New MTS shelter
A new MTS bus shelter with solar-powered lighting. Photo courtesy of the agency

Whether it’s a downpour or the burning sun, covered bus benches are a respite for bus riders — and hopefully the impetus to get more people to use public transit.

That’s the thinking of officials at the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System as it eyes improvements to its 4,300 bus stops.

The agency is currently creating a high-tech geographic information system map to pinpoint priority locations and install a shelter at each.   

Last September, Los Angeles granted a 10-year contract to a private firm to advertise on hundreds of bus shelters in exchange for installing and maintaining 3,000. San Diego has taken a different approach but with a similar goal of improving the transit experience.

The push for people to use transit as an alternative to building freeways and a desire to allay their concerns over exposure to weather extremes are a strong motivation for MTS, said Marketing Director Mark Olson.

“Shelters and benches play a role by improving the experience for riding transit,” he said. “This, in turn, can motivate people to choose transit more often. The more times people choose transit the more it helps reduce our collective carbon footprint and achieve climate action goals.”

There are currently 500 plus shelters that have a roof and use solar power and digital signage to provide lighting and information for riders. These have a bench inside and a trash can, and some have advertising panels as well

The advertising is what pays for the maintenance and upkeep of those shelters. 

But unlike Los Angeles’ recent move, the MTS believes that if it handles the purchasing and hires a contractor for maintenance and upkeep, it can retain a larger percentage of the advertising revenue from Clear Channel Outdoor.  

So what does the future hold for people using the other 3,800 old-school bus stops of which 1,500 now have benches?

MTS is reviewing current and future shelter locations with plans to expand. Denis Desmond, director of planning, said the primary deciding factor is ridership, specifically how many people are boarding at a particular stop.

“However  in the last year we actually added a new criteria,” he said, “to see if the community is historically disadvantaged or not.”

So the deciding factors for determining which locations get upgraded transit stops now include data from the state of California, the federal government and the city.  

This includes looking at areas of persistent poverty and historically disadvantaged communities as well as using San Diego’s Climate Equity Index, which considers the effects of climate change and includes, for example, how many trees are in the area, how much heat is coming off of paved roads, traffic and the pollution.

As an example, Desmond said, if one stop “has 75 boardings a day in a non-disadvantaged community and another stop has 60 boardings a day and is in a disadvantaged community and all else is equal, then we could consider the site that has lower boardings.”

But if a community requests a shelter, “we’ll always go out and look at it” to see if it’s an appropriate location, he said.

If only a few people a day board a bus at a location, however, “it’s probably not worth the investment, versus another location that may have 40 or 50,” he added.

Desmond said that in the past the baseline was 100 boarding a day, but most locations with that ridership or more “already have a shelter, or for some infrastructure reason can’t accept a shelter, either the area isn’t wide enough, or the there’s no sidewalk or whatever it is.”

The agency has installed all the shelters it has in its inventory. So MTS plans to start a bidding process for more shelters within a year. The agency is looking for benches and shelters that will cost from $15,000 to $20,000 a stop.

Other cities and areas in the county that are served by MTS are also targeted for shelters.  Beverly Neff, an MTS senior transportation planner, said agreements were recently signed with Chula Vista, National City, Lemon Grove and the county of San Diego for new shelters.

Other cities reviewing possible agreements include Imperial Beach, La Mesa and El Cajon, she added. Once the agreements are signed, MTS is allowed to sell advertising on their right-of-way.

Only the cities of Poway and Coronado are pursuing their own shelter programs. Neff explained that advertising on the shelters has been a negative to some communities. 


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Ellen Bullock