Tunnel Vision

Garlynn Woodsong is a trained geographer working as Geographic Information Systems professional, with a history in planning and transportation and a fledgling interest in real estate development. He previously worked for both the City of Portland Transportation Department, and the Tri-Met Westside Light Rail Project. Garlynn also owns a biodiesel vehicle.

According to a recent news article, ads are now springing up in subway tunnels between stations. These “video ads” act like cartoon flip-books: A series of images is lit up by individual spotlights if a train passes by at 25mph or faster. The moving train allows the images to be displayed at 24+ frames per second, which is enough to give the illusion of a movie, more or less. Or, at least, it looks cool.

BART is now doing “video” ads in its subway tunnels between stations in San Francisco, and I recently had the opportunity to view the first batch. Pretty interesting stuff, and better than a blank tunnel wall.

According to the article referenced above, however, a new generation of ads will soon be installed that uses LED screens so that the ads can be changed more rapidly & easily — and controlled remotely.

What I propose is a “Percent for Art” policy, to be implemented when the LED screens are installed. Basically, a certain percentage of the content being cycled on the LED screens would be non-commercial, and produced by local artists on commission to the transit agency. The article states that these ads bring in revenue upwards of $50k a month. Surely, that would allow enough padding for an artist to receive a small commission (off the top of my head, say, $2,000, but obviously that figure comes out of thin air) to produce a quick piece of video art that could be displayed in between the ads on such a system.

I would propose that the art be randomly interspersed with the ads, varying between a rate of 1/3 art to 2/3 ads and 2/3 art to 1/3 ads, depending on, perhaps, time of day.

This would be a great way to expose transit passengers to art, while also building ad revenue to offset the costs of operations for transit agencies — not to mention supporting the local art community.

Tri-Met’s Westside Light Rail tunnel offers a couple of miles worth of unspoiled subway-wall real estate where such an installation could be an instant hit. I’m particularly fond of this idea, because it is the only significant tunnel on Tri-Met’s system (not to say that this technology couldn’t also work in some of the other, shorter tunnels), and would offer a premier showcase for both ads and art to Portland-area commuters. Plus, Tri-Met already has a Percent for Art program, so the concept of building this into a new advertising contract should not be new to them.

This is an exciting new 21st-century technology and medium for communications. Let’s not waste it all entirely on just commercial content.

Let’s make sure there’s a percentage for art.

19 responses to “Tunnel Vision”

  1. Multiple programmable LED screens visible from BART in underground tunnels? In the Bay Area? It’s hacker (the good kind) central down there. I’m not sure that the agencies realize what they’re in for!

    – Bob R.

  2. Another great example is the trains which shuttle travelers between the concourses of Denver International Airport. All these features are artwork pieces. Some are simply pinwheels which turn from passing trains. Some are more ornate such as axes to reflect Colorado’s Gold Rush era. I would love to see something similar happen here. It would remind me of home.

  3. Advertising is art. Does anybody think that art in its purest form does not also send or imply messages?

  4. A minor pet peeve of mine: there is no “Portland Transportation Department.” There are no “departments” in city government. There is an OFFICE of Transportation.

    I can’t believe how common this mistake is; in a recent City Club speech, Mark freaking Rosenbaum called it the “Department of Transportation.”

  5. I really like the above ground view of the streets, people, buildings that MAX offers downtown…hence my lack of enthusiasm for a subway. Put the motorists in a tunnel, subject them to art.

  6. a minor pet peeve of mine: there is no “Portland Transportation Department.” There are no “departments” in city government. There is an OFFICE of Transportation.

    Sure…but you can’t go around calling them “POOT” –or “POT”– can you? And “PDOT” sorta matches “ODOT.”

    Department, office…what’s the difference, anyway? I’d worry more about how the names have become more and more removed from common parlance, i.e Bureau of Buildings morphs (after Office of Planning & Development Review) into Bureau of Development Services.

    Even the Fire Bureau ain’t the Fire Bureau anymore. Now its Portland Fire & Rescue. The old Computer Services? How quaint. Try Information Technology.

  7. Yes, but they are still offices and bureaus, not departments. That is the only point I was making.

    The D in PDOT? It stands for PortlanD. No kidding.

  8. Grant-

    Wow, are you serious? I always thought, even while I worked there, that PDOT stood for Portland Department Of Transportation — even though the letterhead said Portland Office of Transportation. Never did figure out that it’s PortlanD Office of Transportation.

    How very curious! :-)


    I’m not proposing any new tunnels in this post. I’m referring to the existing tunnel underneath the West Hills.


    Advertising may be an art form, but do you seriously suggest that no art should be allowed that is not advertising?

