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Real City Matters

Join us Tuesday night for a discussion about municipal ethics in Toronto

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LED Billboards Threaten Safety and Public Space, Say Critics

More than mere annoyances, these big signs may have big implications for the future of outdoor advertising in Toronto.

This section of the Gardiner Expressway, known as "Billboard Alley," may soon be home to three new LED billboards. Photo by {a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/imuttoo/241144126/in/photostream/”}IanMuttoo{/a} from the {a href=”http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/”}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

If invasive roadside advertising has you driven to distraction, public space activist Dave Meslin would like to remind you that you have a voice, and on December 14, a chance to use it. On that date the City will be hosting a public consultation, where Torontonians will have the opportunity to discuss a proposal put forth by Allvision to install 17 LED billboard signs at 10 locations across the city.

Blair Murdoch, president of Allvision Canada, hopes to secure several amendments to Chapter 694 of the City of Toronto Municipal Code, which covers third-party ground signs. He made his request earlier this year on behalf of CN Rail, the company that owns the land on which Allvision wants to erect the massive billboards.

A staff report released by the City on September 21 indicates that the 10 LED billboards (seven of which have two sign faces) will replace 10 standard paste-and-paper billboards along CN Rail corridors. Acceptance of Allvision’s proposal is contingent on the permanent removal of 30 additional billboards.

The staff report notes that “Toronto has more third party signs per capita than any other Ontario municipality” and claims that council’s goal is to “reduce the total [number] of third party signs currently erected and displayed within the City.”

Although the proposed elimination of 40 signs achieves that goal, its effect on the amount of advertising space taken up by third-party signs is negligible. The total area of advertising space occupied by the 40 signs slated either for removal or replacement is 780 square metres, while the proposed LED billboards total 738 square metres of signage. The difference of 42 square metres is roughly equivalent to the total area of just two paste-and-paper billboards.

Meslin argues that this small sacrifice of advertising surface area is more than offset by the superior effectiveness of LED billboards. He adds that “effective and intrusive are one and the same in advertising.” According to Meslin, that intrusiveness will be especially evident at night. “The light [from the signs] is strong enough that if it’s coming through a window it would disrupt your sleep,” he says. He notes that several of the signs will be erected in clear view of residential areas.

LED billboards—such as these at Yonge-Dundas Square—are bright enough to interfere with sleep patterns when erected in residential areas. Photo by {a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/-evidence-/2871877329/in/photostream/”}~EvidencE~{/a} from the {a href=”http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/”}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

“They’re (Allvision and the City) misleading the public in saying this is a reduction in advertising. It’s an enormous growth.”

Meslin, who is a member of the Toronto Public Space Initiative (TPSI) advisory board, says the proliferation of outdoor advertising in recent years has cheapened the city. Although the proposed LED billboards are to be built on private land, he says they nonetheless constitute an improper use of public space.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s on public or private land; it’s about who it’s affecting,” Meslin says. “I don’t care where their sign is. If it’s affecting the public space then it’s a public issue.”

In addition to impinging upon the public space, Meslin says the billboards raise serious safety concerns for drivers.

One of the billboards, to be located on Leslie Street near Highway 401, is in close proximity to North York General Hospital. “I think that’s a really good idea in terms of placement, because I think these things are going to cause accidents,” says Meslin, sarcastically. “You might as well put one close to a hospital.”

Citing a statistic from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Meslin states that 80 per cent of car accidents are caused by distracted drivers. By entertaining a proposal to erect additional sources of distraction on busy streets and highways, he says the City is putting drivers at risk.

“It’s not rocket science,” Meslin says. “We’ve already banned cellphones in cars. You’re not allowed to watch your own personal TV screens in cars. So why would we install electronic signs on the highway? It’s just a bad idea.”

In defence of Allvision’s proposal, Murdoch cites a study conducted by the United States Department of Transportation, which asserts that “the states of Nevada, Utah, Texas, New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts reported no evidence of increased traffic safety problems after the installation of electronic information displays in their city centers and along their highways.”

It is worth noting that several U.S. cities—including six in Texas—have banned LED billboards due in part to the potential safety hazards they present to drivers.

Murdoch also quotes a study by Tantala Associates, which claims that “digital billboards [...] have no statistically significant relationship with the occurrence of accidents.” Murdoch’s emailed response to Torontoist does not mention that the study was commissioned by the Foundation for Outdoor Advertising Research and Education, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/chromewaves/4966290790/in/photostream/"}chromewaves{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/pool/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

While Murdoch refuses to concede or deny that LED billboards are a distraction to drivers, Meslin says it is clear that attracting attention is their sole purpose. “Obviously they’re going to distract [drivers],” he says, “because that’s what they’re supposed to do.”

On October 6, the City’s Planning and Growth Management Committee voted to defer consideration of Murdoch’s proposal to January 5, explaining the deferral would “allow consultation to take place with the City Planning division, affected communities, and stakeholders, in cooperation with local councillors.”

But according to Meslin, residents of affected communities have not been properly informed of the public consultation scheduled for December 14. “I don’t think that the people who are going to be affected by these signs have any clue this is happening,” he says. “I think it’s a total scam.”

In an email, Robert Bader of the City’s Sign By-Law Unit notes that an advertisement published in print editions of the Toronto Star informs the public of the consultation. Yet the advertisement fails to mention the locations where the LED billboards are to be erected–essential information that can only be ascertained by typing out and following a 68-character URL printed along with the advertisement (http://app.toronto.ca/tmmis/viewAgendaItemHistory.do?item=2011.PG8.1). The URL leads to a webpage containing a list of eight hyperlinks. The first of these hyperlinks, titled “Report from the Chief Building Official and Executive Director, Toronto Building on Amendments to Chapter 694 of the City of Toronto Municipal Code Respecting a Comprehensive Consolidation and Upgrade Program for Third Party Ground Signs Located on Certain Rail Lands within the City of Toronto,” leads to a PDF file. On the fifth page of that file, the locations of the proposed LED billboards are listed.

That such basic information about the issue can only be arrived at by following an absurdly circuitous route will likely discourage many from participating in the consultation. Meslin believes this is by design. “There definitely is a culture at City Hall of doing things without consultation,” he says. Still, Meslin plans to attend the event, noting the importance of combating the commercialization of public spaces.

“When we see all these corporate brands in our [public] space, I think we can easily forget something: this is our city.”


Proposed LED billboard locations:

  • Kipling Avenue near Belfield Road
  • Lawrence Avenue West near Weston Road
  • York Mills Road near Leslie Street
  • Leslie Street near Highway 401
  • Victoria Park Avenue near Gerrard Street East
  • Eglinton Avenue East near Bellamy Road North
  • Steeles Avenue West near Alness Street
  • Gardiner Expressway (three billboards within 425 metres of Atlantic Avenue)

The public consultation on Allvision’s LED billboard proposal takes place tomorrow (December 14) from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at City Hall (100 Queen Street West) in Committee Room #1 on the second floor.

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