Is this really an “info” pillar?

In the past couple of weeks, new “information” pillars have been popping up around town. But they don’t seem to be much about information — they are mostly advertising. The only information provided is a narrow strip in the support pole, facing the sidewalk. These strips currently consist of generic contact info, but will apparently be replaced by a map in the near future.

The size of these new pillars is reminiscent of the “mega-bins“, the garbage can pilot project five years ago that was rejected by the public and replaced by the consolidated street furniture contract now in place. The mega-bins were rejected because they blocked sidewalks and blocked the view of the road, and were designed more around maximizing advertising potential than providing a useful civic function.

It turns out that in July, City Council authorized Astral Media, which holds Toronto’s street furniture contract, to replace the previous “InfoToGo” model with this new info pillar design. Below is a graphic of the new (left) vs. the old (right) version. The old version conformed to a fairly standard info-pillar model similar to what can be found in many cities, a round shape with advertising on two sides and a wide space for information on the inside. The new one isn’t really a pillar at all, but rather a billboard whose primary focus is the ad space, with a much narrower space for information in the support post.

One ostensible reason for the change was that the electronic functions built into the old version didn’t work very well — but the electronics could easily have been removed without changing the design, so that doesn’t seem like much of an excuse.

A more significant reason is that the new design makes the advertising more clearly visible to both pedestrians and drivers, and puts it in a larger, more standard size — meaning that both Astral and the City can make more money off advertising (up to an estimated $1.2 million extra between them, although it’s not clear how much of that would go to the City).

Already, some of these new ad pillars have been placed by Astral in locations where they narrow the sidewalk, in violation of the city’s Vibrant Streets Guidelines (PDF). The City’s Public Realm Office has had to order some of them removed already. Here’s an example of one of the new pillars that is too big for its location, blocking part of the sidewalk on King St. E. outside George Brown College (photo courtesy of Gord Brown).

Pedestrian activist Gord Brown, who alerted me to these new info pillars, also notes that the Vibrant Streets Guidelines state (p. 40):

The design of new street furniture must demonstrate appropriateness for its intended use, not as a venue for advertising. This means the public must be able to recognize the functionality and use of the elements. The size and scale of amenities should not be increased in order to accommodate larger advertising faces.

These new info pillars don’t appear to conform to these guidelines.

The proposal to change the design also notes that the pillars could be used without the advertising section, as pure info stations — but they are not designed with that as the primary purpose, as evidenced in the fact that the “i” signalling an info station is only visible dead-on, not from a distance along a sidewalk. They could perhaps be turned sideways if used solo, but the long thin design means you’d have to squat to read some of the information at the bottom. It would be much better to design an info/wayfinding system first, then develop the advertising function on top of that (an option that was proposed by Councillor Janet Davis in July but voted down).

Councillor Adam Vaughan, who was the other of the two councillors who voted against the proposal in July, reports that he has already heard complaints about them from citizens and BIAs, and he intends to try to reverse the decision.

This situation is a good example of the kind of thing that citizens’ committees can help to avoid. If this awkward and problematic design has been presented to the Pedestrian Committee, or otherwise been presented for public consultation in some way,  it would certainly have been rejected, and perhaps a better solution would have emerged.

42 comments

  1. Holy crap these are awful. How could anyone think this is good for the City.

  2. I hate these advertising pillars. I’m glad that they do intend to put maps on them to make them half useful, but they are still ugly and the actual function is clearly an afterthought.

    I was just thinking about them on my walk to work this morning and mentally drafting an e-mail to my councillor about them. I’m glad that Spacing has written this article. Hopefully it can generate enough of a dialogue to get them replaced by something more functional and better looking for our streets.

    Toronto deserves better!

  3. I’d like to see the advertisement
    get the smaller panel and the 
    neighbourhood panel get the larger
    panel.

    A simple transposition, then.

  4. Just like with the Sam the Record Man sign and Ryerson, developers / businesses promise the world and then fail to deliver on most if not all of those promises. But in the end, they still get to build/post signage / etc… and us residents are always the ones who lose out.

  5. Just terrible. I’ve seen these abominations on Dundas W and had no idea they were Info pillars. I remember thinking, “oh, another billboard in Toronto, a shame it has to be placed on the sidewalk.”

  6. I was shocked at seeing these billboards for the first time last time I visited. They are so huge, and their “info” fig leaf so small.

    How big are the billboards? 3′ by 5′? So that’s 30sqft. of advertising per pillar. How much room for “info”? 1′ by 5′?

    So right out of the gate, there’s a 6:1 ratio of advertising to info space. But of course the advertising space is arranged to intercept the street’s sight lines, so the weighted ad to info ratio is even greater.

    I’m a timid, respectful guy, but on seeing these monstrosities visions of spray paint and whitewash danced through my head.

