One of t.o.night‘s now defunct temporary basket-style newspaper boxes, at King Station.
There’s a war raging across Toronto for our attention. The battleground: the public space outside TTC station entrances. On any given weekday, commuters, especially those getting on and off at busy hubs, can expect to be bombarded by freebie-distributors, marketers, and salespeople. On top of the old standbys, individuals asking for spare change or handing out apocalyptic pamphlets, riders now have to contend with newspapers being shoved their way, binder-armed youths seeking charity subscriptions, marketers pushing pretty much everything, and the occasional bank peddling credit cards (though sometimes the TTC is gracious enough to let them set up shop in-station).
With all this activity, is it any wonder that companies are constantly cooking up new schemes to grab our attention?
Enter t.o.night, Toronto’s only free evening newspaper. In May, the paper briefly introduced temporary basket-style newspaper boxes, designed to hang on the railings outside staircase entrances to TTC stations. To capture the evening rush, the paper installed the boxes just before 5 p.m., and removed them about an hour thereafter.
From a distributor’s perspective, the highly visible and easy-to-access baskets probably seemed like a great way to move additional papers without having to hire more newsies—t.o.night‘s famed paper handlers. Unfortunately, the baskets were also illegal.
“This basket style of box does not satisfy our licensing regulations,” says Duncan Gardiner, the supervisor for street furniture management at the City’s Transportation Services division. “All publication distribution boxes [must have] a self-closing door in order to prevent the entry of snow, wind, and rain, and deter the use of the installation as a garbage receptacle. Therefore, no permits were issued by the City.” T.o.night has since complied with the City’s request to stop using the boxes.
This leads us to an important question: does the City need to do more to protect the public space outside TTC stations? In this case, the City was able to crack down on t.o.night because bylaws exist that govern newspaper boxes and other objects installed on city sidewalks. There are no such rules regulating paper handlers, charities, marketers, or anyone else who isn’t actually selling anything. Transportation Services will only get involved in non-vending cases if there’s a complaint that an activity is “encumbering of the sidewalk,” explains Bruce Hawkins, a senior communications coordinator with the City.
There is, in fact, one bylaw on the books that restricts marketing and sampling on Toronto’s sidewalks, but it only applies to Yonge-Dundas Square. And as public space guru and former Torontoist contributing editor Jonathan Goldsbie noted in Spacing last year, it’s mostly aimed at keeping other companies and marketers off what the Yonge-Dundas Square Board considers its turf.
Metro and 24 paper handlers outside Islington Station.
So, is there an issue here? John Cameron, t.o.night‘s publisher, doesn’t see one, at least as far as his newsies are concerned.
“With the number of commuters downtown, you just have to have handlers,” says Cameron. “We purposely choose our spots not to aggravate people. I know some of our competitors might be a little more forceful… but it’ll hurt your brand in the long-term if you’re a nuisance to people.”
News publications, Goldsbie tells us, have a “right to the public realm,” but he adds that t.o.night‘s baskets were “inappropriate…given the TTC’s serious rush-hour traffic-flow issues.”
He saves his harshest words, however, for the marketers operating outside TTC stations. “Marketers have no excuse,” he argues. “There are any number of less obtrusive methods with which they can get their message out, and yet they choose this one specifically because of its intrusiveness.”
And the TTC’s thoughts? Well, according to Brad Ross, the commission’s director of corporate communications, if it’s an activity taking place on City property, then it’s a City issue, not the TTC’s. “If individuals enter a subway station, we can and do take action and ask them to leave,” he adds.
Inch by inch, bit by bit, it seems Toronto’s public space is being subsumed by interests bent on its monetization, and traffic focal points like station entrances are prime targets. Arguably, t.o.night‘s temporary boxes were much less intrusive than paper handlers or marketers, but they were still another attempt to grab our attention in what’s become a crowded field. And, hey, isn’t this what we have regular newspaper boxes for anyway?
Photos by Stephen Michalowicz/Torontoist.