Thomas Edison is well-known for having had the bright idea of inventing the incandescent light bulb. The year was 1879 when this revolutionary invention was patented, and though it was initially decried by some as solely being a fad of the time, we truly couldn’t live without it today.
But while the light bulb gets the spotlight in history books, another great advancement we take for granted today remains in the shadows: street lights.
People have always had a peculiar relationship with the dark. Humans are diurnal animals, but nonetheless we tend to want to stay up late into the night – it has a mystic aire to it, secretive and slightly dangerous.
Dangerous is a keyword when it comes to describing the dark, and it was likely the danger that came with darkness – the danger of burglars, and of tripping over obstacles – that led to wealthy Romans having special slaves by the name of “laternarius” to take care of lighting outside their homes. The poorer people remained in the dark.
The ancient greek city of Antioch, in modern day Turkey, is said to have been one of the first to implement public lighting at night as early as the 4th century ACE. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Caliphate of Cordoba proved itself similarly enlightened. Half a millennium later, in 1417, the mayor of London is said to have decreed that during the dark winter months, lamps were to be hung in the streets of the city following nightfall.
With the emergence of coal gas, which could be burnt to create light, and later the rapid electrification of cities, street lights became more and more common, and we began to care about them less and less.
But we shouldn’t. Both for evolutionary and very contemporary reasons (being eaten by predators and run over by cars, respectively) homo sapiens tend to want to avoid walking around in the dark.
You are 1.7 times as likely to be hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing while it is dark compared to daytime.
It isn’t just about numbers, though. People inherently feel less safe in the dark. A theory for why that is the case outlines that there may be three main factors contributing to whether we feel safe in an area or not: the ability to see well into the distance, the absence of places which may hide a potential threat, and the ability to quickly be able to find an escape route should this become necessary. At night, when it is dark, our vision is limited and therefore the level to which all of these three contributing factors can be assured is reduced. People will therefore be more likely to want to avoid walking around in the dark.
Twice a year, we have the unique chance to watch what varying levels of light mean for the behavior of people: daylight saving time means that one week it is light out, while the next, at the same time of day, it will be dark. A study by Jim Uttley which utilized this quirk in our way of dealing with time has shown that there was a 38% increase in pedestrian traffic and a 27% increase for bikes when there daylight compared to when there was darkness. The study also took into consideration the impact of other ambient conditions such as the weather, coming to the conclusion that it was, in fact, light that led to the different patterns in movement.
Aside from them enabling more people to move around at night with a lower risk of traffic accidents, many people will be quick to point out public lighting resulting in a drop in crime. Studies on this contradict each other, however, and while some have found there to be a correlation between less crime and more light, others have found no link between the two. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that areas illuminated by orange sodium vapor street lamps would see higher crime rates than those with white / blue LED or halogen lamps. Some cities have even seen a drop in suicides following the installation of blue street lights.
Public lighting has unquestionably also meant an increase in the quality of life for those willing to continue living it, not just individuals with suicidal inclinations. It has allowed for us to move comfortably and easily through the city even late in the night, reducing the risk of tripping and putting our minds at ease, allowing us to occupy our brains with other thoughts, whether that may be pondering quantum physics or where to get a pizza.
Street lights are also certainly of importance to our economy. Allowing more people to move around at night enables workers to work night shifts in factories or return home in the dark from work at the office, and it makes life easier (and safer!) for delivery drivers. People can shop well into the night on brightly-lit boulevards lined by malls and stores, spending money at a time of day when, biologically, they are meant to be asleep and without lighting, they likely wouldn’t be out of the house.
The fact that it is almost never noticed when it is present, but dearly missed when absent, proves that street lighting is an indispensable piece of our society which has been perfected to an extent that it is inconspicuous but omnipresent, unobtrusive but effective. It is time that we shine a light on this underappreciated example of human inventive genius.
“A Brief History of Street Lighting.” The Lighting ReSOURCE, thelightingresource.eaton.com/features/2015/a-brief-history-of-street-lighting.
Association, Press. “Turning off Street Lights Does Not Lead to More Crime or Accidents – Study.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 July 2015, www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jul/29/turning-off-street-lights-does-not-lead-to-more-or-accidents-study.
Grohol, John M. “Can Blue-Colored Light Prevent Suicide?” Psych Central, Psych Central.com, 8 July 2018, psychcentral.com/blog/can-blue-colored-light-prevent-suicide/.
“Specifying Enough Light to Feel Reassured on Pedestrian Footpaths.” Taylor and Francis Online, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15502724.2016.1169931.
“The Effect of Ambient Light Condition on Road Traffic Collisions Involving Pedestrians on Pedestrian Crossings.” NeuroImage, Academic Press, 11 Sept. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0001457517303202.
“Turning off Street Lights ‘Does Not Lead to More Crime or Accidents’, Researchers Claim.” ITV News, ITV Hub, www.itv.com/news/2015-07-29/turning-off-street-lights-does-not-lead-to-more-crime-or-accidents-researchers-claim/.
“Using the Daylight Savings Clock Change to Show Ambient Light Conditions Significantly Influence Active Travel.” NeuroImage, Academic Press, 9 June 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494417300762.
Uttley, Jim, et al. “The Science of Street Lights: What Makes People Feel Safe at Night.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 27 Feb. 2019, theconversation.com/the-science-of-street-lights-what-makes-people-feel-safe-at-night-103805.
Uttley, Jim. “Vanishing Act: Why Pedestrians and Cyclists Disappear When It Starts Getting Dark.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 27 Feb. 2019, theconversation.com/vanishing-act-why-pedestrians-and-cyclists-disappear-when-it-starts-getting-dark-84938.