Seattle’s street furniture is so silly

I’m on the west coast doing some travelling and I can’t help but notice how strange some of these cities are. For example, you may find this hard to believe but there is absolutely no advertising on the bus shelters in Seattle or Portland.

How silly. What a waste of potential revenue for their cities. I can’t begin to understand why their politicians would pay money for these things, when you can get them for free from companies like CBS or Astral Media. Even stranger, the shelters in these cities have unique designs and patterns.

I think Toronto’s shelters are much easier to locate and identify because they look the same as other ad-funded shelters in other cities. This is especially useful for tourists.

But it gets even sillier. I don’t know what they put in their coffee in Seattle, but the braniacs at the transit company have decided to put art on their shelters. First they refuse ads which could make money, and then they turn around and cover the shelters with art. It’s sad, really. Who elects these people? And it’s not even real art. Most of the work is done by children. Children! It looks like that silly “art attack” stuff you see in Toronto sometimes. My god.

But no, it doesn’t stop there. Both Seattle and Portland have information pillars, with maps and transit info clearly facing the sidewalk.

Toronto’s info pillars are much more interesting because the information always changes; Botox one day, pantyhose the next day. And the maps are hard to find in Toronto because they are hidden on the back on the pillars. This is a brilliant strategy to foster problem-solving skills in our workforce.

It’s hard to be away from home. I get homesick sometimes. I get scared being surrounded by a culture that doesn’t value basic things like putting money back into the pockets of taxpayers. I can’t wait to get back to Toronto, where city councillors understand that I’d rather save a dollar a year and have informative advertising at my bus stop and in my parks.


  1. Those crazy cities even get money from a national transit strategy AND are able to levy taxes on things that grow with the economy. It’s insanity out there, folks.

  2. Come on Mez, quit making things up! It’s enough to tell tall tales, but where did you find those movie-set pieces for that German Ostalgia film that came out a while back????

  3. Even though Shawn is half-joking, he’s identified the problem perfectly.

    we’ve somehow allowed the notion of “world class” to be defined as commercial, shiny, branded and “coordinated”.

    I was at an art-walk in Portland last week where buskers, artists and performers had set up dozens of little spots along the sidewalk. It was unsanctioned, unshiny, non-commercial, diverse, unbranded and a huge success. Bands, glass blowers, mime dudes and dancers. The sidewalks were mobbed, the local cafes and restaurants were full and there were no cops or bylaw enforcers around. This would never be allowed in Toronto.

    let’s start a movement for a World Class, top-tier hippy city. Who’s on the bus? ; )

  4. no hippies! that could be worse than world class. What we need is to forget about the rest and be good to ourselves. fuck this inferiority complex.

  5. Are those photos up on flikr? Can you provide the link if they are?

  6. It is already too late for Toronto. The deal with Astral Media is in place for at least the next 20 years, so it pains me to see what true world-class cities like Seattle are doing. Why do we have such lame leaders in this country that are selling our country to commercial interests piece by piece? I just don’t understand it. Canada used to be a country of vision and ambition, what the hell happened?

    Let me post councillor Perk’s reason for voting for Astral Media deal:

    Hello Carlos,

    I agree that we need to make defending the public realm a priority. Since the attack on public expenditure by Paul Martin and Mike Harris we have had to struggle to protect public transit, public health, public libraries, and public space.

    Additionally, you may have noticed that as I mentioned in Council, the CRTC recently changed the rules to allow more advertizing per hour. The question for Torontonians then becomes how do we defend the public realm in the absence of proper investment from those governments which collect taxes that grow with the economy – income and sales taxes. We have been struggling to get ongoing provincial funding for a number of services including transit, public health. However we still spend well over 200 milliion/year on areas of provincial responsibility.

    The other complication is the mess left by the previous mayor. Toronto has a myriad of street furniture presently, some public, some private, some left over from pre-amalgamation municipalities. Some of the private contracts were disastrously negotiated and are not functional. There are unclear practices for how elements are placed on our streets. There is no co-ordinated approach or management of items placed on our sidewalks.

