Toronto Should Say No to More Digital Billboards
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Toronto Should Say No to More Digital Billboards

Soon council will consider recommendations that would allow more digital billboards in parts of the city where they're currently prohibited. One public-space activist explains why that's concerning.

Photo by Seekdes from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Seekdes from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

If you’ve ever travelled the Gardiner, you’re familiar with them: huge digital screens flashing ads at you 5,760 times a day. Now imagine them dotting the landscape across large swaths of the city. That’s what the future may hold, if city council adopts recommendations that will be coming up for debate soon.

Despite the fact that new digital signs are not allowed under Toronto’s sign bylaw, three times as many exist now as did before that bylaw was passed in 2009. This has happened because council has been granting exceptions, amending the bylaw to permit billboards in specific locations when companies have asked permission to install them. And they’ve done that in large part because they hear primarily from those that will reap its benefits—namely, those sign companies. They’re the most active lobbyists at City Hall. Between 2008 and July of this year, just two companies (Astral Media and CBS Outdoors) met with councillors and staff 423 times.

Because they’re only hearing one side of the story, council has found it easier to say yes to these requests for exceptions than to uphold the existing bylaw. According to staff, the volume of requests has placed such a burden on the municipal government that it’s considering changing the rules and allowing digital billboards in commercial and industrial areas of the city, and as close as 250 metres to a residence. Some councillors are already resigned to it. They say that electronic billboards are the industry standard, that they’re here now and we just have come to terms with that and try to mitigate the effects with brightness and placement restrictions.

This, however, is nonsense. The City sets the rules. It should be up to residents and their representatives, not corporations, to decide what Toronto will look like. If we reject the move to digital billboards, Toronto will still be the largest advertising market in the country. The billboard industry will continue to do just fine.

If the City tries to appease the industry by allowing digital signs in commercial and industrial areas, the pressure will only increase. Landowners and advertisers with holdings in commercial-residential zones will have to push for a loosening of restrictions in order to compete. Then there will be pressure for signs that are closer together, bigger, brighter, with video. They will keep pushing—that’s their job.

It’s your councillor’s job, on the other hand, to consider the the evidence of advertising’s affect on constituents, communities, and the character of the city as a whole. They are the ones who are supposed to act on behalf of the public interest and safety. And in all the reports and presentations the City has produced on this issue, there is one thing that is conspicuously missing: any explanation as to what benefit passing these rules will bring to the city or its residents.

If you’re not convinced by the aesthetic argument, consider this: digital billboards are intended specifically to attract your eyes off the road—that’s their entire purpose. An Ipsos Reid poll commissioned by the municipal government this fall found that nearly three times as many Toronto drivers find digital signs distracting as compared to traditional billboards [PDF].

Jerry Wachtel, a Berkeley-based traffic safety expert, recently conducted a survey of the scientific literature and concluded that “Every study in the past five years has produced consistent findings: that roadside billboards, especially digital and video, cause significant levels of driver distraction. These distractions result in poorer speed control and lane positioning, and may increase crashes in demanding situations when unexpected events occur [PDF].”

One of the studies featured in his report was conducted in Israel in 2010. The study measured the number of crashes in selected areas, then covered up the billboards and measured again. Total crashes were reduced by 60 per cent, injury and fatal crashes by 39 per cent, and property damage crashes by 72 per cent.

Whether or not you believe the signs directly cause crashes, the one or two seconds you spend looking at a sign is one or two fewer seconds you have to respond to someone suddenly braking ahead of you. This is the rationale behind the ban on cellphone use while driving. So why would the City allow the billboard industry to profit from similarly distracting drivers?

Councillors have their eyes on upcoming election campaigns and several have indicated that if they get the message that this is not what constituents want, they’re more than willing to vote against the plan.

Public consultations are being held this week in locations across Toronto. Each will consist of an open house starting at 6 p.m., during which you’ll have a chance to give input or speak to staff, followed by a presentation on the issue starting at 7:30 p.m.

  • Tuesday, September 24: Etobicoke Civic Centre
  • Wednesday, September 25: Toronto City Hall
  • Thursday, September 26: Scarborough Civic Centre

Alison Gorbould is a public-space activist who has been working on billboard issues in Toronto for the past 10 years.