Opinion: Our Transit Agency Shouldn't Be in the Business of Endangering Drivers
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Opinion: Our Transit Agency Shouldn’t Be in the Business of Endangering Drivers

Metrolinx wants to allow eight new giant electronic billboards—right along the 401 and 427. How is an agency that's supposed to make travel better issuing such an absurd proposal?

UPDATE: July 11, 2014, 1:45 PM On Thursday city council debated a proposal, backed by regional transit agency Metrolinx, to install massive new electronic billboards along the 401 and 427. Staff had raised serious concerns about the safety issues involved and recommended against the billboards. Despite this, councillors overturned the staff report, voting 22-14 in favour of the signs.

Public space activist Dave Meslin explains just why this is such a concern—and in particular, why we should be worried that a transportation agency would advance a proposal that endangers drivers.

Photo by Seekdes from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Seekdes from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Metrolinx, the provincial agency responsible for developing transportation in and around Toronto, is by definition in charge of helping us all move around more effectively. Which is why it is particularly crazy—a special kind of ridiculous—that the people who are supposed to be the caretakers of our travel want to allow eight massive commercial digital billboards, at four separate locations, along the 401 and 427.

While all levels of government are making efforts to reduce driver distraction, the Metrolinx plan actually aims to increase distraction—and make money off that distraction, to boot.

The billboards violate both municipal and provincial regulations designed to protect public spaces and ensure road safety. Provincial rules, for instance, do not allow any signs this large within 400 meters of any highway, and do not allow digital signs to change messages rapidly. (They even prohibit blinking Christmas lights anywhere near the highway.) And the Toronto sign bylaw doesn’t allow for digital advertising at all expect in special sign districts (like Yonge-Dundas Square). Metrolinx is trying to get exemptions from all of these rules, despite the large body of evidence ([PDF], [PDF], [PDF], [PDF]) that digital commercial signage is a safety hazard to drivers.

Not only would these digital signs endanger drivers, they will also affect the quality of life in the adjacent neighbourhoods. While the billboard application suggests that the signs will not be visible from any surrounding residential communities, a quick tour of the proposed sites finds the opposite to be true: these billboards will be in clear view of front yards, backyards, condo terraces, parks, bus stops, and several high-rise rental buildings. Two locations have brand new condo towers being built within close proximity to the proposed signs.

The dimensions of one of the proposed new electronic billboards, relative to the current maximum allowable size and height. At committee, councillors voted to cut the size of the billboards in half, but keep the height the same.

At first, as this proposal made its way through the bureaucratic process, things unfolded as they should have. The City’s current sign bylaw does not allow any digital signage on the 401 or 427, so Metrolinx had to apply for what’s called a “sign variance,” which would essentially allow them to violate the bylaw’s restrictions. City staff reviewed Metrolinx’s application, and issued a report [PDF] recommending against all eight billboards. That report went to the Sign Variance Committee (a volunteer body comprised of appointed citizens), which likewise rejected all eight signs.

Rather than reconsidering the merits of their proposal, or giving thought to the negative impacts on safety and visual pollution, Metrolinx kept pushing for the bylaw exemption. Metrolinx’s corporate partner, Allvision, lobbied councillors to approve the applications. What a strange scenario: to have a provincial body in charge of transportation indirectly lobbying municipal politicians, asking them to ignore the advice of their own municipal staff on a transportation safety issue.

The billboard lobbyists are very good at what they do. They are also very persistent. Last year, a Toronto Star analysis revealed that the top lobbyists at City Hall were not representing casino companies, developers, or the island airport; the top lobbyists at City Hall are billboard firms. It’s almost impossible for volunteer citizens to compete with this kind of organised commercial effort.

On June 19, the politicians who sit on council’s planning and growth management committee voted to “delet[e] the staff recommendations” from the report, recommending instead that city council as a whole approve the new billboards. Council will vote on the issue this week.

How were the councillors convinced to support such a backwards plan?

