When I first moved to St. Louis, I thought that there were a lot of street lights here. After living here for a few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that our high level is a result of a combination of older, dimmer lights simply being replaced with newer, brighter head units and an assumption that brighter street lighting is a deterrent to crime.
I’ve also been exposed to the edges of the “Dark Skies” movement, where people are very concerned about light pollution. Places like the big island of Hawaii and Tempe, Arizona, have enacted strict restrictions on exterior lighting, so people can see the stars at night. Daytona Beach has restrictions along the Atlantic Ocean, to protect the nesting areas of sea turtles. Given the recent economic challenges, Santa Rosa, CA, is eliminating nearly half of their street lights. “The city boasts that it will cut its carbon footprint. What really matters, though, is money.”
The truth, like many things, is probably somewhere in between. For security purposes, you just need to be able to see if someone is lurking or up to no good, you don’t need to be able to do surgery. Brighter is not always better – if you have a “glare bomb” of a gas station, then yes, everyone else around them needs to be incrementally brighter than they would be otherwise, just because of the extreme contrast. At the other extreme, on a clear night with a full moon, in areas without streetlights, even though the actual light level is very low, because it’s not concentrated, both people and things are readily discernible.
Which gets back to St. Louis. We have budget issues and we have crime issues. According to the city’s website, we have more than 80,000 streetlights. We even have a history of being the leaders in the use of electric lighting. The question, now, is whether or not we should maintain the status quo? Or, if we should see is we can save some money without increasing crime rates. The city’s budget includes Â±$4.3 million for the Traffic & Lighting Division and its 33 employees, which works out to $67 per light.Â If we were safely able to eliminate 10% of our existing streetlights, we’d be able to save more than a half million dollars annually and we’d be reducing our carbon footprint.Â It all gets back to perception versus reality. Â Are you willing to see reduced street lighting in St. Louis, both to save tax dollars and to be a bit more environmentally conscious? Â Or is the pervasive fear of crime, in too many parts of town, enough justification to maintain, or expand, existing lighting levels?
– Jim Zavist