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Why Does Highway 101 Have So Many Billboards And 280 Has Almost None?

David Monniaux
Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 / cropped
Highway 280 near Stanford University campus.

Hey Area is where we find answers to questions you ask. David Shayer wanted to know, “Why is highway 101 plastered with billboards, while highway 280, a few miles west, has no billboards? I hate billboards, I would cut them all down if I could!”

This is a tale of two highways. I’m here in Palo Alto to check out both of them with David, our passionate question asker. Highways 101 and 280 both snake their way up the peninsula. They run parallel, but they couldn’t be more different. 

We drive together along the stretch of highway 101 in San Mateo County, heading up towards San Francisco. “An ad for clearbank on the right,” David mentions, as we scout along the sides of the road. “...And another high tech ad for CIO’s.”

101 is dense, industrial, and chock full of billboards. 

“Now they’re really starting to pile up,” I remark. “Yeah another cannabis ad,” David replies. 

But there’s one type of billboard that frustrates David more than any other. “The worst are the electronic billboards that are bright at night, and the display keeps changing.”

David decides he’s had enough, and we switch over to 280. It’s a scenic drive through a lush forested corridor.

“It’s all beautiful, and green!” David exclaims, his relief almost palpable.

Visitors from all over the world come to San Mateo -- They'll fly to San Francisco airport, come up to 280 and they wonder this is a miracle, why is all this land still so beautiful?'

To find out why these two freeways look so different I talked with Lennie Roberts, who’s been fighting david’s fight for a long time. She remembers disliking billboards even as a child. According to her, the anti-billboard spirit was practically in her DNA.

Lennie is a legislative advocate. She’s spent the past fifty years working to protect the bay area’s open spaces with an organization called Committee for Green Foothills. She tells me that 280’s beauty is the result of hard-won protections.

“280 was designated as a scenic highway by the state of California, after a lot of work to get it included. And, billboards are not allowed on state scenic highways.”

The California legislature passed the Scenic Highway Program into law in 1963. The state and counties work together to prevent development of anything that could make these routes look… well, less scenic. 

Lennie is often amused by the reaction of visitors to the Bay Area. “They’ll fly to San Francisco airport, come up to 280 and they wonder ‘this is a miracle, why is all this land still so beautiful?’”

1300 miles of scenic highway crisscross the state, and each stretch is marked by a sign emblazoned with a bright orange California poppy. 

But the scenic status isn’t guaranteed forever. In 2016, the county of San Mateo put out a memo that hinted at studying locations for a few billboards along 280. That’s when Lennie jumped into action.

“So I started asking questions,” she remembers, “and did not get a very satisfactory answer - yes they were going to consider 280.”

Lennie went to the press, which led to a flurry of news stories about the issue. And people freaked out. The county says it was a misunderstanding, and that the memo was really referring to 101, but the backlash was loud and clear.

“I actually heard from people who would stop me at the grocery store and say ‘I saw you on TV, how dare think about putting billboards on 280!’”

Having a scenic highway designation is one of the few clear lines of defense highways have against billboards. Remember those electronic billboards that David hates so much? Since 2010, the number of those permitted by the state has nearly tripled. And for the first time ever, in 2013, a stretch of the I-10 near Palm Springs was officially removed from the scenic highway program to allow for the construction of—you guessed it—a digital billboard. 

For Lennie, the lesson from these events is clear. “We always need to stay vigilant, and active, to keep the protections we have and hopefully gain more protections over time.”

So I go back to David and I share everything I’ve learned, and ask him if he’d be on the lookout for those signs with the poppies on them. Excitedly, he replies, “Now I can’t ignore it! Now every time I see it I’ll know what it means.” 

Crosscurrents TransportationHey Area
Chris is a graduate of KALW’s Audio Academy class of 2020. He is currently an Editor-Producer for KQED Podcasts and a freelance reporter. His reporting focuses on disability, mental health, and healthcare inequities, and has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Public Media Journalists Association, and the San Francisco Press Club.