The recession is taking its toll on an unassuming bystander: street lighting. Across the U.S., cities and towns, from Dennis, Mass., to Santa Rosa, Calif., are having to make difficult choices in the face of drastically reduced or even nonexistent operating budgets: namely, light or no light.
What's so disturbing about reading these reports, particularly the case of Colorado Springs, Colo., profiled as part of an Aug. 6 New York Times article, “Governments Go To Extremes as the Downturn Wears On,” is the simplification of the issue into a single option—to save money in electricity costs by turning off the lights—without discussing other options. (In the case of Colorado Springs, Colo., the city turned off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save $1.2 million in electricity costs and simultaneously cut the size of its police force; neither move has gone over well with residents.)
The fact that we live in a time where municipalities can't afford to run their infrastructure is an issue that directly impacts everyone. And yet, it might be just the wake-up call we need to re-evaluate our approach to our nation's infrastructure issues and the fact that we live in an over-lit world. I'm not suggesting that we risk public safety, but no one can argue that our consumption and demand for electricity has grown profoundly since World War II, to the point where, when there is an electricity loss, we forget how to operate our lives sans connectivity. The current situation begs several questions: How much light do we really need? Are current models for spacing of streetlights overkill or would our street-lighting efforts be better served with less light and/or a different configuration of equipment?
One also wonders, in reading the accounts of municipalities choosing to turn off their streetlights, if the officials making these decisions are aware of the upgrades that can be made to sources and equipment as well as the control and operating systems that allow, through the use of sensors, individual streetlights to be monitored and controlled, and to turn on when a car or person approaches. Smart use of light and energy means that you don't have to turn the switch off completely.
A review of the agenda for the Illuminating Engineering Society's upcoming Annual Street and Area Lighting Conference (Sept. 26–29 in Huntington Beach, Calif.) reveals a rich offering of case study presentations and discussions of energy-efficient technologies and legislative issues, given by architects and lighting designers, lighting manufacturers, city officials, and utility representatives. Once again, here is an opportunity for the lighting community to step forward and inform the larger public about the value of lighting and its skilled professionals, available lighting technologies, and the benefits of quality lighting.
Several cities and towns have already made the investment in switching their infrastructure (many have opted for LED-type street-lights) and several other major metropolitan areas, such as New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., have pilot programs under way to assess LED technology to address long-term cost, energy, and maintenance issues. But what to do now, when cities and towns have literally run out of money?
Some municipalities, such as Santa Rosa, Calif., have turned to their citizens and implemented an “Adopt-A-Light” program where individual residents pay $150 a year (the cost of operating a single street-light in 2008) to turn a streetlight on and assure its continued function. But should individuals have to step in and make up the shortfall for municipal services that are supposed to benefit the greater public? Isn't that in part why we pay taxes? There must be stimulus money to help cities and towns purchase, install, and implement some of these newer technologies. These upgrades don't seem any different than the regular maintenance needed to repave roads, so why shouldn't there be some allotment of stimulus funds directed to the maintenance and upkeep of streetlights?
Lighting has fallen victim to economic circumstances; it's treated as low-hanging fruit in many municipalities' budgets. If cities and towns opt to turn streetlights off, they risk letting equipment fall into disrepair and this will only further contribute to accelerating the nation's aging infrastructure of roadways and bridges. Attempting to address one issue in the short-term will create more problems in the long run. But we can (and should) more effectively manage our cities' and towns' light, and there are affordable options for all municipalities so that they needn't be forced to choose between expenditure and public safety. Otherwise, when it comes to the basic public services we are accustomed to, it will really be lights-out for all of us.