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Why Aren't There More Shade-Providing Bus Shelters in LA?

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The breakdown of a contract with an advertiser means a serious shortage in protection for LA bus riders

Though some Los Angeles bus stops are getting shelter upgrades like WiFi and USB chargers, far more stops are without a shelter at all. That's not how it's supposed to be. KPCC finds that more than half of the bus shelters that were supposed to be built at stops throughout Los Angeles haven't been put up.

The holdup comes from a dysfunctional contract with an advertiser, and it has meant not only sweltering waits for the bus where there should be shade, but also millions lost "in unrealized advertising revenues" because ads can't be placed on shelters that don't exist.

It's not necessarily Metro's fault—the agency runs the buses and calls the shots on bus stop locations, but the bus shelters, which fall on non-Metro-owned property, are the purview of the city. It was the city that entered into a 2001 contract with CBS Decaux that should have provided over 1,000 bus shelters over 20 years. But instead, that deal's "unraveled," and that means bring an umbrella to the bus stop because there might not be any other shade. (CBS Decaux is a joint venture between JCDecaux SA and CBS Outdoor Americas Inc., now Outdoor Media.)

It also mean's the city's missing out on a projected $80 million in revenues from advertising.

LA has almost 8,000 bus stops. Around 6,200 of them do not have a shelter, KPCC says. If the CBS Decaux contract were progressing as planned, 662 or more bus shelters would have been built to date.

The deal's been going south almost since it began, it seems. City officials have said in "correspondence about the contract" that they've been attempting to renegotiate since 2003, but are now convinced they might not be able to make any headway on changing the contract until it expires. That will happen in 2021.

In 2012, a "highly critical audit of the program" from the city controller found that part of the slowdown had to do with sluggish approval of permits to build the bus stop structures. Approvals hit the skids "during a period of public backlash against billboards when advertising on the streets had become highly unpopular," and from there "the rollout schedule for new shelters collapsed."

The controller's audit also made recommendations—among them, the suggestion that the CBS Decaux contract be totally renegotiated—that still haven't been implemented for the most part.

Though the whole shelters-paid-for-by-advertisers system is common, it's not a great one, at least for the people who are riding the bus and potentially using the shelters. The way it works is that the city and an advertiser partner together, with the advertiser footing the bill for building the structure in exchange for selling ad space on them, and the city and the ad company splitting the money from the ads. (This is how it works with those standalone bus benches too.)

But the issue with having advertisers in the mix is that they want to put shelters in wealthier areas where bus riders are few and far between, so that ads aren't obscured by pesky people waiting to ride the bus.

According to a 2001 study by a professor at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, "the interests of advertisers carried more weight, resulting in the disproportionate location of shelters in higher-income areas with low bus ridership." (The study made recommendations for how to improve the system, and many of those recommendations were put into LA's 2001 deal, but they didn't do much good clearly.)

At least it looks like LA has a few years—probably until 2021—to figure out how to fix the issue.