As we take our rides on the subway these days, advertising is just another part of our daily commute. Ubiquitous subway ads have always been there and seemingly will always be there. Now, as one MTA Board member is looking for creative ways to draw in revenue without raising fares, subway advertising has been thrust into the spotlight.
First, a history lesson.
As William Barclay Parsons, engineer, and the architectural firm Heins & LaFarge went about developing and constructing the IRT system in the early years of the 20th century, the three chief players assumed that the IRT would simply have no advertising and thus their Great Public Work would remain unscathed. Parsons had even gone so far as to call advertising in the London Underground “hideous.”
But of course, August Belmont, Jr., head of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, had different ideas in mind, and as soon as the subways opened in 1904, framed poster advertising sprung up in every nook and cranny of the subway system. The city’s Rapid Transit Commissioner Charles Stewart Smith called the ads “cheap and nasty” while the Architectural League bemoaned a great work of art marred by advertising.
Animosity toward the ads reached a crescendo with the Manhattan borough president sued Belmont. He lost because Belmont’s contract allowed advertising as long as they didn’t interfere with “easy identification of the stations.”
Twenty years later, as Squire Vickers worked on the IND line, many argued against ads. But with the city’s standing to benefit from the revenue, it was a lost cause. “It is hoped that the revenue will prove to be an efficient balm for hurt minds,” Vickers said.
Fast forward to 2007, and subway ads are obvious but not overbearing. Placards in the cars are subtle while in-station advertising is limited to those stations without an island platform. But that could all change if the MTA considers a plan put forth yesterday by Norman Seabrook concering advertising in the subways. Said Seabrook:
What I am asking is at the same time we take the opportunity to look at different areas of raising funds to help support, if there is going to be an increase, to lessen the burden on the public. Example: I would rather try to sell 42nd Street’s subway system underground to Disney for $60 million a year and have them paint it any way that they want to paint it. They spend $100 million for one minute to be on the Super Bowl on a Sunday. I think that they would spend X amount of dollars in rent for that terminal. I think 34th Street would do it. I think other businesses around the state and the city would do it. That would lessen the burden on the public.
When Eliot Spitzer, New York’s embattled governor, campaigned last year, he said an MTA fare hike would come about only as a last resort. As a campaign promise, that sounds good, but it’s hardly become reality. I’ve heard nary a mention of a plan like Seabrook’s to raise revenue. While Seabrook’s plan sounds appealing, how does it impact our subways? And is the public behind it?
Well, based on the reactions to the post on CityRoom linked above, people are decidedly mixed. Naming rights deals have worked for sports stadiums, but New Yorkers often view the subway as something holier than a sports arena. The subway stations, they say, shouldn’t be sold off to the highest bidder because they are a Great Public Work. That sure sounds like the lines Parsons and Heins & LaFarge used over 100 years ago.
Two comments — this one by feitclub and this one by Franklin G. Bynum — bemoan the corporatization of subway stations. Bynum claims that “New Yorkers deserve better.” My hunch, however, is that a vast majority of New Yorkers would rather keep their $2 fare and face a station full of Mickey Mouse than pay $2.50 or more per subway ride.
We’re faced again with a situation where New Yorkers want it both ways but can’t have it both ways. The subways are indeed a Great Public Work, but they’re also a necessity for the continued health and growth of the City of New York. With the MTA’s financial future resting on the shaky ground of real estate deals and property taxes, the Authority needs to do something to raise funds. If selling station-wide advertisement would net them substantial revenue (and yes, I realized that Seabrook’s Super Bowl numbers are way off), then I’m all for it.
Realistically, the number of stations up for grabs is fairly limited. Disney would probably buy some or all of Times Square; maybe Bloomingdale’s would go after the 59th St. station on the East Side; and the 34th St. stations would probably draw in advertisers from the wonderful Mall of New York. But other than that, who would take out ads? Maybe the Yankees and Mets would paint their stations blue (and white or orange). Maybe some high-profile tech company like Microsoft or Apple or Google would invest in a station. But of the 468 stations in the subway system, realistically, this plan would affect only a few while having the potential to draw in a lot of money.
I say explore this idea. Let the MTA study it and court some advertisers. Maybe they could even do a trial run with one station. It’s certainly a better and more creative option than the supposed last-gasp fare hike.