Dear PoP – Who Regulates Newspaper Boxes

“Dear PoP,

Here is a mystery and something that has bugged me for years in DC – whats up with all those newspaper boxes all over town? Who regulates them? Does DC get any money from their use of public space for advertising?

It seems like every other corner has 6-8 boxes lined up in varying states of decomposition – falling over, tagged and stickered, broken and busted – adding so much ugliness to DC. Is there any hope that my dream of a totally reigned in newspaper box DC will ever become a reality?

There must be a way to balance freedom of the press without having Apartment Showcase block my walk to work every day.”

Hmm, this is an interesting question. Well, first – do you guys find these boxes as ugly as the OP? Second, do you know if the city regulates them? And finally – do you think through technology and natural evolution they will end up going the way of the public telephone and dodo bird anyway? If so how long – 5, 10, 20 years?

31 Comment

  • Funny, I have wondered this myself. I don’t have a problem with newspaper boxes that contain the actual newspapers and are maintained properly, but the majority of the ones in DC seem to be as the poster described. I see a lot of them stuffed with garbage, too.

  • I think they’re more of an eyesore than not. They do seem somewhat anachronistic to me, I feel like in five years they will look as weird as a phone booth would today.

    But I pretty much never use them, so I wouldn’t miss them. The apartment showcase and new homes guide seem especially odd to me – aren’t decent DC properties already sold before they can even make it to print? Or are they more for just looking at places rather than actually buying them?

    I most often notice the boxes when homeless folks are using them to store their stuff in.

  • This is a city. City living means newspaper boxes. I believe DC and NYC would lose something without the boxes. Plus, this is town that runs on the currency of information. It may be moving to the web, but there’s a need for this stuff.

    This is right up there with removing outdoor advertising because Mimi Ike hated the look of it. The whole city had it banned when it could have stayed downtown.

    Why do people feel the need that just because they don’t like the way something “looks” they should try to get rid of it.

    • Well for me it’s the combination of not liking the way they look and not believing they serve a very useful purpose (just my opinion).

      As for the “currency of information” theory, I think you’re right about that in this town, but I don’t believe that the valuable information is coming from newspaper boxes.

    • “City living means newspaper boxes.”
      Er, no it doesn’t. You don’t see them in the great cities of the world like London, Paris, etc, why should we have to contend with them here. They are eye-pollution and should be banned henceforth, no discussion, just banned. Hell, if they can ticket my car for having one wheel on the curb, surely they can ticket these things for messing up the entire sidewalk.

      • France and England don’t have a First Amendment – we do.

        • Does the First Amendment protect our right to have crappier cities than other countries? I’m confused.

          (BTW, I am kidding. I just don’t think the First Amendment is relevant here.)

        • And park view has the right answer. The First amendment limits the government from regulating these boxes.

          • So why not a kiosk – a news-stand or a church? All practice free speech. Can they put a structure anywhere they like?

          • ah

            Why? Or how?

            The government could put in place reasonable time/place/manner content-neutral standards. Especially on the advertising boxes–that’s commercial speech, so there are plenty of restrictions possible on those.

          • If a kiosk would be more expensive than the usual boxes than it would probably be an unreasonable burden on speech. You could probably require that they be gathered together at one spot on a particular block, but permitting them only every 5 blocks would be unreasonable and impermissible. Newspapers that include information and opinions on policy and political matters get the highest protection. Apartment Shopper (commercial speech) somewhat less. You get the idea…

  • Check out page 6 / 5.4 on this.

    City could control this, rent space, and everybody’s happy. I am sure most of the garbage would opt out. These seem to be popping up all over the place.

    Just because it is a “city,” doesn’t mean it can’t be pretty.

    As for how long… I give it less that 5 years.

  • No box = dude haggling you at the metro. You pick.

  • pretty sure they are owned and operated by the individual newspapers but could be wrong.

  • ah

    there’s a difference between getting rid o all newspaper boxes and getting rid of the ones that are not maintained or are abandoned. DpW should put stickers on them like for booted cars. If it’s not fixed or removed in 15 days out it goes.

  • there are no regulations, they do not require public space permits. You can get DPW (I think thats the agency) to remove them if they are hazardous (ie blown over etc). but pretty much anyone can put up a newspaper box. and yeah they look like crap. I remember finding a jumbo slice inside of one a few years ago. good stuff.

