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The case against Metro advertising

Ed Wulfe isn’t happy with talk about Metro putting ads on buses and trains.

In the late 1970s, Houston voters overwhelmingly defeated a local referendum to allow ads on bus shelters. Soon after, Houston City Council banned all new billboards within the city limits, then extended the prohibition to the limits of the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. In the years since, Houston and Harris County have also created Scenic Districts with signage constraints and ongoing landscaping enhancement efforts.

As a result of these measures, the number of billboards in greater Houston has been reduced an astounding 84 percent over the past 30 years, from more than 10,000 to less than 1,500 – and the number continues to decrease. This dramatic reduction in visual clutter has been accompanied by infrastructure investments that further enhance Houstonians’ quality of life. For example, our city’s parks continue to grow and will become even better and more accessible in the years ahead, thanks to the overwhelming support of Houston voters in the most recent bond elections.

Given this extraordinary progress, it is very troubling that Houston Metro is now considering selling ad space on its taxpayer-funded bus and train fleet. The desire for new sources of revenue is understandable, but this should not occur at the expense of Houston’s visual environment. Paid advertising on the sides of buses would not only be unsightly; it would also create additional distractions for drivers, not to mention opening up our city to a variety of challenges relating to deciding who can advertise and what types of ads would be permitted.

For all of these reasons and more, advertising on the exterior of Metro’s vehicles is unacceptable and should not be allowed. Instead, Houston Metro should explore other revenue-generating opportunities that have fewer negative consequences. Options such as providing naming rights on park and ride facilities and selling advertising on the interior of buses should be considered, for example. I am also confident that Metro’s administrative and board leadership can find ways to reduce their operational expenses a minimal amount to offset any potential revenue sources from damaging advertising on the sides of buses.

See here for the background. I don’t share the concerns about ads on buses and trains, though I do concede that the occasional controversy about what does or does not get advertised is inevitable and unpleasant. But this isn’t a hill I want to die on. If there’s no objection to selling station naming rights, or to ads on the inside of buses and trains, then I’m fine with that. Giving up that small piece of revenue is worth it to avoid a fight and maintain goodwill. Let’s move forward with those things.

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  1. John says:


    I don’t pay for the Chron so I could not read the full piece. Do you know how much the revenue potential is.

    I do see this Chron article from December saying the station naming right is $10mm a yr (3% of the budget)

    Just trying to figure out if bus advertising would generate more (I would guess that it would)

  2. John,

    What that earlier article said was this:

    “Allowing advertising could generate up to about $10 million a year for the agency, which has a roughly $300 million operating budget.

    Limiting ads to corporate sponsorships, such as renaming routes or lines, and minimal branding might bring in about half that sum, according to analysts with the consulting firm IMG Worldwide.”

    So all ads would be $10 million per year, naming rights only would be $5 million, and I presume naming rights plus interior-only ads would be maybe six or seven million. Not a huge chunk of the budget as you note, but nothing to sneeze at, either.