L.A. could see nearly 100 new digital signs. Anti-billboard groups plan to fight back

A digital billboard on Lincoln Boulevard with traffic streaming by.
A digital billboard on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice, in 2012. Digital billboards have long been a hot-button issue at City Hall. In 2002, the council sharply restricted the locations where new signs could go up.
( Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

L.A.’s biggest transit agency has long been in the advertising game, renting out space on its buses, trains and even elevators at its rail stations.

But now, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is looking to take those efforts to a new level by putting up as many as 93 billboard-size digital signs across the city — despite warnings from critics who say the rotating images will distract drivers and make the city uglier.

The agency’s transit communications and advertising program, approved last week by Metro’s board of directors, would bring digital signs to dozens of streets and freeways in downtown, the Westside, the San Fernando Valley and other areas.

The program has been billed as a way to make traffic move more smoothly by giving drivers public safety alerts and information on bottlenecks. It has the potential to generate $300 million to $500 million in advertising income over a 20-year span, Metro officials said.


Under the plan, seven out of every eight images on the digital signs would show advertising, said Holly Rockwell, a senior executive officer at Metro who oversees the agency’s real estate program. The ad revenue would be split 50-50 with the city of L.A., she said, with the proceeds going to pay for bus, rail and other transportation programs.

“It’s money coming from a private source, not from the taxes of taxpayers,” Rockwell added.

A Metro train arrives at the Westchester/Veterans station in Inglewood.
Metro is hoping to generate new income from digital billboards to pay for its operations.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Foes of the initiative contend that a barrage of new digital signs — many of them 48 feet wide, with images changing every eight seconds — will undermine the city’s existing restrictions on new digital billboards. L.A. streets, which had more than 300 traffic deaths last year, will become even more perilous for bicyclists, drivers and pedestrians, those opponents say.

“Changing digital images distract drivers, and distracted drivers cause accidents — accidents that kill, maim, injure,” said Barbara Broide, co-president of the Coalition for a Beautiful Los Angeles.

Metro’s environmental team reached a different conclusion, saying it found no correlation between the digital billboards they plan to install and traffic safety. The agency’s board, including Mayor Karen Bass, signed off on the environmental analysis of the sign program last week.


Backers of the Metro’s sign program said at least 2 square feet of existing non-electronic billboards would be taken down each time 1 square foot of digital signs goes up. That effort will “greatly reduce the total number of signs on Metro property while providing Metro passengers and the public with real-time information on travel conditions,” said Hugh Esten, spokesperson for City Council President Paul Krekorian, who serves on the agency’s board.

Opponents are contemplating a legal challenge. The political fight, Broide said, is moving to City Hall.

Critics and even supporters say the switch could add to an influx of homeless people and would cost $1 billion a year. Proponents believe legislative solutions can be found.

Dec. 7, 2022

Over the next year, city officials are expected to consider zoning changes that would determine how many of Metro’s proposed digital signs would be allowed — and what their hours of operation would be. That ordinance would go before the city’s planning commission, then to the mayor and City Council, said Nora Frost, a spokesperson for the Department of City Planning.

Under Metro’s plan, about a dozen sign structures would go up in and around downtown, including one at 4th and Hill streets near Grand Central Market and another in Little Tokyo across from the Japanese American National Museum. Some structures would have signs facing both directions, while others would be single-sided.

Councilmember Kevin de León, who represents much of downtown, declined Monday to endorse the initiative.

“Right now there are still too many factors in Metro’s proposed plan that leave me unsettled about supporting it, like details about signs that don’t face freeways or the impacts on high-injury network locations,” he said in a statement.


About a dozen sign structures are planned in the San Fernando Valley, including one near protected natural habitat in the Sepulveda Basin. Others have been proposed near Elysian Park north of downtown and the Ballona Wetlands on the Westside.

Environmentalists have voiced alarm in recent weeks over plans for a digital sign near a piece of property known as the Bowtie parcel. That property, not far from the Los Angeles River, is slated to be restored as parkland and natural habitat in the coming years.

Travis Longcore, co-chair of UCLA’s environmental science and engineering program, said light from a digital sign would disrupt natural habitat, causing migratory birds to veer from their paths and disturbing the sleep patterns of other animals.

“The city, the federal government and to some degree the county are investing millions of dollars to restore habitat in the L.A. River,” he said. “It is antithetical to then go ahead and blast it with huge television screens.”

Digital billboards have long been a hot-button issue at City Hall. In 2002, the council sharply restricted the locations where new billboards could go up, limiting them to sign districts. That law became the subject of a lawsuit, and four years later the council reached a legal settlement allowing two advertising companies to install hundreds of new digital signs.

The influx of brightly illuminated signs, some of them shining into people’s homes, sparked a neighborhood backlash. The city’s legal settlement was eventually struck down in court.


Metro officials say their environmental analysis found that light from its new digital signs would have a “less than significant” impact on birds and other forms of wildlife. And they contend that the program will serve the public by ensuring that scores of older, existing billboards are replaced by “modern” signs that use LED technology and have louvers to focus the light.

“The billboards we put up will have less of an impact on an area than the ones we take down,” said Rockwell, the Metro official.

Nevertheless, Metro’s environmental analysis also concluded that some of the new signs would have a significant and unavoidable effect on aesthetics, “substantially” degrading the visual character of the city’s non-urbanized areas.

The Los Angeles City Council voted 12 to 1 to give the joint venture Tranzito-Vector a 10-year contract to advertise on hundreds of bus shelters in exchange for installing and maintaining 3,000 such structures across the city.

Sept. 22, 2022

Some of the proposed signs would also have a significant impact on historic resources, including the 4th Street Bridge in downtown Los Angeles, the North Spring Street Bridge in Lincoln Heights and Little Tokyo’s business district, according to Metro’s analysis.

New digital signs would “impede visibility of and thus detract from the character-defining features” of those historic locations, the analysis said.

Some billboard foes question whether the agency could have pursued a better deal for the public.


Patrick Frank, president of the L.A. chapter of Scenic America, said he views Metro’s sign program as a “giveaway” to the outdoor advertising industry. Digital signs, he said, are several times more lucrative than the non-electronic ones that Metro plans to take down.

While digital billboards can show eight different images within a single minute, static billboards typically show the same ad for an entire month, he said.

Frank said Metro should have endorsed a more aggressive “takedown ratio,” requiring the removal of 10 square feet of existing billboards each time a single square foot of digital sign goes up.

Metro officials said they view the two-to-one takedown ratio as a minimum — and hope to remove a greater amount of billboard space in the coming years.

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LA Times Today: L.A. could see nearly 100 new digital signs

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