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They were touted as a major update of central Sydney’s look and feel – new bus stops, billboards and bins to “modernise our streets” and provide significant advertising revenue for the city council.
But now that they are here, the installations are proving divisive – especially the girthy, 86-inch electronic billboards that have popped up throughout the City of Sydney, including the CBD, Surry Hills and Potts Point.
Some of the billboards are located right next to phone booths, largely obscuring one side from view.Credit:Steven Siewert
Their placement in the middle of footpaths has aggrieved pedestrians, while other observers are bemused by the installation of new Telstra phone booths barely a metre from some billboards, obscuring one side from view.
“They’re in the wrong space, the positions are all wrong,” said City of Sydney councillor Lyndon Gannon, who said he was fielding daily complaints from constituents about the signage. “It was a complete disaster from the start.”
The billboards – or “communication pylons”, as the City calls them – come from QMS Media, which won a lucrative 10-year contract to replace central Sydney’s street furniture in 2020.
In many cases, the signs replaced older phone booth-mounted advertising panels, which had been around for 20 years or more. In addition to commercial advertising, the new scrolling signs are also used for council messages about events, transport and emergencies.
A QMS billboard on the footpath of Crown Street, Surry Hills, outside the Colombian Hotel.Credit:Michael Koziol
But critics such as Harold Scruby, head of the Pedestrian Council lobby group, say the new billboards prioritise advertising and commerce ahead of pedestrian safety and amenity.
“They channel pedestrians into very narrow areas. You can’t walk with a partner, you’ve got to walk like a duck in single file,” Scruby said. “There should be no obstructions on a footpath.”
Scruby also warned the location of scrolling electronic billboards along the street was dangerous because drivers could be distracted in areas where pedestrians were crossing the road. He said the signs should be positioned parallel with the footpath, rather than across it, so that they don’t face the street.
A new billboard outside the Adina Hotel in Crown Street, Surry Hills, has aggrieved property manager Darren O’Bryen, who said the sign obstructs guests alighting taxis and blocks the line of sight to nearby restaurants.
A new advertising billboard outside the Adina Hotel on Crown Street, Darlinghurst.Credit:Michael Koziol
“It’s a real problem for us … it’s really not in a good spot,” he said. “There are some ones that are quite innocuous and others that are just plain absurd.”
Commuter Michael Evangelidis noticed a problem with the new bus shelters on Elizabeth Street in the CBD – they had advertising installed on both sides, including the side from which the buses approach, which meant some people had a hard time seeing their bus was coming. “Particularly for immobile bus users, it’s pretty bad,” he said.
The City of Sydney said the new street furniture was functional and modern, and the advertising revenue helped fund the council’s capital works, social and environmental programs, while also keeping rates down.
“The placement of all communication pylons, as well as bus shelters, kiosks and automatic public toilets has been subject to development application and public notification processes, which included public consultation with a determination made by the independent local planning panel,” a spokesperson said.
“All assets were designed to ensure they are compliant, accessible and positioned in accordance with the City of Sydney’s street furniture placement guidelines. Adequate footpath access has been provided to ensure prams, mobility walkers and wheelchairs can continue to use the footpath.
“We are listening and responding to feedback from the community regarding this upgrade.”
This footpath is crowded with a pole, digital billboard and a phone booth.Credit:Steven Siewert
QMS Media mostly deferred to the council but said the positioning of phone boxes next to some of their billboards – in Pitt Street Mall, for example – “is something to discuss with the City of Sydney and Telstra”.
The side of the billboards that has been obstructed by the phone booths is used by the council for community communications, not advertising sold by QMS.
Meanwhile, other world cities are removing standalone pay phones entirely. New York now has a network of digital billboards that include a built-in public phone, as well as free Wi-Fi and device charging ports.
The City of Sydney spokesperson said: “Telstra determine the location of their payphones, and under the Federal Telecommunications Act are not required to consult with community or seek approval from councils or other authorities.”
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The original version of this article incorrectly reported that QMS Media is ASX-listed. The company is a private business and the article has been corrected.
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