  • I agree that they are ugly, but I use the newspaper ones all the time. And, when I first moved to DC in 1999, I did use the apartment finder one and used the book to know which buildings to check out. Not everyone has the internet. But yeah, they are ugly.

  • If the boxes are removed where will the people waiting for a bus sit? And they are probably empty because someone has used the paper inside to clean up after relieving themselves in the alley. And to totally hijak this thread: I wish DC would have more public bathrooms a la Paris.

  • Everything you could possibly want to know about newspaper vending machines. Here is a string of emails – (read from the bottom up) Nothing, clearly, has come of this!

    Original Message —–
    From: Jim Graham
    To: Kelly, Alice (DDOT) ; [email protected]
    Sent: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 9:39 AM
    Subject: RE: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    That is worth clarifying. I am now including the Dep GM at Metro to see what steps our transit system can take as well. Bests Jim

    From: Kelly, Alice (DDOT) [mailto:[email protected]]
    Sent: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 10:13 PM
    To: Jim Graham
    Subject: Re: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    You are correct that DDOT has no jurisdiction over boxes on METRO property.


    From: Jim Graham
    To: Kelly, Alice (DDOT)
    Sent: Tue Nov 24 20:40:44 2009
    Subject: RE: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    Am I right that DDOT has no jurisdiction over such boxes on Metro property (where most of them are to be found), right?

    Sent: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 8:39 PM
    To: Kelly, Alice (DDOT)
    Cc: Argo, Linda (DCRA); Klein, Gabe (DDOT); Jim Graham; Howland, William (DPW); Bellamy, Terry (DDOT); Thommana, Jose (DDOT); Dubin, Glenn (DDOT); Ricks, Karina (DDOT); Kass, Jonathon (COUNCIL)
    Subject: Re: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    Thank you for the detailed explanation – I look forward to following the procedure. As a writer, I certainly value free speech, but I do encourage you to address this issue in terms of use of public space. Any individual or company, profit or non-profit is, and should be, allowed to distribute its material freely, but I don’t believe the first amendment allows for the establishment of a permanent structure on public space to do so.

    Anyone should be allowed to preach from their soapbox, but not to build a permanent pulpit wherever they choose. (And NOT with amplified speech – a whole other issue the city has really dropped the regulation ball on!!) Anyone should be allowed to hand out flyers/papers anywhere they want, but not to plunk down a permanent vending machine wherever they want. I just don’t see why it’s that hard. It should be possible to regulate the establishment of permanent structures on public space without even involving the issue of free speech.


    —– Original Message —–
    From: Kelly, Alice (DDOT)

    Cc: Argo, Linda (DCRA) ; Klein, Gabe (DDOT) ; Jim Graham ; Howland, William (DPW) ; Bellamy, Terry (DDOT) ; Thommana, Jose (DDOT) ; Dubin, Glenn (DDOT) ; Ricks, Karina (DDOT) ; Kass, Jonathon (COUNCIL)
    Sent: Monday, November 23, 2009 8:03 PM

    Subject: RE: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    Hi Ms. M.

    Gabe is correct that we will be moving soon to address those publisher boxes that are deemed to be dangerous obstructions in public space. If we are unable to locate the owner to abate the problem we will place a sticker on the box notifying the owner that they have 14 days to abate or remove. While this will not address all of the boxes in public space at the Columbia Heights Metro it is a beginning.

    Authority to regulate the placement of publisher boxes in public space was just recently transferred from DCRA to DDOT. Publisher boxes have really become more of a DDOT public space issue than a DCRA vending issue with the huge increase in the number of free publications. With regard to your question about treating free publications differently from for “profit” publications, the First Amendment protection is provided to the voice and not the method of transmitting the voice. “Free” speech is protected whether it is sold or given away. As it has been explained to me by those more expert in the First Amendment than I, even a New Homes Guide could be protected if it included a letter from the editor or an article advising on the benefits of home ownership or some such message protected as free speech.

    Next steps: we have researched best practices and worked closely with a wide range of stakeholders including representatives of newspapers, BIDS and community members to design regulations that address the First Amendment concerns of the publishers while regulating the safe placement of publisher boxes in public space. The new regulations will require a permit for companies placing these boxes in public space and will create safety zones within which boxes may not be placed (i.e. access ramps, bus zones etc.). At this time we are not envisioning a fee or a permit per box but rather an annual permit and fee. The proposed regulations have been sent to the DDOT General Counsel for review and once they have gone through the various review processes they will be published for public comment.

