Defining Billboard Blight: Even one can be too many

Billboard blight takes many forms, depending on the type of sign and its location. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography given in 1964 (“I know it when I see it”) is useful as an analogy; many people might define billboard blight in the same way. We most often learn of billboard blight through citizen complaints, but in some areas even the billboard companies admit that blight exists. The following discussion is based on consultation with board members of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.

For traditional static billboards, even one billboard can be too many, if it blocks or impairs an otherwise beautiful spot, or if it occupies a prominent site. The latter is the case at the north end of Gaffey Street in San Pedro, where citizens have complained to their council member about a large billboard on a lot at the top of that sloping street. The planning deputy for that council district told the citizens that someone would have to buy the land beneath the sign and terminate the lease. Just one billboard caused blight at that location.

A case where a few billboards have caused blight is along Culver Blvd in the former streetcar track in the Del Rey neighborhood. Many citizens have complained about the series of older sign structures in that parklike setting, which people use for recreation. Such aesthetically attractive settings are especially sensitive to blight.

As seen in the above cases, just one or a handful of billboards may be enough to cause blight because they distract from driving and compete unnecessarily for attention that could be given to the streetscape, the architecture, or the Los Angeles sky. Billboards in any quantity severely hobble efforts at community beautification.

In the case of digital billboards, any and every such billboard outside of a highly commercialized Sign District constitutes billboard blight. This is because such signs are visible from long distances, because they stand out from the surroundings so much that they lower nearby property values, and because most people do not want to live anywhere near them.

One of the main causes of billboard blight in Los Angeles is negligence by government officials. Lax sign enforcement over many years in the city of Los Angeles has allowed sign companies to erect hundreds of signs for which the permits are today lacking or noncompliant. Negligence by elected officials is another; some council members have softened their stances regarding billboard blight under the influence of campaign contributions of free billboard space at election time. The ultimate cause of billboard blight is the commercial imperative that sign companies constantly act upon. Preventing or reducing blight requires a countervailing sense of urgency of at least equal potency. Such urgency should energize a desire to make Los Angeles more attractive, and lead to preventing or reducing billboard blight.

Patrick Frank

Good News and Bad News at City Hall

The good news was that the PLUM Committee is investigating how to move away from adopting its own PLUM Version. However, the bad news is that Version B Plus also seems to have some opposition. There are parts of the city where there are many billboards, chiefly low-income areas, that don’t qualify to be sign districts and thus would not qualify for the takedowns that would be required in order to erect new digital signs.

The Committee Chair, Council Member Marqueece Harris-Dawson, made several requests of Planning Dept. staff. One was to define Billboard Blight, which we will offer to help them do. Another was to envision a middle ground between the two versions, which would allow digital signs in more areas than Version B Plus allows and fewer areas than the PLUM Version allows. We would not favor such a solution because of the danger of spreading digital signs.

Another request to the Planning Dept. was to study how neighborhoods outside sign districts could opt in to digital billboards. This sounded tempting if the city as a whole is presumed to be off-limits unless a neighborhood opted in. That possibility was of course opposed by the sign companies, who were present at the meeting and opined at length about the laughable “benefits” of digital signs and their wish to spread those benefits equally across Los Angeles. Some labor union members were also present, urging the erection of digital signs, which is ironic because the average life of an LED bulb in a digital sign (seven years) means that digital signs will require far less labor than static signs.

The Planning Dept. staff is to report back at the August 13 meeting, so save the date!!!!

I was interviewed today for KCRW by Frances Anderton. She said that a clip may be aired tonight (Wed. May 29) during drive time, with a further possibility of more extended coverage during her Design and Architecture show on Tuesday.