    Finally, the city issued a tender call prior to my election, while many of the issues listed above were addressed in the tender description, some issues were dealt less than ideally. Because of the legalities surrounding tenders the city is liable for massive damages if we substantially alter the terms.

    A word on illegal advertising. First, because the tender did not specify current advertising compliance we could be sued for the value of the contract if we added it in now. What we have done is allocate some of the revenue from the contract for more vigorous enforcement of all advertising.

    Much of the revenue from this contract is being allocated to creating broad public realm improvements. The intent is to keep as much money within the public realm as possible.

    Other benefits include combined newspaper boxes. Reduced numbers of advertising sites. Rules ensuring that there will be only one add at each location. Rules which make astral responsible for cleaning and maintenance. Rules that make them responsible for removing and replacing the current mess over time. The contract lays out a series of penalties and guarantees that were not built into the contracts adopted by former Mayor Lastman.

    In the end I choose these improvements to the public realm over lawsuits and the current mess which would worsen as time went on because we would have no funds for improving the situation. We also developed some instructions for staff to make improvements as part of the final negotiations. I should note these instructions could not deviate too far from the terms of the tender.

    In the end my choices were: vote for some small but significant improvement to the public realm or make a stand against any private intrusion to the public realm. Had council voted to defeat the contract there would have been improvements, and no revenues.

    Finally, because I know we must do much better, I want to see the day when there is no advertising on public streets but for the reasons above I could see no way to achieve that. In the end I voted for some improvement over none and spoke out about the need to look for opportunities to do still better in the broader public domain in future issues.

    I spent considerable time discussion this with public space advocates and found the issue very troubling. I hope you concur with my final decision and more importantly that we both continue to advocate for public space.

    Thanks for writing.


    Gord Perks
    City Councillor
    Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park

  7. I like Gord a lot, and really respesct the work he has done for Toronto, but that letter is ridiculous. It’s all spin, developed by the mayor’s office.

    The reality is this:

    There is nothing wrong with street furniture that is uncoordinated. The entire concept was created by the ad industry. Most of TOronto’s furniture is fine and doesn’t need replacing. What we need is more garbage cans, and the city never even bothered to find out how much it would cost to buy some. It’s nothing less than complete incompetence.

    They can spend millions on foolish projects like redesigning nathan phillips square (read: new front lawn for city councillors) but don’t have millions for new garbage cans.

    And if they needed some ad revenue to pay for the furniture, why did they ask for hundreds of millions in additional revenue on top of that? They could have made the project revenue neutral and had much less advertising. None of their arguments add up. It was a total sell-out.

    As for the arguments about Harris and Martin and Lastman, those make me the most angry. The fanatic right wingers have cut taxes and cut services for years now, and we need politicians who are going to stand up and put forward a different ideology that believes in collective public investment. If progressive city councillors can only throw up their hands and say “we’re broke, sorry”, then they are allowing themselves to be pawns of the Common Sense Revolution. How inspiring.

    And what about hope? Do Miller and Perks assume that we’ll never fix the financial situation? That downloading costs will never be restored? That Toronto won’t get better taxing powers? (or have the guts to use the ones they’ve been given?). If not, why sign a 20 year contract? Now we’re stuck with this corporate crap on every corner for two decades. Every vote for that deal was a vote against public space.

  8. Just to be fair, I do not think “co-ordinated” street furniture is necessarily bad and I don’t think it was invented by the ad industry.

    In the design world, consistency is key — this is both a financial and aesthetic concern. Amsterdam and Stockholm have co-ordinated street elements that are attractive but aren’t a P3-funding model — they are paid by taxpayers alone. But these elements are built of the same material and colour, but take on various shapes and adjust to the local site.

