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.