The idea seemed simple: Come up with a cheap way to increase shade at Los Angeles bus stops during the day and provide light at night.
But the execution, a perforated metal structure with a short overhang that is called La Sombrita, has drawn backlash from critics who have mocked the design, questioning its benefit and whether it would provide enough shade.
La Sombrita, which means little shadow in Spanish, was designed in partnership between the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and Kounkuey Design Initiative, a development and design nonprofit that works in under-resourced communities. The plan was to address what the city said are among the top-cited problems that residents have with city bus stops: Many don’t have adequate shade or are too dark at night and feel unsafe.
Only four of the structures have been installed across the city because the design is still in a pilot phase. But residents were quick to point out that the structures did little to provide shade at Los Angeles’s often scorching bus stops.
“When I first saw it, I was like, ‘What is that?’” said Beatrice Ruiz, who lives in an apartment complex behind one of the stops in Boyle Heights, a largely Latino neighborhood where many residents ride the bus.
The transportation department said that the four prototypes were installed to include routes serving “low-income communities” with “above-average ridership.”
Ms. Ruiz, 35, said that she tends to drive, but often notices those waiting at the stop attempting to seek refuge in the sliver of shade behind an electricity pole. On Wednesday, the new Sombrita cast a dappled silhouette barely any larger across the sidewalk. “That’s a joke,” Ms. Ruiz said. “Doesn’t it seem like they should have put something bigger? I don’t know why they put such a tiny thing.”
In Westlake, another largely Latino, high-density neighborhood, bus riders agreed that the Sombritas seemed of limited use, at least during the day. “I don’t think it covers much,” said Chelsea Oxlaj, a business student who rides the bus at least once a week.
Ms. Oxlaj, 20, said that on the hottest days, she opts to walk around the neighborhood instead of sweltering at the bus stop. But she was hopeful, she added, that the lights on the shelter would make the notoriously dark stop feel somewhat safer at night.
“It’s really dark here,” Ms. Oxlaj said. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to do a lot of good.”
Women, especially women of color, are more likely to face violence and harassment on the city’s public transportation system, according to a recent Los Angeles Department of Transportation report.
Experts said the prototypes highlighted the difficulty of developing improvements for public transportation in car-dependent cities with policies that favor personal vehicles. Coming up with new solutions for public transit, they say, is especially urgent as cities around the world try to adapt to the effects of climate change.
Natalia Molina, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, said that the fixtures were inadequate, especially in poorer neighborhoods where there are fewer trees.
“Bringing a Sombrita to parts of L.A. that can easily be 10 degrees hotter, thanks to historical patterns of environmental racism and inequality, is like bringing a knife to a gunfight,” Ms. Molina said.
Colin Sweeney, a spokesman for the transportation department, said the city was “testing all possible solutions.”
“La Sombrita — entirely grant-funded at no cost to the taxpayer — is not a replacement for critical investments we need more of like bus shelters and streetlights,” Mr. Sweeney said in a statement on Tuesday. “This pilot treatment is designed to test ways of creating small amounts of shade and light where other solutions are not immediately possible.”
Many critics of the new setups argued that a tree would be a simpler, greener solution. But that’s not possible on many narrow Los Angeles sidewalks. Others mocked how small the fixtures are. But anything larger would require a permit further delaying any relief at city bus stops.
Jarrett Walker, an Oregon-based public transit planning and policy consultant who was not involved with the project, said that adding trees or larger bus stop shelters is difficult because sidewalks are small in many car-dependent American cities.
“We have inherited streets where everyone expects there to be four, or even six, traffic lanes and a parking lane,” Mr. Walker said. “The sidewalk is whatever space is left over after you’ve allocated all of that, and therefore the sidewalk is inadequate.”
Many cities, Mr. Walker said, have policies and permit requirements in place that can often limit improvements for public transportation.
“We’re trapped inside of this unjust street design and this unjust situation,” Mr. Walker said, adding that “therefore things you tried to do to solve the problem inside of that box are going to sometimes look kind of sad and inadequate.”
The Sombrita fixtures can be installed in 30 minutes or less, and their small size means they don’t need permits or coordination with other agencies, according to Kounkuey Design Initiative. The setups were designed not only to provide shade, but they also use solar energy gathered during the day to light the stop at night, the transportation department said.
A fixture costs 15 percent of the price of a typical bus shelter, which can cost up to $50,000, according to Kounkuey Design Initiative.
Faiza Moatasim, an assistant professor of architecture in urbanism and urban design at the University of Southern California, said that in a changing climate there is a “tremendous need” to find solutions for those who use public transportation in Los Angeles, a city where shade is often easier to find in more affluent neighborhoods.
“Everything is this different if you’re in an upper-income versus a lower-income neighborhood,” Ms. Moatasim said. “This is a matter of making cities work for everyone.”