Public Goods with Private Sponsorship

May 14, 2012 at 2:30 pm

One of the most interesting things I find on the homepage of New York’s new Citi Bike bicycle sharing program is the emphasis placed on its lack of public funding. It is great that the system of 10,000 bicycles spread over 600 stations is being paid for by the private sector… but at a cost.

New York’s Citi Bikes, covered with advertising

Milwaukee County bus literally wrapped in advertising

I understand that public transportation agencies have had difficulties with funding, but they shouldn’t go to such lengths to make some money. Even recently riding the L in Chicago makes me feel bombarded with advertisements: The Fullerton and Belmont stops are covered in advertisements for some sort of laundry detergent. These ads are on the trains, on the stairways, on the support poles, and even play on the station televisions. I don’t believe that transportation users should be bombarded with these advertisements so often.

Paris’ Vélib bikes and payment station – no advertising

I understand as well that bicycle sharing is coming during a recession and that we have to find a way to pay for it. Some have made the point that Paris’ bicycle-sharing system is paid for privately, but it is not as obnoxious as New York’s. The difference is that JCDecaux, a French advertising firm, pays for the enormous system in exchange for advertising rights on several city billboards. There is no advertising on any of the bicycles or stations. New York’s system is being paid for privately as well, but the exchange is the company’s logo slapped all over the bikes and the stations. The trend isn’t unique to the States: Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare does not feature advertising on the bikes either.

I will not be using Citi Bikes, and I hope that Chicago’s upcoming bicycle sharing network will take a cue from D.C. and not slap advertising all over the system. Chicago is also the city that proposed allowing companies to buy the naming rights to its L stations, so I’m not hopeful. Public spaces such as buses, trains, and stations should not be turned to private control because of budget shortfalls that the private sector has largely engineered themselves by dodging taxes through loopholes. We should not allow corporations to completely buy out our transportation infrastructure.