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.