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L.A.'s high-tech bus shelters are nice, but how about some shade?

L.A.'s high-tech bus shelters are nice, but how about some shade?
A woman takes shelter from the sun under an umbrella while waiting for the bus at 5th and Hill streets in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 13. (Los Angeles Times)

Anyone who's ever hung out at a Los Angeles bus station knows the wait can seem interminable. In a bid to make the experience less painful, the city of L.A. has a plan to outfit 15 bus stops with smart benches and shelters as part of its Great Streets Initiative. The first upgraded shelter debuted last week at Central Avenue and 43rd Street in Historic South-Central to great fanfare. Fourteen more will be coming online over the next months.

The bus stops sound like every tech-savvy commuter's dream: solar-powered USB charging ports, Wi-Fi hot spots, LED lights, and most important, real-time arrival info for Metro and City buses. (No more wondering if you missed the bus!) But despite all the good things about the plan, these upgrades are missing out on the city's real need: adequate shade.

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The streets of Los Angeles are often hot, unfriendly, concrete places. As a frequent bus rider, I've often had to linger uncomfortably under the blistering sun, wishing I put on more sunblock. Or, if I'm lucky, I'm able to hide under the shade of a nearby tree or building. Sometimes I even have to settle for a sliver of shade from a skinny street pole.

I'm often not the only one there.

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Jostling for space with other commuters in the measly shaded areas L.A.'s streetscape offers is a pretty common occurrence.

L.A.'s bus system handles around 1 million boardings on a given weekday. Instead of 15 tech-friendly stops peppered around the city, L.A. needs adequate shade solutions installed on all of the city's stops. Making sure riders are shaded is crucial, especially when you take into account research by UCLA scientists that predicts that parts of Los Angeles County could quadruple their days of extreme heat by 2050.

It's not as if the city doesn't have a model to build off of. A year ago, Santa Monica began a $7 million overhaul of all 302 Big Blue Bus Shelters within the city limits. The project, which is 80% funded with federal dollars and 20% funded by local state funds, uses a Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects (LOHA) scalable design. The firm created a kit-of-parts design in which individual shelters can be easily customized to address a number of factors: the stop's location, volume of riders, proximity to utility mains, and location of business signs.

Most important, LOHA's design is flexible enough to allow each location's shading unit to be placed exactly where the sun will shine during the hours most people use the shelter. Santa Monicans became so enamored of actually sitting in the shade while waiting for buses, they demanded additional shade canopies that went beyond the original design be installed in succeeding installations.

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As more people board its buses, Santa Monica says it will keep adding shade. The city is scheduled to finish installing its upgraded stops by the end of the year.

Santa Monica's project wasn't without its difficulties. It took more than a decade of community meetings, construction delays and city council meetings to get the overhaul going. Los Angeles should expect even more complexity if it follows suit.

Unlike Santa Monica, which doesn't allow advertising on its stops, the city of Los Angeles still has to make nice with outdoor ad company Outfront/JC Decaux, which installs the city's shelters and even gets to decide where the city places them. Here, a conflict of interest inevitably comes up. Ads favor neighborhoods with more disposable income over more transit-dependent lower income neighborhoods. Any improvements on the current design would have to be worked out with these ad companies.

There are perks to this arrangement, of course, L.A. gets a share of this ad revenue, which it funnels back to city projects. The city also doesn't have to spend money on upkeep of its bus stops. But what's convenient for the city of Los Angeles — or what's new and blog-worthy for that matter -- doesn't always translate to what's best for the transit riders of Los Angeles.

The mayor's Great Streets campaign was launched in an effort to re-imagine the 7,500 centerline miles that make up the city streets—15% of all the land in Los Angeles. Outfitting 15 stops with smart technology is undeniably cool, but it affects only a fraction of the city's riders. What would be literally and figuratively cooler is to design more shade on all the city's bus stops.

Carren Jao is a freelance writer from Manila based in Los Angeles. She writes about architecture, design and business. You can find her at carrenjao.com or follow her at @ccjao

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