Are “Bandit Benches” A Nice Place to Rest, Or An Urban Eyesore?

At PlanPhilly, writer Ashley Hahn spotlights the city’s efforts to crack down on “bandit benches,” outdoor furniture made of concrete and wood, usually containing an advertisement for a local business. They’re sometimes in spots where a rest would be handy—at bus stops and in front of businesses—but they’re also illegal.

In May the Streets Department announced it would start a new campaign to rid city streets of these benches: Streets crews will round them up and owners will be fined $75 per bench, per citation. Some owners have already cleared their benches at their own expense. This month the city started actually collecting bandit benches, and has picked up 62 benches so far.

Well wait. What’s so wrong with “bandit benches?” Part of the problem, it seems, is that City Hall is unable to cash in on them—the city doesn’t collect a dime of revenue from the advertising on them. But often, Hahn says, they’re badly located.

These “courtesy” benches (as their owners prefer to call them) aren’t about pedestrian comfort. They’re advertising vehicles, which helps explain why so many of these benches are located too close to curb lines or plopped in no-mans-lands along wide streets like Aramingo Avenue or Columbus Boulevard.

The flip side, Hahn says, is that removing these benches often takes away street furniture where it is most needed: City Hall certainly hasn’t provided. But Acting Streets Commissioner David Perri says a city-approved solution may be on the way soon.

“I think there is a demand for seating and there’s going to be an RFP for street furniture,” Perri said, acknowledging that advertising could become part of the design considerations. It’s not unthinkable then for city-owned furniture to be part of a regulated muncipal advertising system, priced according to how many people might pass a given location. Sounds like a more sensible approach than wherever a roofer chooses to drop a bench off the back of a truck.

Maybe, but only if it actually happens. But this also kind of reminds us of the Ori Feibush incident last year, in which he performed a public service without city permission—only to get in trouble with City Hall. “Bandit benches” aren’t perfect, but it sometimes seems like the city does a better job of keeping other institutions from performing public services than it does in actually providing those services.