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The battle for eyeballs at the bus stop

That's no mere ad at the transit shelter – that's part of the 'street furniture.'

Does street furniture mean anything to you? Does it suggest a disreputable-looking recliner left at the curb for pick up by the city (or whatever urban scavenger might come along sooner)? Is street furniture the little folding tables and stools used by the guys who sell incense (or whatever) outside the subway station? Is it what homeless people use to decorate their cardboard condos?

Well, no, street furniture is a city planner's term for benches, bus shelters, street signs, planters, streetlamps, mailboxes, and even traffic lights. Street furniture itself ranges from the decorative to the purely utilitarian. The term has been around since the 1940s, and has since drifted into the vocabulary of the kind of engaged citizens who show up at public hearings and write letters to the editor.

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But I knew street furniture was going mainstream when I saw it appear in the text of a two-page, full-color ad in BusinessWeek the other day.

And why so?

I suspect it's because the advertising industry has discovered it as an umbrella term to cover their billboards.

Here in the Boston area, a couple of big companies have cooked deals – one with the City of Boston and the other with the local transit system, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) – to provide bus shelters, pay toilets, and other amenities. Because this particular "street furniture" is covered in paid advertising, the revenues from which are split between the company and the public entity, the public entity – in theory at least – gets amenities for nothing, and a revenue stream, to boot. For a cash-strapped local government (is there any other kind?), what's not to love?

Thus the battle for eyeballs goes on, even at the bus stop. Look at our ads, and then we'll give you what you want free of charge: This is the business model behind various forms of free e-mail service, some new phone services, and even old-fashioned commercial broadcasting.

The industry has a wonderful term for these bus-stop ads – "out of home media," or "OOH," to the cognoscenti. (Maybe we're supposed to think, "OOH, what a good idea.")

The City of Boston's program of "coordinated street furniture" claims to be the first nationwide, but other cities have followed suit.

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Critics rail against "ad creep," the intrusion of commercial messages into the public sphere. Public transit systems are not virgin territory for the advertising industry, and this new program has provided bus shelters where there were none before.

But I do have to chuckle at the way the two big players in this game, WallUSA, which has the City of Boston contract, and Cemusa, which has the MBTA gig, have positioned themselves as being in the "street furniture" industry. Both have corporate parentage outside the United States, where street furniture seems to be a more common term.

In fairness, a bus shelter itself is exactly what a municipal wonk means by street furniture. But the billboard sneaks in on a technicality. It's furniture in the same sense that ketchup is a vegetable.

Street furniture, though, is trendy – not just the term, but the thing itself. When citizens' groups talk about beautifying their neighborhoods (or "cutifying" them, as a former boss of mine used to say) they often turn to street furniture as a way to do it. Thus, for example, a £7 million ($14.2 million) initiative is being launched to spruce up the London neighborhood of Camden Town – "to enhance the pedestrian experience and 'reinforce the Camden Town identity through the design of streets and spaces,' " as Design Week, a trade journal, reported, quoting the organizers of the effort. And new street furniture is definitely part of the program.

No wonder the makers of bus-stop billboards want a piece of the action. And at least they don't call them "street art."

I'd better sign off here. I'm going out for a pedestrian experience.


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