The 'Sombrita' bus shade controversy obscures an important story about women and transit
First things first: La Sombrita is not a bus shelter, and it was not funded with government money.
Now that we've got some of the frequently misreported facts out of the way, let's get into how a prototype sunshade deployed at four Los Angeles bus stops came to dominate social media over the last week, becoming a political Rorschach test for the failures of government — thus burying a far more interesting story about how we can make public transportation more friendly to women.
The controversy erupted last week, when leaders from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation along with L.A. City Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez held a news conference to announce a new prototype sunshade and lighting system at a bus stop in Westlake. In the photos, the design looked less than enthralling: a skateboard-shaped piece of perforated metal hung from a pole that looked to cast a sliver of shade over, at most, two or three people. At night, a solar-powered light is intended to help illuminate the sidewalk.
In a city where the lack of shade around bus stops is a serious problem (made worse by climate change), La Sombrita, as the design was dubbed by its creators, came off as a joke. I'll admit, that was my first reaction. The photos of the news conference, showing a group of officials looking up at a glorified pole, quickly became a Twitter meme.
Making things worse was the public relations spin. A media alert breathlessly announced a "First-of-its-Kind Bus Stop Shade Structure" and framed it as part of an effort to bring gender equity to public transit. If you were following the story on Twitter, it was wildly unclear how exactly a piece of metal on a stick was going to help women. It felt merely like a capitulation to the habit already forced on Angelenos sweltering at countless bus stops; tucking themselves behind utility poles and praying they don't fry their brains.
Within hours of the news conference, La Sombrita was being held up as a symbol of everything wrong with cities by observers across the political spectrum. On the left, it indicated an uncaring government doing less than the bare minimum for its citizens. On the right, it was evidence of a blue city mired in regulation — dopey Los Angeles unable to execute. "How to Fail at Infrastructure," trumpeted a post from the conservative Cato Institute.
The real story of La Sombrita, however, is more complex.
To reiterate — because there are many half-truths circulating — La Sombrita is not a bus shelter. Nor is it intended to replace bus shelters. LADOT, in fact, is not the city agency in charge of bus shelters. That would be StreetsLA, a.k.a. the Bureau of Street Services, which is part of the Department of Public Works.
La Sombrita instead has its roots in an intriguing 2021 study conducted by LADOT titled "Changing Lanes" that examined how public transit could be more equitable to women.
Many urban transit systems were designed around nine-to-five commuters — frequently men. And transit infrastructure — such as grab bars and seat heights — were designed around men's bodies. But over the decades, riding patterns have changed. On Metro, which serves L.A. County, women constituted a majority of bus passengers prior to the pandemic, according to a Metro survey published last year. Currently, they make up half the bus-riding population.
Yet these systems were not designed with their needs in mind. Routes might be functional for taking travelers to work and back, but are wildly inefficient at getting a caregiver traveling with children from school to soccer practice, to the supermarket and back home, in a timely manner. And there's the additional challenge of navigating the system with an infant in a stroller. (I invite any Twitter bros getting their yuks over gender equity to ride a bus across L.A. while juggling an infant, a toddler and two bags of groceries. Or to traverse lonely boulevards at night without the benefit of a working lamppost.)
The 2021 study was a first step toward giving the issue serious consideration. It was commissioned by LA DOT and led by Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), a nonprofit group focused on design and community development. (They've worked on L.A.-based projects before, including LA DOT's "Play Streets" project, which temporarily shut down city streets and turned them into improvised playgrounds.)
"Changing Lanes" homed in on women riders in three neighborhoods — Watts, Sawtelle and Sun Valley — areas that not only represent different urban conditions but also have high proportions of women workers without cars. At the level of design, the report concluded, "Not only do entire systems fail to adequately account for women, the infrastructure used in those systems prioritizes men's experience."
The recommendations included collecting better data, improving recreational transit options, revamping itineraries to better reflect women's travel patterns and improving design and safety.
The report has already resulted in some small changes to the system: In 2021, LADOT launched a test of on-demand stops along four routes on its DASH bus system between the hours of 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. to help shorten nighttime walks through risky stretches. It remains in effect.