    I don’t think we should confuse good design with the philosophical differences we have with the funding model. Co-ordinated street furniture design can be flexible and allow for site-specific customization — having the ability to use window etchings or local kids decorate a shelter (as shown above) would be a good start, or having a modular design that allows for expansion.

    Probably where the design and funding controversy overlap is when priorities are set — whose needs come first: citizens or advertiser? We know the answer, but outrightly trashing co-ordinated design is like saying its okay to have 15 different fonts in a magazine and no continuity of graphic design from section to section.

    While we’ve lost the battle on how the project is funded, we can certainly make strong cases to improve the designs and make sure they are citizen-friendly. This should be the obivous starting point, I realize, and I wish we didn’t have to fight just to get info pillars to face *onto* the street, but such is life when it comes to Toronto’s streetscape.

  9. Something can be coordinated, without being made of the same material and colour.

    Think of fashion, or interior design. In a well decorated room, is everything made of the same material? Is a well-dressed person someone who is wearing the same colour and material from head to toe?

    Street furniture could be co-ordinated organically, over time, with each new purchase adding a new element that compliments the current inventory on the streets. Over the years, styles would change and older elements would be removed.

    The idea of replacing everything with a brand new coordinated and consistent design would appeal only to those who can make a buck off of it. It’s absurd.

    In fact, the title “Coordinated Street Furniture Program” did not exist before 2001 and has only been used in the context of justifying ad deals. (Boston, Vancouver, Philly, Toronto, etc)

  10. “Is a well-dressed person someone who is wearing the same colour and material from head to toe?”

    yes. Gowns, dresses, mou-mous, etc. Or today I’m wearing all cotton (no shoes since I’m working at home).

    Yes, something can be made of the same material and be co-ordinated and be attractive. These bollards (above) appear all over Amsterdam in a variety of sizes and colours but they are all cast-iron and are an emblem of the city. They are used in a variety of different ways: a water fountain in a square, lamp posts. It is a consistent design element repeated throughout Amerstdam’s streets that is one of the most co-ordinated things I’ve ever seen in a city. It was invented in the early 1900s. Co-ordination, and design consitency, is nothing new. I also think we have to realistic and expect a level of standarization when it comes to mass production — its simple economics, and I don’t think that is the real problem we face in Toronto. The funding model for street furniture is the problem, much more so than the design.

    I want to see a variety of shelters and garbage bins and proper info pillars, and they should be sensitive to local surroundings. But we shouldn’t expect to have 10 or 20 different shelters on top of the 3 or 4 that are already on the streets. Benches, on the other hand, should come in as many different shapes and sizes; historical parts of town should have street furniture that reflects the area’s colonial past (St. Lawrence Market area, for example).

  11. I think we should force TTC riders to flip through mini ad books while they are riding the TTC. Booklets with no content, only ads (imagine a slightly watered down version of the Toronto Sun or Metro).

    Why should they be allowed to stare off blankly into space when they could be viewing the latest and greatest consumer goods available for purchase.

    The TTC has a funding deficit..everyone must be made to do their part!

  12. Matthew – you need to let other people’s opinions have some breathing space on this site. As soon as someone posts a comment that you dont’ agree with you jump all over it instead of letting the community discuss and play with new ideas. When site owners control the flow of comments too much people lose their interest and stop tuning in.

    Mex raised some interesting points that you’ve effectively buried.

  13. I’ve made three comments out of 13. His points aren’t effectively buried — they are still there for anyone, including you, to address. This is probably the only subject that I will get involved with in the comments section. Sorry you feel this way, but the conversation is still open and you could’ve used the space above to say your bit.

  14. BGM >

    For some perspective, do you mind if I come to your work and tell you how to do your job?

  15. Also for bgm:

    That “Mex” who’s raising those interesting points isn’t some newbie reader, he’s Dave Meslin, the guy who posted the original post we’re all commenting on and the founder of the Toronto Public Space Committee and one of the original founders of Spacing.

