It’s only been four weeks since the Schenectady City Council passed a resolution allowing commercial electronic variable message signs (“CEVMS”), also known as electronic message boards, to change every 8 seconds, rather than the 60-second interval that was the minimum allowed between changes under the prior zoning code, §264-61 I(3). Proctors [there has been no apostrophe in its official name since 2007, despite the one on the marquee] has, however, already adopted the significantly shorter interval. Its electronic marquee signs along State Street near Jay, now have intensely bright, colorful, quickly-changing ads for its upcoming performances that are designed to attract attention, and public service announcements, while spotlighting their corporate sponsors, The Times Union and Keeler Motor Car Company. The marquee appears to have the same message on all three sides most of the time, but occasionally the messages differ.
As discussed at length below, these changes raise important questions about the lawfulness of the CEVMS display and its potential threat to public safety.
– share this posting with the short URL: http://tinyurl.com/ProctorsCEVMS –
– above: two of the many ads on display on Sunday, March 7 –
The following 19-second video is presented in its original, unedited form to show a bit of the current marquee experience on the Proctors block. During those 19 seconds, the image on the signs changes four times. Of course, the effect and affect of the Marquee can not be captured by either a still photo or a video clip viewed on a computer screen.
In addition to its public information role, this webposting is meant to be part of a Complaint to Schenectady’s Development and Code Enforcement Offices. The current operation of the Proctors marquee raises a few important questions about the lawfulness of the CEVMS display and its potential threat to public safety. These are my primary concerns/complaints about the Proctors CEVMS display:
- Does Proctors Need a Special Use Permit? Is it lawful for Proctors to make this significant change in its marquee’s electronic signage without seeking a Special Use Permit from the City’s Planning Commission? Schenectady’s Zoning Code, §264-61(I), requires that a special use permit be issued by the Planning Commission before an electronic message board is permitted. As shown in the image immediately below, in order to protect the public from any substantial neighborhood disruption, or threats to traffic conditions, or to the public health or safety, the owner/applicant of any such sign must show at a public hearing that the proposed sign will have no such negative impact.
– Schenectady Municipal Code §264-61 (I) – Electronic message boards. (Click on image to enlarge it) –
In addition, the following message (emphasis added) appears on the City’s webpage for the Department of Development:
Sign Approvals – The City of Schenectady has Sign Regulations for all new or changed signs. Please verify conformance prior to purchasing any signs by looking in Article 9 of the Zoning Ordinance. [emphasis added]
Whatever potential safety hazard the Proctors marquee might have posed when it changed once every minute, its changing every eight seconds surely represents a significant change in the signage, with a substantially greater threat to traffic conditions and public safety that should be fully evaluated by the Planning Commission after a public hearing. As is outlined more fully below in the discussion of factors affecting the safety of CEVMS displays, the curbside location of the Proctors marquee, at the center of our busiest downtown block, makes it the very situation that most calls for review under §264-61(I).
Background Note: In September 2013, the NYS Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) announced a program to increase pedestrian safety along the 15-mile Route 5 Corridor, which stretches from State Street in Albany, through Colonie and Niskayuna, where it is called Central Avenue, and then Schenectady’s State Street. In addition to increased enforcement of traffic laws and education, DOT planned a detailed study of pedestrian-related accidents on the Rt. 5 Corridor, focusing on the 8 segments of Rt. 5 with the most pedestrian-vehicle accidents and interactions.
One Focus Area segment was downtown Schenectady, from Nott Terrace to Washington Avenue, which includes the Proctors Block. A detailed analysis was made of accidents over the 6-year period 2007-2012, with pedestrian-vehicle traffic counts made for the 2-hour AM and PM rush hour peak periods. The resultant 2015 Pedestrian Safety Study, “New York Route 5 Comprehensive Pedestrian Safety Study” (July 1, 2015), showed that the Proctors Block (from Broadway to the Jay St pedestrian crossing to Clinton St.) had the most pedestrian crossings of any Schenectady block (1,222 crossings, Fig. 3.2, above), and experienced a significant percentage of Schenectady’s Rt. 5 pedestrian accidents (see Fig. 3.3). The block has “a signalized mid‐block crossing at Jay Street in the middle of the downtown area adjacent to numerous restaurants, hotels, and Proctor’s Theater”, and a mix of parallel and diagonal parking. (see the Study, at 14-22)
The Study showed pedestrian use of traffic signals far below national averages along all of Rt.5, including the Proctors Block; highlighted the problem of mid-block jaywalking; and indicated that glare and inattentive drivers and pedestrians were problems. (The Study did not cover non-pedestrian vehicle crashes, nor the traffic and pedestrian issues raised when a large show is exiting the Proctors site.)