    I hope this helps; if not please feel free to contact me directly.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all.


    Alice Kelly | Manager | Public Space Policy Branch

    Transportation Policy & Planning Administration | District Department of Transportation |

    2000 14th Street, NW 7th Floor
    desk (202) 671-2252 | fax (202) 671-0617 |
    Serving with Integrity and Excellence


    P Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail

    From: Klein, Gabe (DDOT)
    Sent: Monday, November 23, 2009 9:25 AM
    To: ‘Jim Graham’; ; Kelly, Alice (DDOT); Kass, Jonathon (COUNCIL)
    Cc: Argo, Linda (DCRA); Howland, William (DPW); Bellamy, Terry (DDOT); Thommana, Jose (DDOT)
    Subject: RE: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    Thanks All,

    I agree that these are troubling problems, and questions. We are ramping up to start removing:

    1. Unusable/damaged machines (notification to owners)

    2. Out of business vendors/papers

    The idea of permitting/charging has been brought up, and Alice Kelly can comment in more detail about that. We will be working with our partner agencies as we ramp this effort up.


    From: Jim Graham [mailto:[email protected]]
    Sent: Friday, November 20, 2009 4:53 PM
    To: Klein, Gabe (DDOT); Kelly, Alice (DDOT); Kass, Jonathon (COUNCIL)
    Subject: RE: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    Thanks. I think you raise a good point. I know that some DDOT staff have spent a great deal of time on these questions so I’m asking DDOT Director, Gabe Klein, to respond.

    I am also asking DDOT to explain who would be responsible for assessing a fee for placing these machines in public space. It is unclear whether that responsibility would go to DDOT or to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which handles vending.

    Bests, Jim


    Sent: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 4:31 PM
    To: Jim Graham
    Subject: Re: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    Thanks – please keep me in the loop. Since becoming aware of the problem at my own corner, I’ve been noticing rows of machines blocking pedestrian street crossing and bus stops in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan as well. Plus it is just an interesting city planning topic – commercial/profit enterprises access to public space vs. freedom of speech etc. Is there ever a fee to set up a vending machine on public space? Free papers – City Paper, The Blade -(RIP), versus “profit” papers; The Post or the Wash Times? Can Coca Cola put a vending machine anywhere? How does Coke differ from “The New Homes Guide”?

    —– Original Message —–

    From: Jim Graham

    To: ; [email protected] ; Kass, Jonathon (COUNCIL)

    Sent: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 2:02 PM

    Subject: RE: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    Thanks for your response.

    There has indeed been very little regulation of these machines. Thanks to DDOT’s involvement, on December 1 we will begin tagging abandoned machines and those that are placed in a disruptive manner.

    1st Amendment case law has been a major factor in how these machines can and cannot be regulated. I’m including Alice Kelly from DDOT who has been deeply involved in these matters. Perhaps she can answer some specific questions.

    Bests, Jim


    Sent: Friday, November 13, 2009 5:01 PM
    To: Jim Graham
    Subject: Re: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    Thanks for the start – but it seems you are saying that there are currently no regulations at all regarding placement of these machines? Anyone can put one anywhere?

    And how in the world is it a 1st amendment issue? This is about regulating the use of public space, not infringing on the freedom of speech. Anyone can stand on a street corner and preach whatever they like, but I don’t think they are allowed to construct a permanent stage.

    People have to seek permits to construct art on public space don’t they? How is this different?


    —– Original Message —–

    From: Jim Graham

    To: [email protected] ; [email protected] ; [email protected] ; Kass, Jonathon (COUNCIL)

    Sent: Friday, November 13, 2009 4:44 PM

    Subject: RE: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    Thanks for your email. I agree that these vending machines often create problems for pedestrian flow, bus access, and aesthetics. There are some very tricky 1st Amendment restrictions that have made it difficult to regulate these machines. But there is also some good news to report.

    Metro has worked successfully with the owners of these machines to avoid conflicts around bus stops. For the immediate situation at 14th & Irving, I am forwarding your observations to Metro’s Deputy General Manager Gerald Francis to address these specific issues bus stop conflicts.

    I am pleased that DDOT was recently been designated to regulate these machines as a matter of public space management. (Until recently, these machines were regulated by DCRA, but little or nothing was being done.) As a first step, DDOT has committed to begin identifying and removing damaged and unused machines, beginning on December 1, 2009. Next, DDOT will be issuing new regulations to control where these machines can be located. These regulations will require a period of public input, but we are on our way to a better system.