Currently, KDI is at work on an action plan titled "Next Stop" that will help guide the implementation of some of the broad policy recommendations in their initial study. "It's a roadmap of actions that DOT can take along their 54 lines of business," says KDI's founding principal and chief executive, Chelina Odbert, "that can add up to transit infrastructure that is more gender-inclusive."
The action plan, which is expected to be completed by the end of this year, will offer recommendations on hiring, data collection and fares. Women, says Odbert, tend to make more transfers — which means "they bear a disproportionate financial burden when we don't have free transfers between systems."
The team is also scrutinizing how processes that require the input of multiple city agencies might be streamlined. Bus shelter installation, for one example, has been famously held hostage to bureaucratic red tape and the whims of individual City Council members.
To support the action plan, KDI and LADOT have also established two working groups: One made up of city residents and another of representatives from various agencies. Throughout, Odbert said they have looked for ways to support long-term policy with small infrastructural solutions. So they decided to tackle an issue that had come up repeatedly in their conversations with women during the initial study: shade and light.
KDI produced a variety of concepts, including standing shade structures of various widths, some that rotated and some with seats. As a starting point, however, they decided to prototype a model that could be installed in minutes on LADOT poles, which wouldn't require additional permitting or utilities. And thus La Sombrita came to be.
To be clear, the design and prototyping was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; no city money was used to create the shade. Each prototype came to about $10,000 including design, materials and engineering, says Odbert, but the idea is that the cost for each shade would drop to about $2,000 if mass produced.
Another clarification: The designers did not, as has been widely reported, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on travel to study shade structures in other cities. There was travel involved, says Odbert, but it was early on in the process to study how transportation agencies in other countries serve women riders. "Shade," she says, "wasn’t a known focus at that point in the project."
La Sombrita, moreover, is a prototype. Depending on feedback, it may be amended or discarded; different prototypes may follow.
La Sombrita, however, had the misfortune of landing at a moment of peak frustration among L.A.'s bus riders, who have been contending with years — yeeeaaars — of broken promises on questions of shelter. In a story published last fall, my colleague Rachel Uranga detailed how an ad-driven model delivered only 660 out of 2,185 promised shelters over two decades. Yet, despite this failure, the City Council opted for another ad-driven contract with a different vendor last year.
Curbed correspondent Alissa Walker took to Twitter to note the rage currently directed at La Sombrita would have been better aimed at that bus shelter contract.
Freeways, after all, aren't generally forced to earn their keep in this manner. As Jessica Meaney, director of the mobility advocacy group, Investing in Place, told LAist last year: "The fact that we won't invest in improving our bus stops unless it's tied to advertising is such an outdated and, frankly, punishing position to take for people who ride the bus who are already dealing with a bus service that hasn't really seen significant improvement in 30 years."
Already, the rollout of the new shelters — designed by Tranzito-Vector — has been pushed back from this summer to late fall, according to a report published by dot.LA in March. (A spokesperson for DPW was not able to provide an update in time for this story.)
A representative for LADOT noted that La Sombrita "is not a replacement for critical investments we need more of — like bus shelters and streetlights. This pilot treatment is designed to test ways of creating small amounts of shade and light where other solutions are not immediately feasible."
As far as design solutions go, the shade is better than nothing. I paid a visit to the East L.A. prototype Monday and found that it helped shade my upper body in the late afternoon sun — though, admittedly, it was only 71 degrees. But I had to choose between shade and seating because the two are not aligned.
Streetsblog's Joe Linton writes, in a smart piece, "the project tries to find a constructive niche in a highly inequitable L.A. already suffering from severe disparities. It tries to navigate the byzantine street furniture allocation mechanisms hamstrung by having tied transit shelters to advertising revenues. But ... La Sombrita still feels inadequate."
This much Twitter got right: It is underwhelming. But the study that led to La Sombrita is not. It's a smart step toward making transit more responsive to all the people who use it. And as a woman who has waited for buses on lonely streets, I welcome that.
Ultimately, the biggest mistake here wasn't trying out a new design. It was holding a news conference that shed more heat than light.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.