Benjamin Tobias has ridden mass transit in major cities all over the world. In most of those places — London, Paris, New York — commuting in an urban area means riding underground in a dark, dank, and noisy subway car.
But the Coaster, he says, “is nothing like that. The cars are clean, the other people riding are all professionals coming in to their jobs, and you’ve got these spectacular views the whole way. Every morning, I get to see the ocean, see the weather coming in, and see the horizon, and that whole experience is so uniquely San Diego.”
Recently, however, North County Transit District began a program that interferes with Tobias’s experience. In December 2011, they rolled out a program that offers exterior train wraps to advertisers. These wraps cover train cars in directionally transparent vinyl sheets that are perforated with tiny holes, which allows advertisers to cover windows while maintaining visibility from the inside.
Tobias scoffs at the level of visibility that remains. His view, he says, has been obscured.
“If there were an asteroid out there, you’d see it,” he says, “but it’s like looking through a chain-link fence. It takes away from the whole aesthetic.”
Tobias, a research scientist at General Atomics, rides the Coaster eight times a week, commuting between the Carlsbad Village and Sorrento Valley stops. Today, during his afternoon commute, he walks me through the train cars, pointing out the beauty he brags about to his friends who live in other places.
“In the summertime, every single day you’ll see dolphins off the coast here. Right in this stretch of Del Mar is where they come and feed during the day,” he says. And then, gesturing out the east-facing window, “And this whole valley is full of deer in the evening.”
He opens a door that leads to the next car, and we step through it. He chooses a seat next to the window that looks out on the coast and sits down. The window is covered in what, from a distance, looks like a tint. Not too dark to see out, but not quite as bright and clear as the windows in the car we’ve just left. Up close, the tint becomes tiny holes.
“It’s almost like one of those tests for epilepsy,” Tobias says, smiling. “You’ve got things moving in the background and a stationary grid in the foreground. I imagine if you were the right person you could get seizures.”
Two weeks ago, when he first noticed the wraps going up on the train cars, Tobias thought it was a good idea and wondered why they hadn’t thought of it before. But then the following Monday, when he realized that the advertisements affected his view of the Pacific, he became irritated and sent a complaint to the North County Transit District.
“There are lots more important things I could be complaining about,” he says. “But I get sensitive about people interfering with the aesthetic of my daily experience.”
Alex Wiggins, communications director at North County Transit District, has three things to say in response to Tobias’s complaint.
One: “The obstruction is relatively minor. It’s the equivalent of looking out of a tinted window compared to a nontinted window.”
Two: “We operate 26 trains a day between Oceanside and San Diego. Each of those trains consists of about five cars. At maximum, as the program grows, we’ll probably have two wraps per train set, so that leaves ample opportunity for someone who doesn’t care for the view to move to a different car.”
Three: “It’s a fantastic revenue stream, so we’re looking forward to actually expanding the program.”
Another Carlsbad resident, Claire Toomay, reads a book in a seat by the west-facing windows in one of the cars covered with an advert for Wells Fargo. Toomay says the window coverings don’t affect her experience in a negative way. Not from inside the train, at least.
“In fact, it can be really bright to sit by these windows, so it is nice to have some shade,” she says. “But one thing I would say is that we’re so inundated with advertisements out in the world. More advertising isn’t always the best thing.”
But Tobias says the commercialization is not his beef at all.
“You have to pay for your public services,” he says. “I’d rather they let Scripps and Wells Fargo pay for them than take it out of my property taxes. Really honestly, I would. I’m more than happy to see them use the space for advertising.”
Just not on the windows.
Gary Krajci of Oceanside agrees with Toomay but for a different reason.
“[On the outside] it just doesn’t look uniform,” he says. “I’m a military type of guy. I like things to look fairly natural, if not fairly uniform.”
Krajci, who’s also annoyed by the animated billboards he’s seen popping up along the freeways, prefers the blue and white of the way the train cars are painted without the advertisements.
“This train that’s going along the ocean, the way it was painted before was perfect. It kind of blended in,” he says. “But if you start getting all sorts of wild signs and painting train cars, it looks like Barnum and Bailey going through town.”
According to Wiggins, in the 12 months of 2011, the Coaster carried 1,547,312 passengers, an increase from the 1.4 million of previous years. This increase in riders, Wiggins claims, is the result of a fare decrease. And though the exact cost of the adverts is proprietary information, he says, “We can collect up to several hundred thousand dollars for six months’ to a year’s worth of advertising for a single train. So it’s a lot of revenue.”
Krajci, like Tobias, understands that the presence of these advertisements on the Coaster has the financial upside of keeping his costs low. However, the garishness still bothers him.
“I’m not an arts-and-craftsy type of person, but it just doesn’t sit right with me,” Krajci says. “It doesn’t bother me to death, but if I could make it go away, I’d make it go away.”