Patrick Frank

How to Regulate Billboards

How many and what kinds of billboards we have will weigh heavily in determining the appearance of the city of Los Angeles, especially as the city hosts the Olympics in 2028 and very possibly the World Cup before that. The regulation of these structures is thus an important part of city government, but legislation regulating billboards has been pending in the council for eight years.
A Citywide Sign Ordinance, Council File 11-1705, is finally coming before the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee on Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day. Fortunately, there is a template available for reasonable regulation of signs, and it deserves support.
The key issue is regulation of digital billboards: These are signs with hundreds of bright LED bulbs that change their message like a slide show every 8 seconds. There are few of them in Los Angeles currently, though more exist in Inglewood and other communities along I-405. You have probably seen them, or maybe you have even been distracted by them, as many studies have proven will happen. These signs are both very lucrative for sign companies and extremely bothersome to passersby, be they local residents, drivers, or pedestrians. More than 100 cities in Texas, hardly a hotbed of anti-business sentiment, have banned them entirely.
Coming before the PLUM Committee on Tuesday will be two visions for how to regulate such billboards. Back in 2015, the City Planning Commission drafted legislation that would restrict such digital signs to designated sign districts: heavily traveled areas zoned Regional Commercial such as Sunset Boulevard and LA Live. This is by far the better of the two options.
In contrast, the PLUM Committee under its previous chair José Huizar drafted its own version in late 2017 under the influence of the sign companies, which would allow digital signs on almost any commercial lot. For example, most intersections that how have traditional billboards could see many of them change to digital under this version. Not surprisingly, the committee chair benefitted from more than 100 free billboards, donated by sign companies, during his most recent re-election campaign.
The Planning Commission version (known as Version B Plus) is far more sane and sensible because it keeps digital signs in dense commercial zones where fewer homes suffer the flashing nuisance and traffic moves more slowly, reducing the risk of accidents and danger to pedestrians. If the sign companies favor the PLUM version, the people seem to favor Version B Plus. A total of 23 neighborhood councils have weighed in with community impact statements specifically favoring B Plus over the PLUM version; none has opined in the other direction.
The makeup of the PLUM Committee has changed in the last few months. We hope that the reconstituted committee will follow the express wishes of the people in this matter and support Version B Plus. The future appearance of Los Angeles depends on it.

Success! The motion to suppress changing digital ads on ride sharing vehicles advanced.

The Transportation Committee of the L.A. City Council yesterday heard the voices of all of those who sent messages about the intrusion of digital ads onto our city streets. By a vote of 2-1, the members approved the motion to start enforcing the law and get those distracting and ugly rooftop signs off of ridesharing vehicles such as Uber and Lyft.

Big Thanks to all who wrote in!

Our arguments were important: The signs are distracting, ugly, intrusive, dangerous, and illegal. On that last point we received valuable support from the City Attorney, who powerfully contradicted the legal reasoning of the lobbyists.

How it broke down:

Committee Chair Mike Bonin seemed to be on our side from the start; he gets it. He also pointed out the irony that some of the same groups that favored the digital signs (Chambers of Commerce) were also opposed to raising the minimum wage. Council Member Nury Martínez wondered if the sign company was sharing enough revenue with the actual drivers who carry the signs; she voted with us. Council Member Paul Koretz, who seems to favor the taxi drivers’ union in all things, voted No.

What’s next:

It goes to the full council. With so many legal arguments on top of the aesthetic and sefety arguments, it’s hard to imagine the full council reversing this.

But we will stay on top of it!

Patrick Frank, President

Do you use Waze? Billboards Are Spying on You!

It’s not only digital billboards that can collect information from passing drivers. Old-fashioned static signs too are already being linked to the smartphones of passing drivers.

If you are using Waze and you pass a “Geo-fenced” billboard, that billboard will send its graphic content to your smartphone screen, duplicating the billboard’s message, and suggest that you go to the nearest branch of the business advertised. No, we are not making this up! It is being done on a trial basis in Southern California already, a partnership between Waze and McDonald’s.      

Here’s how it works:  You stop for more than 4 seconds at a traffic light near a McDonald’s billboard, and the billboard content appears at the top of your Waze screen, together with directions to the nearest McDonald’s.

