And that's a wrap!
Should GRT wrap more transit vehicles in advertising?
Earlier this month, Regional Council staff made the following recommendations:
Increase the current limit of five fully wrapped buses at any one time to 10% of the existing fleet at any one time;
Introduce a program to ensure bus wraps led by the Region of Waterloo to drive awareness for social initiatives (such as the Pride bus) do not reduce the opportunity for revenue from GRT's advertising program;
Allow exterior vinyl advertising for social initiatives and/or revenue generating programs on one (1) ION train at any one time
These recommendations were made despite the fact that council, in 2018, had already decided to not place ads on the exterior of ion trains. Let’s take a look at what’s being discussed currently, and how we got to this point.
Transit is funded through various means, mostly through transit fares and property taxes. However, Grand River Transit (GRT) also creates revenue through selling advertising on its buses, on interior and exterior spaces. A 2018 staff report states that, “Transit advertising generates approximately $500,000 annually from selling advertising rights on the exterior and interior of GRT buses.” According to this press release, the 2023 transit budget was $240 million. Clearly, advertising revenue is a small percentage of the transit budget.
More details from the 2018 staff report:
“The current bus-advertising contract allows for the sale of up to five fully wrapped transit buses each year and an unlimited number of single sided vinyl ads. All fully wrapped buses and some single sided vinyl ads, cover all or some portion of the bus window with a perforated specialty vinyl product.”
The staff report also notes that “specialty vinyl products in the transit advertising industry have become the most requested ad option as they are large and create excellent awareness to a broader audience.” However, staff state that while these wraps create more revenue, they “have lead to customer complaints and also diminish the GRT brand.” Staff say that eliminating full wraps (and keeping windows clear), could result in a 44% reduction in anticipated revenue (~$220,000). The 2018 report concluded that staff were “not proposing any advertising for the exterior of the ION trains or buses.”
Advertising on transit returned to Regional Council in 2019 as the Region’s contract for transit advertising was up for renewal in June 2019. Council voted 10-4 in favour of continuing transit ads (a 10-year contract totaling nearly $17 million for advertising on buses, shelters and station platforms), allowing up to 5 buses to be fully wrapped. During that meeting (which you can watch here), a number of issues arose. Some councillors had concerns that Council doesn’t “have enough say over what is emblazoned on the outside of the vehicles.” Those concerns were due to ads “claiming that abortion is linked to suicide, substance abuse, breast cancer, depression and infertility were displayed in Grand River Transit buses.”
In that same meeting, council also discussed whether buses and the ion should be treated equally regarding advertising. Some on council argued that the ion should remain free of all exterior advertising, but buses were fair game, while others questioned the thinking behind that. Then-Councillor Elizabeth Clarke stated, “We wanted the brand to be a dignified one that would reflect well not just on the region, but on our passengers; and I think the same should apply to buses.” Councillor Sue Foxton agreed, asking, “If it's not good enough for the Ion, why is it good enough for GRT?" (Click to view the 2019 staff report - pg. 40-42).
That brings us to this month’s staff report, recommending exterior advertising on one ion train and allowing for bus wraps on up to 10% of the bus fleet (currently that would equal up to 27 buses). In response to why staff are now recommending ads on the exterior of one ion train, Doug Spooner, the Regional Director of Transit Services, said “We are in different fiscal times, so it’s really an opportunity to talk about how we fund transit.” He continued, “We are also experiencing more need for transit, and we are looking at everything in the tool box that gets more buses on the road. This is one of the options.” Staff note in their report that, “the extra advertising is expected to increase revenue by $500,000, bringing the 2024 ad revenue total to $2.2 million.”
So, where does that leave us exactly? This whole discussion has me thinking about the public realm, how we value transit (or don’t), and the differences between the ion and buses. Personally, I don’t believe the Region should expand their advertising to the LRT or to 10% of their bus fleet.
It seems to me the public realm is one of the few places we can escape being inundated with advertising and we should work to protect that. We generally understand that selling off public spaces for advertising revenue simply isn’t worth it in many cases. I don’t see council advocating for libraries or hospitals to increase revenues by covering those spaces in ads. Should we create more affordable housing by making that housing a 24/7 billboard for private companies? I don’t think so.
Why aren’t we considering options for advertising to fund our roadways? I’d suggest it’s because we see the value of a connected and well-maintained system for those who drive. We should expect the same for those who want to get around the region without a personal vehicle, whether that’s for environmental, financial, mobility, or other reasons.
Staff note that customers describe the full bus wraps and side bus murals as; “limiting their visibility to look outside,” the vinyl “creates a blurred effect, causing dizziness for some” and depending on the colour of the material, “it makes the inside of the bus dark, gloomy and unpleasant”. Transit riders should be able to look out the window easily and clearly, whether that’s to better identify where they are, to avoid motion sickness, or to simply enjoy the view. If we respect the experience of transit riders, we should not require them to deal with this ‘view’.
I agree with Councillors Foxton and Clarke, who in 2019 questioned why council was resistant to advertising on the ion but not on buses (see video clip below). Yet we still see similar conversations happening today. Councillor Williams proposed placing more (than the recommended 10%) advertising on buses and shelters in order to not wrap the ion while still “keeping our revenues up.” (Click to watch, starting at the 24:30 mark). Councillor Erb also was concerned that “by putting any kind of advertising on the ion, we diminish that brand”. While I agree with Erb’s concerns about exterior advertising, I can’t help but wonder why we think ads on the ion will diminish the GRT brand, but it won’t on buses. I fear we are creating a two-tier approach to transit, where the ion is considered upscale and worthwhile, while buses are not valued in the same way. I appreciated Councillor Huinink’s recommendation to only allow advertising on the exterior rear of buses.
The 2018 staff report referenced earlier in this post states, “Exterior bus ads are often referred to as ‘moving billboards’ since they reach thousands of pedestrians and people in their cars throughout the community.” How many of us truly want to travel in ‘moving billboards’? As one Citified reader mentioned to me, “‘Looking at' advertising (inside a bus, for example) is a very different experience than 'being in' (full wrap) advertising.” If vehicle wraps are a worthwhile revenue source, perhaps instead of wrapping transit vehicles, we wrap the Region’s car and truck fleet?
GRT is breaking ridership records, in part because of the ongoing investments and improvements in transit. This is good news anytime, but especially as we face affordability challenges in our community, and are dealing with a climate crisis. Investing deeply in transit allows people to get around Waterloo Region more affordably and sustainably. We want to encourage this behaviour and I don’t believe viewing transit vehicles as billboards is the way to do it.
The Region’s transit advertising contract is with Pattison. Their website focuses on how “an exterior transit ad acts like a moving magazine” and how Pattison helps advertisers, “create an immersive environment with Streetcar Interior Dominations and design an unparalleled brand experience for transit riders.”
Sean Marshall recently wrote about transit advertising wraps. “Transit wraps that cover passenger windows are unpopular with customers, they diminish the transit agency’s brand, and bring in a very small amount of revenue. Why do transit agencies do this?”