Turning out the streetlights in "distressed" parts of Detroit

In Bloomberg, Chris Christoff reports on the city of Detroit's plan to switch off up to half of its municipal streetlights, reducing or eliminating public lighting in "distressed" areas, noting that other cities, including neighboring Highland Park, as well as Colorado Springs, have already done this:

A single, broken streetlight on the northeast side brings fear to Cynthia Perry, 55. It hasn’t worked for six years, Perry said in an interview on the darkened sidewalk where she walks from her garage to her house entrance.

“I’m afraid coming in at night,” she said. “I’m not going to seclude myself in the house and never go anywhere.”

In southwest Detroit, businesses on West Vernor Highway, a main commercial thoroughfare, have sought $4 million in private grants to fix the situation themselves. The state would pay $2.5 million, said Kathy Wendler, president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

Jamahl Makled, 40, said he’s owned businesses in southwest Detroit for about two decades, most recently cell-phone stores. He said they’ve have been burglarized more than a dozen times.

“In the dark, criminals are comfortable,” Makled said. “It’s not good for the economy and the safety of the residents.”

Half of Detroit’s Streetlights May Go Out as City Shrinks (via Rejectamentalist Manifesto)


  1. This is a tricky subject, however. Astronomy enthusiasts in fighting against light pollution often make arguments that increased public lighting doesn’t decrease crime rates, and only makes the public think they are safer; they usually have numerous studies to back this up. Are there any studies that suggest turning off street lights like this will have significantly negative effects on safety at all?

    1. Which Detroit street do you want to walk down in the dead of night, the lighted one or the pitch black one?

      1. I would totally choose the dark street. Because that way nobody would be able to tell I’m wearing a ski mask, and I couldn’t get arrested for wearing a mask in public. (It’s a shame it’s illegal to walk around wearing a ski mask in some places.)

      2. I actually feel more comfortable in the dark than I do walking in and out of spotlights that make me look like a prize on Wheel of Fortune.

        What I will call the Streetlight Fallacy is predicated on the erroneous idea that somebody will come to your rescue (in time) if they see you being violated.

        1. I think it’s far more complex than that.  Studies show that people behave differently if they feel they might be seen (even when they know they aren’t being watched).  Meta-studies I’ve seen on this issue do indicate there’s a measurable drop in crime associated with improvements in street lighting.  So some criminals are either restraining themselves or moving to other, presumably darker, areas to commit their crimes.

          1. If we’re operating purely on the psychological level, when it’s dark I feel more like another predator in the shadows.  In the light, I definitely feel like the snow bunny in one of those nature specials.  My increased confidence probably decreases my likelihood of being a victim because I don’t give off those tasty, tasty prey signals.

      3. If I’m in Detroit?  The dark one, in full body armor, with light-gathering goggles and a shotgun.

        Of course, I feel that way about all cities, not just Detroit.

      4.  maker-built LED panel with solar array and gel-cells?  Still need a boom-lift or something to mount on dead poles.  LED colour to define authors and neighbourhoods? Staking out neighbourhoods with light to show they are living turf? Defended?

  2. Wow – of course, when I was living in Detroit in the 60’s, we had tanks rolling down the streets to keep the population in line… or armored personnel carriers, at least.

  3. While I understand that it is crass to say so in as many words(especially if you are the one behind the plan) isn’t the whole point of these ‘rationalizing’ efforts to ‘encourage’ the remaining residents of areas you’ve given up on to GTFO so you don’t have to bother with them at all anymore?

    Has a somewhat similar flavor to the classic NY/RAND effort on rendering fire department coverage ‘more efficient’. If you stop providing some services in a given area the locals will, with any luck, give up and go away, so you can cut the rest…

    1. Yeah.  Rather than paying to relocate people, they’re trying to force them to give up their home to move to more populated areas.  I understand eminent domain is somewhat hamstrung in Michigan, but there have to be other options.

  4. I’d say some type of solar powered street lights would seem like a good solution (obviously the government state/federal would have to provide funding)…but I’d fear they would be stolen.

