March 18, 2019 - From the March, 2019 issue

City Bus Shelters, Public Toilets & Kiosks: JCDecaux’s Francois Nion Opines

January’s VerdeXchange 2019 Conference included a charrette entitled "Reimagining Streets and Curbsides," which brought together an array of public and private leadership to reimagine the curbs and streets of 21st century cities, and to align legitimate mobility and infrastructure stewardship interests through a “prism” of planning. One of the issues addressed was how best to accommodate the competing priorities of bus shelters, public toilets, and kiosks—which, in the City of Los Angeles, are managed through a public-private partnership with JCDecaux, the world’s largest outdoor advertising firm. The latter, in exchange for ad revenue, installs and maintains street-level infrastructure that aspires to create a more pleasant, dignified experience for transit riders in cities around the world. In this TPR interview, J. Francois Nion, Executive Vice President of JCDecaux North America, highlights the important role these bus shelters play at the intersection of mobility, equity, and placemaking in Los Angeles.


Francois Nion

"If a bus stop has no trees or shade, no life—just a pole on the sidewalk—let’s face it, it’s miserable. With shade, seating, lighting at night, and ongoing maintenance—all of a sudden, it becomes a dignified bus stop. That’s part of placemaking." - J. Francois Nion

Describe for our readers JCDecaux’s unique public-private partnership model that provides free bus shelters, street furniture, kiosks, and automatic public toilets in Los Angeles and cities around the world.

Francois Nion: When our founder invented the first bus stop shelter in the early 1960s, it didn’t seem like much. He was working out of his garage, trying to evangelize to the mayors. One by one, it worked.

Our business model became based on revenue of services and products that are directly part of the transit and mobility arena. The bus shelter is part of every transit riders’ journey, beginning at the bus stop.  Once we realized this, we began working on developing more transit and pedestrian oriented services, such as public toilets, wayfinding systems, bike share programs and other innovative resilient smart street furniture amenities.

Bus shelters, street furniture, and advertising space are just the products. They are the means to an end. That end is, and always will be, providing benefits and direct services to local constituents—transit riders and pedestrians—in their neighborhoods. I think that’s especially true now.  In the last 5-10 years, we’ve seen a shift around the world—and this city—toward providing services to people who need them the most.

At the same time, we know that there needs to be an efficient way to do this on every block without waiting 20-30 years. It’s good to have policies and long-term objectives, but how do you provide benefits and services in a reliably timely manner?  This is where the essence of the public-private partnership comes in.  Our organization has been in this business model for many years.

Providing these services throughout the entire city has always been part of our programming. Every city in the world has a Downtown, some fairly wealthy neighborhoods, some challenging neighborhoods, some very poor neighborhoods, and industrial neighborhoods. We don’t look at that. We serve every neighborhood with an equity focus. It’s in our DNA.

What does JCDecaux provide in Los Angeles as part of its contract with the city?

Our contract in Los Angeles is a joint venture between Outfront Media and JCDecaux called Outfront/Decaux. The main product we provide here is bus shelters; we have about 1,870 bus shelters in service throughout the city’s 15 council districts. We also have some sidewalk newsstands (once in high demand), kiosks displaying maps or City PSAs, and 15 automated public toilets. All amenities come with ongoing maintenance and repairs.

We invest our own money into these services, and we don’t leave town. We stay here to clean and repair as needed, sometimes daily. In addition—and this is unusual—we share a percentage of our advertising revenue with the city every year, so the city gets a cash flow benefit as well. 

What is the standard product JCDecaux offers in locations throughout Los Angeles? 

We have standard bus shelters and “designer” bus shelters. There are 19 different designs, and each one comes in multiple colors.

You cannot design just one product to last forever. Like technology, demands and needs change over time, so naturally the product needs to evolve over time.  Some cities or council offices also want specific products, colors, or projects. For example, we’ve worked on several special projects, like in Westchester and along the Figueroa corridor and other smart and resilient bus shelters along the Mayor’s Greats Streets

In the end people take the bus everywhere, so you need design and services that work in every neighborhood—regardless of whether it’s residential, commercial, and regardless of the neighborhood household income.

Elaborate on JCDecaux’s service offerings around the world.

The company started about 55 years ago in Lyon, when our founder saw people waiting at a bus stop in the rain and thought, “Maybe I could create a little structure here—and incorporate an ad panel on the side to generate revenue.”

