Traffic is a constant on highways in Austin, no matter what side of town you live on. But there’s one thing that isn’t a constant on those highways: billboards. Some, like I-35 are littered with them. Others, like MoPac, have none. For some drivers, that absence is noticeable.
“How is it that up and down, MoPac is ad free?” Allyson Lipkin asked our ATXplained project. “Is it ever in danger of losing this amazing status? How did it get and stay this way?”
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Lipkin is an artist and musician in East Austin who recently created a glass art installation for Austin Art in Public Spaces. The project focused on the region’s natural beauty. For her, even MoPac is a part of that.
“It's just a gorgeous landscape and also the 360 bridge is just a gorgeous bridge,” she said. “And so definitely driving north/south on MoPac is a way better experience for me than, let's say, you know, driving 35, where there's no greenery ... there’s lots of ads, lots of billboards.”
The answer to the first part of her question dates back to an ordinance the Austin City Council passed more than four decades ago.
“The council adopted an ordinance prohibiting off-premise advertising along what was then called the Missouri Pacific Boulevard and Loop 360,” said Christopher Johnson, manager with the city’s Development Assistance Center. “And so that prohibited billboards within 200 feet of the right of way of those roadways.”
MoPac and Loop 360 were thus designated as scenic roadways. There are now 23 roadways on that list, including Barton Springs Road, Lake Austin Boulevard and State Highway 130.
In the years after the 1975 ordinance passed, public outcry against billboards only grew, so in 1983, the council went even further, banning new billboards altogether.
Complaints about the aesthetics of billboards date back almost to the beginning of the medium, according to Gary Wilcox, a professor at the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations at UT Austin.
“I can remember as a kid, hearing a lot of those arguments, ‘Like – oh my god, there’s billboards everywhere,’” Wilcox said. “The reality is for an advertiser, as long as there’s eyeballs, an ear and a brain there, that’s going to attract advertising. If it’s an effective messaging system, there will be advertising.”
Girard Kinney, president of the group Scenic Austin, said the fight for the 1983 ordinance had some unintended consequences.
“The billboards industry saw it coming and got as many up as they could prior to the ordinance passing," he said.
The billboard industry got a bit of a reprieve in 2005. That’s when the council allowed billboards to be "relocated" – that is, owners could put up a billboard in a more desirable location as long as they took an old one down.
“So any billboard you see in the city today either existed prior to the general ban in October 1983 or is the relocation of a billboard that existed in 1983,” Johnson said.
He says as part of the ordinance, the “relocated” billboards would have to be removed in 25 years, unless the owner removes another one. But the first ones aren’t set to come down until after 2030.
Kinney says that’s not soon enough.
“Billboards ... detract from the beauty of our city, both the man-made environment and the natural environment,” he said.
As you might expect, the outdoor advertising industry disagrees – but that doesn’t mean members are opposed to Austin’s scenic roadways ordinance.
“There are certain arteries in certain areas where we don’t think that billboards should be,” said Alan Reeder, general manager for Lamar Advertising’s Austin/San Antonio region. “If you look at MoPac, for example, the businesses you do see along MoPac are a little further away from the highway itself, and there are several areas where it is purely residential and noncommercial, and I don’t think that outdoor should be in areas that are noncommercial.”
Reeder and other companies do want other restrictions in Austin lifted, like a ban on digital billboards that aren't on a company's own property.
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That leads us to the second part of Lipkin’s question: whether MoPac’s billboard-free status will stay that way?
Reagan Outdoor Advertising, the city’s dominant billboard company, has gone to court to fight the ban on digital billboards, arguing it violates companies' freedom of speech. It warns the case could have a wide-ranging impact, if successful.
"Outdoor advertising is one of the most tightly regulated industries in Austin. While we respect this community's right to govern its scenic roadways, there are other parts of our local sign code that are in urgent need of an update, like the city's ban on digital advertising,” said Eric Wetzel, a spokesman for the company.
“Should a court find that ban to be unconstitutional, the city risks having its entire sign code struck down – including the provision covering scenic roadways," he said.
Wilcox said the stakes are high because brands are spending more these days on outdoor advertising nationwide, largely because of digital displays.
“It’s all about effectively reaching your audience and the response of the audience, so it’s something that most major brands are thinking about now,” he said.
Lipkin says she hopes city officials keep holding the line on billboards in Austin, leaving scenic drives uninterrupted by advertising.
“If you think of all that beautiful wild green and even if you're stopped [in traffic] watching it, I think it's helpful,” she said. “Can you imagine a bunch of ugly billboards popping out of there? It's just so precious the way it is. It really is.”
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