  7. Don’t see the big deal. Save your indignation for the *thousands* of posters (read: ads) placed illegally on poles and other street furniture across the city. Those are the much bigger eyesore.

  8. I walk past the George Brown sign daily & didn’t realize it was for information. I just thought it was a stupid sign. Thousands of students walk this spot daily, many at the same time. Bad idea, worse placement.

  9. Wow, really bad. I mean, we do live in a Blade Runner world and giant ads are present in all major cities now, but why does Toronto still manage to screw up basic, simple, commoditized street furniture that is virtually an automatic setup anywhere else?

    I supposed one reason is that Toronto’s sidewalks really are more narrow than those in broad-shouldered American cities. But there are ways to solve this – check out this image of a “city information panel” by JCDecaux in Hollywood — the panel has two sides, one an ad and the other city information. (A 1:1 ad to info ratio) It is angled so that it faces traffic without clobbering the sidewalk.

    http://www.jcdecauxna.com/sites/default/files/assets/street-furniture/images/property/0807_la_jurney_is_the_cent1.jpg

    What Adam Vaughan should press for is to keep these installations but to angle them at 45 deg to cut down on the sidewalk pinching, and to turn the entire sidewalk side (and the pillar for good measure) over to city information. This would be an acceptable outcome that still lets the media company do the business they need to do to pay for the other non-revenue street furnishings.

  10. Couldn’t agree more. These are horrendous. Add nothing to the street. And really, how difficult is it to come up with a map BEFORE installing these “info” pillars. It’s a map, for god’s sake.

  11. Also, the idea of an “info” pillar is obsolete. Locals never needed them, and soon most tourists will have smartphones anyhow!

  12. Ugh, these are so poorly designed, and truly disruptive to the streetscape. Disappointing as usual.

  13. It could be worse. They could have put the “info” area on the street side.

  14. Where is a good graffiti artist when you need one?

  15. As is mentioned above, contact your city councillor and complain directly about these billboards in “info pillar” clothing. Be specific. They are terrible in and of themselves but by providing specific complaints you’re supplying reasons for removing them faster. If the pillar is also in a BIA, contact them, too. And always cc 311 @ toronto.ca if you’re expressing your concerns via email.

  16. Stu — I disagree. I’d rather see grassroots-level posters on utility poles than these ugly things any day.

  17. These new “info pillars” are about the only place I would like to see gummed up with Dr. Jamie’s giant “Your Ad Here” posters (instead of all over parking meters, poles, signal boxes, post boxes and anything else he doesn’t own).

    I haven’t seen any in my ward yet, but the first one I saw was on Dundas at Ossington, in the Little Portugal BIA.

  18. Stu: I couldn’t care less about posters on street poles around the city, for two reasons:

    1) The poles are doing something useful for the public: holding up a street lamp or a streetcar wire.
    2) The poles don’t block 5 feet of the sidewalk.

  19. If these were not designed as venues for advertising, then they’ve clearly failed. All anyone can see walking towards one of these is the advertisements. If I was a tourist to the city, the last thing I would do is go up to one of these for information.

    It’s obvious the designer of these pillars had one intention only and that was to maximize the advertising space. If that’s the case, then Astral and the City should come out right and say that’s what they’re doing instead of piggybacking off information pillars which are intended for tourists and could be genuinely useful.

    Perhaps it’s time for the “art” to return?
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/searchingfortao/tags/artattack/

  20. I emailed (infotogo@toronto.ca) about this, and their response was that the maps aren’t quite ready, and they needed to install the pillars while the weather was still above freezing. This makes sense to me, but it’s still not clear where the map is going (INSTEAD of the ad? It sounds as though this will be the case on some of them). “End of the month” is the expected map installation deadline. So…keep on this!

  21. Squawking at the local councillor may be a slow moving approach – directly contact the company being advertised and declare your intention to refuse to buy product from them until they stop obstructing the public sidewalk.

  22. To the commenter who complained about posters:

    When was the last time a poster blocked 50% of a sidewalk? When was the last time a poster blocked a mother and stroller or motorized scooter?

    Astral has gone around instaling these without the city’s or local councillors input. Public ream division staff have to chase down Astral and have them remove it.

    What this demonstrates is that Astral is potentially regretting the contract they were awarded because these pillars seem to be a desperate attempt for ad revenue. They were awarded the contract knowing full well that they couldn’t do these signs and then sneaked in this amendment without public consultations.

  23. Oh, great, more piece-of-crap “street furniture” that we’ll have to dodge, like Dick Van Dyke around the ottoman, on the already-too-narrow sidewalks of Danforth Avenue.

  24. @Bill Gaw: Sadly, I have to wonder if the companies have that much control over where Astral places their ads. 

  25. To me, the most important point of this post is that we need to stay on top of these sorts of city council agenda items *before* they are voted on.  I’m not sure if the councillors who voted against this alerted their constituents ahead of time.  I would gladly help to support a position at Spacing devoted to alerting us to opportunities to weigh in ahead of time on public policy issues that affect public space in Toronto!