There was a lot of resistance, in part because he was a young entrepreneur—only 24 years old. But after about 10 years, the concept started to catch on. Mayors started to see that the services were cost-effective for the City and provided a useful service for transit riders. So, cities started to ask for more. And one day, one mayor said, “I want to replace our pissoirs [public toilets] because they are vandalized or misused.” This is how the automatic public toilet was invented.

This is how we got started.  We began in Europe and slowly expanded.  Today we are in about 80 countries and more than 4,000 large cities on every continent. We came to the U.S about 20 years ago.  We recently won a contract in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and were hired for the Olympics in London and Vancouver.

What I’m doing here in Los Angeles, I’ve got colleagues doing the same in Santiago, Hong Kong, Dubai, and Berlin. But every city is different. We bring our expertise, experience, and knowledge. But really, the value is and will always be in our commitment to the truth of the local community we are in. We are not a global corporation; we are a collection of local companies.

Given that JCDecaux partners with global municipalities, what is unique about working in and with the City of Los Angeles? 

Los Angeles is in the process of reinventing itself and shifting towards more livable, sustainable multi-modal modes of transportation.  There is a big push to get Angelenos out of their cars and encourage public transportation or other sustainable modes of getting around.

At the same time, our contract is with the City of Los Angeles, and specifically with the Bureau of Street Services. By charter, BSS is responsible for streets and sidewalks. Although we see our services as 100 percent dedicated to mobility and transit, they are managed with little to no involvement from LA Metro and LADOT.

Historically, cities and corporations have worked in silos. But nobody experiences the urban space that way. Nobody knows that this tree belongs to one department and that the fire hydrant to another, and this pole to another and the sidewalk to another and the bus shelter to yet another. We experience it all as a whole. So these silos are a challenge.

In a city as large as Los Angeles—with 15 council offices, a mayor, and very powerful neighborhoods—how do you get everybody under one roof? Often, you can’t. Instead, you have to accept the need to create multiple-format solutions to meet multiple demands. It’s not about finding one solution and blasting it citywide. We realize that there are a lot of moving parts, and that we are a small element of the whole picture. But, we also want to be part of the discussion.

It’s difficult to change cities through policy alone. You need to take action and get involved to do things. Everything we develop, implement, install, and maintain has to be about people first.  So we consistently collaborate with local organizations and communities to deliver community-centered services.  We make city policies real, so that people can see and touch them. The more we can communicate with the multiple powers that be, the better chance we have of making a difference in the city.

In your global experience, are there cities that have excelled at providing curbside amenities to enhance their neighborhood mobility initiatives? 

Cities that have been very progressive on this front, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, started a long time ago. It’s going to take time for the rest of us to catch up.

We are still in a phase where people are racing to come up with new ideas and digital innovations, and figuring out if those innovations really change people’s lives for the better? It’s not clear. When you’re walking around the neighborhood with friends and family, does it affect you that the streetlight has a smart sensor? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. What really affects you might be something much less high-tech: a trash bin, a bench, a shaded bus stop, and nice trees.

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In an age when we’re talking about creating smart cities, how can we still not provide the basics? How can places like Pershing Square, Skid Row, not have public toilets? I think it is essential to focus on the innovative smart technologies, at the same time we need to focus on the basics and find a way to see how smart innovation can enhance those services.

What do cities need to do to get a better handle on mobility and sidewalk management?

Bringing together multiple agencies, departments, stakeholders and politicians on this issue is critical. But it takes time, and it takes a bottoms-up approach.

Years ago, it was accepted that decisions were made by a few people in the know. Today, particularly in Los Angeles, we need to embrace our diversity and deliver neighborhood-level solutions that people are asking for.

We have to recognize that life in Downtown may be different than life in other areas. Even within neighborhoods, there are people from different backgrounds with different expectations—and that’s on top of historical patterns of racial and social economics concerns. So how do we assess the needs of specific neighborhoods?

Collaborative approach with stakeholders and various departments. Share information and objectives and be willing to learn.

To start, data is a major one. Collecting and analyzing the data is essential in identifying concrete and helpful information. You can see ridership patterns, rider demographics, physical conditions, neighborhood environment and other information to better inform funding, budgets, and other decisions. Also, we spend a lot of time observing people at their bus stops to understand patterns and needs.

We do a lot of this internally. We collect a lot of data in various formats and its proven to be very helpful.  It really helps us understand where our services are, how we can improve them and how they are beneficial. 

Lastly, I’d say utilizing social media. It’s a powerful tool for building connections and delivering messages.  You also meet a lot of people and local groups and learn from them.

What the net impact of the city of LA’s bus-stop-by-bus-stop approval process? 

