Just over two years ago, Auckland Transport's top spin doctor sent me the following good news.
"Brian I hope you are sitting down. This from Brendon Main, Group Manager at AT Metro operations. 'There will be no advertising on bus windows with the implementation of our new contracts. It will be great for our customers' "
He ended the message with a big nudge: "So there we go – I think that deserves a mention."
For months I'd been badgering AT to ban the billboard advertising being plastered across the side windows of Auckland's buses. In daylight, peering out the bus windows was like viewing the world through a burqa. You saw everything through a veil of black dots. At night, especially in the rain, you could see nothing. It was claustrophobic.
So I was happy to congratulate AT for its plan to abolish window-blocking advertising. Now I just feel conned. The curse of window advertising lives on. Instead of banning it, AT is now running the business!
Two years back, AT bureaucrats claimed to be sympathetic to the customers' plight, but said there was nothing in the existing contracts with private bus operators that allowed them to force a change. But with contracts then beginning to expire, AT said it would take control of all bus advertising in the new contracts, and end the window blocking practice.
The only sour note was that it would take time. The first new contracts, covering South Auckland, were to come into effect in October 2016, but the last, covering North Shore not until March 2018.
In the Central area where I live, the uncovering of the windows was supposed to have taken place in August last year, but I confess I didn't put it in my diary. It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago, that I checked back. This followed a trip home from a Town Hall show on the Outer Link. I found myself sitting against window covered in advertising black dots. With the rain pouring down and the recording device which is supposed to announce approaching stops, turned off, I found myself having to peer up the "tunnel" to the driver's window, to orient myself.
Back home, a quick file search revealed that advertising on the Outer Link windows should have long gone. When I reminded the AT spin doctor of this and of his "great news for passengers" message of two years ago, he totally skirted the clear windows commitment as only a good PR man can.
It turns out that customer well-being is low on AT's priority list, well certainly less important than getting its hands on the lucrative advertising dollars that the private operators had previously pocketed. AT now proudly skites of earning "several million dollars in advertising revenue around public transport." Removing it from buses would result in fare increases of "at least 2.5 per cent."
Under the new contracts, AT has granted itself permission to smear advertising across the side of 25 per cent of the single decker fleet - windows included - and onto the backs and a side vertical strip, of all double-deckers.
It claims 85 per cent of surveyed Aucklanders "agreed that advertising was acceptable if the money is used to help fund and maintain a better transport system." Whether that included advertising across windows I don't know. I was told "there are standards for outward visibility where there is advertising," and if "you have an issue with a particular bus we will check it complies."
All of which avoids the question why AT has reneged on its "great news" promise that all window advertising would be removed from buses. If it was so bad 2-3 years ago, why is it now suddenly OK? As for the offer to check out any individual bus I nominated for compliance, that's a joke given AT seems to both set the standards and rake in the cash.
I'm not against advertising on buses, just the window-blockers. Car-driving, decision makers at AT might kid themselves with the myth the advertising is "see through," but cocooned bus users know better. We just want to be treated like human beings, not packaged fish fingers.