The True Cost of Billboards: How Outdoor Advertising Undermines Earth Day Values
April 22, 2024

Scenic America is celebrating Earth Day by taking a closer look at how our key issues are woven into the principles of environmentalism and sustainability. Every day this week, we will be posting new content about one of our five key issues and detailing how each embody the Earth Day spirit. Today, we examine the environmental cost of billboards and outdoor advertising.

On Earth Day, it’s essential to reflect on the environmental impact of various industries, even those that might not immediately come to mind. One industry that often goes unnoticed in discussions about sustainability is outdoor advertising, particularly the universal presence of billboards lining our streets and highways.

Billboards do more than damage the scenic qualities of our communities. They distract drivers, bring down property values, and bombard us with marketing messages we can’t avoid. However, the $8 billion billboard industry is known for working behind the scenes and swaying decision-makers to make policies that put more signs on our streets. We want this to stop and will stop at nothing to bring about an end to billboard blight.

Environmental Impacts on Wildlife, Human Health, and Ecosystems

The environmental toll of billboards extends far beyond their immediate visual impact, encompassing a range of ecological, aesthetic, and health-related concerns. The proliferation of billboards, especially digital ones, contributes to light pollution, altering natural light cycles and disrupting nocturnal wildlife behavior. Bright, constantly changing lights from digital billboards can disorient migratory birds, affect nesting habits, and interfere with the foraging patterns of nocturnal animals such as bats and owls. Moreover, excessive artificial light at night can disrupt human circadian rhythms, leading to sleep disturbances and adverse health effects.

Additionally, the installation of billboards often involves clearing vegetation and altering natural landscapes, leading to habitat fragmentation. This fragmentation can disrupt wildlife corridors, prevent the movement of animals between habitat patches, and reduce genetic diversity within populations. Addressing these issues requires a comprehensive approach that considers the environmental implications of outdoor advertising and seeks to mitigate its adverse effects on natural ecosystems and human well-being.

The issue of tree cutting for billboard visibility has been one of Scenic America’s primary legislative focuses over the last year. We have been deeply involved with ensuring that the standards set forth by the Highway Beautification Act are maintained, upheld, and enforced by the Federal Highway Administration. Today, 35 states allow for the cutting of trees simply to increase billboard visibility, a practice that we believe is counter to everything the Highway Beautification Act stands for, and deeply detrimental to the environment and our planet.

The Illusion of Community Contribution

Billboard companies often tout their contributions to the community through initiatives like displaying Amber Alerts or public service announcements (PSAs). However, these gestures are frequently token efforts, limited to unsold advertising space, and primarily aimed at garnering favor with local administrators. In reality, these contributions pale compared to billboard proliferation’s broader societal and environmental costs. In fact, studies have also shown that homes near billboards experience diminished property values, with each billboard in a census tract correlating with a nearly $1,000 depreciation in home value.

Driving Distraction and Safety Concerns

One of the most troubling issues associated with billboards, especially digital ones, is their impact on road safety. Numerous studies have demonstrated that digital billboards significantly threaten traffic safety by creating inescapable distractions for drivers. The constant rotation of advertisements draws drivers’ attention away from the road, increasing the risk of accidents. Research has shown that crash rates near digital billboards can be 25 to 29 percent higher than at control sites.

Reimagining Our Public Spaces

As we celebrate Earth Day and renew our commitment to environmental stewardship, we must confront the actual cost of billboards. Beyond their aesthetic intrusion, billboards undermine road safety, devalue our communities, and spoil the environment. Local governments must enact stricter regulations on outdoor advertising, curb the expansion of billboards, and prioritize the well-being of their constituents. Scenic America continues to fight for sustainable alternatives by challenging the status quo. Together, we can reclaim our communities and uphold the actual message of Earth Day.