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Getting ads on wheels to keep moving

Parking mobile billboards on city streets for extended periods is not a 1st Amendment right, and L.A. is correct to seek a solution to the problem.

April 06, 2012
  • The Los Angeles City Council has been calling for a crackdown on mobile billboards since at least the 1980s. Los Angeles Times
The Los Angeles City Council has been calling for a crackdown on mobile billboards… (Los Angeles Times )

The Los Angeles City Council has been calling for a crackdown on mobile billboards — those big signs that companies drag around on trailers and then leave on city streets for hours, days or sometimes weeks — since at least the 1980s. Two years ago, Sacramento lawmakers finally gave cities the power to ban advertisers from leaving their signs in the street and driving the truck away. Parking places, after all, are for motor vehicles and whatever trailers they happen to be pulling, not for signs. But advertisers responded to the state and city laws by depositing their signs and then hitching them to motor scooters. See? It's a vehicle, and it's parked!

The Legislature responded last year with a new law that empowers cities to regulate those billboards as well, and the City Council adopted a ban last month, only to face a court challenge from one of the sign companies. Let's hope that the city prevails, and that this time the ban sticks.

Despite the assertions of the sign companies, parking scooter fleets with trailer hitches and mobile signs on city streets is not a 1st Amendment issue. Streets are public thoroughfares, and local governments have the ability — the duty — to keep them open, flowing and free of hazards and, where parking is allowed, to ensure that it's available for all and not misused for a particular company's commercial purposes.

Stationary billboards, love them or hate them, at least don't blow over in the wind, block traffic, obstruct sidewalks or endanger parked cars. Los Angeles still has plenty of illegal billboards, and the city should keep up pressure to have them removed, but the legal signs are there because they comply with zoning and other land use regulations. The whole point of mobile billboards, on the other hand, is that they don't; they can and often are left anywhere that a car can park, including in residential neighborhoods.

OK, but what about food trucks, which are allowed if they have the proper permits? Don't they commercialize street parking space? Sure, for limited periods, and then they move on. They don't blow over in the wind or fall over on sidewalks. And if they did cause a hazard, there is someone on-site who could, if need be, put down the locally sourced, artisanal heirloom tomato tart, get in the driver's seat and tool away until next time.

Kudos are due freshman Councilman Mitch Englander — just as they were to his predecessor's predecessor, Councilman Hal Bernson, in the 1980s — for trying to deal with the problem, as did Councilman Dennis Zine in the period between. But the council and the city have to remain on their toes until the mobile billboard operators finally learn that L.A.'s streets are not their commercial canvases.

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