Home MTA Economics Selling out the subway a ‘balm for hurt minds’

Selling out the subway a ‘balm for hurt minds’

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

A note on sources: The history of subway advertising can be found in 722 Miles by Clifton Hood and Subway Style, a gorgeous coffee table book produced by the New York Transit Museum.

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lillied July 26, 2007 - 10:14 am

Full-station advertising? I’d rather pay more money than have to see that every day. Gross.

iread July 26, 2007 - 11:04 am

“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.”

And you would be right. I currently spend a grand total of three hours and eight dollars communting to and from work by bus and subway every single day. I get paid squat and live like a pauper. If the fare is increased my wallet is going to suffer.

I grew up in New York, I grew up riding the subway, I know how to filter out unwanted noise, scents, and visuals. I would much rather deal with a gigantic Lion King advertisment on the downtown 1 tunnel than have to spend an extra fifty or so dollars a month. Paint peels and wears off. Posters curl and fall down. Money, once spent, does not magically re-appear.

Victoria Jeter July 26, 2007 - 11:19 am

I just can’t help picturing an entire station covered with Mickey Mouses from top to bottom.

Marsha July 26, 2007 - 11:37 am

I bet Victoria Jeter would be happy to see the 161st Street station covered with Derek Jeter from top to bottom.

Marc Shepherd July 26, 2007 - 1:27 pm

I think Ben underestimates the advertising opportunity. Obviously there are only a few high-volume stations that would justify a big splashy ad campaign. But every station is worth something.

At 191st Street on the Broadway–Seventh Avenue Line, there is a long underground passageway connecting Broadway to the station box along St. Nicholas Avenue. Although the station itself has been beautifully renovated, that passageway is dark, dank, and dull. Any advertisement, sold at almost any price, would be brighter than what is there now.

I cite that merely as an example.

Marshall July 26, 2007 - 3:12 pm

Most likely, only a small percentage of stations would be affected and they would almost certainly be in Manhattan as opposed to Brooklyn, Queens or The Bronx (with the possible exception of those providing access to the sports venues). That being said, I don’t think most New Yorkers would mind the added advertising. After all, when you step out of the Time Square station into Times Square, advertising is rampant. To some people, Times Square is the worst place in New York City… adding advertising to the subway station there would almost be beneficial in terms of providing a small “ramp-up” section of advertising before riders are visually assaulted when they step into Times Square! Plus, to keep my commute costs down, I’d be in support of nearly any idea that doesn’t alter the commute itself.

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SUBWAYblogger July 27, 2007 - 6:04 pm

Doesn’t CBS sell all the ads on the subways now?

Quinn July 27, 2007 - 10:46 pm

I wouldn’t mind. The ads are bearable. I really want though the zoetrope ads in the subway tunnels. all the miles would pay for a lot. Plus the tunnels are damp & dark so it’s better to look at than the dark, & the occasional light. As for other things: The Yankees can paint the B,D,4 trains blue & white & the Mets whatever color they use. Now as for the actual stations, don’t over do it. It might be a problem. A discreet yet noticeable paint job should do the trick.

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A subway station blossomed with Mickey Mouse? Young children would love this advertising. That being said, is it really a need? I mean everyone knows about Mickey Mouse and Disney World.

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