As the city of Los Angeles moves forward with its plan to install digital advertising screens in more than 1,000 bus shelters across the city, Scenic Los Angeles is urging residents to speak out against this intrusive and dangerous development.
Background on the Digital Billboard Proposal
The Los Angeles Board of Public Works voted on November 24 to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a new kind of bus shelter for Los Angeles, inviting sign companies to submit designs for shelters that will have changing digital ad screens and passenger tracking devices along with bus information and wayfinding signage. The RFP was written by StreetsLA, the branch of the Public Works Department that manages public street furniture. StreetsLA envisions removal of the current bus shelters, which have static ad signs, while adding up to 8,000 new digital shelters.
Why Scenic Los Angeles Opposes this RFP
- It was done without proper public input. StreetsLA created a Stakeholder Advisory Council which met twice, once in late 2019 and once early 2020. The formation of this group is mysterious, as no information about it exists on the agency website. The composition of the group is unknown, as are the standards for joining it. No public record exists of the content of the meetings.
- No study has ever shown that the proposed digital screens are safe– and no safety study has been commissioned for this project. Digital billboards on poles above a roadway have already been the subject of several traffic safety studies, with alarming results. For example, a 2019 study of highways in Alabama and Florida showed that at locations near digital billboards, crash rates were 29% and 25% higher than in open stretches of road. No studies have yet been done on driver distraction from the type of digital signs that StreetsLA proposes, but their location, lower to the ground and closer to the road, makes them even more distracting.
- Angelenos do not want digital advertising on their streets. As the City Council was considering a revision to the Citywide Sign Ordinance, thirty Neighborhood Councils filed Community Impact Statements opposing the location of digital billboards in their neighborhoods. In addition, two public opinion surveys of L.A. voters found in late 2019 that sizable majorities of respondents were concerned about the safety of digital billboards and did not want them in their neighborhoods.
This program will multiply the number of ads that Angelenos see every day. The proposed signs would change every eight seconds, so that drivers passing the digitalized bus stops during slow traffic might see four to eight ads instead of just one. And passengers waiting for buses would see even more. A special case is the children who ride the buses; they will be exposed to a welter of ads for unhealthy foods and violent movies.
- A look at the wider streetscape is even more depressing. Just before the pandemic hit, the city was in the midst of failing to regulate changing digital ad screens on the tops of Uber and Lyft vehicles. After the passage of Proposition 22, those ride-sharing vehicles will soon return to our streets, many of them bearing rooftop digital screens that change every eight seconds. Thus, our streets in every neighborhood will be filled with digital ads from either bus stops or vehicles.
- The plan to add digital passenger tracking to the bus stops is frightening. The city claims that any data collected from cellphones will be anonymized, but this is a false promise because a person’s data can be easily identified by location. The RFP stipulates that the data are only for city use, we do not know nearly enough about who will handle the data. Will it pass through the hands of a billboard company? Who in the city government will have access to it, and how will it be kept? How can we opt out? How will the program comply with Proposition 24, the nation’s strictest privacy law?
- If past performance is any guide, this program will not be a success. The current street furniture contract was called “a disappointment to the city” in a 2018 Los Angeles Times investigative article. That program, which will conclude at the end of 2021, has delivered only about half of the planned amount of shelters and far less than half of the expected revenues for the city. Promises that next time will be better are only promises at this point.
- It doesn’t have to be this way. The city is not considering an ad-free version. Even shoring up and actually enforcing the previous contract, with its static ads, would be better than what this RFP is likely to bring to us.
What Can You Do
Robust public input is the only answer. Neighborhood Councils, regional groups, and homeowner associations need to get on record with their input, informing their council offices and StreetsLA itself about what they want. Here’s how:
- Contact elected officials. Use Scenic LA’s email petition form to contact city council members and the mayor with one click.
- Help us get the word out. Share the link with your friends, neighborhoods, and community groups to encourage more people to get involved.
- Sign up for updates. Join Scenic LA’s email list to keep apprised of new developments and to learn about future opportunities to take action as the issue develops.
- Donate. Scenic LA relies on private contributions to fight to preserve the scenic qualities of our communities and streetscapes. Your contributions make a difference.