetings and vitriolic “feedback.” Rinse and repeat for all of the thousands of bus shelters and street redesigns they wished to build. Suddenly, La Sombrita doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous.
Which is why La Sombrita is a sign of so much more than how LA lets down its bus riders. It is something even non-bus-riders and non-Angelenos should see as a symbol of our failures. It is about American cities erecting vast, complex bureaucracies with insanely complicated rules and norms that make it difficult to build literally anything. As Curbed mentioned back in 2021, getting a bus shelter installed in Los Angeles is a 16-step bureaucratic minefield involving at least eight city departments and the approval of elected officials. All to build one bus shelter!
Incidentally, this is one of the many reasons I’m skeptical of narratives that center the environmental review process as the reason America can’t build things anymore; even things that don’t require environmental reviews like bus shelters have become impossibly complicated to execute, so much so that cities often don’t even try. Instead, they begin by asking what they can build that won’t require going through that process. La Sombrita’s main attribute is that it can be installed on an existing pole within the city’s existing bureaucratic structure.
In other words, La Sombrita’s biggest selling point is that it doesn't change anything. Which is also its biggest issue. It’s hard to make things better without changing things. Fortunately for bus riders at the corner of West 3rd and Union, there’s a healthy, gorgeous tall palm tree about 100 feet from the bus stop that shades the entire sidewalk. It’s been there for decades.