On the streets of our City, Angelenos have noticed an increasing number of digital mobile billboards attached to the top of some Uber and Lyft ridesharing vehicles. It was not too long ago that the Valley was blanketed with unhitched mobile billboards advertising everything you can imagine and I am proud to have authored the State legislation that enabled us to rid our communities of that blight. Digital mobile billboards are the next generation of this evolving problem, but this time it’s not just about littering the public right of way with visual blight- they also pose a serious public safety hazard that needs to be addressed.
Recently, I introduced a motion in the City Council that would make it crystal clear that those digital advertisements affixed to cars are illegal in Los Angeles. The City Attorney says they are already illegal, but folks continue to flout the law and pretend that the law is ambiguous. As expected, blight merchants are spreading misinformation about the purpose of my motion, concluding that my goal is to inhibit hard working drivers from earning extra money. I would like to set the record straight.
Called dynamic message signs (DMS), they use digital LED technology to display changeable illuminated advertising. Currently a company called Firefly installs the rooftop DMS devices using roof racks and wiring the screens to the car battery. At 52 inches long by 17 inches high, the boxes holding the screens are bigger than most rooftop cargo carriers. Uber and Lyft drivers who agree to mount the digital screens on their vehicles are paid an average of $300.00 monthly.
Right now, there are only a few DMS around town, but that will change very fast if they are not nipped in the bud. Unlike other new technologies that improve our quality of life, these signs do the exact opposite. Make no mistake about it, any profit the blight merchants and drivers make from these illuminated billboards, comes at the expense of our neighborhoods and our safety.
Here are a few reasons we need to stop them ASAP:
They pose a serious public safety hazard. Law enforcement agencies like the California Highway Patrol have expressed concerns about how flashing displays reduce the effectiveness of roadside and emergency vehicle lights. If we let these digital ads fly through traffic we risk making every street in Los Angeles illuminate as bright as the top of an ambulance, inherently making it unsafe for anyone sharing the road. If they don’t take your attention off the roads and toward the advertisement, they aren’t serving their purpose.
They are already illegal. In November 2018, the City Attorney’s Office formally told Firefly that installation and operation of its DMS devices in the City is illegal under State and City law. Disregarding that admonishment, Firefly continues to place its DMS devices on rideshare vehicles operating in the City. State law authorizes vehicle digital advertising in only one setting: a pilot program on buses operated by the Antelope Valley Transit Authority, City of Santa Monica, and University of California Irvine. At the time the Legislature authorized the pilot program, it stated its intent to study and identify any adverse impacts on pedestrians and drivers resulting from the use of illuminated signs on the exterior of moving buses.
Industry lobbyists are pretending that we are banning mobile billboards out of the blue- this isn’t true. I know because when I served in the State Assembly I wrote the State law that allowed local governments’ to ban or regulate mobile billboards. The LA City Council then approved two local ordinances regulating It is wrong to use and abuse the public right of way for private advertising.mobile billboards that were the subject of first amendment litigation. The courts ruled for the City and against the blight merchants stating that the “advertising displays prohibited by the mobile billboard regulations detract from the cities’ overall appearance; the outright ban directly serves this stated interest.”
As I know all too well from my, almost decade long, fight with mobile billboard companies, they will go to great lengths to profit at the expense of the public. They will find any nook and cranny in our community to display ads, including in traffic on congested intersections, outside parks, schools and any place people might be gathering. It is no accident that public parks, schools, and neighborhood streets are not locations where traditional billboard companies can legally advertise; it defies all logic that we would open up these areas for new billboards simply because they are mobile.
If we don’t formally prohibit them now, they will spread like the virus that they are. Nobody, whether you are a ride share driver or not, should profit by using the public right of way to spread blight and endanger others. This is about enhancing public safety, enforcing established law, preventing blight and making sure that companies aren’t abusing our public space.
Bob Blumenfield represents the 3rd council district on the Los Angeles City Council
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