Metro’s Billboard Plan is Wrong-Headed | Scenic America
Metro’s Billboard Plan is Wrong-Headed

By Patrick Frank, Executive Director, Scenic Los Angeles

Several months ago, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) proposed a new “Transportation Communication Network” (TCN) which envisions installing 97 new digital advertising billboards at 56 locations on Metro-owned properties across the city of Los Angeles. Because the TCN requires new city legislation, it is now coming in for public comment through the Planning Commission before heading to committees and the full City Council. This program, while it could raise funds for Metro operations, is misguided on several levels. It will leave the city uglier, less safe, and farther from its own clean-energy goals.

The TCN program will bring a huge new wave of billboard blight into Los Angeles. Do Angelenos really need yet more digitally transmitted information about the latest violent movies, racy television series, or personal injury attorneys? The most recent credible study concluded that the average American sees between 6,000 and 10,000 advertisements in a day, with urbanites at the upper end of the scale. Most of us are likely past the ad saturation point already, but glowing digital signs that change every eight seconds are by nature difficult to just ignore. The program claims to reduce blight by taking down two traditional static billboards for every new digital sign face, but a 10:1 takedown ratio would be more in-line with other city ordinances around the country, and better for our eyeballs. In any case, less than ten percent of the new signage will be devoted to public service, leaving the other 92 percent for redundant visual junk in the form of advertising.

The Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on TCN misjudges the problem of traffic safety by being over-selective in the studies that it mentions. Specifically, the EIR over-emphasizes studies funded by the advertising industry itself; it disregards studies carried out abroad (away from such influence); and it accepts the Federal Highway Administration’s flawed analysis, which was never peer-reviewed. The entire purpose of a changing digital sign is to draw our eyes away from the roadway where they belong. Drivers already have many distractions inside our cars in the form of digital screens and cell phones, and these proposed new billboards will only make the problem worse. The majority of the new signs will face freeways, the worst possible locations for such signs because of the speed of traffic.

The proposed new TCN digital billboards will waste energy. The EIR estimates that they will consume a total of 2.288 million kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity annually. This number is probably a lowball estimate, but let’s accept it for the sake of argument. The average Los Angeles home uses about 6,000 kwh per year, according to the Department of Water and Power. Therefore, the TCN program will use the same amount of power as about 381 Los Angeles households. That is an entire neighborhood, or 38 ten-unit apartment buildings, if you prefer. Even if the EIR number is accurate—and it needs independent verification—there are far better uses for that amount of energy. If we want a greener city, Metro should be planting trees or solar collectors on its property rather than billboards.

The bottom line for Metro is fundraising, of course. TCN envisions generating millions in revenue by sharing ad fees with the sign companies. And yes, Metro needs money. It is still in a ridership slump caused by the COVID pandemic, which we all hope is temporary (and Metro’s recovery is currently better than systems in New York and San Francisco). But the solution is not billboards; it’s the ballot box. Los Angeles voters have proven time and time again that they are willing to step up with special levies to fund well-documented public needs. Through the worst of the 2008-2010 recession, when unemployment was topping 12% in the state, construction continued on the Metro Expo line and others because voters authorized the expenditure. We all recognize that public transit is crucial to the future health and well-being of our still-growing and overly car-dependent city. The pathway to an attractive, safe, and energy-efficient Los Angeles does not need to be littered with blinking billboards that will further distract us from our already dangerous highways and place a heavier environmental burden on our fragile planet.

Patrick Frank, executive director of Scenic Los Angeles, is an author, aducator, and activist fighting against the negative impacts of outdoor advertising. With a background in academia and art history, Frank moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and became involved in efforts to resist the billboard industry’s influence. He works within the community, educating residents about their ability to control the city’s visual environment and advocating for stricter sign ordinances. Frank engages with neighborhood councils, offering debates and speeches to raise awareness and gather support. Despite the challenges, he finds the grassroots work rewarding and remains dedicated to preserving the city’s visual character.