  26. @ Lloyd Davis: As long as Astral received money from the product company or its ad agency, those clients reserve absolute control over how, where and when their brand is displayed.  And, those clients are very sensitive to public opinion when they hear it.

  27. I live near the George Brown ad and it infuriates me because the sidewalk is already too small for the number of people that fill the area during peak hours. With the new sign people practically have to walk by it single file. If anyone were to use the “info” part of that ad pole they’d be square in the middle of traffic. It’s a terrible idea and I can’t believe city officials have let it slide by without a thought.

  28. No… this is not really an “info” pillar… and by the same token, most of the Astral Media “transit” shelters are not really (except maybe in the metaphorical sense… and their garbage/recycling receptacles are a lot less practical than what they replaced. I’d say the contract with this group has been an outright disaster.

  29. These pillars are a huge safety concern.

    By the way the eastbound College bike lane curves as it passes through Bathurst, the newly installed pillar in front of Sneaky Dees blocks motorists’ view of bike traffic.

  30. irritating in your face billboard surfaces that obstruct the view
    reducing safety and increasing confusion.
    this has to be rejected outright

    maybe a drinking fountain post with posters would serve better

  31. I think what the anti- postering people were getting at is tat the posters are more of an eye-sore than the info pillars. Yes the pillars are as useless as anything, and in the way, but I would rather LOOK at one, than dozens ofold posters on top of one another. LOL at grassroots comment!

  32. I can safely say, without an ounce of hyperbole, that these are the stupidest things I’ve ever seen.

  33. Oh man.
    Thanks for writing a post on this.
    I can’t stand these new billboards!
    I noticed one on my ride to work the other day on College. They’re disproportionately large and so close the the road/bike lane. Very distracting. and no information!

    Just another example of the corporatization and privatization of our public space. I’ll be sure to write into my and other city counsillors.

  34. Great blog Dylan — thanks for presenting it so well.

    It’s more than a bit frustrating that Integrated Furnishings and the Vibrant Streets Guidelines were the result of an extensive public consultation process back in 2006 — with the sole focus of improving the pedestrian experience, the public realm AND ensuring we would never again see something as offensive as the Megabin billboard on Toronto streets. (Check out VSG for the full scoop).

    Despite this good foundation, Transportation Services and the Public Realm Office quietly steered the new billboards through PWIC and Council without public consultation — and even recommended a rushed schedule that would see the billboards installed this year as opposed to 2013 (as required by the contract).

    And the Public Realm Office did all of this while assuring Council that the new billboards met their Vibrant Streets Guidelines — which, as Dylan points out, it clearly doesn’t.

    It’s time to put the Public back in ‘Public Realm’. How about if we, and everybody we know, lets our councilors know that we want to see this deal put on hold, and we want public consultation into any such major changes to OUR public realm?

  35. I don’t mind some neighbourhood postering but my resentment goes up when it is mega-corporations doing it, like they couldn’t afford alternate means. And yeah, the ad pillars are way too wide for public sidewalks. Just how much money is the city getting from this anyway?

  36. These things are horrible.

    First noticed them on King St. East. The amount of pedestrian space that they take up is way too high. They are also going to be a distraction to drivers – just what we need. How long until they become pixel boards and start running full motion commercials? 

    A bad idea and a bad implementation. What’s wrong with a nice tree? Oh, yeah, trees don’t generate revenue and City Hall hasn’t found a way to tax oxygen yet.

  37. We’ve been programmed from birth to consume consume consume.. so the more we consume useless products the more money these companies have for advertisements. Due to inflation everything will always cost more money, and we as a society have been completely sucked into the ideas of wealth equals success.. so if advertising companies can make a couple million off a billboard now and people complain about it later, guess what they still keep that money. So why would they care, why would the city care either its just our taxes paying for it and we cant go without paying those.. right? Want a solution?? Stop consuming useless fashionable items that only serve to seperate and rate us by articles owned and get back to the old ways where we were judge on actions and not appearances. But hey.. we’ve been programmed to react and view advertisements as our loving mothers.. consume my product and you’ll be a better person, people will like you in these jeans. The problem with these “info” pillars is more our fault then the cities. They dont care how much space you have to walk to where our going to buy something, just that you buy their product on the way too. Its a triicky situation.

  38. If the Astral contract was supposed to generate revenue for the City, do the Councillors follow exactly where this revenue is spent?

  39. These are ridiculous and simply forcing more advertising into the faces of the public under the pretense of supplying a service. They restrict sidewalk passage. They block visibility of the road and ironically help to obscure storefront signage from people they are trying to help. 

  40. The pillar at George Brown on King Street has GONE. It was, apparently, making the sidewalk narrower than allowed and should never have been there!

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