When I ride my bike or run at night in Houston, I’m exceedingly careful. One never knows when a pothole will swallow your front tire (despite recent improvements) or when a split sidewalk panel will trip you up.
A few months ago, as I started the final stretch of an evening run by turning off of North Boulevard and onto Graustark Street, not far from the Rice University campus, I saw light. Not the light, or headlights. Just light – and lots of it. The street was fully lit, from curb to curb, for blocks. I felt my cautionary approach fade away. My gait gained confidence. I worried less that passing cars wouldn’t see me until it was too late.
I’d crossed from the warm, yellow glow of North Boulevard’s street lights, which leave a great deal of the street in relative darkness, and entered one of the many streets where CenterPoint Energy, the Houston area’s utility company, had installed new LED streetlights over the past year.
Houston has more than 176,000 streetlights, and at this point, more than 60,000 have been converted to newer 45 watt LED bulbs, per an agreement the city struck with CenterPoint in 2014. The bulbs replaced CenterPoint’s older, 100 watt high pressure sodium (HPS) lights, which emit the familiar yellow glow typically associated with street lights.
The LED lights, which are increasingly being installed in cities across the country, reportedly produce half the energy as the old 100W HPS bulbs. Interestingly, they also produce half the amount of lumens, a measure of visible light. Though the light output is less, the clarity and direction of LED bulbs allows them to bring an equal amount of light to the street as the more energy-intensive models. The lights also are designed to last for significantly longer, on average 10 to 12 years, compared to the three-year lifespan of the HPS bulbs. The city and CenterPoint project that the switch will save the city about $28 million dollars.
Brighter. More energy efficient. Cheaper. For a cash-strapped city with a 16,000 lane miles of roads, this seems like a pretty good deal.
Over the past few months, though, a debate has ensued over the lights, with several vocal opponents bringing their complaints to the attention of City Council and asking for a pause on installation. Those objecting to the new lights argue they are too bright. Some opponents point to studies that show that this type of light might disrupt sleep patterns.
One study opponents often cite argues that the wavelength of blue light — that which is emitted by the street lights and other devices — can indeed affect production of melatonin, a hormone affiliated with darkness that affects sleep timing. However, that study actually highlights our ever-growing attachment to screens at night as the most pressing iteration of the problem — not street lights.
I spend far more time in front of my computer at night (including while I am writing this piece) than I do standing under the LED street light in front of my house. Also, I have curtains, so the solution for keeping the brighter lights out of my bedroom seems relatively straightforward.
Of course, those who feel annoyed by the lights are entitled to complain. As Chris Andrews pointed out in the Houston Chronicle last month, that’s the beauty of our public feedback process. CenterPoint has also said it will redirect misaligned lights or those shining into windows when complaints are filed.
The good news is that most of the complaints seem reasonable. Nobody appears to be relying on nostalgia for the yellow street lights or arguing for CenterPoint and the city to stop the program. Instead, critics are urging a switch to warmer-colored LEDs that emit a less harsh light. That’s a switch some cities – such as Davis, California – have already started.
But CenterPoint reports that switching bulb types would be too costly, and so far, there has been no consensus on the cost of stopping the current program or transitioning to the softer lights. Considering the possibility, if only on residential streets, seems rational, even if it is not ultimately pursued. CenterPoint did two pilot projects with the LEDs, testing a variety of models in the Bridgeport subdivision and downtown with positive results. But perhaps more pilots would have raised the issues now appearing.
Hard to keep up
But I think it’s also worth setting aside the debate and asking why we have the lights in the first place? At their most basic level, street lights are about safety, as well as the perception of safety. The effects are wide ranging: increased visibility for drivers, the hope that it may help reduce crime, allowing easier sidewalk passage for pedestrians, to name a few. The bottom line is that we all view street lights as important elements of the urban landscape because they bring us comfort and security. When they aren’t there, we’re uneasy. We like to see what is in front and behind us. We like to see what is below our feet.
Houston has been working on providing adequate lighting for more than 100 years. In 1912, when six electric street lights were introduced by Houston Lighting & Power on Main Street, they were celebrated for creating a “great white way” down the boulevard that lit the path for passersby in the heart of the city. As Houston grew over the course of the 20th century, so too did the number of streetlights, but never in numbers fast enough to keep pace.
From street lights in 1912, the number of lights increased to 38,901 by 1967. Yet, the Houston Public Service department said that the number only covered about 34 percent of the city’s residential streets. It’s a bit shocking to think about the fact that in the 1970s the majority of Houston’s streets remained in relative darkness.
In 1982 the number of lights in the city’s 550 square miles had risen to 77,000. This was far below the number in cities like Philadelphia with similar populations and smaller footprints. To top it off, Houstonians who wanted to bring a light to their street were asked to pay, on average, $380 dollars to get it installed and keep it running for the first three years.
Putting it in perspective
Compared to these historic realities, the current debate is ironic: it’s about the new lights working too well. This is certainly a step in the right direction. If all our civic debates orbited around ratcheting down services that were too effective, we’d be in great shape as a city.
Yet, there are many places in Houston and Harris County, including much of the unincorporated ETJ, that don’t have adequate streetlight coverage. Near my home, in the heart of the city, I know there are times when I’m walking in Midtown or Montrose that I wish we had a few extra lights. I am sure there are other places readers can think of where the shortfall is more dramatic.
While some of us can complain about the brightness of our streetlights, many others are still working to bring lights to their communities. These conversations can and should occur at the same time, but they should also inform one another. The priorities we bring to our elected leaders should be couched not just in our individual concern but must also be cognizant of broader community needs.
As I run down Graustark now the LED streetlights allow me to run with my head up. I’ve seen a lot of things I couldn’t before. I notice my fellow nighttime Houstonians. I see new problems, too — cracked sidewalks, debris-filled curbs, and clogged storm drains, to name a few. The lights aren’t perfect, and I’m sure the conversation about what will work best will go on. But I, for one, am happy to have a better view as I move forward.