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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Jul 29, 2013 9:04AM
I have a solar-powered lantern that is 15 years old.  It has a fold-out solar panel and if you let it sit in the sun for about 8 hours, you get about 3 hours worth of light.  Why can't we do the same with streetlights?  The technology should be better now, to where you could get more light on less of a charge.  The initial cost would be high, but  cities could save millions over the long run.  This is the kind of infrastructure projects the stimulus dollars should have been spent on, instead of bailing out unions and failing companies.
Jul 29, 2013 9:06AM
Too bad they can't afford to switch to LED lights. They cost 80% less to operate.
Jul 29, 2013 8:54AM

"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."


Instead of fixing the lights, give the good ole boy a 40 cal S&W with night sites!  He can take out the trash and get his Newport single and a 40 oz.

Jul 29, 2013 1:56PM
thank the people we voted into office the last 15 to 20 years they sold us down the drain
Jul 29, 2013 9:34AM
I like not having streetlights; I can see the stars at night.
In Tucson we have a lot of darkened streets. Here it is mostly due to the police and sheriff's failure to do their jobs. Instead of spending their time at the donut shops and playing video games on their cell phones they should be out looking for the copper thieves.
Jul 29, 2013 11:11AM
So, get a flashlight and a gun if you want to live there.
Jul 29, 2013 2:17PM
Thank your politicians for NAFTA , thank the big corperations for selling your future by moving all the jobs to China, AND MOST OF ALL, THANK  YOUR SELVES FOR NOT PUTTING A STOP TO IT, BY NOT BOYCOTTING FORIEGN GOODS !!!!!!!!! Lets face it gang, NO JOBS, NO MONEY!!! It didn't take a financial genius to see this one coming! And it's far from over. It's coming on a national level, and we, as Americans are to blame for it. So run to W--- Mart, and buy another load of Chinese crap, with your extended unemployment, or assistance checks, while they're still good.
Jul 29, 2013 11:28PM

Why don't they use solar lights or the new bulbs that use less energy! C'mon!!!

Jul 30, 2013 5:07PM

Solar, AC tubes, cool plasma neon LEDs, and natural chemical reaction glowlights are simple alternative solutions to the expensive utilities for public service. Suggestive methods to generate streetlights: windmills, and turbines installed in sewer

systems adjacent ducts acting as tiny hydroelectric units to increase water flow thereby powering generators, alternators,

and power cells. Just sayin.  -Eric   

Jul 29, 2013 12:48PM
Carry a flashlight.  Problem solved.
Jul 30, 2013 3:24PM

Lights on corners should work, but the plethora of street lights is a waste of money. The reduction in crime and accidents is minimal. Decommision and scrap the metal sounds good to me and "light pollution" would be reduced.

Jul 30, 2013 10:57AM
New Orleans might be right after Detroit not only in murders, but # of streetlights out. Curiously, they were all on during Super Bowl when the toursist were in town. Our Mayor Landrieu who we thought would "save the day" after miserable, corrupt, Nagin, does not care about its citizens either. It is all about tourists. Who would think you could drive down the infamous St. Charles Avenue at night and go blocks before you come to a working streetlight!
Jul 29, 2013 2:34PM
IT's time for sity's to be smarter about this stuff. We have the technology so start using it. Jeez, I mean, if there were a time for gov't to act, it would seemingly be on this type of problem.
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