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Turning out the lights

January 2, 2010 Environment, STL Region 15 Comments

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 ±$4.3 million for the Traffic & Lighting Division and its 33 employees, which works out to $67 per light.  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.  It all gets back to perception versus reality.  Are you willing to see reduced street lighting in St. Louis, both to save tax dollars and to be a bit more environmentally conscious?  Or is the pervasive fear of crime, in too many parts of town, enough justification to maintain, or expand, existing lighting levels?

– Jim Zavist


Currently there are "15 comments" on this Article:

  1. Janet says:

    Last June I moved from St. Louis to Portland, OR. I noticed very quickly how dark it is here… there are far fewer streetlights than St. Louis. I don't like it to be honest.. I prefer a well lit street. But I never gave much though to the reason behind it.

    I think it kind of kills the crime prevention rationale though.. Portland is statistically safer than STL for being so dark. Thanks for the insight.

  2. Joey says:

    Until our crime rate is chopped in half, I'll keep the street lights. Carbon footprint be damned.

  3. 63101 says:

    Chicago did a study on this at one point, with regard to lights in alleys. They concluded that:

    * Lights do not affect crimes during the day (this one's a no-brainer)
    * Crime reports *increased* after lights were installed. This may mean that crime did not decrease as a result of lights, but people were noticing it and calling the police more.
    * People still may feel safer with the lights than without.


    It also bears mentioning that the “dark sky” movement doesn't imply outright removal of lights. There are streetlight designs that focus their light downward, not upward, meaning you're throwing less money away lighting up the sky.

    PS: Cite your quote in the second paragraph.

  4. darondierkes says:

    Portland is not ethnically and economically diverse. Of course they have less crime. I wouldn't say there's a direct link between the lighting and the crime.

    Crime is prevented by the creation of defenisble space, eyes on the street, and all kinds of other adjustments to the environment. Bright lights like the one posted here do a lot to diminish the beauty and cohesiveness of a space. That light makes the area under it appear stark and abandoned. Just out side of it, it makes a very dark place that's equally abandoned.

    Soft lighting like LEDs in the sidewalk and road do a lot to add ambient light to an area. Artful street lights that don't needlessly illuminate the sky add atmosphere and comfort to a nightly stroll.

    I first moved to St. Louis because UMSL's astrophysics program contacted me and made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Only when I moved on campus did I realize I couldn't see a single star in the sky. UMSL's observatory has the power to turn off all the lights in the surrounding parking lots… which is nice.

    In Hong Kong there's a nightly light show, and it looks terrible because the ambient orange sky works against it. With cleaner air and less light pollution, their show would be incredible.

    The Gateway Foundation has done some excellent work with the lighting for Compton Tower, the Civil Courts Building, and the Arch, but largely with upward facing lights. The arch specifically could probably be more artfully lit.

    We shouldn't be approaching lighting with generic ugliness. Replacing light posts is a good way for a neighborhood to distinguish itself. What happened in the loop is a terrible example though.

  5. John Regenbogen says:

    Billboards are huge energy emitters; my favorite is the Ameren UE campagin supposedly encouraging energy efficiecy while wasting light at midnight… great job marketers! On street lighting, the Clinton Global Initiative has a program area on that issue; and the question is not having lights, rather it is using energy efficient lighting that also minimizes light pollution by directing light downwards. Readers may also be interested in knowing that a Missouri Night Sky Protection Act has been filed that seeks to improve the Night Sky in priority areas such as state parks that have overnight camping.

  6. Mike N says:

    Money is always a factor in decision making however, it’s not the only factor.

    Before we decide if removing a percentage of streetlights will save us money shouldn’t we understand what the true impact of having a single streetlight is?

    Utility companies sell energy therefore they have no interest in making it known what is truly required to keep a street light operating every night for a year.

    Here’s some truth:

    It takes approximately 977 pounds of coal to keep one average 250 watt street light illuminated an average of 9 hours a night for 365 days a year.

    Given a quantity of 80,000 streetlights in the city of St Louis it takes 78,160,000 pounds of coal to keep them going.

    If you’ve ever noticed one of those coal trains winding it’s way through St Louis it will help you understand how much coal this is. Each one of the cars hold 100 tons of coal, it will require 390 cars to supply the coal for our streetlights. If all the cars were tied together into one train it would be 4.5 miles long.

    The facts stated above are only to keep the cities street lights illuminated. My guess is there are far more lights on parking lots and such. When you consider the streetlights are only a tiny fraction of the electrical requirements for the city the numbers are sickening

    The question to me is; does the safety factor provided by the lights justify burning 78 million pounds of coal to make it happen. I can’t see how burning 78,000,000 pounds of coal is any safer than taking my trash out in the dark.

    Try as we might we can never remove all risk from life.

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  8. christine says:

    Bright lights are better than no lights at all. Let’s just be thankful that we do not have to walk in the dark at night time.


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