    1. A good solar system would be hard mounted to the lights high up at the top where they would catch the most sunlight and be inaccessible to most thieves.

      1.  Thieves are not strongly deterred by poles or even high voltage.  Put  a valuable item like a reliable solar energy system on a pole, and that tree will be felled.

    2. The fundamental problem is that the population density in some areas means that there are multiple street lights for every person in the area (rather than 10 or more people for every streetlight).   Instead of spending hundreds of dollars per inhabitant to operate the streetlights, they’d be paying thousands of dollars per inhabitant to replace them.  So it’s unsustainable, whatever the technology. 

  5. Well.. since I live out in the exurbs of Detroit, I’m not really affected, our streetlights are mostly rusted out to be honest. Honestly though, this is a good thing, Detroit is insanely spread out, there are vast tracts of land with only one or two people living in the entire area. Its honestly impossible to maintain any standard of living above slum in the area because of that. The minor city near where I live, the median income is actually below the poverty line, and people complain that they axed the fire and police department in their entirety.

  6. Something that’s interesting here is how completely unprepared cities are to shrink gracefully.  Urban areas seem to be planned, and infrastructure is built out, under the assumption that they’ll either stay the same size or continue to grow.  When they instead shrink, even a fairly modest amount, they seem to be completely unable to deal with it.  
    Are there any cities that have had a significant population loss without these sorts of problems?

    1.  Pompeii had significant population loss with different sorts of problems – does that count?

    2. I suspect that there are two basic problems:

      One is organizational/psychological: The management consultants that I know describe a ‘bias toward action’ in their clients: When they ask for a report/study/valuation, they want a product that tells them to do something. They don’t want, even when it is accurate, a report that says “A strange game, the only winning move is not to play.”

      The second is a combination economies of scale and human persistence problem: As every story ever of ‘Evil $ENTITY$ eminent-domains vibrant neighborhood’ shows, there are always the holdouts, against any pressure short of overwhelming lethal force. However, economies of scale inescapably mean that standard urban infrastructure(roads, cops, electrical grid, water, etc.) become markedly more costly per user as density falls.

      So, city officials have a strong bias against solutions of the form ‘sit on your hands, nothing to be done here’ and any section of the city that starts to empty will either become increasingly expensive(falling revenue, same fixed infrastructure costs) or will have to be relatively traumatically force-emptied or cut off from the mothership and left to operate as low-density unincorporated land with some crumbling urban remnants.

      Not an easy problem. It probably doesn’t help that, in areas that were once reasonably dense city, the land is encumbered with a mixture of physical and legal detritus and hazards: People(of a certain disposition) live quite successfully in low-density/low-service/low-cost rural areas. However, such areas also tend to offer big plots of cheap land, well water, near-nonexistent zoning, etc.

      In a former-urban area, much of the land area is likely to be encumbered by a mixture of physical impediments(crumbling structures and pavement that would have to be removed to convert the land for agricultural or forest use, contamination of former gas station and industrial areas(and lead-painted houses) and quite possibly a messy mass of presently-unasserted(but still legally present) deeds and claims and whatnot that are probably languishing in some bank’s ‘horribly confused bad bets’ drawer now; but would suddenly become worth their lawyer’s hourly if you were to start doing something useful with the land…

    3.  We tend to think of our cities just about the same way that we think about our economy.

    4. But yeah, contraction itself is never the issue, it’s the fact that it’s uneven.

      Realistically, you as a citizen of a city aren’t guaranteed access to power, lighting, fire departments, and other municipal services; you’re guaranteed fair access to a reliable network (in theory). If I had a house that was technically within city limits, but by itself on the other side of a river or something akin, I wouldn’t expect them to give me the same consideration as a city block. In this case, that’s just happening in reverse.

      Since an immediate injection of large sums of money won’t happen soon, the only rational solution is to offer these people help moving into populated areas, and temporarily ceding control of the depopulated ones.

