Quick Note: Los Angeles Spends $50,000 Per Bus Shelter

I saw a few months ago that Los Angeles was planning to equip its entire bus network with shelter, and rejoiced that such an underrated amenity finally gets the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, the cost of the program is now $50,000 per bus shelter; to lower the cost, the city is experimenting with a substandard shelter providing no protection from the elements for $10,000. In Victoria, as pointed out by one commenter on Twitter, a full shelter is around $15,000 in 2018 Canadian dollars, comparable to 2023 American ones.

Ordinarily, it would be a dog-bites-man story: of course the costs are at a premium of a factor of three over Canada (let alone a place that builds cheaply), it’s an American transit infrastructure project. But this one is significant because bus shelter is small in scope – it’s not a megaproject, and this means that rules of megaprojects do not apply to it.

For example, installing shelter at thousands of stops, as Los Angeles is doing, allows for repetition of a standard design that vendors can figure out on their own. This means that the usual privatization of decisionmaking should not be a problem. (It’s been pointed out to me that design-build works well for municipal parking garages, since they’re so streamlined at this point.)

Moreover, bus shelter, even repeated so many times, is still small enough scope that a small in-house team could handle it. LACMTA has been talking to us about how to scale up their in-house team, and we couldn’t give them concrete numbers, but I believe what they have for design review is in the teens, which is probably not enough for a subway extension but should be for a bus shelter program measured in the tens of millions of dollars or (with the cost blowouts factored in) very low hundreds of millions. Elsewhere, for example in Boston, we’ve seen agencies build small things affordably – Boston’s premium over Berlin for building infill commuter rail stations is a factor of maybe 1.5 – and fail at building large things such as urban rail expansion, because their design review team is sized for small and not large things.

Finally, there’s a problem with politicization, in which when politicians insert themselves into a piece of infrastructure, hoping to make it their legacy, it will end up raising costs with at best no and at worst negative benefit to users. Small items like this ordinarily do not have this problem, as they fly under the radar of politicians as well as surplus-extracting community groups.

So why is this so expensive?

I don’t know the details of this failure – all I know is a handful of links to the current cost. I suspect, judging by the tone used in press coverage, that it’s politicization. Note that the piece linked in the lead paragraph centers the issue of gender equity; this isn’t stupid (as the other link points out, bus shelter has a disproportionately positive impact on women), but it does suggest someone thought about the political implications of this. The piece also quotes the designers as having developed the new substandard option “with input from female riders,” suggesting some waste on community consultation.

If I’m right on this, then this suggests a great peril for any city that looks at small and large projects, finds that the small ones are more cost-effective, and decides to prioritize them over large ones. In a city that builds subway expansion and also installs bus shelter beneath anyone’s notice, the bus shelter may be achievable at reasonable cost. But as soon as the shelter turns into a splashy program, beloved by incompetent managers who figure it’s within their span of control and by politicians (who are by definition incompetent on managerial issues), it will acquire the same problems of politicization usually associated with megaprojects. In this case, it’s waste coming from community consultation. In other cases, it might be demands for neighborhood signatures, or intransigence by abutting property owners or by utilities figuring there is surplus to extract, or any of the other causes of cost overruns.

And in particular, downgrading your city’s investment plan just because the flashiest items have cost blowouts wouldn’t end the cost blowouts. If you can’t build subways, work on making yourself capable of building subways; avoiding that mess and building other things instead of subways would run into the same problems and soon you’d be paying $50,000 for a single bus shelter.