    I applaud Director Klein for these first steps and ask for updates on our progress here.

    Bests, Jim


    Sent: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 4:36 PM
    To: Jim Graham
    Subject: 14th & Irving newspaper vending machines

    Dear Mr. Graham,

    When the construction and renovations are finally completed around the Columbia Heights Metro, can something please be done about removing or relocating some of the 37 newspaper vending machines that have for years, crowded the intersection of 14th & Irving St. NW?

    I searched the DC GOV. web site but couldn’t find out which agency, if any, is responsible for overseeing these machines, or what the requirements are for having one. Can anyone just put one up anywhere they like? Most of these have been here for at least 2-3 years, but only about 9 appear to be in regular use, with another 7 in possible use (perhaps not being tended currently due to the construction) That still leaves 11 that are completely abandoned, broken obstacles full of trash.

    On two corners, they are an actual danger. With the foot traffic in this area now due to Metro & DCUSA, there are often 100 or more people crowding this intersection at every light cycle.

    The worst is the SW corner of the intersection (photo #4) where a row of 15 machines actually blocks and impedes pedestrians crossing 14th St. – forcing them all through a very narrow passage between the machines and a garbage can. People walking west on Irving, crossing here and wanting to walk south on14th generally just veer left in the middle of the intersection to avoid the barrier. Southbound cars turning right from Irving onto 14th, stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk (hopefully!) but then must encounter this second stream of pedestrians twenty feet along.

    On the NE corner, the row of machines alongside 14th St. is near the bus stop. When busses stop short of the actual stop – due to idling cars, traffic, or two busses arriving at once – passengers departing from the rear door must squeeze through the narrow passage between the vending machines and the bus.

    Besides the actual danger to pedestrians these machines present, they are simply god-awful ugly – all broken, full of garbage, tagged and often cheap plastic to begin with.

    It would be a real shame, after spending millions on all the new sidewalks, plaza, heritage trail signs etc. to let these obstructions continue to clutter up this intersection and impede pedestrians.

    Thank you for your help, and please contact me if there is any more information or help I can provide.

    • -1. please to not do that again.

      • disagree. i appreciate the email chain. it demonstrates how politicians can talk a good game and then when it comes to progress… not so much. thanks, poster.

        • I actually had a completely different takeaway from that email chain. It seems to me like the original issue was taken seriously, a conversation was had, appropriate people were looped in, etc, which is an impressive result of a constituent email.

          And the first amendment issue is this – I think it’s safe to assume that people aren’t interested in banning all newspaper boxes. For example, I’m going to go ahead and assume that most people are ok with the Washington Post having them.

          But if you let the Washington Post have them, you have to let any publication that follows the regulations to have them, too. The District cannot determine which voices are “legitimate” enough to have newspaper boxes – that is a clear restriction of speech. So it’s either no one, or everyone.

          Of course they can have regulations on the boxes – the condition their in, size, placement. But these regulations have to apply to all box holders.

  • I thought the email chain was pretty awesome, personally. I can’t believe they’re defending them due to First Amendment protections. Does that mean I can publish my own personal newspaper and distribute it by plunking down a box next to a Metro entrance?

  • Dear Pop, Yesterday I saw a pedestrian cross the street against the light. It caused a great deal of confusion and consternation among my socially progressive brethren.

    I thought that jaywalkers would have gone the way of the dodo bird when the city introduced those nifty count-down clocks. Nevertheless, this blackguard just walked right out there and threw a huge monkey wrench into my life.

    Let’s talk about it. And talk, and talk, and talk. Until I can finally go home from work and cook up another Mark Bitman recipe for my fashion-forward vegan girlfriend.

  • Is it against the law to take a hand truck or dolly and move them ourselves? I can’t think of a legal argument for why this would be wrong…


    • Exactly what I am thinking. Since no one owns these or has oversight over them who are they to protest? I am very serious about this – anyone want to do a drive around with a pickup and grab a dozen of them from our neighborhoods? Then I say we plunk them all down in front of the Reeves building on 14th and U and let the govt decide how to fix it.

  • This is absurd…You don’t like the newspaper boxes? Move to Poolesville. You’ll love it. Can’t believe we’re complaining about this.

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