Ad-funded bus shelters

The Town of Arlington is seeking a deal with a private company to erect ad-funded bus shelters on Mass. Ave., Broadway, and potentially other main streets in town.

Cemusa shelter at Mass. Ave and Columbus (Cambridge)

The shelters might look like this one just over the Town Line in North Cambridge:

Arlington is in talks with Cemusa to provide and maintain bus shelters in exchange for a share of revenue from shelter advertisements.

The Spanish-based company operates similarly in cities around the world, including New York, Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge. The shelter above is a Cemusa shelter.

Plans like this inevitably raise questions. Is it right for the Town to fund a public service through advertising that enriches a private company? What kind of ads? Does Arlington even need bus shelters at all? And, where should we put shelters if we have them?

Advertising funds Cemusa’s shelters. Note dried mud.

Cemusa made a sales pitch at a public meeting last summer, promising bus shelters, bi-weekly inspections and cleaning, and a share of revenue to the Town.

On October 4, the Selectmen authorized negotiations with Cemusa for a 15-year contract. One unresolved issue, according to the Arlington Advocate, is whether to allow ads for alcohol. Here are the minutes of that meeting.

So, how do you feel about advertising? The Cemusa shelters have space for two advertising posters. The two ads at the North Cambridge shelter (located across the street from the Mobil station at Mass. Ave. and Route 16) are currently for government or nonprofit agencies: one for the Shelter Pet Project and the other for Making Home Affordable.

That could change, though. Ad choices would be at Cemusa’s discretion but governed by the MBTA’s advertising policies and the terms of any agreement inked with the Town.

MBTA shelter, Mass. Ave. and Churchill (Cambridge)

Cemusa shelter from the front is mostly clear glass

But, does this kind of capitalism belong in public space? As it happens, just a block away on the other side of Mass. Ave. there is an ad-free, 100%-government- funded alternative, also in Cambridge.

Cemusa clearly has the better design. It’s bigger and has a space for a T system map.

Its large glass panels and thin silver structural elements practically vanish. (Also, check out some of Cemusa’s other shelter designs.)

But presumably the Town of Arlington could buy a nice design, too, were it willing to pay for one.

One thing that clearly stands out, though, is that the Cemusa shelter is in much better shape.

Ad and maintenance free

True, it is spattered with mud, but the MBTA shelter is vandalized with paint and graffiti that no one has even tried to remedy.

The MBTA structure is older, but both have been around for years.

The difference is that someone maintains the Cemusa shelter.

The ad revenues provide a strong incentive to do a good job: Who would pay for ads in a dirty dilapidated bus shelter?

Call it a slam dunk or a pact with the devil, but ad-supported shelters work. In exchange for advertising, Cemusa will pay for the shelters and their maintenance.

Given Arlington’s precarious financial condition, that’s probably the only kind of bus shelters we are likely to see.

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