  1. jonahbliss

    Alon, this is sloppy work. The Spectrum article is just someone misinterpreting random tidbits and comments from Streetsblog: https://spectrumnews1.com/ca/la-west/transportation/2023/05/18/ladot-introduces-new-shaded–lighted–solar-powered-bus-shelters

    The crappy “sombrita” shelters will cost far less than $10,000 per unit at scale. The quote is that even at this exploratory phase of design research, they ended up costing about 10k. https://la.streetsblog.org/2023/05/19/what-l-a-s-pilot-la-sombrita-shade-light-structure-does-and-doesnt-do/

    Full shelters do not cost $50k each. Analyze the STAP contract if you’d like – https://dot.la/la-partner-tranzito-vector-2657943159.html
    Or just buy an off the shelf shelter yourself: https://www.tolarmfg.com/product-categories/euro-transit-bus-stop-transit-shelters/ https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=APwXEddTcsE6Qtf6CCVQ80A30AzZNAnPFA:1684547806814&q=bus+shelter&tbm=shop&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiOiIfN5YL_AhWul2oFHezBAHEQ0pQJegQIChAB&biw=1664&bih=993&dpr=2

    • Alon Levy

      I remember having read this article from DOT last year. It doesn’t list the cost, whereas the piece here quotes LADOT as saying bus shelter is $50,000 apiece and so they’re experimenting with non-shelter. That the non-shelter can be done at scale for less than $10,000 apiece isn’t too relevant, since it’s not shelter; it would cost $0 to install nothing.

      Googling a bit gets me this piece quoting the cost as $380 million, or $127,000 per stop. The various articles I’m seeing about it talk about bullshit scope like public wifi (okay, but why is it bundled into a bus shelter program?). Then there’s the off-grid solar bullshit, in lieu of tapping the under-street electric utilities; Boston’s Mobility Hubs campaign is doing the same (for $30,000/stop), and other than that, the only other places I’ve heard of off-grid solar are extremely poor countries without a reliable electric grid to connect to.

      • jonahbliss

        That’s such a dodge though. You can’t have a central point of your article be “the city is experimenting with a substandard shelter providing no protection from the elements for $10,000” when that is not in fact true.

        I’m certainly not defending the city’s exercise in not providing basic amenities, but we can point out the project’s true shortcomings, not its made up ones…

      • adirondacker12800

        Solar panels and batteries are realllllllly cheap these days and getting cheaper. And LED lighting is more efficient than fluorescent. Digging up the street to connect to the nearest transformer isn’t. And the utility is going to want to bill for that. No name brand who knows what kind of quality portable solar panels are 50 cents a watt and the fancy name brand ones are $2.00 a watt. It’s hovering around 75 cents a watt for a portable battery with a nice case and an inverter that supplies 120 volt/60 Hz AC. Quick surf for LED replacements for fluorescent tubes are that the four foot ones use 16 watts. Free wi-fi? Someone has to have a talk with the major carriers. They love free wi-fi because it keeps the traffic off the cell phone networks.

      • Basil Marte

        It would cost $0 to install nothing.
        What is the (right) limit of (non-politicized) project cost as scope goes to zero? “We wrote an EIS (vs. we don’t need no damn EIS) and put out an RFP (vs. looked at a catalog) and […] before the project was cancelled”

  2. Anthony Robert

    I think this is supposed to have a solar-powered light at night to protect female bus riders.

    Nonetheless, why can’t we do better? So embarrassing and makes me really pessimistic.

  3. jonahbliss

    All the data is wildy public, you’ll love it. Obviously some of the bids are a tad more expensive than if you were to just buy stock shelter, but the idea is that the infotainment system pays for itself in advertising, and delivers some value to transit riders (wifi, navigation, etc.)

    • Alon Levy

      The articles about this all point out how the previous contract fizzled out. Infotainment is always promised to pay for itself. In practice, a city that tries to build shelter this way is screaming “please shortchange us, we can’t build.”

        • Alon Levy

          Okay, so the contract says $217 million in design-build capex, or $70,000 per shelter; it’s broken down further and the base cost on PDF-p. 7 is said to be $52,000, which I imagine is where the article’s $50,000 comes from? The shelter proper is a lot less but the digital ad display adds a lot and, based on LA’s history with it, should be treated as a sunk cost and not as a revenue generator.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I was in Paris last week during the latest French strikes trying to get home. And some of the working class people there didn’t know the train was cancelled due to the strikes because they didn’t have data.

            So free wifi isn’t pointless for a bunch of bus users who are less likely to have unlimited data contracts.

