With billboards, cities are facing the digital decision

By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

photo by Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette

Ah, for the good old days, when billboards were merely a blight you could avoid, sort of, by averting your eyes.

Now the outdoor advertising companies have us right where they want us: stuck in traffic or at a red light, facing a digital sign that changes about every seven seconds. At least at home, zombied out in front of our televisions, we get a little programming with our digital ads. With digital billboards, we just get ads.

“We’re there 24-7,” Clear Channel Outdoor chief executive Paul Meyer told the Washington Post last year. “There’s no mute button, no on-off switch, no changing the station.”

He says that like it’s a good thing.

And for the billboard industry, it’s a very good thing, as the fast-changing ads are bringing booming profits.

But for the rest of us — those who do not own billboard companies or have stock in them or accept money from them to fund our political campaigns — digital billboards represent a significant ratcheting up of the industry’s assault on the American landscape.

Lamar Advertising, which wants to erect a 60-by-20-foot digital sign Downtown, filed for permits to convert 42 billboards around the city — including 10 Downtown — into digital ones, hoping to beat a moratorium imposed by City Council as it considers legislation that would give council a vote on all sign replacements.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl complained that the legislation “created a chaotic position now for us to be in, in that we have to consider 42 LED billboards.”

Another way to look at it is that now we all know the scope of Lamar’s digital dream.

From Connecticut to California, digital billboards are becoming an increasingly hot issue as outdoor advertising companies seek to convert existing billboards to digital and erect new ones. State and local governments are struggling with how to regulate this bold new breed.

In September, the Federal Highway Administration gave digital billboards its blessing when it issued a memo stating that they conform to the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, even though the act prohibits flashing, intermittent or moving lights on billboards — and even though the FHA’s study of the safety of digital billboards won’t be completed until next year. States have the last word on whether they want them, though, and so far they’re legal in 38 states.

A bill in the Missouri Senate would allow existing billboards to be converted to digital ones, currently prohibited by the state transportation department. The legislation has rekindled a long-running local battle between outdoor advertisers and scenic advocates, writes the Springfield Business Journal.

Beginning June 1, Texas will allow digital billboards along state highways, even within cities, if municipalities want them. Houston, Dallas and Austin have bans on new billboards, but San Antonio’s city council voted in December to allow 15 digital signs as permanent “experiments,” to the dismay of the San Antonio Conservation Society, Scenic San Antonio, the American Institute of Architects and neighborhood groups. What would Lady Bird think?

With billboard regulations written before the advent of digital signs, cities are looking around to see how other places are regulating them. In Reno, Nev., where digital billboards are not allowed, the planning commission is studying other cities’ ordinances after a proposed change to permit them.

Beaufort County, S.C., banned construction of new billboards 24 years ago, but now Atlanta-based Adams Outdoor Advertising is lobbying it to permit conversion of existing billboards to digital ones.

“Tell them no,” wrote the Island Packet newspaper in an editorial. “We want the existing signs gone, not replaced with signs even more garish and distracting. Let’s preserve some semblance of the Lowcountry aesthetic we cherish.”

In Long Beach, Calif., three neighborhood groups are fighting the construction of six digital billboards along local freeways; each sign would be 40 feet high, with a 30-by-20-foot screen.

The Long Beach City Council’s budget oversight committee endorsed the billboards in January, but council will hold hearings on the proposal in a few weeks. The budget committee has good reason to favor the billboards: Their owner would split the revenue with the city, bringing in an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million annually, according to the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

Profit-sharing is just one tactic outdoor advertisers are using to get municipalities to warm to digital signs. They’re also using existing billboards as leverage to reduce their number in exchange for permission to erect digital ones, as Lamar hopes to do here by removing 11 billboards in exchange for the Downtown digital billboard. In San Antonio, twice as much square footage must come down for each digital billboard that goes up.

Other selling points across the country are that the digital billboards can be helpful during Amber Alerts, as “wanted” posters identifying criminal suspects and communicating emergency information during disasters.

Helpful as those may be, such infrequent uses won’t compensate for the powerful negative impact an onslaught of digital billboards will have on the natural landscape and the built environment.

The digital decision is one they don’t have to make in Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont, where all billboards are banned. Pittsburgh’s vistas are every bit as worthy of preservation as theirs.

Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.
First published on March 26, 2008 at 12:00 am

This entry was posted in News and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Tinamarie says:

    I’m wondering if anyone has done the research to find out what other cities in the U.S. have fewer-no billboards and/or a ban on new ones. I’d be grateful for an e-mail response if someone has a response. Thank you!

  2. you can search our site using the search field at the top right. like this: http://antiadvertisingagency.com/?s=billboard+ban&searchsubmit=Find

  3. hank says:

    Officials of the State of South Carolina better wake up and severely restrict the erection of so many billboards before all of our highways are inundated with the garish 90 foot tall double decker behemoths. The in-your-face commercialism and larger than life structures detract from the natural beauty of our roadways. There are better and more aesthetically pleasing ways to advertise products. Double decker and digital billboards are not the best ways. advertise

  4. Robert says:

    I live in the Pocono Mts of PA where Adams has erected two fo these montrosites so far and have many, many more “traditional” bill boards as well.

    Besides the distracting from the outdoor beauty(atleast what is left after the shopping malls and quarries chewing up the mts) these signs are also plan distracting and a danger to drivers.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>