The City of Chicago is open for business again for on-premises dynamic digital signage.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently signed a law overturning a nearly yearlong moratorium on new, exterior digital signage on city buildings. The moratorium was enacted last July in response to public outcry over a spate of LED digital advertising signs going up on the outside of buildings in neighborhoods around the city — "prompting fears," according to WTTW's "Chicago Tonight," "that Chicago was fast turning into the Las Vegas of the Midwest."
The International Sign Association worked with a coalition of local businesses and the city's Commissioner of Buildings, staffers from the mayor's office and city council members to overturn the moratorium and bring digital signs back to Chicago, said ISA Vice President of Government Relations David Hickey in a recent interview.
Digital Signage Today sat down for a phone interview with Hickey about the effort in Chicago and around the country to pass legislation governing but allowing digital signage. A transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity, appears below:
(Editor's note: Due to space and length considerations, the Q and A with Hickey was separated into two parts; the second part will run Thursday.)
DST: So tell us about what happened in Chicago.
Hickey: Last year the City Council in Chicago enacted a moratorium on new electronic message centers, or EMCs as we call them, and digital signs, and it was just a very tenuous and difficult situation. There was a company going in there and putting up these signs unpermitted, and so just because of one bad actor the city reacted — overreacted in my book — in restricting all new digital signs.
So there was a moratorium, and it lasted 10 months, but there was a coalition involving the ISA; our affiliate association, the Illinois Sign Association; end-users; [a] retail group; and other stakeholders. We worked together to meet with the city council and the mayor's office … and there were some setbacks, but then finally the City Council recently passed new legislation lifting the 10-month moratorium for new on-premise digital displays, increased brightness standards more in line with industry recommendations that we have and eliminated a proposed prohibition on new digital signs along the expressway corridors — they wanted to not allow any more new EMCs along those corridors, and that would have cost a lot in business for sign companies in the area. So that was recently signed into law by Mayor Emanuel.
So what happened in Chicago, that was just a really high profile sign code situation, but things like that are happening all over the country when it comes to on-premise digital signs.
DST: Do they differentiate at all between those EMCs and digital billboards?
Hickey: That is an issue that happens all the time. So I just mentioned Chicago, and a bad actor was going in there and putting up digital signs. Well, they were technically off-premise digital signs that were being put up without permits. But because there's often confusion among local officials over these kinds of signs, even though those are technically digital billboards, on-premise signs got brought into the moratorium as well, into the proposed prohibition. So that happens all the time also, where local officials think, "Well, it's a digital billboard, so let's restrict all digital signs." On- and off-premise have been treated differently for decades, under different legal regimes, under different regulatory schemes. They have so many different purposes and capabilities that we always urge that local officials treat them differently — and so does OAAA (the Outdoor Advertising Association of America) for that matter.
DST: So residents called them a nuisance and an eyesore; what are some of the main objections you see not just in Chicago but around the country to these signs that can lead to proposed prohibitions like this one?
Hickey: There are two main issues I would say, and then a subset of about a dozen other issues. But the two biggest ones are brightness, that the signs are too bright at night, and what I would just call traffic safety concerns. These are signs that have different messages, that change messages, sometimes on a fairly regular basis, and so people who object to these signs, the local officials, say, "Well, they're dangerously distracting to drivers." So those are the two biggest concerns that local officials cite.
DST: And how do you respond to those concerns?
Hickey: A couple years ago, the ISA developed night time brightness recommendations for digital signs, for EMCs. We had a renowned lighting scientist work with us on developing these brightness recommendations so these signs aren't overly bright at night but still are able to be effectively seen.
It has model code language in there, and then it gives a step-by-step process for how to measure the brightness. We've had this out for a couple of years and there have been just dozens and dozens of communities that have accepted this language in total or in part as a way to approach the brightness situation. We've had so many positive outcomes as a result of having this language available for communities where it's their No. 1 concern, and it allows us to keep the conversation open and to get our foot in the door with these kinds of signs so then local officials can see that, "Hey, they can be reasonably regulated, and they can still work out for everybody."
When it comes to traffic safety, there's research out there that shows that these kinds of signs are not dangerously distracting to drivers. There was one that came out in 2012 from Texas A&M University, their transportation school, that surveyed about 140 of these kinds of signs in four different states. It was a statistical analysis, so what they did was they identified locations where there were no signs, got the traffic safety reports for two years, then checked the same traffic safety reports for a two-year period after the digital sign was installed and compared … and they found that there's no statistical correlation between the installation of these signs and an increase in traffic accidents. And we've been using that, also to positive effect, throughout the country when local officials say people are going to swerve and drive into oncoming traffic because they're looking at these signs. Well, here's some fact-based evidence by Texas A&M University which proves that that's not the case.
DST: So it seems digital signage, digital billboards and EMCs all get kind of mixed in together. So to be clear, EMCs are like the LED signs on a car dealership; we're not necessarily talking about a storefront with a 50-inch LCD display that might be seen from the sidewalk?
Hickey: The LCDs don't really yet have the outdoor capabilities that LED digital signs do, but sometimes they are visible from the road and they would fall under that [kind of ordinance or prohibition] … It has been our experience working with communities across the country that many cities assert to right to regulate every sign visible from the right of way, whether or not it is readable — even LCD signage. There are definitely an increasing number of regulatory and certification bodies that are looking at dynamic digital signage as we call it here, the LCD signage, with increased scrutiny. And we have experience with those bodies … that are looking at this kind of signage too. And it has the wayfinding implications that we deal with, with communities, all the time. And digital signage on street furniture is something that brings up safety implications. Urban branding that communities want to do with downtown development; those are issues that we help with local officials all the time. And I think those definitely include the LCDs and the more traditional dynamic digital signage that you and I both have in mind.
(Come back Thursday to read more about what this means bigger picture, and about the ISA's work with urban planners to craft smart planning codes.)
Image courtesy of pixabay.
/ Christopher is the managing director of the Interactive Customer Experience Association and former editor of DigitalSignageToday.com. A longtime freelance writer and reporter, he's bringing a fresh perspective and critical take on the industry.