Home U.S. Transit SystemsMBTA Dispatches from Boston: Location-based audio ads

Dispatches from Boston: Location-based audio ads

by Benjamin Kabak

Once upon a time in 2008, the MTA and its advertising partner Titan proposed GPS-based advertising for New York City buses. The idea was a simple one: By equipping buses with LED screens and GPS responders, Titan could feed location-based ads to buses around New York. In 2009, the authority even tested a few buses with these next-gen ads, but the idea has seemingly fallen by the wayside. Likely, the costs were too high to justify the technology.

Up in Boston, we receive word of a similar initiative with an auditory twist. The MBTA is thinking of selling location-specific audio ads on its buses. Ben Wolfrord from The Globe has more:

For the second time in four years, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is considering selling audio ads on public transit as a way to drum up new revenue for the cash-strapped agency. A new pitch calls for targeted ads on buses that would be triggered by GPS technology. When the bus passes a particular business, an ad for that shop could play over the vehicle’s loudspeaker. If the audio advertising idea can generate money for the MBTA without irritating riders, officials said they will give it a try.

In 2007, the agency’s T- Radio, a program that mixed music and talk on T station platforms was short-lived. Hundreds of complaints poured in, and the MBTA killed the initiative after two weeks, before ads were aired. The MBTA is not yet sold on the latest idea, general manager Richard A. Davey said. “We’re going to take a look at it. We haven’t made a decision, but it’s something I’m interested in.’’

Before the end of the month, MBTA officials will hear a pitch from Ohio-based Commuter Advertising, which has launched similar advertising with several transit authorities, from Toledo, Ohio, to suburban Chicago, since its founding in 2008. “The company was founded by two transit riders,’’ said Russ Gottesman, cofounder of Commuter Advertising. For that reason, he said, they have the riders’ interests and their tolerance levels at heart. If the ads are profitable, Gottesman said, it could help prevent fare hikes.

According to The Globe, Commuter Advertising has figured out how to exploit audio ads that don’t annoy passengers. These ads would be short — only 29-39 words — and would play “when a bus drives past a business whose owner has purchased air times.” Only a few minutes per hour would be devoted to ads, and other cities — including Champaign, Illinois, have deployed these successfully.

As Boston debates this potentially revenue-generating projects, I wonder how New Yorkers would respond to such an auditory intrusion. Already, our daily rides are saturated with noise. Announcements than range from the unhelpful to the annoying bombard subway riders, and advertisements seem to be the next logical step. After all, the FIND displays have a space for video ads that the MTA doesn’t currently exploit; why not use the public address system to generate revenue?

For some reason, we seem to be more sensitive to paid advertisements than to run-of-the-mill announcements, but if these measures can drive revenue into the pockets of cash-starved transit agencies, why not? The MBTA thinks it can avert fare hikes if it can just find alternate sources of revenue, but that seems to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Still, if the choices are some audio ads or service cuts, I’ll take the ads every which way ’til Sunday.

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Scott E July 7, 2011 - 8:24 am

I still fail to see why NYCT doesn’t take a glance at their neighbors under the Hudson: PATH. Their new trains, and all of the stations, have video monitors – content provided by NBC/Universal (this before the Comcast merger, I don’t know how it will change) – which includes news, entertainment, train arrival times, and – yes – ads. All silently. I find myself watching them because there’s often nothing better to look at, but if I choose not to, I don’t. The trains download the videos via a WiFi network at the stations (and possibly along the trackway).

NYCT has this ability, somewhat, in their R160 trains. They’ve invested in the video boards, citing them for their potential to produce revenue, but has anyone begun to actually try to USE them for revenue-producing purposes?

Al D July 7, 2011 - 9:07 am

To your second paragraph. This is one of the problems with MTA. They are ridiculously slow to move on anything. And, as we know, time is $. So, it is really a double whammy because of the lost ad revenue that they will never recover and the administrative expense that they incur taking forever to getting something going.

Kid Twist July 7, 2011 - 9:54 am

Would anyone actually get off the bus before his stop in response to an ad?

Paul July 7, 2011 - 11:27 am

On the Staten Island express buses, they have automated announcements.

Given that the same people ride the buses every day; the average ride is a lot longer; the automation is set to different announcements every fifteen minutes repeated every hour; you can’t get off the bus once it’s on the highway; and the announcements are insipid (“Take your stuff!”), insulting (“Your fare is twice that of the rest of the city!”) or nonsensical (“Exit through the nonexistent back door!”), the automated announcements REALLY end up grating.

Vandalism isn’t that much of a problem on the express buses, but I’ve seen more damage done to the speakers on them than anything else.

Andrew July 7, 2011 - 7:11 pm

When did the fare in Staten Island go up?

Paul July 8, 2011 - 10:33 am

Express buses are $5.50 each way.

Andrew July 10, 2011 - 11:13 pm

In all five boroughs.

SEAN July 7, 2011 - 9:59 am

MBTA busses also anounce stops & transfer points so adding ads is a no brainer.

MTA still doesn’t have automatic stop anouncements on it’s busses except for those in Nassau County & the system there semes to be non-functional right now.

ant6n July 7, 2011 - 10:38 am

“why not?” – because “Already, our daily rides are saturated with noise.”

I wonder, thought, how many bus riders are ‘casual users’, i.e. users who do not frequently take the bus they’re on. It seems likey that buses, which tend to not have the highest ridership anyway, is always full with the same people. So the ad might really not reach that many people.

Christopher July 7, 2011 - 11:13 am

Can we please have LED readouts that tell you what street is upcoming first? Or maybe in conjunction with? Bus systems in DC and SF have had these for over a decade. To the point they are on secondary incarnations of the same.

Aaron July 7, 2011 - 6:41 pm

And Los Angeles (and really all LA County/Orange County agencies). And Phoenix. Not sure why this would prove so difficult, and it’s highly useful when you can’t watch street signs.

pete July 8, 2011 - 2:43 am

The MTA has had them for years. On LI Bus :-p

Andrew July 7, 2011 - 7:07 pm

I read somewhere (can’t find it now) that the R143 (I don’t know about R160) electronic displays were intended for location-based ads, but they’ve never been used for that purpose.

Audio ads are a very bad idea. The signal-to-noise ratio of the subway PA system is already far too low – by “signal” I mean announcements helping people get where they need to go; by “noise” I mean important messages from the New York City Police and stuff like that. The result is that people ignore everything that comes out of the PA, and then they don’t hear the really important announcements.

Alon Levy July 7, 2011 - 7:29 pm

Exactly. Ads harass riders to no end, and the revenue they generate is usually so small it’s pointless to piss off all the customers for it.


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