    I, for one, am finding it interesting to read Matt and Mez, those old roommates, work various angles on this. Both of them know what they’re talking about and if, at some point I want to chime in with my own opinion, it’ll be partly informed by my perception of their debate.

    Carry on, gentlemen, please. Or shall I rent a pool of jello so you can settle this like men?

  16. My bad. I thought Mez was just a visitor and was wondering why Matthew was so keen to keep challenging some interesting points before others had a chance to respond. When I’ve seen this happen on other sites, the sense of community suffers because people get intimidated and are afraid to chime in. I just didn’t want to see that happen here.

    Apologies for disrupting a discussion that’s sorely needed.

  17. First off, Matt, that picture from Amsterdam that you posted, well… it’s obscene.

    Second point, on the hippies: at least they are coordinated, better than most. Same can be said for the squegee punkies at Bathurst and Queen, one of whom I just saw being handcuffed in front of the reverb, whose crime, one suspects, was not fitting in.

    Third: the most salient point Gord Perks makes is the fear of litigation, which begs the question that Mez has asked in various fora: who runs this town?! The lawyers? The bureaucrats? Or the Town Council? Looks like the Mayor (also a lawyer) ought to get his own counsel and make sure he doesn’t commit our City to promises that we don’t intend to make, or that we don’t want in the first place. To wit, maybe Mr. Perks ought to do the same thing.

    Number Four: (Required Reading) Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski’s “In Praise of Inconsistency” (1958). The only thing consistent about the Coordinated Street Furniture Program is its logic–which is, as Matt correctly points out, driven by economics, which we all know is about as consistent as…

    Point the Fifth: I move to change Mez to Mex. Mez, who was recently annointed as “gadfly” by none other than Globe and Mail columnist John Barber. Really? Mex, a gadfly (a person who persistently annoys or provokes others with criticism, schemes, ideas, demands, requests, etc.)?! Mais non!

    (In French now) “Point Six”: Matt digs consistency, but NOT for benches. Pluralism for benches, but not for shelters and garbage cans and info pillers. That is so exquisitely inconsistent that it reaffirms my faith in Spacing Magazine(I was starting to think that it had lost its “edge”).

    With love and Praises,


  18. I’ll echo Ed on that. This debate is good. It’s lack of debate that got us into this mess in the first place. Top-down decision making by leaseders who consistently make bad decisions and then apologise for it later, or cover it up with bullshit spin.

    I want to repond to Matt’s last post but I’m rushing between meetings in San Fancisco! I’m meeting up with bicycle advocacy groups along the west coast. That’s for a another post…

    I will quickly say that over the last few hours I have seen hundreds of people on the streets of san Francisco and none of them were wearing gowns.

    Gowns and mono-colour dresses are not great examples of how “coordination” is needed. People rarely wear either, adn when they do they try and look unique and stand out from others. Applying Matt’s response to my fashion metaphor, a David Miller formal ball would look more like an army drill or private school Assemby. Everyone would be wearing the same gown, so they would be co-ordinated.

    People don’t like their bodies, or their streets to look perfectly uniformed. Not only do people wear differnent dresses and gowns to parties, it’s actually considered to be embarrassing if people are wearing the same thing, ie: “Coordinated:.

    But seriously, this gown argument is pointless. of course you can look good or dress. But the point is that you can also look good in jeans and sweater. Diffrent colours and materials can look fine together. That’s the question; Was toronto’s streets really in crisis? Were we really in need of a Coordinated Street Furniture Program to solve the aesthetic crisis on our streets? Or was the real motivation just dollars?

    I’m putting forward the argument that there never was a problem. We needed new garbage cans. The city didn’t want to pay for them. Councillors were blinded by dollar signs and misleading info from the Mayor’s office. They went even further and turned the sidewalks into a source of revenue, selling the mindshare of their own constituents.

