LA‘s Bus Stop Redemption

Maylin Tu
Maylin Tu is a freelance writer who lives in L.A. She writes about scooters, bikes and micro-mobility. Find her hovering by the cheese at your next local tech mixer.
LA‘s Bus Stop Redemption
Christian Gutierrez

Last year, the city of Los Angeles approved a new bus shelter contract with Tranzito-Vector after a 20-year contract that shorted the city over 600 bus shelters and $70 million in advertising revenue. According to a 2012 audit by the city controller, the last contract failed because of a combination of NIMBYism and bureaucratic red tape.

Now, L.A. — the city that puts its cars and their drivers above all else— has an opportunity to prioritize bus riders, and by extension, promote racial and social equity. As the contract wends its way through city hall, delayed by bureaucracy once again, questions remain about whether the city can meet its goals.

Will L.A. bus riders finally get the bus stops (and shade) that they need?

New leadership may spell hope for bus riders

Evan Xie

Less than 25% of bus stops in Los Angeles provide shade for bus riders, leaving a group composed primarily of low-income people of color vulnerable to extreme heat.

In L.A., bus stops are managed not by L.A. Metro or by the L.A. Department of Transportation, but by StreetsLA (formerly the bureau of street services), the division within the Department of Public Works that oversees sidewalks, street trees and medians.

Since the new contract was approved in September, things have changed at city hall. The city elected its first Black woman mayor, Karen Bass, former council president Nury Martinez was ousted after she made racist comments and four districts elected new councilmembers.

In the current landscape, bus shelters may have gained traction. In his first city council meeting in December, new Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez drafted a motion instructing StreetsLA to study how to place shelters at every bus stop in the 13th district.

If only it were that easy.

It’s One Bus Shelter, Michael -What Could It Cost?

The new contract, the Sidewalk and Transit Amenities Program (STAP) is projected to bring 3,000 new shelters and 450 shade structures to the city by 2028.

In the previous contract, L.A. did not foot the bill for the bus shelters — the capital costs and maintenance fell to the previous contractor in return for the right to place advertising in the public-right-of-way. But now, for a bigger share of the revenue — 60.5% versus 20% — the city is paying all capital expenses.

Currently, StreetsLA estimates that it will cost about $380 million total to implement STAP, up from the $237 million estimated in 2021. In five years (just in time for the 2028 Olympics), if things go according to plan, L.A. will have a total of 3,000 shelters versus the 1,870 it has today.

“At the end of the rollout period — which is going to extend into 2028, minimally — we hope that we’re going to have shade structures at least 3,450 locations,” said Lance Oishi, contract administrator for STAP.

It’s an ambitious goal. And it’s still unclear where the money will come from. In City Council’s February 8 public works committee meeting, Oishi said that STAP currently has $114 million in funds in place, including a $30 million loan from the public works trust fund and $53 million as part of L.A. Metro’s North San Fernando Valley BRT project.

The $30 million StreetsLA hopes to receive soon is enough to build 180 shelters and do site work for 240 additional shelters in the first year.

The first 180 shelters will replace existing shelters along transit corridors to drive ad revenue, while the 240 sites will be in locations without existing shelters. StreetsLA is using five criteria to determine prioritization of new shelter locations: transit ridership, heat exposure, equity-focused communities, job and school access and bus wait times.

It’s a big investment for a bigger payday. The city estimates that it will earn up to $500 million over the course of the contract — with the addition of new digital advertising — with $90 million guaranteed from Tranzito-Vector.

Christian Gutierrez

Where the curb meets red tape

While the new contract eliminates the bureaucratic red tape of the past — shelter locations go through a two-step versus 16-step approval process — new construction on L.A.’s crumbling sidewalks is its own challenge.

More than half of the cost of building bus shelters doesn’t come from the cost of materials or construction but from preparing the site.

“We know that 95% of our bus stop sidewalks are not ADA compliant,” said Oishi. “That means that we have to basically rip out the sidewalks, kind of re-engineer them so they meet ADA from a grading perspective.”

For 450 bus stop locations that can’t accommodate a shelter due to space requirements or a “perfect storm of tree wells, fire hydrants, streetlight poles [and] utility poles,” StreetsLA hopes to install shade structures, added Oishi.

Plan to flail

Advocates say that bus shelters are merely one example of a larger problem in L.A. — the lack of a multi-year capital infrastructure plan laying out how the city will spend its transportation and public works funds. Currently, eleven different city agencies work in the public right-of-way, managing everything from bus stops to street trees to sidewalks to bike lanes.

“It’s like doing a 500 piece puzzle when you don’t even have the cover image,” said Jessica Meaney, executive director of Investing in Place, a nonprofit advocating for greater policy and spending transparency in the public right-of-way.

Bus shelters are not paid for out of the city’s general fund, which means StreetsLA must cobble together multiple sources of federal, state and city funding.

