For The Daily Gazette
Schenectady needs to get smarter about regulating the bright, frequently-changing, and highly distracting digital signs that it allows along our streets and highways.
Our Zoning Code calls them Electronic Message Boards, “EMBs”, and since February 2015 allows the image on the screen to be changed every 8 seconds, rather than the prior interval of every 60 seconds.
Studies confirm the common sense conclusion that the more often a digital sign changes, the closer it is to busy roadways, intersections and sidewalks, the more verbiage and screen gimmicks it uses and the higher its comparative brightness, the greater distraction and safety hazard it presents.
But, neither the City Council nor the Planning Office has seriously considered the safety issues, much less the aesthetics, raised by such rapidly changing signs.
We deserve the more thoughtful regulation of digital signs found in many other upstate cities.
In 2015, the Planning Commission recommended the “dwell time” change to make our Code “consistent with State law.”
But, staff never discussed the 3-page state Department of Transportation policy statement they were relying upon.
That 2015 DOT Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS) Policy focused on off-premise signs (billboards) along major highways, not “on-premise” signs in front of businesses along urban streets.
Because variable digital signs “attract increased attention through their brightness and temporal changes of light,” DOT’s experts concluded they require more restrictions than conventional signs.
Therefore, DOT imposed a set of complementary restrictions, only one of which was the 8-second change interval recommended by the Planning Office.
The DOT’s statement emphasized:
(1) “Local ordinances will govern if they are more stringent” than every 8 seconds;
(2) Transition Time between the messages on the sign must be Instantaneous, to reduce distraction, especially for older drivers;
(3) “If more than one CEVMS sign face is visible to the driver at the same time”, the signs must be spaced at least 300’ apart;
(4) CEVMS must “not appear brighter to drivers than existing static billboards.”
Each of those standards is, in fact, more crucial on urban streets than on highways, because they are much closer to traffic, pedestrians, housing and other buildings than billboards are from major highways. And the streetscape can offer so many additional distractions and ambient light conditions.
Worse, the Planning Office has allowed applicants, such as Proctors and Mohawk Harbor, to make the required “showing” that there will be no significant impact on safety or a neighborhood by simply stating the conclusion that there will be no negative impact.
As a result, among other problems, we have multiple digital signs where downtown vehicle and pedestrian traffic is the busiest; huge digital billboards along already-challenging roadways; and, a garish digital sign replacing a tasteful, effective one a few feet from Upper Union Street.
The Planning Office is about to recommend changes to our EMB provisions.
Staff has looked at laws elsewhere, but so far has decided not to increase the change interval, which is 5 minutes in Buffalo and 30 seconds in Syracuse, while Dutchess County planners recommend 12-hour intervals.
Nor is planning staff recommending instantaneous transitions, banning animation and gimmicky visuals, limiting the amount of text, prohibiting digital signs near intersections and in mix-use-residential districts or imposing other restrictions that promote safety and good taste in other municipalities.
(See https://tinyurl.com/DigitalSignRegs for excerpts from municipal codes, a fuller safety discussion, and relevant materials and images.)
EMBs are literally designed to distract.
We need to speak up and insist that being business-friendly should not mean forfeiting effective regulations on technology that offers little to the public and often no real advantage for businesses over conventional signage.
As guidelines recently written for Dutchess County say: “Municipalities must decide what is more important – the benefit to the digital sign owner, or the safety and visual quality of the community.”
David Giacalone of Schenectady is a retired lawyer and mediator, and editor of SnowmenAtTheGates.com.