          • Ernest Tufft

            The free wifi and real time display for approaching buses shouldn’t boost the cost too much, really. In our village of Girona, Spain, no wifi, but just approaching bus display, which is a lot because it requires some fancy network of busses and stations. What really makes California contracts expensive is price of old fashioned backhoe, rebar, and concrete for shelter that can take gangster abuse. Restoring a stretch of levee as wide as a house costs more than the house it protects, even though hourly labor, machine, dump truck of rock would seem to be cheap.

          • Hayt

            @Matthew Hutton people in Paris didn’t have data? I assure you everyone had. Expensive mobile data is purely American and Canadian issue and in France (and all of EU) it’s cheap and everyone has it.

    • Henry Miller

      Can we please stop advertising to me all the time. It is a small part of the budget and I don’t want it in my face all the time.

    • Alon Levy

      (The link doesn’t work here – I think it’s not GDPR-compliant. But I believe you. But that just raises the question of, why is the LA installation so $$$?)

        • Ernest Tufft

          That’s definitely something that can be designed and marketed like you write, but old school shelters aren’t enough. Person waiting for bus needs WiFi and a digital screen of rolling updates about approaching buses.

          • adirondacker12800

            The catalog has shelters with an information system in them. With solar batteries etc.
            They don’t need it because we survived with a Bus Stop sign bolted to the No Standing sign until recently. If they want wi-fi why do they need a display, they can check on whatever they using the wi-fi for.

          • Ernest Tufft

            The reason they need WiFi is as incentive to ride the bus. Subways and trains all need to do the same to counter car culture. When people are waiting they look at cell phones. These things aren’t so expensive really. Like you say, most of this is plug and play tech now.

          • Alon Levy

            New York City Transit’s installation of wifi at all subway stations around 2017-18 is invisible in ridership statistics.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Maybe they’d have otherwise declined due to working from home?

            I kinda refuse to believe public transport providers have all rolled out free Wi-Fi for no benefit.

          • Ernest Tufft

            The benefit to public transport providers is increased ridership. Where bus and car compete for same lane space, riding bus takes more time than car because of multiple stops and poorer maneuverability. If bus has dedicated lane and passengers benefit by using time connected to internet rather than driver’s seat and steering wheel. Lower emissions higher energy efficiency bus becomes more attractive alternative to dirty fuel guzzling car.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            New York City Transit’s installation of wifi at all subway stations around 2017-18 is invisible in ridership statistics. […] They didn’t decline in places where this didn’t happen in that timeframe.

            Now do “Smartcard” ticketing. Billions and billions and billions expended worldwide, but zero evidence of efficacy. But but but it’s Smart, it’s The Future, it’s Cyber, it’s iSmart, eSmart, smart.eth, smart.ai!

            Los Angeles, as it happens, is an absolutely egregious prime example, totally played by the rent-seeking big-rigging defense contractor scammer scumbags of Cubic Systems.

          • Alon Levy

            Ridership in Vancouver rose a few percent when the faregates were installed, coincidentally. This led the right-wing people who had spearheaded the successful effort not to increase TransLink funding to claim that clearly, TransLink had been lying about how much fare evasion there was all this time.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Certainly paying for tickets with a contactless debit or credit card on the ticket barrier is a hugely superior experience to paying cash or buying tickets.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            … is a hugely superior experience to …

            DId a press release write this press release?

            There simply aren’t any data. There’s just tens or hundreds of billions of dollars (for somebody!) worth of “feels”.

          • Matthew Hutton

            The advantage of smartcard/contactless ticketing is that the boarding speed is dramatically higher than going to the driver to buy a ticket on the bus and getting change (and you don’t get any pushback from the driver about paying with larger denominations as they have a small float).

            And no change options or buying tickets offline at a newsagent are extremely user hostile and risk bus holdups due to arguments with the customer.

          • Tiercelet

            @Matthew Hutton

            There’s no contest that more reliable payment mechanisms, free wifi, etc. are all nice to have in the abstract.

            The question is whether they’re nice enough to have that they justify the cost by leading to increased ridership. The answer is no.