When the Study was released, Assembly-member Angelo Santabarbara said, “Venues like Proctors and all businesses on Jay and State streets in Schenectady see a lot of foot-traffic. Implementing programs to keep our families safe in these areas will keep people coming downtown and enjoying all it has to offer.” And, Schenectady Mayor Gary R. McCarthy stated, “Route 5 is one of the City’s most traveled commercial corridors and a vital link between the City of Schenectady and our neighboring communities. I look forward to working with the Governor’s representatives, the New York State Department of Transportation, and all other involved parties in improving pedestrian and motorist safety alike, thereby enhancing the walkability of this great City.”
See, “Safety improvements coming to Central Avenue” at WGY.com.
Some would argue quite cogently that no interval less than 60 seconds is appropriate at the Proctors site on State Street. However, if a shorter minimum interval between message changes is to be permitted, the factors presented near State and Jay Streets seem to call for intervals significantly longer than every 8 seconds.
- The New York State Department of Transportation has explicitly stated that their 8-second criterion is merely a minimum standard, and local standards that are more stringent would govern in a particular situation. See Criteria for Regulating Off-Premises Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS) in New York State (“DOT CEVMS Criteria Statement”).
The primary question is whether Proctors, or any other owner of an existing electronic sign in Schenectady with variable messages, may lawfully change to the shorter interval without seeking permission from the Planning Commission? To avoid any confusion, the amendment to our electric message board ordinance that was promulgated last month should have explicitly stated that any speed-up of an electronic sign visible from a public roadway or residential zone must receive another special use permit. It did not, and I do not know whether the oversight was intentional or accidental. Given the clear purpose and goals of §61(I), the Code Enforcement Office (and the public) should demand prior use of the special use permit process.
– above: electronic signs that change every 8 second are shown on the Proctors marquee and on the entry to its Apostrophe Cafe and Lounge –
- Are Proctors’ Electronic message signs spaced too closely together? In order to assure public safety, the change to 8-second intervals should have been explicitly accompanied by the related DOT CEVMS spacing requirement, which concerns situations where a driver can see more than one CEVMS sign at the same time:
The Spacing rule in the “DOT CEVMS Criteria Statement” says (at page 2, emphasis added):
“Spacing = If more than one CEVMS sign face is visible to the driver at the same time on either side of the highway, the signs must be spaced at least 2500’ apart on controlled access highways, and at least 300’ apart on other types of highways.”
[Note: In case you are wondering, State Street is a “highway”. Under the NYS Code, “highway” is any publicly maintained roadway that is “open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel.” N.Y. VAT. LAW § 118. More specifically, a “public highway” is “Any highway, road, street, avenue, alley, public place, public driveway or any other public way.” N.Y. VAT. LAW § 134]
– heading west on State Street towards Proctors –
Driving west up State Street, a driver can see the changing displays on both the front and side panels of the Proctors marquee, as he or she heads toward the traffic signal at Jay Street, which is at the south end of a one-block pedestrian mall.
Heading east on State Street, a driver can see both the side message board and the front one at the same time, for quite a distance on that busy, confusing block. He or she can also see the flashing reflection of the marquee display in a window that is on a wall perpendicular to the marquee. In addition, the driver heading east can see the changing electronic sign above the doorway for Proctors Apostrophé cafe’ and ticket counter, with it crammed lettering. Rather than being 300′ from the marquee, the lounge’s 8-second electronic message board is less than 30 feet away. This situation is clearly inconsistent with the NYS DOT spacing requirement for off-premise CEVMS signs, causing added distraction and confusion on what is perhaps the busiest and narrowest part of State Street, at the heart of Schenectady’s downtown district, and with arguably the greatest parking woes and most jaywalking of any block in the City. Of course, the location of the Proctors’ marquee on the theater’s premises (viz., attached to the building) in no way affects its ability to distract drivers and pedestrians, and is clearly relevant to assessing its potential adverse safety effects.
- Is the CEVMS display on Proctors marquee too bright? The marquee lights at Proctors seem much too bright. NYSDOT’s CEVMS criteria Statement sets a maximum for night-time brightness, saying it should not appear brighter than in daytime:
Maximum Brightness = 5,000 cd/m2 (daytime), 280 cd/m2 (nighttime)
It also says, in more practical terms:
The brightness of CEVMS is not only potentially distracting due to its ability to attract increased attention, but may also create problems with dark adaptation among older drivers. In order to minimize these dangers, the brightness of this technology should be constrained such that CEVMS do not appear brighter to drivers than existing static billboards.