It’s making money for the company. During a two-month period last year, 1.9 million unique users passed these Geo-fenced billboards in SoCal, and 8,400 people actually clicked on the duplicated billboard on their screen, changed their destination, and drove to a McDonald’s.

This makes driving more dangerous for all of us. This app is causing thousands of people every day to look even longer at their cell phones while they’re driving.

The service is called Zero-Speed Takeover. It’s one of the many methods that Waze uses to integrate ads into your driving experience, along with arrows, pins, and promoted searches.

It’s yet another reason to oppose billboards along any roadside.

Action Alert: Graphic Ads on Cars

Los Angeles is about to suffer an invasion of a new kind of advertising.
But it’s still possible to stop it. Maybe you have seen the digital ad signs on top of taxis, Uber and Lyft cars in the city. Here’s how they look:

These signs change every 8 seconds, just like digital billboards. Some of them are even animated. They’re made by a startup called Firefly, which just got $21 million in venture capital for a pilot launch in S.F. and L.A. Drivers can voluntarily bolt one of these atop their cars and earn money for each day driven.
Do we have to put up with this?
We already have ads on bus benches, bus shelters, street furniture, and businesses. Not to mention the thousands of billboards that litter our streets. These new Firefly signs have started to appear, taking digital advertising into literally every residential neighborhood in the city.
Maybe not.
The City Attorney filed a brief late last year saying that these signs violate the California Vehicle Code, because flashing, changing, and animation are prohibited on vehicles other than turn signals. And then L.A. Council Members Blumenfield and Harris-Dawson wrote a motion (Council File 19-0104) urging the City Council to follow state law and instruct the LAPD to start enforcing a ban on these signs. Thank you, council members.
The lobbyists rose up.
Of course they did. Firefly commissioned a legal brief which alleged that the City Attorney was misinterpreting the Vehicle Code. And that the signs are a source of revenue for drivers. And that the signs can be used for emergency and public service announcements (as if we needed them).
It’s time for you to rise up.
The council members’ motion is now before the City Council Transportation Committee. It needs some positive reinforcement. Send an e-mail message like the one below to the committee secretary: john.white@lacity.org and mention the case file in your subject line: 19-0104. Send a copy to your own council member also if you like.
Here are some points to raise:
Dear Mr. White
Please convey to the members of the Transportation Committee my support for the motion offered on 1-29-19 by Council Members Blumenfield and Harris-Dawson. I too oppose the incursion of an entirely new form of digital advertising onto our streets. These “Firefly” signs are dangerous, ugly, distracting, and even illegal under the California Vehicle Code. Our visual environment is already burdened enough with the clutter of advertising, and these signs will take rotating digital ads into every neighborhood of the city, including residential neighborhoods where they have never been before. We need to stop this now before it spreads any further.
Do it soon.
The motion will come before the Transportation Committee in the next few weeks, and then it will go to the full council. The time to write is now.

Museum of Modern Art Joins Blighted Ad Stream

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has begun supplying digital images to Outfront for use in the ad company’s screens in MTA subway stations in New York City and elsewhere. While one can understand MoMA’s urge and need to show art to lots of people, there is a downside to doing this.

1. The images are of low quality. They will give only the barest idea of what a work of art looks like at low resolution, and they are cropped misleadingly. Is this the sort of art that MoMA wants people to see? Such watered-down and cropped-up images are extremely remote from the experience of the works themselves.

2. Routinely in public hearings and official memoranda, representatives of billboard companies point to these momentary instances of “public service” as a redeeming value to weigh against the distraction, energy drainage, and visual blight that digital billboards bring for the other 23:55 per day. MoMA’s joining this stream, with these images of questionable quality, makes our work of opposing visual blight more difficult.

