Weary transit riders undoubtedly have noticed an improvement to the Los Angeles streetscape in the past few weeks. New bus benches -- a shiny green metal model that wouldn't look too out of place in a local park -- are cropping up on sidewalks.
Six thousand new benches are, thank goodness, slowly replacing the slimy brown plastic versions currently seen around L.A. With their awkward scale and styling, the old benches are more like a Playskool version of a toy bench rather than a functional seat -- hardly a place to sit. The matte surface was an ideal canvas for graffiti by both humans and pigeons. Plus the pitch of the seat and the slickness of the material made it nearly impossible to keep yourself from sliding down toward the sidewalk. (And maybe that was the message they wanted to send: Don't get too comfortable.)
The new green benches are certainly an aesthetic improvement for our streets. They offer a wide, right-angled seat that would not be difficult to occupy while waiting for a late 780. The metallic surface, while not tag-proof, is certainly a deterrent. The slits in the bottom prevents urban detritus and mysterious fluids from pooling (a big problem with the brown ones). But the disheartening truth about bus benches in L.A. remains: This is not an enlightened civic service for transit riders. This is how a broke city makes money.
"It's nice that it's a better bench now," says Deborah Murphy, an urban designer currently working on the Figueroa Corridor improvement project in downtown. "But it's still a billboard with a seat." When Murphy worked at the city, she remembers trying to persuade her colleagues to consider a more attractive, comfortable bench to better serve riders and improve the pedestrian experience. But good design definitely wasn't a priority, she remembers. "The city wants to make money, that's the No. 1 priority," she says. "It's a tertiary benefit for the transit rider."
The fact that we even have bus benches is thanks to a marketing miracle. Advertising companies, not the city, install the benches and shelters and share the revenue with the city (exactly how much is currently being disputed). The new green benches represent a new vendor, Martin Outdoor Media. The brown benches on the outs were with a company called Norman Bench. Another contractor, CBS Decaux, installs black bus shelters with giant posters on either side.
The actual science of how and where these bus benches appear is a bit more backward. The advertising companies, not the city, choose the location. Naturally, ad companies want eyeballs in higher-income neighborhoods, so that's where the bulk of the benches go -- not in the lower-income neighborhoods that are more transit-dependent.
But all is not lost for the rears of riders. In some neighborhoods, local business improvement districts have raised money for better benches. The independent cities are where bus shelters shine, and Santa Monica might be the most progressive of all: the city has outlawed all advertising on its sidewalks and commissioned beautiful new, customized stops for its Big Blue Bus.
During one of the 80-degree days a couple weeks ago, I headed out on my bike to talk to a bus rider seated on one of the new green benches. Granted, the benches aren't yet as ubiquitous as the turd-colored ones they're replacing. But as I rode a stretch of Sunset heading toward downtown, I didn't see a single person sitting on one of the new models. Instead, people were standing several feet away in almost perfectly straight lines. It took me a few blocks to figure it out. On our brilliantly sunny L.A. mornings, what most bus riders need isn't a seat. They need shade.
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It's a bummer that the city has to sell advertising on its bus benches to pay its firefighters and fix its potholes. But then I look at the money and attention lavished on the Expo Line (WHICH IS STILL NOT OPEN, BY THE WAY), where artists and architects have been commissioned to cover the stations' surfaces with locally influenced artwork, customized benches, and -- yes! -- rippling blue canopies. With so much money being poured into our rail system, why can't bus stops get a fraction of those funds to make them a more pleasant, dignified place to spend 15 minutes?
In fact, Metro currently is building new canopies over all the Red Line stations. Stations that are underground. Instead, we could divvy up that cost and plot a simple, colorful sun shade at every bus stop -- maybe one that includes an artistic pattern that references the community's cultural identity, or features a map of the local neighborhood. Bonus: You could still put ads on one side.
The new green benches might look like an improvement, but they're actually a step back for Los Angeles. Instead of coming up with an innovative way to generate income, improve our streets, and serve transit riders, the city has simply swapped one vendor for another.