Members of the public rarely have the ability to measure illumination readily at hand. We end up just “eyeballing” the display, and perhaps looking for our sunglasses. But, the City’s code enforcement office certainly has the capability to measure illumination. Both of the shorthand criteria mentioned in the DOT Statement — not appearing brighter than in daytime and not appearing brighter to drivers than existing static billboards seem problematic enough to warrant the short trip from City Hall to Proctors to evaluate the situation from the DOT CEVMS perspective, as well as under the City’s Code.
The following slideshow gives a glimpse at the things theater-goers do when exiting Proctors. All daytime photos were taken over a 17-minute span on a cold and windy afternoon, when the Sunday matinee of “Annie” was letting out, March 8, 2015.
Drivers passing by Proctors or trying to pick up theater goers when Annie was letting out needed to be mindful of the pedestrians and their rides, the traffic signal at Jay Street, and vehicles leaving parking spaces, rather than being distracted by a quickly-changing, bright and colorful sign with information that is (1) difficult to fully comprehend, because of font size, brightness, short duration, etc.; (2) not immediately needed by patrons for getting to Proctors or finding parking; and (3) easy to attain from many other sources. Were it dark, with precipitation or ice making the road and sidewalks slippery, or perhaps winds and frigid temperatures pressuring parents and older theater-goers to find shelter as soon as possible, even more attention on the demands of driving would be needed, whether driving through, picking up passengers, or safely exiting parking spaces.
Is the risk to public safety worth taking so that Proctors can show-off with a little more pizzazz? Does Proctors need bright, quickly-changing messages to distinguish it from any other business or institution in downtown Schenectady? Do Mssrs. Philip Morris and Ray Gillen contend that the flashing marquee is not there to attract the attention of passers-by? Isn’t the situation at Proctors precisely what the drafters had in mind when the protection of a special use permit and required findings on the impact on traffic, health and safety were placed in Schenectady’s ordinance regulating the use of commercial electronic message signs?
– email reply of Zoning Office to the above Complaint –
update (April 22, 2015): On March 20, 2015, Steve Strichman, Schenectady’s Chief Zoning Officer, replied to the above Complaint with an email (click on image above this update) that made it clear there would be no action to require Proctors nor, apparently, any other current holder of an electronic sign permit in Schenectady, to re-apply for a Special Use Permit in order to demonstrate that the higher speed will not have a significant negative impact on the listed Special Use Permit factors. Mr. Strichman wrote:
It is not my intention to revisit all of the electronic message boards that have received Special Use Permits over the past 15 years.
The special use permits were issued with the ability to change messages at rates set by the City Council. That continues to be the case even though the time period has changed.
As for items 2 and 3 below in your email, those are D.O.T. regulations over which the city of Schenectady has no enforcement authority.
Thank you for your concern on this issue.
My email that day in response to Mr. Strichman asked a number of questions, including:
– Is it your position that increasing the rate of change on an electronic message board from a 60-second interval to an 8-second interval is not significant enough an alteration to warrant another review?
– Is it your position that the showing needed to get a permit for changes at once per minute is adequate to satisfy the traffic and safety issues that would need to be demonstrated for a permit to change a sign every 8 seconds, at one of the most sensitive locations in the City for signs that basically abut the road?
In addition, I gave this reply to Strichman’s dismissal of the NYDOT criteria for CEVMS:
Of course, I don’t expect Schenectady to enforce the DOT regulations, but as you surely know (1) they are a good standard [promulgated after study and consideration by experts] regarding safety and traffic issues that are relevant to the showing required under §264-61 (I)(2), and (2) the City Council and Planning Commission both said the change to 8 seconds was done to be consistent with the DOT Standards. Why would you ignore the DOT standards meant to safeguard the public that were meant to complement the 8-second interval?