  9. Garylnn, I wish I could give you more information, but your post reminded me about an interesting article I read a couple years ago about a guerilla artist who essentially did the same thing by painting repetitive images on Subway tunnel walls in NYC (Brooklyn I think) way back in the 70’s!!

  10. Garlynn asked: ”Advertising may be an art form, but do you seriously suggest that no art should be allowed that is not advertising?”

    I did not say that, however if you want an opinion, much of the overpriced junk and plop art that is paid for with set-a-side funds has no place on the streets of Portland. Scrap like the painted rusty discs on that were on the transit mall, some of the truly ugly spouting fire nozzle fountains also on the mall and the space crane on West Burnside across from the Powell’s Books huge out of compliance sign I would not call art and just take up sidewalk space. On the other hand, the animals around the Pioneer Courthouse, the Rainman in Pioneer Square, the new useful Clock in the Lloyd district and many of the real neon signs in Portland like the Portland Theater marquee are all truly beautiful. Maybe an attractive neon sign for Powell’s can be relocated on the space crane to actually make it look something like art and then the out of code hand painted looking sign can be torn down, but neither should be done with public funds or subsidies.

    As for a subway; that is where light rail through downtown should be located – maybe the bike lanes too!

  11. Grant –

    People are to be forgiven if they refer to the Portland Office of Transportation as PDOT, because the agency’s own web site has a navigation tab labelled “Inside PDOT”. :-)

    – Bob R.

  12. The “percent for art” isn’t new – look at the “Poetry in Motion” advertising cards on the busses, as well as the “Rear-View Mirror” history series. In fact, for awhile (wasn’t it early last year) there was hardly any advertising inside the busses, it was all poetry, art, or internal (TriMet) communications, although the ads have picked up – the poetry is still there.

    But installing LED signs inside the West Hills Tunnel? Who is going to pay for it? If it is at zero cost to TriMet and it generates revenue for the agency, go for it. Advertising doesn’t bring much money, but if there is zero cost then it can’t hurt. On the other hand, for the environmentalists, is this a good use of energy – lighting up a tunnel with ads? Or do the signs only illuminate when a train passes by?

  13. LED ads that illuminate only when a train runs by would probably use as much electricity as your cellphone on standby – maybe a couple of watts.

    Those parking lot halogens use what, 2-8 THOUSAND per bulb?

    I don’t think the environmentalists will mind.

  14. This sucks. Advertising intrudes into yet another once-peaceful moment of existence. Travel is made slightly more miserable for everyone. One more public space claimed by private industry. As an artist, my urge would be to smash such things, not beg for meager scraps of their beleagured eye-share.

    Someday soon we’ll need to create special preserves to protect the last remaining advertisement-free spaces, so our children can know what it’s like to enjoy a few moments of uninterrupted thought.

    Anyway, there’s already plenty of excellent art in the BART tunnels:

  15. Shh, don’t tell Seattle’s Mayor. He might want to resurrect the Alaskan Way Tunnel idea! He might get the idea that the advertising could make up the revenue gap. Although on a non-transportation related issue, his predecessor tried using ad-revenue to fund something, the City Council defied him, he vetoed it. Problem was, on the issue of those high-tech public toilets, at least 6 City COuncilmembers voted on principal against Mayor Shell’s idea. The City had an ordinance against more billboards in Downtown, they fought billboard baron Barry Ackerly’s attempts to get rid of it in court, twice, and won. They were not going to sell out because it was in the city’s favor. Turned out the company providing it had a scam going, they preffered selling advertising on the kiosks in exchange for giving the city their product for free. Now a politician standing on principal is rare these days. In the case of the veto, it was overidden. The city council has 9 seats, so 6 votes is enough to overide.

    I am not sure if I like the idea of TV ads in a subway tunnel, or a highway tunnel. In the case of the latter, drivers should be focussing on the road, not the walls.

  16. sorry, folks, that i cannot write to you at your email address but when you have to rely on the library to use the internet, then the default thingee kicks in and there is nothing i can do but this.
    i have the article about chris in front of me, its from the tribune feb 20, 2007. i would like to know when meetings are held where members of the public have some input. i ride bus, max or street car on average 3 times everyday and i have some very definite opinions about how to make things better, since i am convinced that the trimet people really dont care how many passengers they lose.
    how can i become active??? thanks, gail jacobson in SW

  17. Hi Gail –

    PortlandTransport maintains its own calendar that lists a number of meetings of interest from different agencies. You can access it here:


    (Make note of the Time Zone displayed at the bottom of the Calendar… under some circumstances, Google Calendar may show you a different time zone than Pacific Time.)

    For information on Portland Streetcar Citizens Advisory Committee meetings, see:


    For information on TriMet meetings, see:


    Best wishes,
    Bob R.

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