Sitting in his hybrid car along Hubbard Street in Sylmar, Edwin Pimentel is waiting for his next ride as a Lyft driver. It’s a Friday afternoon; he’s still short some rides before he can get an extra bonus of $84.
But even while stopped, he’s earning money. Pimentel collects $300 a month for a digital sign that changes every few seconds advertising different things: an airline, a food delivery service, etc.
“A friend of mine told me about (the digital signs that attach to the rideshare cars). You have to fill out a form. They install it,” explained the 37-year-old.
A cable from the digital sign is hooked up to the car’s batteries to keep it going, even when Pimentel is stopped. “When I turn on the car, the sign turns on,” he says.
The extra money he earns has been a godsend for Pimentel, who before adding the digital sign was considering getting a part-time job to make ends meet. He said he pays $582 a month for the newer model hybrid car he drives, not including gas. But Pimentel can earn between $300 and $1,300 a week from his rideshare work, depending on how many hours he drives.
It’s such a benefit that he can’t understand why someone wants to ban this form of advertising.
That someone is Los Angeles Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who represents the west San Fernando Valley. Blumenfield has been battling billboard companies and has now turned his attention to Firefly, the advertising company behind the digital billboards on car roofs.
The council member has introduced a motion banning all Firefly ads in the city, and there are a few hundred of them. Blumenfield considers them a distraction to other drivers. In a newspaper commentary, he wrote that “if we let these digital ads fly through traffic we risk making every street in Los Angeles illuminate as bright as the top of an ambulance, inherently making it unsafe for anyone sharing the road.”
Earlier this month, the council’s Transportation Committee approved the motion, but it also directed the city staff to produce a report on creating a pilot program for the devices. Blumenfield’s motion also directs the city attorney to prepare and present a draft ordinance requesting the Department of Transportation and the Los Angeles Police Department take enforcement action against drivers operating vehicles with the devices within the city.
Firefly spokesperson Pete Gould criticized the decision.
“Councilmember Blumenfield’s motion to criminalize digital rooftop advertising will take away critical extra income from hundreds of L.A.’s hardworking rideshare drivers who are already struggling to earn a living, and further disadvantage taxi drivers as they try to compete. Removing this innovative opportunity to earn extra income would further push many of these drivers to the brink,” Gould said, in a statement sent to the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol.
“Firefly’s Smart Screens in L.A. comply with all applicable requirements of the state vehicle code and local laws. Digital rooftop signs were deployed on Los Angeles taxis in 2012-2013, and were inspected and approved for operation by LADOT,” the statement said.
Firefly officials also shared a USC study published in February stating that rooftop digital advertising on taxis and rideshare vehicles could stimulate the Los Angeles economy by up to $16 million annually.
The analysis by Professor Greg Autry of the USC Marshall School of Business finds that “Councilmember Blumenfield’s proposal would disadvantage taxi drivers by eliminating the opportunity to earn additional income without working longer hours.”
Both taxis and rideshare companies oppose the measure. The presidents of the Independent Taxi Owners Association, LA Checker Cab and the United Independent Taxi Drivers, Inc. have asked the council’s Transportation Committee to reject the proposal.
Pimentel also rejects it.
“I believe it’s unfair. This company (Firefly) has complied with everything in the law,” he said.
And he doesn’t think the signs are distracting.
“These signs are for the people walking outside,” he said, pointing to the cars passing by next to his without stopping.
“To this day there have been no reports of an accident due to distraction. There are other things that are a lot more dangerous and they’re not doing anything about it,” he said, pointing to the electric scooters that one can pick up at many street corners.
“The riders (on the scooters) don’t respect any (transit) laws. Sometimes they occupy the entire lane and they don’t wear any helmets and that’s really dangerous,” Pimentel said.