FOILED. No response was made by the Schenectady Zoning Office, or any other of the copied officials, to my March 20, 2015 reply. That same day, I submitted a FOIL request for all documents relating to application(s) by Proctors to operate variable electronic sign displays. The FOIL office responded by sending me only one document, the Decision Letter, dated Sept. 27, 2013. It does not mention interval speed. Moreover, the 09/18/2013 Minutes of the Planning Commission (see pp. 3-4) meeting, at which the SUP was approved, makes no mention of the minimum change interval for the electronic display. When the FOIL office suggested I needed to file another FOIL request for the additional documents relating to the application of Proctors for the September 2013 special use permit, I complied rather than complaining that they should have included those documents, filing on April 15, 2015, and am waiting to see if Proctors submitted the SUP Application Form that is required by the Planning Office.
follow-up: I have received the SUP Application of Proctors, dated Sept. 2, 2013 (two months after NYSDOT and Mayor McCarthy announced the comprehensive Rt. 5 pedestrian safety campaign described above), and signed by Philip Morris. It is understandable that the City Planners would not want the public to see what constituted Proctor’s evidence that there would be no substantial or undue adverse effects from its new variable-message digital marquee. The rather nontechnical “explanations”, from page 2 of the 3-page application, were:
Thus, no supplemental application for a Special Use Permit was required before Proctors put up the much faster variable message board, because it already had a special use permit for its much-slower digital sign. As expected, however, the Planning Office had approved the first digital marquee based on one sentence, with no facts or studies, or expert opinions, but instead simply denying there would be any adverse impact on public health or safety.
– posting continued –
Should we be concerned about short-interval CEVMS at Proctors?
Below is a discussion with a fuller outline of the variables that should be considered when evaluating the use of Electronic Variable Message Signs at any particular location (and, in particular, at the location of Proctors along State Street and Jay in downtown Schenectady, the subject of the posting above, and other busy and complicated locations, such as the coming Mohawk Harbor casino and mixed-use development). Even when couched in planning jargon, they are common-sense factors that all seem to point to a conclusion that rapidly-changing electronic signs have no place at the Proctors location. City officials should, we believe, apply similar concepts in evaluating the electronic displays at the Mohawk Harbor Rivers Casino and other busy Schenectady intersections.
There have been many studies of electronic variable-message signs, due to their increased potential for distracting drivers. Recent studies, primarily focused on high-speed roads rather than urban or suburban streets, have found no significant increase in accidents near variable message signs. Their authors have, however, warned that different conditions may warrant different conclusions. See for example, the Federal Highway Administration’s Report on “The Effects of Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs on Driver Attention and Distraction: An Update” (Pub. #FHWA-HRT-09-018 (Feb. 2009); and “Context-Sensitive Signage Design” (by Marya Morris, et al., for the Research Department of the American Planning Association, 2001).
Thus, the FHWA study cited above states (at 17):
[I]t cannot be assumed that all CEVMS are equal, even those of the same size, height, and LED technology to display their images. The impact of a CEVMS in an undeveloped area with relatively low levels of nighttime ambient lighting may be quite different from that of a CEVMS in a more urban context among other buildings and structures in an area with high nighttime illumination levels. Furthermore, characteristics of the CEVMS displays may, in and of themselves, lead to measurable differences in distraction, such as information density, colors of figure and background, character size and font, and message content. These characteristics cannot be assumed to be equivalent for purposes of comparisons.
Many of the most important variables for assessing the potential safety hazard of CEVMS are at play on the section of downtown Schenectady where Proctors is located. Even if hidden behind technical terminology, most of the factors come down to common sense:
- Longitudinal Location. The location of signs in their relation to such highway design features as intersections, channelization features, traffic control devices, and features which require a high level of attention to the driving task.
- Thus, highly relative to Proctors, the FHWA report stresses that: “[C]ompelling information from CEVMS used for advertising may conflict with important roadway safety information conveyed by nearby traffic control devices (official signs).” Likewise, the APA research study points out that “commercial signs should never compete with traffic control devices for attention”.
- The channeling of those seeking and departing a parking space increases the need for additional attention to the driving task.
- Frequent changes in speed for yourself and other drivers increases the likelihood of accidents.
- The inevitability of jaywalkers, often dashing from behind or between moving or parked vehicles, increases demands on the driver.
- Lateral Location. This refers to the distance that signs are set back from the highway, measured in distance from the edge of the main traveled way. Lateral location standards also consider the angle of a sign on which the messages are displayed relative to the line of sight of motorists on the adjacent highway. Proctors marquee could scarcely be closer to the “edge of the main travel lane”; while the front panel is difficult to read unless traveling slowly directly in front of it, and the GE-Theater-Apostrophé Lounge message board is set at an angle requiring drivers to take their eyes off the road at precisely the place where they should be giving the road and nearby pedestrian and parking activity their full attention.
- Other Environmental Factors: The complexity of the visual environment is extremely important. Visual clutter; nearby signs; and ambient lighting are important considerations. Condition of the roadway: wet, dry, precipitation. Existence of a Bicycle Path
- Characteristics of the Signage: Size, length, height; visual angle, distance first detected, contrast ratios, day/night settings; ability to hold attention, special effects (wipe, dissolve, scintillate); whether full-motion video or effects mimicking motion are used; type of Content: text, graphics, mixed, targeted; Text: word count, font size and type, color, content, legibility, affect; Graphics: size, complexity, color, content, affect.; whether Driver Interaction is encouraged.
