Night-time safety: rethinking lighting in the context of a walking community
Last night, instead of going to a forum in Arlington on the future of WMATA, I felt obligated to go to a neighborhood meeting organized in response to a night-time robbery of two teachers from the nearby charter school, and an unconnected burglary of that school, plus an uptick in some other crime categories.
Having lived in the H Street NE neighborhood at the height of the crack-related crime and murder epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I am pretty inured to low levels of crime, although I am still very much interested in the etiology of crime, the field that is called "crime prevention through environmental design," and the general realization that most police departments, including DC's, despite the rise in the use of statistical analysis to fight crime, and definitely police officers, don't seem too capable of taking a planning approach to crime reduction (e.g., see "Planning applied to crime reduction," "Crime prevention through environmental design and repeated burglaries at the Naylor Gardens apartment complex," and "Suburban building forms in the center city--Does this contribute to crime?").
Night-time lighting as an element of placemaking and the walking city. But just like how I argue that the walking-biking-transit city needs a transformational approach to snow clearance ("Upping the expectations on snow removal," "A "maintenance of way" agenda for the walking and transit city," and "Level of service and maintenance requirements in planning #2: winter maintenance of bike paths"), we need to think more clearly about night-time lighting for neighborhoods, commercial districts, schools, and transit stations and stops.
Elizabeth Dickerson, State of Maine Representative, shows a globe light streetlight with the light set to illuminate sidewalks and a streetlight at a different height, set to illuminate the roadway.
Crime everywhere--not just in urban areas-- is abetted by poor lighting... and empty places. I am not going to get into the details of how street robberies are normally enacted, but the robbery that happened a couple blocks away happened on a street by the school where teachers park their cars, where the lighting is minimal, and where one side of the block is a relatively empty park--so it's an order vacuum besides the problems of limited lighting.
The area of activity that matters is larger than the entrance to the building. Parents, of course focused on where they go in and out of the school, at the school's entrance, are only focused on that part of the school's "catchment" area, and not the other parts of the catchment area, beyond the school. This came up at last night's meeting. Frankly, the block of Peabody Street NW abutting the school is the safest place to be, because it has a great deal of activity throughout the hours that the school is open.
Safe routes to school programs inadequately consider night-time issues. And "safe routes to school" planning materials don't address night-time lighting much because of a presumption that the school day ends around 3pm to 4pm when it is daylight. But many urban schools offer a wide range of afterschool programs, and more attention needs to be paid to ensuring there is enough light around the school when it's dark.
For example, I consider this State of Washington guidebook, School Walk and Bike Routes: A Guide for Planning and Improving Walk and Bike to School Options for Students, to be definitive, yet it fails to address night-time illumination to the level of detail the topic deserves.
We need systematic approaches to improving night time lighting in walkable places. The problem is that we haven't extended the ideas of "safe routes to (and from) school" or "safe routes to and from transit," by daypart, to address evening-related issues, which affect students but also parents and personnel like teachers.
(Some communities have more systematic programs addressing "safe routes to transit" (e.g., NYC DOT - Safe Routes to Transit, Safe Routes to Transit Program, San Francisco Bay region, Safe Routes to Transit BRT planning guide, pedestrian section, ITDP).
This Wikipedia image of a block in Adelaide, Australia shows how the issue of "streetlights" being focused on illuminating the roadway is not unique to the U.S.
Resources exist but are limited. There are resources out there, such as Improving Street Lighting to Reduce Crime in Residential Areas from the Department of Justice. (The FHWA publication Pedestrian Facilities Users Guide: Providing Safety and Mobility is somewhat inadequate when it comes to the night time lighting issue, although it does provide limited guidance.)
Unfortunately, according to the DOJ guide:
There is no published step-by-step guide on how to improve street lighting to reduce crime and, in any case, every problem-oriented project is unique.
Traffic safety countermeasure protocols need to be enhanced to better cover night time illumination. Just like how we have "counter-measure" protocols for dealing with pedestrian (Pedestrian Safety Guide and Countermeasure Selection System) and bicycle (BIKESAFE: Bicycle Countermeasure Selection System) accidents, it's pretty clear how to respond to many of the conditions that tend to support street robberies (other than people not paying attention). And the PEDSAFE website does have a section on Lighting and Illumination:
Roadway lighting has often focused on the needs of the motorist and not necessarily the safety of the pedestrian. ... Adequate roadway lighting enhances the safety of all roadway users, while pedestrian-scale lighting improves nighttime security and enhances commercial districts.The solution: focusing on sidewalk lighting systematically, separately and distinct from roadway lighting. The primary problem is that "street lights" are mostly focused on lighting streets and the lights are placed much higher than they need to be to be useful for pedestrians (except at crosswalks). As a result, it's better to discuss streetlights in terms of their function as roadway lighting, and to call for additional lighting focused on serving pedestrians--"sidewalk" lighting--where the lighting fixture is placed closer to the sidewalk.
Left: this image from a document from Chapel Hill, North Carolina shows a traditional streetlight with the addition of a separate arm to provide more focused pedestrian lighting.
Where to prioritize sidewalk lighting. It's pretty simple, start with schools and transit stations and stops, and other areas with pedestrian activity adjacent to and/or through order vacuums like parks.
For example, Delegate Eleanor Norton pressed the National Park Service to install sidewalk lighting in Sherman Circle, after a bicyclist was robbed and murdered there a few years ago ("Norton Presses NPS to Light the Darkness in Sherman Circle," press release, "D.C. hosts ribbon-cutting for new Sherman Circle lights," WJLA-TV).
But the murder could have been prevented in all likelihood, had this area been lighted not after the fact, but as the result of a systematic and proactive evaluation of neighborhood needs for safe night time walking environments.