La Sombrita: A Sculpture About the Rules

Credit: Streetsblog Los Angeles

Two weeks ago the Los Angeles Department of Transportation unveiled La Sombrita, a privately-funded demonstration project that makes a tiny improvement to the situation of people waiting at unsheltered bus stops in Los Angeles.  La Sombrita (“the little shade”) is a small panel attached to pole that casts a very small amount of shade, and that lights up at night. That’s it.  That’s all it does.

The blowback among bus riders and transit advocates was intense, and the whole thing ended up in the New York Times.

La Sombrita looks pretty sad, but that’s the point.  If you accept the wildly unjust apportionment of space on the Los Angeles street, and you obey all of the rules and regulations around building things in the public right of way, you get this.  To a degree, making that point is what La Sombrita is for.

Kriston Capps in Bloomberg has the best summary I’ve seen of this teachable moment.  Read the whole thing.  The key passage comes from a conversation with Chelina Odbert, who heads the design collective behind La Sombrita.

Fabricating a prototype that actually fits within all the applicable constraints can actually help to highlight the problem at hand. The way Odbert describes it, the iterative design process itself functions as a form of criticism. She gives an example: After the Los Angeles City Council voted to legalize street vending in 2018, food vendors ran into a problem. Their carts couldn’t pass inspections meant for brick-and-mortar restaurants. As an exercise, Kounkuey designed (but did not fabricate) a cart that would meet LA’s high standards. With its mandatory hand-washing station, fire extinguisher and 20 cubic feet of dry storage, this street-legal vending cart design would stretch 12 feet and weigh 700 pounds.

Obviously, an SUV-sized cart would be no use to tamale vendors, one of whom designed his own prototype (which was eventually approved). But by engaging with this farcical process, Kounkuey helped illustrate its flaws. With the absurd rendering in hand, Odbert says, the designers were able to lobby the county for changes to the health code.

La Sombrita deserves praise, especially as a privately-funded initiative, as a demonstration of how ridiculous the rules governing bus stops are.  If you want to improve a bus stop fast without requiring complicated permits or violating any laws, La Sombrita is what you can do.  Don’t like it?  Then it’s time to change those rules, and now you have a public sculpture to make your point.

4 Responses to La Sombrita: A Sculpture About the Rules

  1. Chris May 30, 2023 at 9:25 am #

    Come on Jarrett, I know you know it is a space issue. There is simply no room to install shelters on most of the sidewalks in areas of Los Angeles that developed prior to World War II because the sidewalks are too narrow. The “farcical” rule at play here is the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirement that sidewalks have a certain width free of obstruction to allow wheelchairs to pass. Not requiring a City Council member’s approval to install a shelter is not suddenly going to create a wider sidewalk, but widening the sidewalk through bulb-outs would.

    • LowHeadways May 30, 2023 at 12:45 pm #

      The problem in Los Angeles is that the sidewalks are far too narrow, in order to support six-lane-plus-parking traffic sewer monstrosities. Indeed, that is kind of Jarret’s point!

  2. Jack May 31, 2023 at 1:23 pm #

    I struggle to understand why this creates so much controversy. I am not familiar with the LA scene, so I understand there may be a history / context her I’m not familiar with.

    That being said–this looks like a nice feature compared to just a sign on a pole. Obviously a full shelter is better, but I’ve found that the “all or nothing” approach to amenities can lead to many places getting nothing. I’ve seen this often with ADA regulations. Because upgrading a location at all would require such a significant upgrade to get it to full ADA standards, and there isn’t funding for that, nothing is done when an incremental improvement would have been possible. Lighting at bus stops is one of our customer’s biggest requests. Something like this would be a great incremental improvement in locations where a shelter won’t fit because of right of way issues, or simply isn’t in the budget.

    In conclusion, this instead of nothing would be great. This as an excuse to not do more would be problematic.

  3. Michael Ligot June 7, 2023 at 11:15 am #

    Seems like a piece of performance art, intentional or not.