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Study: Digital billboards aren’t as green as you might think

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Dec. 20, 2010 at 6:34 pm |
December 20, 2010 6:36 pm

Last summer, we wrote about a City of Tacoma settlement with Clear Channel Outdoor to allow the company to replace scores of existing billboards with fewer digital ones, under an exchange formula hammered out by lawyers on both sides.

That settlement now hinges on the City Council’s actions to update an existing city ordinance that regulates billboards, and whether the council will implement the changes needed in city code to allow new digital billboards in Tacoma.

Last week, city staff outlined a tentative schedule for the ordinance update that factors in months of review by the council, the city’s planning commission and the public. It pegs the council’s final adoption of the updated code sometime in July.

In the settlement documents, one of the primary rationales offered by the city for negotiating the deal with Clear Channel was that it would “benefit the public health, safety and welfare of the City,” in part by “enabling the use of new and greener materials and technology in sign structures.”

But are digital really all that green?

According to a new study, they’re not. Today, The New York Times’ “Green,” blog noted the study’s basic findings:

A new study concludes that there are environmental reasons to avoid digital billboards as well. Digital billboards, which are made of LED lights, consume lots of energy and are made of components that will turn into e-waste once the billboard’s life has ended.

But wait, you ask, isn’t LED lighting quite energy-efficient? True, notes the report’s author, Gregory Young, a Philadelphia-based architectural designer and urban planner. But traditional billboards are lit by only two or three lamps, albeit inefficient ones, and only at night. By contrast, digital billboards have hundreds if not thousands of LEDs, which are illuminated day and night. And LEDs function poorly at high temperatures, so the signs need a cooling system.

In a year, a digital billboard can consume up to 30 times the energy that an average American home uses, Mr. Young finds.

“In many applications — such as television/computer display, general lighting, and small electronics — LCD, plasma screen, and LED technological advancements have proven more energy-efficient than their predecessors,” the report concludes, “but research indicates that out-of-home advertising is simply not an appropriate or responsible application for digital technology.”

There is, of course, a partial solution: if you use electricity generated from solar panels to power the display, a digital billboard can be rendered carbon-neutral in terms of the emissions it generates. A billboard in Times Square operates this way.

Even so, Mr. Young suggests, digital billboards should generally be avoided both for potential health and environmental reasons. “Higher electricity consumption, increased light pollution and recyclability issues should make us pause and question the growing popularity of digital signage,” he wrote.

Aside from the new findings on environmental impacts of digital billboards, there have been a host of studies examining what implications the signs have on driving safety. Young concludes his study referencing several of these:

Over the past ten years, many studies of digital signage have focused on the issue of driver distraction and road safety. These studies have been conducted in many countries (e.g. U.S., U.K., Australia, South Africa, The Netherlands, Norway, and others) and they have used a variety of research methods, including simulator and laboratory investigations, opinion surveys and focus groups, on-road studies in instrumented vehicles, and longitudinal analysis of summaries of traffic collision reports. With only two exceptions, those recent studies performed by government agencies, universities, and non-profit traffic safety organizations, have found a detrimental effect on driver distraction (or other measures of traffic safety) in the presence of billboards. The only studies that have reported no adverse safety impact of digital billboards have been those sponsored by the outdoor advertising industry.

And we use the word “reported” advisedly. That is because, in one case, despite the study authors reporting no distraction from digital billboards, the actual data collected clearly showed such an adverse impact. And, in the other case, despite the study authors reporting that the presence of digital billboards had no effect on traffic crashes, the authors have been challenged by experts, both in peer review and in public forums, for using improper statistical methods – with the results that their reported conclusions are unjustified and should be retracted.

The Federal Highway Administration is nearing completion of its own on-road research study looking at levels of driver distraction as measured by eye movements in the presence and absence of digital billboards. This report is expected to be available in the first quarter of 2011.

Higher electricity consumption, increased light pollution, and recyclability issues should make us pause and question the growing popularity of digital signage. As America at last embraces sustainability and Philadelphia strives to become the “greenest city in America,” is a proliferation of digital signs along our highways and storefronts sending the right message?

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