Transit Advertising refers to the use of advertisement spaces available on various modes of public transit. Buses provide a unique opportunity for companies by acting as mobile billboards and reaching audiences across income classes. This is seen as an extremely profitable venture for many transit agencies across countries, and in a country like ours with a very high rate of density, this should become even more lucrative. For India, however, the massive gap comes from the urban bus advertisement structure. Here, advertisement revenue becomes only a footnote in many cases in the financial reports of major Indian city transport agencies.

What is a Transit Advertising Framework?

A transit advertising framework would be an all-encompassing rules and regulations structure that is needed to ensure standardisation and uniformity regarding the advertisement spaces and procedures on buses in India. It would need to contain various details and clarifications regarding the basic structure of how transit advertising needs to be carried out. The framework would provide some much-needed systematisation of the transit advertising process and make it easier for agencies to get lucrative deals while helping customers launch state/nationwide campaigns with more ease. They would provide a stable and regular source of revenue for transport agencies, which is much needed given the overall losses being registered. The framework could even soften some of the stringent rules regarding advertisements on private vehicles and make it an additional source of revenue that can be used in infrastructure development or providing better public transport.

This is not beyond the power or expertise of the government by any means. While it is officially regulated under the Motor Vehicles Act and Rules (essentially trickling almost all responsibility to individual RTAs), it can be amended by both the centre and the state. Even without that, MoHUA regularly comes out with urban bus specifications under which advertisements could be included, expanded and defined. 

The framework itself won’t solve all the problems; each transport agency needs to make an accurate toolkit regularly, which will keep potential customers informed about the various methods through which transit advertising will be carried out in their jurisdictions, the prices, and other details that are required to have full information for their advertisement campaigns. This system is extremely common, especially across county transit agencies in the USA.

Why is it needed?

Transit Advertising remains an extremely unregulated space all throughout the country. The six main metropolises of our country (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Hyderabad) don’t even have a stable policy or structure in place. Along with its unregulated status comes the informal nature of the process. Due to this feature, much of the revenue generated from transit advertising is realised by the private agencies to which these services have been outsourced rather than the transit agencies themselves. Despite the advertising space being available literally on government property, private agency websites will have much better and more detailed information to give you than all government platforms combined. Indore is one of the very few cities in the country that has some semblance of a structured policy on transit advertising. It provides some much needed structure for how advertising needs to be carried out and identifies a more transparent tendering process to do the same. This makes advertising on buses in Indore much easier and cheaper (for both customers and the agency) compared to the rest of the country.

Unlike this, the national mood towards advertising has been more hostile. The Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), for example, has taken decisions to remove upper side panel advertising since 2018, which was generating a yearly revenue of Rs. 13 crore. Despite the fact that BMTC was running into losses and their scope for advertisements was increasing, they had to discontinue the advertising due to the Municipal Corporation’s austerity in giving out permissions for hoardings. A similar situation is visible in Kerala as well; the High Court came out with a judgement asking the KSRTC to remove all advertisements on buses. While it was stayed in the Supreme Court, it was only because it was considered too radical given the case, not for any empathy towards advertising. 

It is also necessary to address some important road safety concerns being raised by consumers and RTOs alike. Many buses are commonly seen with advertisements covering up the numberplates, registration numbers, and reflective stickers on the buses. While the first two are traffic violations and make it hard for complaints to be raised, the latter poses a safety risk, especially during the night.

Internationally, the situation is much more advanced. The various innovations in this sector are being well exploited by many transit agencies. New forms of advertising like glow-in-the-dark sheets and colour-shifting vinyls, along with screens being placed on the sides of buses, are almost commonplace. Even iconic transport systems like the London double-decker buses are commonly wrapped with advertisements.

How would it help?

Due to the inception and journey of bus travel in India, heavily subsidised products have been provided at unsustainable prices to the public. Every effort to increase prices, however small, has been and will be met with intense political backlash. This means that we need to look for other streams of revenue, also known as Non-Fare Box Revenue (NFBR). That is exactly where advertisements come into the picture, and they just might be the silver bullet necessary for bus transport in India. In fact, it might even help reduce prices for consumers if enough revenue is made from advertising.

Over the year 2021-22, Transport for London (TfL) has made 105 million pounds in advertisement revenue, which comes up to Rs. 1,107 crores. Similar numbers are noted across countries and metropolises around the world. India as a developing country, especially with the density of our population, means that companies are always looking to advertise, especially in public spaces and big cities. This just shows us that India is sitting on a huge amount of revenue from advertising on public transport, and this space needs to be well exploited. While the first step would be to bring out a national framework to ease the process, there needs to be a concerted effort to develop advertising as a stable source of revenue, which will help the state and its agencies effectively deliver public transport services to our burgeoning population.

Blog written by Dodda Teja Adarsh, Research Intern at Centre for Public Policy Research.

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

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