The Bus Stops Here: The great cover up
By Susan DeVos and Laurie Wermter | Fri, 01/11/2013 - 4:55pm
"ADVERTISE WITH METRO TRANSIT! Put your advertising message where people will see it – on a Metro Transit bus! Transit ads are high-impact rolling billboards that put your product or service all over town. Whatever your budget, Metro can help you." - City of Madison, Metro Transit Site
Those fairly new to Madison may be unaware that until 2007 no bus windows were covered by advertisements. Covering bus windows was, and continues to be, a contentious issue. Objections, including ones having to do with respect, safety, accessibility, dignity, and justice, were dismissed hastily in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
And since we apparently cannot choose to accept or reject advertising content that may be objectionable, we may have to decide that all bus wraps be rejected. As is so often the case, the issue had been couched as a matter of revenue, but the subsequent cost-benefit analysis emphasized benefits while dismissing costs. It needs to be redone.
The current situation, in which 20 buses can be totally wrapped in advertisement of an often questionable nature, while additional buses can be partially wrapped, appears to be the result of a series of haphazard events even if some people like to cite a 2008 long range Metro Transit plan that one of the authors objected to.
In truth, it is the result of Metro Transit’s desperate attempt to generate revenue, coupled with its insufficient recognition that non-monetary costs to the community as well as to individuals are being paid in exchange for a short-term monetary gain that is only the beginning of a downward slippery slope.
Back in June of 2005, then-Mayor Dave Cieslewicz took the unusual step of speaking to the Transit and Parking Commission about Metro Transit’s fiscal future. In his wide-ranging discussion of monetary matters, he reluctantly suggested that the Commission consider wrapping buses with advertisements as a way to raise revenue.
Since the idea of bus wraps was met with trepidation, Metro Transit’s management moved cautiously. A year after the mayor’s visit, it brought the issue up at another Transit and Parking Commission meeting, calling bus wraps “fully illustrated transit advertisements on Metro coaches,” a far cry from calling them “rolling billboards” the way it does now.
Also, anticipating a possibly viral backlash, it suggested that having bus wraps be experimental and time-limited. The Transit and Parking Commission accepted the proposal, but insisted that the experiment only last two years.
As the initial experimental phase neared the end while Metro Transit’s fiscal problems continued, the transit agency proposed making permanent the use of bus wraps on 15 buses. As expected, public outcry was immense and mixed, especially because there could be no legal prohibition on the content of the ads, the content including ads for gambling and beer (the county had just rejected an attempt to legalize gambling).
Indeed, Metro Transit issued an online survey on the issue, hoping to buttress its argument for permanency by showing that a majority of the public wanted to make the new bus wrap policy permanent.
Among the issues raised were rider safety (when outsiders could not to see what was going on inside a wrapped bus), the fact that wrapped buses made some people very sick, the fact that wrapped buses could not be recognized as buses by service animals or people with poor vision, and the fact that people riding a wrapped bus to reduce their carbon footprint were being disrespected and punished for riding the bus. Indeed, the survey found that 60% of bus riding respondents did not like the wraps.
When survey results showed that, instead of supporting Metro’s desire to make wraps permanent, a majority of the respondents did not like them, Metro claimed to have asked the wrong survey question, dismissed the results, and proceeded with its proposal for permanency anyway. The surprising result was that a differently-composed Transit and Parking Commission endorsed the permanent use of bus wraps on 20 (not 15) buses (one member wanted all buses to be wrapped).
Now, several years later, an emboldened Metro Transit is taking steps to handle all of its advertising in-house, and expects that to include such objectionable content as buses fully wrapped in a design of giant Pabst beer cans along with Rosie the Riveter.
Fortunately, another opportunity is at hand for citizens to try to direct Metro Transit to a better outcome regarding advertising revenue. At Madison’s Board of Estimates meeting of Oct. 22, 2012, a budget amendment 26 passed unanimously stating that: "By March 31, 2013, the Transit and Parking Commission and the Common Council will consider a comprehensive bus advertising policy for implementation by Metro Transit."
Perhaps, that policy will include more than a sterile cost-benefit analysis. After all, if full advertising wraps are such a good idea, why not apply them to city’s vehicles including the city-owned passenger vehicles used by employees to travel around town or attend out-of-town conferences, city-owned trucks used by employees of the Parks, Water, Sewer, and Police departments, etc. Just think of the possibilities! The savings to taxpayers! The analysis must include non-monetary costs. Or are we supposed to be content to live with a double standard in which bus riders are second-class citizens?
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