Attack of the Killer Billboards: Part 1
I don't have a violent aversion to marketing messages in public places. In fact, I’ve even been known to stop in my tracks to take in a particularly effective use of imagery or type, chuckle at a witty play on words or savor an effective branding treatment. But recently things have gotten out of hand here in Lyon to the point where my previously benign feelings have turned into a growing dislike for outdoor advertising. Strangely enough, bicycles are largely to blame.
Urban planning is a minefield of tradeoffs and outright contradictions, starring functionaries and elected officials with a penchant for grandiose plans to improve the public good—plans which often have unanticipated consequences.
Lyon, for example, has a downtown rich in architectural history, with not one but three Roman amphitheaters. After almost being razed by a development-happy mayor in the 60s, who saw it as the perfect place for a new highway, Old Lyon itself is now protected by UNESCO. And with good reason, since it contains one of the richest collections of Renaissance architecture in the world. Beyond that, the entire downtown core is a dense mass of richly-decorated stone buildings from the last century, punctuated by massive religious and administrative structures going back much earlier. The Lyonnais are justly proud of this architecture heritage and it's increasingly a magnet for tourists seeking a refuge from the excesses of modernism.
Now factor in the current progressive local administration, which has been working assiduously to minimize the impact of traffic in the downtown area, which admittedly is reeling from a glut of cars. Why not start by building an extensive bicycle path network? Even better, why not provide an entire network of free bicycles to make it easy for folks to leave their cars at home?
Well, that's just what Lyon did last spring, with the city-wide installation of a sophisticated network of specially-designed bikes, dubbed Vélo'v (velo being the common term for bicycle, the name is one of those curious French/English plays on words, a contraction for "velo love"). Users register and receive a card that they can swipe to unlock a bike that costs about a dollar for the first hour and a half, but is free for the first 30 minutes. Since most bikes are used for short hops, and they can be checked in and out at the proliferating stations around town, the result is a system that lets people cycle just about anywhere for nothing.
The good news is that the system is a huge hit, with 12 to 22,000 rentals per day and climbing. As demand increases, the city keeps adding more capacity, with bicycle stations popping up all over town—the goal is to have them no further than 300 meters apart! But as is often the case, the good news is also to some extent the bad news. Because to finance the installation and maintenance of this ambitious network, Lyon entrusted the entire project to JCDecaux, which is currently the number one outdoor advertising company in Europe and Asia-Pacific, and number two worldwide. With 7,900 employees managing 715,000 advertising panels in 46 countries, JCDecaux is a large, publicly-traded corporation.
So why did this firm get into the bicycle business, which would not seem to be a fit for its core competency? The company itself says "JCDecaux has helped to improve the quality of urban life, a fact that naturally helps to enhance the image of the Greater Lyon area." Sounds almost like a benevolent gesture on its part, perhaps a tax write off? Nothing like that. JCDecaux traded the bicycles for something that increasingly money can't buy—access. Initially this took the form of exclusive advertising rights within the city's extensive network of public transport shelters. The firm quickly replaced all the existing ones with shiny new shelters that showcased their endlessly scrolling billboards.
But there are only so many shelters ("street furniture," as it's called in the trade). So how to respond to the rapid growth of the Vélo'v system? Apparently the firm has now been given virtual carte blanche to blanket the downtown core with its aggressively modern, tirelessly scrolling billboards, to the point where some streets sport them on every block, parked in front of no matter what beautiful old building, ruining lines of sight that have delighted residents and visitors for centuries, in some cases. The image at right shows a panel in front of the St. Nizier church, construction of which began in 1303. Now 700 years later it has to deal with sliding billboard ads for discount Internet-based phone calls.
Is this okay?
Should municipalities engage in such deals with corporations that dangle the promise of an electorate-friendly solution to an urban problem? And should our common spaces be treated simply as a commodity, to be traded away for such services? And if so, how much is enough? Because without limits, our world risks becoming the playground of those who urge us on to consume ever-more, ever-faster. Finally, what role should designers play in the conversation about the future of our urban environment—after all, without designers willing to lend a hand, there would be no billboards.
In Part 2 I take a look at one individual who claims to have devised a counter-attack to the onslaught of advertising by trying to "transform the corporate monologue into a public dialogue." Has he been successful?