LIKE THE upturned cards in a magic trick, they stand, seemingly in endless unruly lines, one after another down both sides of Edsa. These towering outdoor billboards cover the skyline, blocking out the afternoon sun. From their lofty perches, impossibly good-looking models and celebrities look down upon a city’s traffic. At times, the tiny vehicles move like fish in a stream. At other times, the billboards are witnesses to a complete gridlock from which, for the cars and the people in them, there is no escaping.
These billboards have proliferated out of control on virtually every major thoroughfare in Metro Manila and in highly urbanized cities of the country, but nowhere are they as obvious and as dangerous as those on Edsa. Yet, we have seen the menace of flying billboards before, but not as dramatically frightening as in 2006, during Typhoon “Milenyo,” when a number of them were shaken loose from their brackets by merciless winds. One person was killed and several others were injured.
In response to the needless tragedy, the Department of Public Works and Highways, later that year, began to systematically dismantle billboards that were in violation of the building code or encroaching on rights of way. And that’s when the “game” began—first between the DPWH and the billboard owners. Like playing cards, the billboards would go down and then up again as the DPWH and the owners went back and forth before the courts—the owners wielding TROs, while the DPWH’s “Oplan Baklas Billboard” took down hundreds of billboards. But the billboards resurrected.
Then, during a 2008 storm, three billboards along Edsa fell, seriously injuring five people. The game resumed: down went the billboards but then up they rose again.
Enter the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority. To its credit, it joins the game without the prompting of a devastating typhoon or dead bodies. In March 2011, it met with executives from the companies owning the outdoor billboards to figure out some middle ground. “Our objective in meeting with the advertisers is to come up with a win-win solution to address the problem without unnecessarily affecting their business operations. Our main concern here is the safety of the public,” MMDA chair Francis Tolentino said.
On May 2, the MMDA inspected every one of the 2,000 billboards lining Edsa’s 23 kilometers. Tolentino cited many of the billboards’ failure to adhere to the national building code, particularly regarding structural safety and maintaining proper distance between the billboards and the sidewalks. Other billboards were too tall, or too close to other billboards or to property lines. This time, the MMDA worked with the billboard industry groups—the Philippine Association of National Advertisers and the Outdoor Advertising Association of the Philippines.
A few days later, the MMDA leapt into action, implementing what’s now called “Operation Rolldown, Baby.” The MMDA took down 19 erring billboards and gave other companies 15 days to take down their billboards or the MMDA will do it for them. “For so long a time, some of our outdoor billboard operators have aerially cluttered and visually polluted our urban landscape with impunity. It’s about time to take action for our environment and public safety,” Tolentino said.
Tolentino has a point. The billboards, taller and bigger than ever, are at best gaudy and at worst a distraction to drivers—an “omnipresence” that is “inviting” accidents to happen. Still, they are spreading like a virus, making their presence felt at every available space. Ironically, some government agencies are in the game. Two very brightly lit, flashing electronic billboards, both obviously government-operated, can be found in front of Camp Aguinaldo and near the Guadalupe Bridge.
Something should be done and done permanently. Surely there are other ways and other places to advertise all these products. Surely there are safer ways of doing so.
Take down the billboards on Edsa—and other main thoroughfares—and keep them down. We can’t let this kind of “board game” go on at the expense of public safety.
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