Perhaps bus shelters will be the vanguard in the fight for greater oversight in how L.A. spends its public works dollars. In the committee meeting, Councilmember Nithya Raman called for StreetsLA to create a public-facing dashboard showing how shelters are prioritized to meet equity goals.

Using Bus Shelter Revenue to Pay for Bus Shelters

With the new focus on equity, there is a proposal in committee for funding shelters using money generated from STAP advertising revenue. Currently, the money generated is split 50-50 between L.A.’s general fund and 15 council offices. Under a new initiative, RAISE (Reinvestment in Accessibility, Infrastructure and Streetscape Enhancements), council offices will continue to receive the same share of revenue as in the past ($200,000 annually), but any additional revenue will go back into funding bus shelters, staffing for STAP and other transit improvements.

Christian Gutierrez

Bus shelters when?

Currently, StreetsLA and Tranzito-Vector are awaiting city approval of the $30 million public works trust fund loan to start fabrication of the shelters. To be approved, the City Administrative Officer (CAO) must first review an Executive Directive No. 3 (ED3) report (first instituted by Mayor Villaraigosa in 2005) submitted by StreetsLA, and then the report must be approved by Mayor Bass’ office.

“The ED3 report is currently in our [o]ffice under review,” said assistant city administrative officer Yolanda Chavez in an email. She added that the CAO’s office will draft a recommendation report to send to the mayor within a few weeks. Mayor Bass can waive the report but so far has not done so.

Meanwhile, the projected rollout for new shelters has been pushed from late July, to August, to currently, late fall, according to StreetsLA.

“I can understand that the scale of doing bus shelters given the number of stops is really daunting,” said Madeline Brozen, deputy director of the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and co-author of a new study on the lack of shelters in L.A. County. “But bus shelters aren't just a ‘nice to have,’ this is really [about] protecting people's health and welfare and it’s important to think about the public health benefits as they're figuring out how to address the disparity.”

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Creandum’s Carl Fritjofsson on the Differences Between the Startup Ecosystem in Europe and the U.S.

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Carl Fritjofsson
Carl Fritjofsson

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Creandum General Partner Carl Fritjofsson talks about his venture journey, why Generative-AI represents an opportunity to rethink products from the ground up, and why Q4 2023 and Q1 2024 could be "pretty bloody" for startups.

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AI Is Rapidly Advancing, but the Question Is, Can We Keep Up?

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
AI Is Rapidly Advancing, but the Question Is, Can We Keep Up?
Evan Xie

One way to measure just how white-hot AI development has become: the world is running out of the advanced graphics chips necessary to power AI programs. While Intel central processing units were once the most sought-after industry leaders, advanced graphics chips like Nvidia’s are designed to run multiple computations simultaneously, a baseline necessity for many AI models.

An early version of ChatGPT required around 10,000 graphics chips to run. By some estimates, newer updates require 3-5 times that amount of processing power. As a result of this skyrocketing demand, shares of Nvidia have jumped 165% so far this year.

Building on this momentum, this week, Nvidia revealed a line-up of new AI-related projects including an Israeli supercomputer project and a platform utilizing AI to help video game developers. For smaller companies and startups, however, getting access to the vital underlying technology that powers AI development is already becoming less about meritocracy and more about “who you know.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Elon Musk scooped up a valuable share of server space from Oracle this year before anyone else got a crack at it for his new OpenAI rival, X.AI.

The massive demand for Nvidia-style chips has also created a lucrative secondary market, where smaller companies and startups are often outbid by larger and more established rivals. One startup founder compares the fevered crush of the current chip marketplace to toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic. For those companies that don’t get access to the most powerful chips or enough server space in the cloud, often the only remaining option is to simplify their AI models, so they can run more efficiently.

Beyond just the design of new AI products, we’re also at a key moment for users and consumers, who are still figuring out what sorts of applications are ideal for AI and which ones are less effective, or potentially even unethical or dangerous. There’s now mounting evidence that the hype around some of these AI tools is reaching a lot further than the warnings about its drawbacks.

JP Morgan Chase is training a new AI chatbot to help customers choose financial securities and stocks, known as IndexGPT. For now, they insist that it’s purely supplemental, designed to advise and not replace money managers, but it may just be a matter of time before job losses begin to hit financial planners along with everyone else.

A lawyer in New York just this week was busted by a judge for using ChatGPT as part of his background research. When questioned by the judge, lawyer Peter LoDuco revealed that he’d farmed out some research to a colleague, Steven A. Schwartz, who had consulted with ChatGPT on the case. Schwartz was apparently unaware that the AI chatbot was able to lie – transcripts even show him questioning ChatGPT’s responses and the bot assuring him that these were, in fact, real cases and citations.

New research by Marucie Jakesch, a doctoral student from Cornell University, suggests that even users who are more aware than Schwartz about how AI works and its limitations may still be impacted in subtle and subconscious ways by its output.

Not to mention, according to data from, high school and college students already – on the whole – prefer utilizing ChatGPT for help with schoolwork over a human tutor. The survey also notes that advanced students tend to report getting more out of using ChatGPT-type programs than beginners, likely because they have more baseline knowledge and can construct better and more informative prompts.