  7. In the 80s, the joke going around was: “Will the last person to leave Detroit please turn off the lights.” Maybe it wasn’t a joke?

  8. teapot’s Google Scholar meta review:

    https://keysso.net/community_news/May_2003/improved_lighting_study.pdf (2002)
    Effective in 50% of cases in the US. Effective in 100% of cases in UK.

    http://www.popcenter.org/problems/street_robbery/PDFs/PainterFarrington1999.pdf (1999)
    “The benefits of improved street lighting, in terms of the savings to the public from crimes prevented, greatly outweighed the costs.”

    http://sites.google.com/site/weirconsulting/fcpu28.pdf (1991)
    “no evidence could be found to support the hypothesis that improved street lighting reduces reported crime. Although some areas and some crime types did show reductions in night-time crime relative to the day-light control, the dominant overall pattern … was of no significant change.”

    “there was clear evidence that perceived safety of women when walking alone after
    dark had been improved in the treated area”

  9. Street lights are safety placebos. Just like airport security, they’re a waste of money. Municipalities are right to get rid of them and spend the money on evidence-based crime deterrents. 

  10. Less of an issue when you realize that the game-plan is to relocate people from those neighborhoods and then bulldoze the lot of them. The houses, not the people. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s been discussed too, given how folks with money tend to view those without it.

    1. “Efficiency and progress are ours once more;
      Now that we have the neutron bomb.”

    2. Oh, for god’s sake.  There is no way a city can maintain services when there is one family per block.  Shrinking the city is good for services and and for the people who live there.  It’s not like it costs people anything to move inward – the houses are basically free.

  11. I’m looking at buying a house in Detroit right now. So are a lot of people my age and socioeconomic class. Please keep writing stories like this so in ten to fifteen years you can write about the amazing transformation.

    If you haven’t been, you should make a friend in Detroit and come visit. Without context, without experiencing it with a native, you cannot possibly understand this city or why it’s a very hopeful time here.

  12. What’s with all the people saying street lights aren’t actually necessary? Are you kidding?

    They did this to an extent in my city once, to save money- and they weren’t nice enough to give a warning, either. They decided to switch off the lights in the ENTIRE city two hours before sunrise, and turn them on two hours after sunset. Problem?
    It was terrifying. Walking was bad, but driving, driving was much worse. So many close calls, so many accidents. 

    And Lodz is not unlike  unlike Detroit in the post-industrial wreck sense. So-called distressed areas and troublesome citizens abound. Plenty of ways to get hurt in the daytime, it’s a lot worse at night. 
    (the Detroit Lives project has drawn the parallel many times. Cities like these need special treatment, and turning off the lights to hide the ugly doesn’t work :http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/philiplauri/detroit-and-lodz-solutions-for-post-industrial-cit)

    1. We don’t have street lights here in some neighborhoods. Specifically, the expensive neighborhoods that everyone wants to live in. Living in a dark neighborhood is a status symbol. You drive carefully at night.

  13. I’m not thrilled with the decision to turn off close to half the street lights, I see it as move by the city to coerce residents to move to areas of the city where they haven’t turned off the power. Next you’ll see them shutting of utilities in the name of saving money.

  14. Another less talked about problem with street lights in Detroit is that they allow unmetered access to the electrical grid.

    If you are an enterprising young businessman and you decide to cook rock nonstop on one stove top (or microwave) and you notice that you are unable to keep up with demand, naturally you add more stoves and microwaves.

    Once you reach a certain threshold (say a dozen or so electric stoves and or 50 microwaves in your house running full time), your electric bill stands out in your neighborhood.

    You have just self selected for a no-knock raid by Drano, SWAT, VCTF or anyone else with an alphabet patch on their vests.

    To avoid this, one option involves jumper cables and extension cords running to street lamps that have had their access panels pried off.

    As a young adult, it was a game to drive around looking for these set ups and dare each other to get out and run down the block disconnecting them.

    No I never lived in “Tha D”, but everyone is only a few minutes from a freeway and they all head down town.

Comments are closed.