New Yorkers are used to squinting up at signs that spell out the city’s myriad parking regulations — no standing, no stopping, no parking during alternate side regulations. Even for the roughly 55 percent of New York households that don’t own a car, the thousands of parking signs scattered around the city are part of the ubiquitous backdrop of urban life.
Lately, though, Department of Transportation parking signage has been contributing to another increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon: the use of public space for advertising and corporate promotion.
The signage comes courtesy of a new two-year pilot program that has taken 285 city parking spaces scattered across every borough but Staten Island out of public circulation and reserved them for vehicles from the car-sharing companies Zipcar and Enterprise CarShare, which allow people to rent cars by the hour. The parking signs for these newly designated spots, which went up in early June, read “Carshare Parking Only, Others No Standing Anytime” in the DOT’s familiar typeface — but they’re also emblazoned with the corporate logos of the two companies, an apparently unprecedented development for city traffic signage. (A DOT spokesperson did not respond to repeated Voice inquiries about the signs.)
The idea behind the city’s car-share parking program is that many New Yorkers who own cars only use them for occasional errands or to visit Mom out on Long Island every other Tuesday. These drivers may be willing to sell their cars, and thereby avoid all the hassle and expense of parking, maintenance, gas, and insurance — while possibly reducing the number of cars on city streets, as people may also opt to use mass transit once they no longer own cars — if they have access to a car-share service.
Until now, car-share companies have housed their fleets in large parking garages, many of which are inconveniently situated. The new dedicated car-share parking spots are designed to allow some of these cars to be “stored” curbside, which in turn will make it easier for people to use a car-share vehicle — and, the city hopes, get more people to give up full-time car ownership. If that works out during the two-year trial period, the program will be expanded to an unspecified larger number of spaces in 2020.
All of that sounds like a worthy goal. But couldn’t it have been achieved without putting the corporate logos of two for-profit companies on the signs? The parking spaces are company-specific, so the businesses’ names need to be shown on the signs, but couldn’t that have been done in the DOT’s standard typeface? As it stands now, the signs essentially give the city’s municipal imprimatur to corporate advertising.
It’s part of a larger problem of ad-free space disappearing from our lives, as every available surface or asset becomes a conduit for corporate branding. The city’s transportation system has been particularly fertile ground for this type of ad creep. Our bike-share program doubles as a promotional campaign for Citibank, and last year Governor Andrew Cuomo and the MTA floated the idea of selling off naming rights to subway stations. These public/private comminglings are invariably described as “sponsorships” or “partnerships” — friendly-seeming terms that suggest comity rather than commerce — but they’re really just another form of advertising.
These forms of corporate-branded municipal advertising can quickly become a self-reinforcing habit. Case in point: Domino’s Pizza recently announced that it would provide funds for towns to fill potholes — provided they used a Domino’s-branded truck and spray-painted a Domino’s ad onto each filled hole. The city manager of a Delaware town defended his decision to accept the Domino’s deal, explaining, “Delaware prides itself on being a low-tax state, a policy that has attracted residents who expect excellent services with few, if any, tax increases.”
Granted, it’s more than a few steps from a Zipcar logo on a parking sign to pizza-branded infrastructure repair, but it’s all part of the same continuum of creeping corporatocracy. If you’re going to sell off naming rights to subway stations, why not do the same to Central Park, or the Manhattan Bridge, or City Hall?
I realize this all sounds like a lot of crankiness over a fairly small thing, and I also realize that the car-share program has its virtues. But there’s a reason we have zoning laws to restrict where businesses can have a presence, and there’s a reason we regulate where billboards can appear. It’s because we understand that there’s a difference, and often a gap, between business interests and the public interest. It’s hard enough to maintain the wall of separation between the two without DOT signage chipping away at it.