    There are many arguments in favour of taking a coordinated approach to street design. But was it needed? was it needed NOW? That is the argument coming from Miller’s staff thru form letters being sent out by assistants to Councillors. “We had to do this, we didn’t want to, it’s not our fault, sorry”.

    Remember, the spin on Street Furniture is coming from the same people who were championing the Monter Bins two years ago as a wonderful addition to public space. They were wrong then, they’re wrong now. Except this time, we’re stuck for 20 years.

    damn, I’m late for a meeting….

  19. “I’m putting forward the argument that there never was a problem. We needed new garbage cans. The city didn’t want to pay for them”

    Hmm, you say there wasn’t a problem but the city did need new garbage cans and is pretty much broke. So, as you know they could choose to pay for them from the tax base with no ads or get them for free with some ads – on about half the items.

    Most people would agree that the megabins were overboard with ads and innappropriate, but to have about half of street furniture with ads and get the rest for free with no ads plus the bonus of regular revenue to fund more important programs is good economics.

    The street furniture deal also keeps the city from having to hire more overpaid unionized maintenance workers that drain our city’s pathetically low resources.

    Surely you don’t believe the crap benches currently out there and the crap shelters in Etobicoke and Scarborough (even the ones with no ads) are attractive. Of course, many TPSC members never leave the downtown to see the horrible array of street furniture in the rest of Toronto.

  20. Hi Hinley,

    You and I have already discussed (and agreed to disagree on) most of the points you brought up, but I’d like to address one thing:

    “Of course, many TPSC members never leave the downtown to see the horrible array of street furniture in the rest of Toronto.”

    While that’s indeed true of most TPSCers, I’d like to state on the record that I live in the Yonge and York Mills area and walk by almost every type of Toronto street furniture (an info pillar, a Viacom shelter, a SilverBox, and two “crap benches”) on my short, daily strolls to and from the subway.

  21. Um, I was trying to second Malcolm’s motion to change “Mez” to “Mex”. But I guess I accidentally also typed the code for the cloak of invisibility.

  22. Sorry about my post yesterday. It was full of missing words, typos and lousy grammar. I was borrowing an office computer during work hours and I had just eaten a piece of chocolate cake so I was experiencing a sugar rush. I am now on my own computer and I have eaten nothing today.

    You can change my name to Mex. When I lived on Benson with Matt our neighbours were an older italian couple and Sylvia (one half of the couple) called me Mex. We never bothered to correct her. You can call me anything you want. Names in use right now include dave, david, mez, mezzlie, bean, Flying Squirel Boy, skooter, smeagol, smeag, mezcladito, mezzo, mezzito, stupid-head and senator metzger.

    Hinley, I’ll just re-state my point that the city never even bothered to find out how much it would cost. I don’t believe for a second that it would cost me more than $12 per year to pay my share of a fully public funded garbage can program. That’s a dollar a month. We throw money at food and entertainment without blinking, but a dollar for the government. Robbery! In reality, it’s the best way to spend your money. That’s the beauty of collective purchase, the beauty of society, the beauty of government. It’s the key argument that has been lost in the last two decades of political debate. Taxes are not a burden. They are a wonderfully efficient way to get bang for your buck. They collect a few dollars from everyone, and give you back millions of dollars worth of infrastructure and services for public use.

    I should also mention the “Advertisation” argument, which is this: Where do think the “free” garbage cans come from? Do they grow on trees? The revenue comes from advertising buyers, who get the revenue from companies who want to advertise, who get the money from: you. Company’s marketing budgets have grown enourmously over the past decade. That is an extra fee being charged on everything you buy, to pay for their ad campaigns. These companies have so much extra money in their ad budgets now, that they can approach governments and offer to pay for public infrastructure projects. So you get a “free” garbage can, and your “taxes” stay low, but in the end you paid for the garbage can either way. One way you pay a tax bill, the other way you pay at the cash register. In fact, you pay more for the ‘free’ cans than you used to pay for the ‘oh my god i hate the tax burden’ cans. because ad cans cost much more to operate. every time you shop at Pizza Pizza, or use Re-max, rent a video game, see a movie, or purchase whatever products that are being advertised, you are paying an extra hidden fee that is funding your new free bus shelters and info pillars and garbage cans and benches. Really what it is, is a privatisation of taxation. The idea that a private company could collect a few dollars from everyone and give it back to the public as million-dollar infrastructure, covered with ads, and call it “free”, is insane. We’re all a bunch of suckers.