3. The sign companies are the ones deciding the amount of “public service” to place on these signs, not the public. If there were actual negotiations between public bodies and sign companies about how much non-commercial messaging would be included (as a condition for continued operation of those signs), then the public service element would be larger and more meaningful. As it is, market conditions and the company’s best interests will dictate how many MoMA works are displayed, at what hours, and for how long. The works appear at their whim, and may disappear similarly. Moreover, the MoMA imagery will appear in a flow along with other material which the museum cannot control. Why would MoMA want Vincent van Gogh to appear just after an ad for a personal injury attorney or some other blaring statement?

4. According the the Outfront news release, “people may start to feel overwhelmed and tune out as screens proliferate their daily lives. [Outfront] is hoping more engaging models of content and ad delivery can help mitigate that effect.” In other words, the company is deciding how much visual blight people can tolerate, and regulating the content to keep it just short of the “overload” level. Why is MoMA collaborating in this effort? In short, why is MoMA playing into the hands of the sign companies?

In conclusion, It’s very difficult to see how participating in the Outfront digital ad stream with low-quality imagery fits in with the MoMA mission statement, which includes “the encouragement of an ever-deeper understanding and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art.”

Patrick Frank, President

It’s Back: Digital Billboards on Freeways

AB 1405, the bill that would allow digital signs including advertising on California’s freeways, is back before the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. The author tweaked it to make it more palatable to cities, but it’s still a very bad bill that will open the door for digital ads on stretches of highway where they have never been before. The hearing will take place on Tuesday, June 26. This is the bill’s final chance to pass this session, so if it fails in committee on Tuesday, it’s done for the year. If you have not weighed in on this–and even if you have–now is the time to act.

What to do: The legislation is AB 1405, The Advanced Digital Network Act, sponsored by Kevin Mullin. It’s before the State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. Send letters via e-mail to the committee via the secretary Katie Bonin: katie.bonin@sen.ca.gov or fax to 916-445-2209.

Update: Digital Billboards on Freeways

There’s good news about AB 1405, the plan to insert digital billboards among California’s highway road signs. The bill was scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, June 19 before the State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, but it was pulled from consideration at the last minute by its sponsor, Assembly Member Kevin Mullin. This means that the threat is over, for now. To all who wrote in to Sacramento to express opposition to AB 1405, thank you. We will remain vigilant, because this monster could come back like a sequel to a Grade B horror movie.

Patrick Frank, President

New Smart Billboards Will Bring “Big Brother” Ads

 

If you needed another reason to oppose digital billboards, this could be it. At least two companies are today creating new digital billboards that use tracking data gathered from cell phones and car GPS devices, linking that data with demographic information, and using all of that data to target digital billboard messages at locations where specific demographic groups congregate.

Yes, that’s right: The companies gather data on what sorts of people pass by the locations with billboards that they control (seniors, Latinos, commuters, youth, males, etc.) at what times of day, and customize their display ads to reach them.

One of the companies, GeoPath, calls itself an “audience location measurement” firm. Here is how they describe what they do: “By processing and incorporating many industry-changing data sources such as connected cars, weather data, population growth factors, and the locations & trips of hundreds of millions of anonymous mobile devices, our systems will be able to do things like respond to seasonal, daily, & hourly variation, provide post-campaign delivery information, and much more.” So if your smartphone has location services enabled for any app at any time, or you are using GPS in your car, GeoPath will suck up that data and use it to target billboard ads to where you are going.

The other firm, Accretive Media, controls more than 100,000 screens across the United States, a number that’s sure to grow. It claims that it has the richest consumer data set available today, “combining people-based consumer profiles with geotemporal mobile information.” Accretive media “balances intelligent targeting with mainstream appeal, leveraging rich deterministic information to make outdoor messages impactful, targeted, and real.”

For example, a heavy rush-hour flow of males between the ages of 18 and 25 might convince a fast-food chain to buy placement on a digital billboard from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m near its locations. These firms are basically doing on billboards what is already done in your web browser: Targeting ads to you based on demographic information and preferences that you show by your internet behavior.

Did you consent to have your information shared this way? It’s already happening.

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