            I distinctly remember when the NY MTA was trying to get people to ride the M60. They paid a ton of money for wifi-enabled buses with device chargers and some nonsense new paint job. Nobody cared. Why? Because the reason people don’t take the bus is “It’s too slow and infrequent.” People judge transit primarily on its effectiveness *as transit*.

            As for the free public wifi with screens at bus stops, if anything I expect this will backfire: the NYC experience shows these public amenities are a major attraction for homeless people, whose presence is going to greatly exacerbate the exact same security concerns (especially from female riders) that LACMTA is nominally responding to. Which will, of course, lead to increased costs for extra policing, increased brutalization of homeless populations (who aren’t being given appropriate public amenities anywhere else), and still no improvement in transit.

        • Matthew Hutton

          @Tiercelet. I think you have a point about the Wi-Fi, and certainly the marginal user (who undoubtedly owns a car) doesn’t care.

          That said I disagree about payments. Contactless is much simpler for the marginal user and much faster – contactless probably speeds up boarding from 3 passengers a minute to 30. Plus you also save on (expensive) cash handling.

          • Tiercelet

            You’re absolutely right that buying tickets from a booth or paying cash on bus entrance are worse experiences compared to contactless–assuming you have set up the contactless payment with a bank account or whatever, which might be nontrivial–but that isn’t the right comparison for American systems. While e.g. London and Paris went straight from cash-and-single-use-tickets to contactless, in the US, large systems typically introduced magnetic-stripe cards all the way back in the 90s. In that context, the advantage of contactless is much less of a slam-dunk.

          • Alon Levy

            Here we have neither magnetic nor RFID cards – we have proof of payment with monthly tickets printed on paper or in a phone app.

          • Ernest Tufft

            In Girona, I just tap my credit card and fare is paid. I could get discounted annual pass, but I don’t ride bus too much. I normally walk or ride bicycle. I haven’t driven a car since 2019.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, the system has gone to hell in the aftermath of the nine euro ticket – you needed a subscription for the 29 euro monthly and now for the Deutschlandticket and you can only get it until the 20th of the previous month. But then the monthly-to-single-ride ratio has gotten so low nobody uses single-ride tickets for anything, and in practice I haven’t seen any inspection since the nine euro ticket started nearly a year ago.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            … seems pretty complicated for users who don’t use the train much …

            It’s always important to optimize your systems around the very least frequent users.
            Most especially around freshly-arrived Anglophone tourists.
            Smart Card ticketing and Airport Rail Links are exactly the same thing.

          • Alon Levy

            Airport rail links are not purely an Anglo problem! Paris is building two new ones just because some elites don’t want to take the RER B with all the black and Arab suburbanites. And Berlin’s previous government, which was all-left, advanced the U7 extension to BER as its one U-Bahn extension, ahead of lower-cost-per-rider extensions like U8 to Märkisches Viertel (more Green voters fly than live in MV).

          • J. Vogel

            …pretty complicated for users who don’t use the train much. Much more so than the Oyster/Contactless system in London…

            Really? Your are praising the system that needs two pages just to explain how to change at Wimbledon? Which overcharges you if you forget to touch at the pink reader? Or if you touch more than once at one station, except where you have to? The system where fare depends on the direction of travel?

            What bothers me in London even more is that there are so many situations where I don’t know — even as transit geek — whether I did all the touching correctly.

            I agree that fares in Berlin could be simplified by making just one zone out of all three, at least for single tickets. But — for the occasional rider — the choice is simple: with or without zone C and single or 24-hour ticket. You buy it, you stamp it, and you know you are good.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Ah good ticket validation. Another big win for ease of use.

            I also think that an airport rail link is more expensive and unnecessary than a ticketing system that works OK for car owning suburbanites and tourists.

  4. Aporia

    Slight nitpick that adds a bit of nuance – that quote you cite for BC Transit isn’t just Victoria, it’s for BC as a whole (outside of Metro Vancouver), and is a good example of centralized procurement lowering costs for small towns that otherwise wouldn’t have the capacity to get decent shelters at a reasonable cost.