    Now, Matt’s comment about comparing ourselves to other cities. “What we need is to forget about the rest and be good to ourselves. fuck this inferiority complex.” I understand where he’s coming from, I really do. I try to stay positive in my work and my outlook and hate the well-deserved stereotype that activists are just complainers. But let me refer to the thesis of my Trampoline Hall lecture two years back. I spoke about the “half full/half empty” metaphor and argued that it’s backwards. Optimism and pessimism are not a measure of your perception on the present, but rather a measure of your perception of the future. If there was no future, and we were stuck with whatever we have now, than the person who sees the cup as half full is the optimist. But, there is a future. Activists and dreamers are those who see the cup full. How do you get the cup to be full? By aknowlodging that it is half empty, focussing on the empty half and working towards filling it. Those who are content with the cup remaining half full are simply apathetic. That is what’s wrong with our political culture. We equate complacency with optimism, and hope with complaint.

    Toronto has some good things, and also much room for improvement. Let’s celebrate our strengths and then get down to business and create the city we want. We are really behind, in a lot of areas, compared to other cities. Comparing ourselves isn’t an inferiority complex, is just an aknlowledgement of inferiority. That’s the first step towards growth and change. That doesn’t mean Toronto is inferior as a whole. It means that our waterfront is. Our bike infrastructure is. Our street furniture is. Our electoral system. Our food vending policy, whatever. I could list a million things. As long as we’re comparing and criticising in tandem with celebrating what we do like, I think it’s really healthy.

    Great example: Art Attack. Art attack is a really fun way to make a political point. It gets people out on the street, making art, meeting each other, all while getting a political message out to the media. Great! I love it. Optimistic activism with a smile that doesn’t have a hint of complaining. But in the end, I’d rather have bus shelters like Portland’s that don’t have perfume ads that need to be covered with art. They’re already covered with art. Imagine a city where good ideas weren’t just part of activist campaigns, or hipster magazines, they were actually policy. Let’s build those elevated bike tubes.

    That brings me to the “hippy” thing. The great thing about hippies (other than the pot, music, being sex-positive and the cool vans) was that they weren’t scared to dream. Toronto’s political culture lacks room for new ideas and creativity. The response I get from decision makers, over and over, including with Street Furniture, is a patronising smile and a comment like “Oh, that’s a nice idea mez, but we need to be realistic. There’s just no way we can do that.”

    Comparing Toronto to other cities that have more bike lanes, or are burying their expressways, or allow for a spontaneous art culture, or have art on their shelters, or whatever, is not an inferiority complex. It’s a response to the decision makers who say that none of these things are possible. It’s a fact-based way of saying “actually, our ideas aren’t foolish. They are practical and doable. And if you aren’t able to see that, to take a risk, to try something new, to open your mind, then maybe you should step aside and try another career that is more structured and less demanding”.

    I want leaders who can dream and facilitate creative change. I’m so sick of “we can’t do it. sorry.” We can do anything we want as a city. It’s our city.

  23. is this in Toronto? I didn’t think new Silverboxes were being installed. These were the original 1999 design by OMG (Olifas Marketing Group). They are designed horribly, built with cheap materials, poorly maintained and placed in ridiculous positions. Talk to your city councillor and make sure that the can is supposed to be there and that it is placed in the proper location/direction.

    sorry dude. full-wrapped SilverBoxes are a lousy thing to find on your doorstep.

  24. we got to re-take the presently highly commercialized Yorkdale with love and peace in beautiful colours

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