Bus Bench Situation a Sign of True City Council Incompetence

A Norman Bus Bench on Wilshire Blvd. in Westlake, as seen in 2009 | Photo by Matt Fleischer

Los Angeles bus benches are slowly being removed across the city, as the LA City Council decided against rehiring the contractor who installs and maintains them. As a result, elderly and impaired Angelenos have nowhere to rest while they wait for the bus, and our city has hundreds of fewer trash cans for people to responsibly discharge their food wrappers, newspapers and whatever else they might be carrying before they get on the bus. Expect to see more trash in the streets in the coming days.

For those of you caught standing for an hour in the sun, waiting for your bus, wondering how things got to this point: let me explain. Because the situation ain't pretty.

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For more than a decade, Los Angeles farmed out control of its bus benches to a company called Norman Advertising. Norman was responsible for installing, cleaning and maintaining the benches, and in exchange they installed advertising panels on the benches that they profited from.

For most of the duration of its contract, the only thing Norman was especially good at was the bit about the advertising panels. A 2006 city audit and multiple subsequent media reports revealed that Norman consistently failed to clean and remove graffiti from its benches, and to empty trash cans when full. Likewise the Bureau of Street Services failed to exercise any control over the placement of Norman's trash cans--which was at their discretion. Nor did it enforce rule that Norman should provide bins at every four bus stops where it installs its benches. Norman put out as many bins as they wanted, where they wanted, and no one held them to account. Norman's poor performance made news at late as March of 2009. I wrote a piece in the now-defunct LA CityBeat about their incompetence.

Norman's 10-year contract with the city officially ended at the end of 2009--less than a year after all those news stories came out. One would think, given Norman's track record, the city would have put out an Request For Proposal (RFP) for the bus bench contract well in advance of the old one expiring. That didn't happen. Norman has been maintaining the city's bus benches for nearly two years since its contract expired. The city didn't even put out an RFP until the end of 2010--11 months after Norman's 10-year contract expired.

I wrote about the issue several times in January. I spoke with the City Attorney's office, who seemed barely aware the city's contract with Norman even existed. The city council is apparently ready to grant a new bus bench advertising contract to a company called Martin Outdoor Media. We'll see how long it takes for them to begin installation once their contract is ratified. In the meanwhile, old ladies are going to have to wait on their feet in the hot summer sun because our city government couldn't be bothered to put out an RFP.

The city council has known since 2006 that Norman did a terrible job for the city, yet they're just getting around to finding a different company five years later. There's no excuse for such laziness. So if any of you bus riders out there find yourself without a place to sit in the coming weeks, you may want to give your city council member a ring and let them know how you feel about it. They deserve to hear.

The L.A. Vitamin Report is a column about quality of life issues by Matthew Fleisher. It is brought to KCET's 1st & Spring blog in partnership with Spot.Us, which receives support from the California Endowment.

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