But therein lies the big drawback to using ChatGPT and other AI tools for education. At least so far, they’re reliant on the end user writing good prompts and having some sense about how to organize a lesson plan for themselves. Human tutors, on the other hand, have a lot of personal experience in these kinds of areas. Someone who instructs others in foreign languages professionally probably has a good inherent sense of when you need to focus on expanding your vocabulary vs. drilling certain kinds of verb and tense conjugations. They’ve helped many other students prepare for tests, quizzes, and real-world challenges, while computer software can only guess at what kinds of scenarios its proteges will face.

A recent Forbes editorial by academic Thomas Davenport suggests that, while AI is getting all the hype right now, other forms of computing or machine learning are still going to be more effective for a lot of basic tasks. From a marketing perspective in 2023, it’s helpful for a tech company to throw the “AI” brand around, but it’s not magically going to be the answer for every problem.

Davenport points to a similar (if smaller) whirlwind of excitement around IBM’s “Watson” in the early 2010s, when it was famously able to take out human “Jeopardy!’ champions. It turns out, Watson was a general knowledge engine, really best suited for jobs like playing “Jeopardy.” But after the software gained celebrity status, people tried to use it for all sorts of advanced applications, like designing cancer drugs or providing investment advice. Today, few people turn to Watson for these kinds of solutions. It’s just the wrong tool for the job. In that same way, Davenport suggests that generative AI is in danger of being misapplied.

While the industry and end users both race to solve the AI puzzle in real time, governments are also feeling pressure to step in and potentially regulate the AI industry. This is much easier said than done, though, as politicians face the same kinds of questions and uncertainty as everyone else.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has been calling for governments to begin regulating AI, but just this week, he suggested that the company might pull out of the European Union entirely if the regulations were too onerous. Specifically, Altman worries that attempts to narrow what kinds of data can be used to train AI systems – specifically blocking copyrighted material – might well prove impossible. “If we can comply, we will, and if we can’t, we’ll cease operating,” Altman told Time. “We will try, but there are technical limits to what’s possible.” (Altman has already started walking this threat back, suggesting he has no immediate plans to exit the EU.)

In the US, The White House has been working on a “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights,” but it’s non-binding, just a collection of largely vague suggestions. It’s one thing to agree “consumers shouldn’t face discrimination from an algorithm” and “everyone should be protected from abusive data practices and have agency over how their data is used.” But enforcement is an entirely different animal. A lot of these issues already exist in tech, and are much larger than AI, and the US government already doesn’t do much about them.

Additionally, it’s possible AI regulations won’t work well at all if they aren’t global. Even if you set some policies and get an entire nation’s government to agree, how to set similar worldwide protocols? What if US and Europe agree but India doesn’t? Everyone around the world accesses roughly the same internet, so without any kind of international standard, it’s going to be much harder for individual nations to enforce specific rules. As with so many other AI developments, there’s inherent danger in patchwork regulations; it could allow some companies, or regions, or players to move forward while others are unfairly or ineffectively stymied or held back.

The same kinds of socio-economic concerns around AI that we have nationally – some sectors of the work force left behind, the wealthiest and most established players coming in to the new market with massive advantages, the rapid spread of misinformation – are all, in actuality, global concerns. Just as the hegemony of Microsoft and Google threaten the ability of new players to enter the AI space, the West’s early dominance of AI tech threatens to push out companies and innovations from emerging markets like Southeast Asia, Subsaharan Africa, and Central America. Left unfettered, AI could potentially deepen social, economic, and digital divisions both within and between all of these societies.

Undaunted, some governments aren’t waiting around for these tools to develop any further before they start attempting to regulate them. New York City has already set up some rules about how AI can be used during the hiring process while will take effect in July. The law requires any company using AI software in hiring to notify candidates that it’s being used, and to have independent auditors check the system annually for bias.

This sort of piecemeal figure-it-out-as-we-go approach is probably what’s going to be necessary, at least short-term, as AI development shows zero signs of slowing down or stopping any time soon. Though there’s some disagreement among experts, most analysts agree with Wharton professor and economist Jeremy Siegel, who told CNBC this week that AI is not yet a bubble. He pointed to the Nvidia earnings as a sign the market remains healthy and not overly frothy. So, at least for now, the feverish excitement around AI is not going to burst like a late ‘90s startup stock. The world needs to prepare as if this technology is going to be with us for a while.

What the Future of Rivian Looks Like According to CEO RJ Scaringe

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

What the Future of Rivian Looks Like According to CEO RJ Scaringe

Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe took to Instagram last weekend to answer questions from the public about his company and its future. Topics covered included new colors, sustainability, production ramp, new products and features. Speaking of which, viewers also got a first look at the company’s much-anticipated R2 platform, albeit made of clay and covered by a sheet, but hey, that’s…something. If you don’t want to watch the whole 33 minute video, which is now also on Youtube, we’ve got the highlights for you.

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