In Los Angeles, the permitting process applies to each bus stop location. There are eight agencies that have to review each application, as well as the council office, and any one of those agencies can halt/slow the process. The neighborhood is also involved, as we notify property owners adjacent to the proposed bus stop location.

On one hand, this is a beautiful outreach process where everyone is included.  On the other it also slows down the process. Moreover, people weighing in are not always looking at the issue from a mobility, equity standpoint. They’re thinking, “I don’t take the bus, so I don’t need a bus stop here, so I’m not in favor.”

We know that overall, the demand for our service is super high. And it’s free to the city; we finance it. Despite that, getting the permit for each location is a long, challenging process. It’s very complex—some might even say cumbersome. In cities where the same people manage the buses, the bus stop, and the push for transit equity, things seem to move faster.

LA Metro is in the midst of its NextGen Bus Study to reroute and improve its core bus network. The study has shown that different populations have different service needs; for example, women feel strongly about safety, and lighting at a bus shelter would encourage them to use the bus system. Is this example consistent with what JCDecaux is hearing?

Yes, all the time. While 1,870 shelters is a lot, it doesn’t actually cover that many bus stops therefore not reaching enough people. That’s why we are always discussing: How can we provide and expand these services in an equitable manner citywide?

Women, and in particular women of color, have different needs for the bus than other populations. They might not take the bus during rush hour. They might not have a car, so they might need the bus during the weekday days and on the weekend.

I’m not going to claim that more bus shelters would tremendously increase transit ridership; we know that what riders really want is more buses, more often. But today, 75 percent of transit riders in Los Angeles use the bus—not rail—because the bus is the only network that reaches every single neighborhood. And every rider’s journey starts on the sidewalk, at the bus stop.

Now, typically you go to the bus stop that’s closest to you, and that becomes “your” bus stop. If that bus stop has no trees or shade, no life—just a pole on the sidewalk—let’s face it, it’s miserable. If you can provide a little service—shade, seating, lighting at night, and ongoing maintenance—all of a sudden, it becomes a dignified bus stop. That’s part of placemaking, and to me, it shows love. It says, “We see you, we care, and we’ll provide this service to you.” This is exactly what our maintenance team, our Operations team hear when they are out on the field.  It’s what we hear and have learned through our ongoing #commutersofLA series-where we interview transit riders throughout LA to learn more about their commuting patterns and experiences. 

You shared earlier that JCDecaux provides public toilets in the city of Los Angeles, especially in Downtown. What have you learned from your experience providing this service?

We have about 3,000 public toilets in service worldwide. In the US, we started in San Francisco first.

Here in Los Angeles, our public toilets have been working for 14+ years nonstop every single day. Five of them are in Skid Row—and at times, they’ve been the only public toilets in Skid Row. When we first installed them, things were very different in the area. There were a few missions and homeless shelters, but the sidewalks were impeccable, and the trees were very nice. It was fairly safe, day or night. In the last few years, that has changed drastically, but we have adapted our system.

The self-cleaning toilet is a high-tech product with a computerized mechanism. But our real innovation in Los Angeles was a social innovation—a social workforce development enterprise. We advocated and partnered with the City of LA and a non-profit organization Hunters Point Family to launch the Pit Stop Attendant program.  The program aims to target the most impacted APT locations by placing a monitor 12 hours a day to help patrons access the APT, maintain the unit and ensure it is being used for its intended purpose, and improve overall quality of life.  In its first 6 months it has proven to be a tremendous help to have reliable, trained ambassadors outside the restrooms. It has improved the service and allowed more people to use the restroom safely without being harassed. The ambassadors are part of a workforce development training program, these are folks who were formerly incarcerated and have faced barriers to employment, this is another opportunity to for reentry into the workforce.

Lastly, some readers will likely be concerned to learn that a private company manages, for profit, what could be a public service. Why has your P3 model been so attractive to cities around the world?

We have used the P3 concept since we began in the 1960s, and it has worked. There is always a balance between providing a public service and finding a way to finance it—not just once, but with an ongoing sustainable revenue stream for ongoing operations. Advertising is how we sustain the program.

Our model removes capital investment, program management costs, and the ongoing maintenance and operation costs from the city’s budget.  We come with an entire team of professionals in each department who understand and serve as resources for the City team.  This allows us to build strong working relationships with local stakeholders, council office, Department staff, neighborhood groups, and more.  It’s an elegant turn key smart city solution and we have been able to sustain it through many public competitive processes over the years.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.