  5. Ernest Tufft

    Bus shelter in Los Angeles means protection from only occasional rain, but more often sun. Also, bus stop shelter should include rugged smart display showing exactly which and when next bus is due to arrive at that stop. As far as I recall, dedicated bus lanes and preferred traffic signal control are mostly absent in LA. Taking bus is typically 3x as long as by driving car, so there’s little incentive to ride bus.

    • wiesmann

      A few years back, someone explained to me that outdoor capable for devices like antenna meant something else in the US. It basically meant “can withstand light arms fire”. Not sure if they were pulling my leg…

      • Henry Miller

        I doubt anyone is actually checking for small arms fire resistant. However vandals are a real problem and so it needs to stand to that. Glass needs to handle hammers, wood needs to handle paint (even though wood is easier to break than some glass, vandals break glass and they paint wood). There are other materials, you need to figure out what vandals will do to it and ensure it will stand up – I assume someone has this information. The end result is outdoor devices probably can stand up to small arms fire as a hammer is potentially more energy.

  6. df1982

    I have to say, my experience of most bus stops in the US is not “they’ve done too much public consultation”. It’s more, “the people who commissioned this have obviously never had to wait for a bus in their life, or even spoken to someone who has”.

  7. Matthew Hutton

    I do agree that the politicians can interfere and drive up the price. They did with the Edinburgh tram where the track had to be relaid because they bought heavier non standard trams.

    That said the politicians would have been more popular with the swing voters if they’d bought standard trams and hadn’t had to dig up the road twice. The median Scottish voter, who is probably a plumber from Stirling, isn’t going to care in the slightest that the trams are bog standard. And winning over the median voter is very important to the politicians.

    Smarter to explain to the politicians that simple projects can also go onto the election literature just like complex ones.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, the politicians who micromanage projects aren’t playing for the median voter, but for their clients or perceived clients. But explaining this to them is pointless – might as well explain to American politicians that Byford was popular and Cuomo lost a lot of popularity for pushing him away.

      • Matthew Hutton

        The biggest risk to the New York establishment is that the moderate democrats fail to get the basics right. The basics are stuff like the trains running on time and the bins being collected.

        Most likely the issue with Byford is that he’s a working class man done good who is smarter than Cuomo and Cuomo couldn’t handle it.

          • BenW

            On the other hand, it’s absolutely true that Cuomo would have fired somebody for being (or more precisely, for being perceived as) smarter or more popular than he was, no matter what their socioeconomic background.

  8. Oreg

    Who cares for wifi at a bus stop? How long do you expect people to wait? Personally, I want wifi on trains that I spend more than 20 minutes on and on subways where there is no mobile reception. It’s nice to have at train stations.

    Bus stops need shelter against sun and rain, a bench, a trash bin, a schedule, a map of the vicinity and an arrivals display. (The latter is more important the less frequent and reliable the service.) That’s it.

    • Henry Miller

      Bus stops need enough lights and a camera system so if someone attempts a crime (rape…) they are guaranteed to be caught. The camera should cover a long way from the stop in all directions so a woman can confidently get to and from the stop without being raped. Alternatively if you can have a trusted person to walk someone to/from the stop that is fine. The less busy the stop is the more important it is.

      Note that the above specified women. this is one of the cases where it matters as men rarely think/worry about those things, while it is real problem for women.

      • Tiercelet

        That would be a lot more plausible if police did literally anything at all to investigate sex crimes (or really any street crime). Absent that, it’s all just so much security theater.

        • Henry Miller

          Rape is hard to investigate because most cases come down to he-said/she-said. The police do their best and are concerned about rape, but in most cases there isn’t enough evidence for them to go on. Rape tends to happen in dark places with nobody else around. Having camera feeds would be a big help in figuring out what happened and give the police a chance.

          Other street crime may be things they don’t worry about, but rape is a big deal.

      • Oreg

        Excellent point about good lighting. That needs to be added to my list.

        The need for cameras depends on the environment. If there is a problem, an alarm button would also be advisable. Luckily, bus-stop rapes don’t seem to be a big problem in many places, but where women feel unsafe a camera might help.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.