- Characteristics of Drivers. Age, gender, and demographics can come into play. Driver familiarity with the location is very important, as is experience driving under likely conditions (e.g., weather, darkness). Fatigue and use of alcohol or drugs are often relevant factors for those driving at night along downtown Schenectady. And, Distractions inside the vehicle (such as, conversation, eating, backseat drivers supervising parking, cellphone use) also lower driver attention and reaction time.
- Primacy of Information. The information on CEVMS should be responsive to motorist’s information and direction-finding needs, concentrating on messages that identify business sites, give directions into the site and its facilities (parking and loading areas, internal circulation pattern), goods or services available, and other information necessary to use the site (e.g., hours of operation). This principle suggests that CEVMS located in close proximity to traffic control devices should avoid the urge to dazzle and entertain us.
- Older and Younger Audience Members. Proctors attracts a large number of older and younger audience members, given its selection of entertainment. Many older drivers come for their own entertainment or to accompany young audience members. And, Proctors events are often “must-sees” for young kids.
(1) Problems of Older Drivers. As driver and as pedestrians, older folk present the need for greater attention. The Minimum Required Visibility Distance (MRVD) for older drivers may be considerably longer than for younger drivers because of diminished abilities to recognize and process information and to execute lane-changing maneuvers. This is not merely related to vision impairment. The concept of MRVD makes it obvious that factors such as reaction time, decision making, and problem solving increase the distance needed by the older driver to detect and read signs, and that these factors can create visibility problems for the older driver even when visual impairment is not considered. In general, older drivers not only have problems seeing what younger drivers can see at a given distance, but they also need to recognize and be able to read signs at greater distances to provide them with the additional time they need to respond in a safe manner.
(2) Younger Audience Members. Many small children will be very excited, both entering and exiting Proctors. That increases the likelihood of behavior that could affect traffic along State Street, and requires yet addition attention. Some will need to be carried, complicating navigating across streets, and increasing the time a pick-up may take.
There are many other factors, but the above surely indicate that 8-second intervals on the Proctors marquee and at the entry to Apostrophe Lounge raise a large enough safety hazard to warrant action by City Hall. (And demands from citizen like you.)
Finally, before I did the research leading to the prior section on relevant factors in assessing the negative impact of CEVMS, I made my own common sense, layman’s list of concerns raised by the CEVMS displays at Proctors:
- the marquee is too close to the street to have such busy signs; you can’t ignore these intensely bright variable signs
- it interferes with attending to the traffic light a few yards from Proctors at Jay Street
- only a few yards away on the same side of the street cars are navigating from the diagonal parking spaces and divider, having to merge into traffic without control devices, often with a line of impatient drivers behind them frantically searching for a parking space
- it is next to perhaps the busiest crosswalk in the downtown Schenectady
- people are often in a rush to get across the street at that location
- many people walk directly out Proctor’s doors and keep going, without using the crosswalk
- many people are waiting in cars in the 15-minute Delivery Zone, right at the marquee, to pick up people who work at or are being entertained at Proctors, and enter the roadway from that awkwardly from that position
- other drivers are blocking the sole eastward travel lane to bring or take away Proctors customers
- the marquee is too close to the road to be so bright and change so often
- when the front of the marquee has the same message as the side, drivers will be tempted to try to read the front after missing the message on the side; at times when there are two different messages, the driver may be distracted even longer, trying to read the front message as well as the side messages
- people coming into Schenectady from outside the City may be quite confused and concerned about where to turn or to park; a spouse may be yelling in your ear; you might be anxious about being late for a show; and you are also distracted by looking for a parking space with a line of traffic behind you
- many of those who are out driving or walking at night have been drinking alcohol or taking drugs
- many elderly who would not normally drive at night might do so for a special Proctor’s event, whether it is raining or not, and the bright and flashing lights make their night vision even worse
- given the east-west orientation of State Street, drivers going west before sunset often have to deal with blinding glare from the sun that makes discerning the color of traffic lights very difficult, requiring intense attention
This situation requires that rubber stamps be set aside; that the Code Enforcement Office insist Proctors seek a CEVMS special use permit; and that the Planning Commission require that Proctors show the lack of significant impact on traffic conditions, and on safety, health or other public welfare issues before it speeds up its roadside variable electronic signs.