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.

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