Future Tense

Oh Good, a Subway System Is Making Riders Stare at Ads Before They Can Buy Tickets

An ad on the back of a SEPTA bus.
Philly transit sporting a more traditional ad. Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

We’ve all become used to waiting through the first few seconds of a pre-roll ad before watching a video on YouTube, or quickly considering a pop-up offer for a website’s newsletter before clicking “no, I don’t want a beach body.” These ads are different from banner ads, since they require engagement from you in order for you to get on with reading an article or watching a video. That they’re annoying is almost the point.

There might be no more annoying a place for digital ads to pop up than during a commute—one of the few human activities where it’s socially acceptable to be grumpy. Right now, advertisements are popping up on 20 transit card kiosks in Philadelphia’s subway system as part of a pilot program, reports David Murrell at Philadelphia magazine. Static, full-screen ads for Verizon, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the transit system itself appear at the start of transactions to purchase or reload a transit pass. Commuters or tourists must gaze at the ad for up to six seconds before continuing their transactions, according to a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority spokesperson. Those seconds can be quite valuable. On Sunday, it took Philadelphia resident Katie Bohri so long to pay for her fare that she missed her train.

Advertising that demands attention in order for you to get on with your day is a drag in any context. But ads that run before videos of cats doing something weird—or run before using free Wi-Fi at the airport, or pop up in the middle of Instagram stories—at least function similarly to traditional television ads. In exchange for a piece of entertainment to make our leisure time more interesting, we fork back a small slice of that time for an ad. In turn, that ad pays for or subsidizes the content or the platform on which it appears. In many cases, you can turn off captive advertising by paying in dollars instead of time—purchasing the Wi-Fi at the airport, subscribing to YouTube premium, paying for HBO on top of basic cable, or, for a fourth random example, becoming a member of Slate Plus, which allows for ad-free podcast listening. As someone who produces and enjoys media that benefits from ads, it’s hard to say that they are bad.

The concept can get invasive quickly, though. In 2014, FreeATM rolled out 25 machines across New York that allowed users to watch an ad in exchange for forgoing the surcharge to withdraw cash. That seems fine, but what about all the people behind you in line who also have to wait while you watch the ad?! (Most FreeATM locations are now marked “permanently closed” on Google Maps.) The Netflix show Maniac imagined a service called Ad Buddy: Users can ride a train or eat lunch for free if someone reads ads to you while you do it.

Filling the lives of people who might not otherwise be able to get to work with very-hard-to-tune-out drivel—as the SEPTA kiosk ads also do—feels like it’s crossing a line. Once you have a transit card, you can reload it online, but there are still several groups the ads would affect: tourists, folks who can’t afford consistent internet access, people who pay for things in cash, and the ill-planning—and therefore already harried!—among us.) Plus, Philadelphians already pay for public transit via a fare and taxes and being available to see regular old ads on buses and subway platforms. They, and in turn people waiting for them to arrive via public transit at work and social engagements, should not have to pay again with valuable time. The goal of a functioning subway system should be to move people through quickly.

According to SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch, the ads are part of a partnership with Intersection, a company also responsible for turning buses into full-on billboards, and they won’t stay up as long as they are in test cases (if they’re fully rolled out at all). “In some instances, the test ads are staying up too long,” he wrote in an email. “SEPTA wants the ads to stay up no longer than 1-2 seconds.” Not perfect, but better. Verizon Fios copy shouldn’t be creating sliding-doors moments for people who depend on public transit to move about their lives.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.