  • Money. The proposed billboards will contribute a few million dollars to Metrolinx’s annual operating budget. This is, of course, a drop in the bucket for a multi-billion dollar agency, but it still works as an effective argument for politicians who are eagerly looking for new ways to fund services in an anti-tax political climate.
  • Amber Alerts. Billboard companies love to talk about amber alerts. With their new signs, the lives of children will be saved! Of course, MTO already has text-based changeable electronic signs that can post amber alerts, vehicle descriptions, license plate numbers, and so on.
  • Trade-offs. Allvision has offered to remove about 40 existing billboards in exchange for the eight new ones. Of course, the old ones are much smaller, aren’t digital, and aren’t nearly as effective or distracting as the electronic boards they want to swap in. More importantly, some of these old signs don’t have proper permits in the first place, and would have had to be removed anyway as they eroded and aged.
  • Brightness. The industry is always claiming that their newest signs are less bright than their older ones, but an LED screen is an LED screen. Even if they agree to lower light levels now, they are likely to raise the brightness later. We’ve seen this over and over at City Hall: councillors enter into a long-term arrangement for outdoor advertising in exchange for revenue, and within a few short years the company comes back claiming that they need to renegotiate the contract in order to remain “competitive” with other companies. The bottom line is, these companies want the brightest signs possible because brightness is distracting, and therefore effective.
  • Inevitability. The lobbyists have been successful at convincing councillors that digital signage is just part of the unstoppable onward march of technology. Vinyl records were replaced by 8-tracks, then cassette tapes, then CDs and finally MP3s. Likewise, paper billboards simply must be transformed into digital signs. The implication is that voting against digital signage exposes yourself as a dinosaur, unwilling to embrace the present or future. Of course, this is all besides the point. We aren’t slaves to technology: we choose what tools to implement, and how to go about it. That we now have the capacity to have brighter, faster-changing signs doesn’t mean that we should put them by the side of highways with the express purpose of grabbing the attention of people—drivers—who need to be focused on the road.
  • Safety. The billboard industry insists that digital billboards are harmless. But while advertising companies claim that digital signage will not dangerously distract drivers from the road, at the same time they eagerly promote these signs to potential advertisers by highlighting just how eye-catching they are. Metrolinx and Allvision have been referencing reports by consultants hired by the City of Toronto ([PDF] and [PDF]), to prove that digital billboards are safe. But just this week, those conclusions were described as “seriously inadequate and often erroneous” by a traffic safety expert who reviewed those reports. Almost every study that has been conducted shows a direct causal relationship between digital advertising and driver distraction. And the number one cause of automobile collisions isn’t alcohol or speeding: it’s distraction.
  • Blackouts. The current proposal calls for the signage to be turned off between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. That sounds nice, except for the fact that the sun sets as early as 5 p.m. in the winter, meaning these billboards will still be flashing for six hours of the evening.
  • Neighbourhoods. Because the Metrolinx application contains misleading information about visual sight lines and the impact these signs will have on local residents, without really going out and seeing it for yourself (which most councillors don’t do) their application can sound quite harmless.
  • How did Metrolinx—a provincial agency tasked with building roads and public transit—get mixed up with a commercial billboard company? The answer, as it so often is: money. The billboard project is part of Metrolinx’s ongoing effort to create “non-fare” revenue, which includes parking fees at station lots, leasing commercial space at stations, or in this case, monetizing driver distraction.

    I’m a big fan of Metrolinx. We need to expand our transit system, and we need to find ways to fund their next major set of transit projects, The Big Move. But making money by selling the attention span of drivers to an advertising company is a bad way to go about it. Our public spaces are precious. And with over 2,000 deaths on Canadian roads each year, we can’t afford to introduce intentional distractions. Most importantly, we need to ensure that policy at City Hall is being driven not by lobbyists but by some refreshingly old-fashioned things: facts, expert advice, and the public interest.

    Dave Meslin is a longtime civic activist and the co-founder of Scenic Toronto.