How darkened streets reflect hard times

The lights went out on many cities' thoroughfares during the recession. And lots of them haven't been turned back on.

By Bruce Kennedy Jul 29, 2013 8:17AM

Time-lapse photo of Atlanta highways at night (© Travel Ink/Digital Vision/Getty Images)Nighttime illumination is an important part of city life: It keeps crime and accident rates down while beckoning people outside and allowing commerce to continue well past sunset. The presence or lack of working streetlights also appears to be a pretty good indicator of a municipality's economic health.


Cities all across the U.S. have been turning off streetlights for several years now, in an effort to save money during tough economic times. Some, like Colorado Springs, Colo., darkened thousands of them during the depths of the recession. But as the Colorado Springs budget recovered, thanks to the streetlight reduction and other cost-saving measures, all the city's lights were turned back on by late last year.


Then there's Atlanta -- where recession-era budget cuts left large sections of the city's interstate highways dark. Close to half of the 7,000 lights lining some of the busiest sections of highways in the city and its suburbs do not work. And it's not just a matter of changing a light bulb. Many of those lampposts have been vandalized for their valuable copper wiring.


Some observers say streetlights are more than just a public service -- they can affect a community's vitality. A working streetlight "touches kids going to school in the dark," Kirk Cheyfitz, chief executive of New York-based Story Worldwide, a marketing company, told Bloomberg last year. "It touches midnight Mass at a church. It touches businesses that want to stay open past 9 p.m."


Cheyfitz was referring in particular to the situation in Detroit, where a full 40% of the city's 88,000 street lights are broken, and there's no budget for repairs. As The Detroit Free Press recently reported, the lack of street lights and other essential services left many residents feeling abandoned well before the city formally declared bankruptcy, earlier this month.


"I feel like I'm in Beirut," Detroit resident Antonio Tucker recently told the newspaper. "It's a mile just to walk to the store at night, and you got to go through with no streetlights. It's dark and it's scary and these abandoned buildings, you don't know who's going to jump out of them or what's going to happen."


Richard Mendoza, Atlanta's public works commissioner, told WXIA-TV it will cost about $1.2 million to get his city's thousands of darkened streetlights working again, with an additional $250,000 to maintain them. And those costs don't include an annual power bill of around $1 million. But the money has been found, apparently. So, perhaps the lights coming back in Atlanta and elsewhere on is a hopeful sign of better financial times.


And yes, some argue that too many street lights are a waste of energy. But if you ask most people, they'd probably feel more comfortable walking around at night on a well-lit street than on a dark one.


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