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LED Street Lighting Projects Deliver Safety As Well As Savings

These days, the word on LED street lighting is definitely out.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the benefits of retrofitting street lights have been well documented, and include:

  • Cost savings: Streetlights can constitute up to 40% of a city’s electricity bill. LED retrofits can reduce energy use by 50%, amounting to substantial cost savings for a city. Furthermore, LED’s last 2 to 5 times longer than traditional outdoor lighting and require less maintenance, reducing operating costs even further.
  • Better asset management: Audits of streetlights prepared ahead of retrofits provide cities a clear understanding of their streetlight inventory, distribution of utility, and municipally-owned lights, and may enable cities to eliminate some streetlights entirely.
  • Advanced controls: LED streetlights are often compatible with advanced controls including, but not limited to, automated dimming which further increases energy savings potential.
  • Better Light Quality: LED lamps offer higher-quality color rendering and more uniform light distribution for better lit streets.

While cost and administrative savings are of paramount importance to local politicians and city officials, residents have different front-line priorities.  For the people who live and work in the neighborhoods we illuminate at night, another factor rises to the top of the list: safety.

Research Shines a Light on Street Lights and Safety

In the past, many folks might have imagined lower crime rates in well-lit areas as an obvious fact.  However, there has been little data to back up that assumption.

As the conversation continues around the benefits of LED street lighting for cities, an important three-year-old study has re-emerged to add important context to the discussion.

Back in 2014, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice in New York City initiated an effort to explore the impact of improved lighting at New York City Housing Authority housing developments.

In the end, The University of Chicago Crime Lab New York (CLNY) began work on an important study that sought to apply randomized controls instead of merely collecting observational data.  The group wanted to be able to demonstrate actual cause and effect, not just the correlated trends that result from simple surveys.


Providing Hard Data for Cities Everywhere

The CLNY study involved a randomized trial in which 80 housing complexes were selected for the study.  Half of the studied housing projects (40) were outfitted with new light towers.  To provide more in-depth results, these new lights were provided at varying levels of intensity.  

In reporting on the results of the CLNY study for the non-profit Strong Towns, Daniel Herriges writes, “This allowed them to do an apples-to-apples comparison of the effect that additional outdoor light had on crime rates.”

According to Herriges, the researchers focused on “index crimes”; the most serious ones including murder, manslaughter, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and motor vehicle theft. 

Although the underlying rates for these types of crime are low, the huge size of the population of New York City’s public housing projects suggested that it was possible to get a large enough sample to produce meaningful results.

Note: See Daniel Herriges analysis of the CLNY study here

Does Nighttime Lighting Reduce Crime?

The CLNY study demonstrated a clear and obvious cause-and-effect relationship between additional nighttime lighting and a reduction in index crimes.

The authors of the study estimated that the introduction of better lighting at the subject public housing complexes directly reduced index crimes by approximately 60%.

An additional aspect of the study included the “spillover” effects of crime in relation to the subject study areas.  This refers to the possibility that criminals deterred by a well-lit environment will simply go somewhere else to commit the same crime. 

The researchers accounted for that possibility by looking at crime rates within a few blocks of the subject public housing projects and found that even with the possibility of spillovers, lighting reduced outdoor, nighttime crime by 36%.

So, according to the study, better nighttime lighting cuts crime by 60% in proximity to the light, and by 36% in nearby areas.

LED Street Lighting header
Source: iStock

After decades of assumptions without facts, this study finally provided hard data in support of the idea that the physical environment of cities and communities is a key determinant of serious crime.

Social scientists and public policymakers have long debated the reasons why there are some spots within cities that just seem to “attract” criminal activity while others report a relative absence of crime.  

Obvious correlations of crime statistics within areas of higher and lower economic affluence have led to further speculation about root causes.  Among the popular theories often discussed is the “broken window” theory that asserts the lack of repair and maintenance visible in certain areas leads to a perception that the area is not being watched.

When in the past the subject turned to lighting, all previous studies presented only correlated data without clear cause and effect relationships.  As such, public policy has been slow to accept the truth about high-quality lighting in urban areas.

While it was understood that proper lighting puts potential criminals on guard and empowers potential victims of crime, the understanding was never backed up with hard data before the CLNY study.

Putting the Data to Work

The results of the CLNY study finally allow the safety benefits of improved street lighting to take their rightful place alongside energy savings and cost savings for cities.

For those arguing in favor of improved city lighting assets, dramatic reductions in crime statistics should now stand side-by-side with the known cost savings associated with upgraded lighting.

The cost savings have always been easy to demonstrate.  In New York City, at roughly the same time as the CLNY study was being conducted, over 250,000 street lights were replaced with high-efficiency LED fixtures.  Between 2015 and 2017, the city saved $14 million in maintenance and energy costs.

Now, with clear scientific evidence that enhanced lighting reduces crime and raises safety for residents in cities, the case for LED street light retrofit projects should be easy to make.

Increasing the Safety Benefits with Smart Controls 

In addition to just switching to basic LEDs, cities can now use smart LEDs and smart controls. In Greenville, South Carolina, city officials partnered with FSG, Clemson University, and several other companies to install smart devices in the town’s light poles. 

Source: FSG

Each device has sensors, a radio, WiFi capabilities, and micro locator technology.  With these smart controls, the street lights can be set to flash in different patterns in response to certain events. 

The technology allows cities to monitor traffic flow, accidents, and parking space availability.  For emergency first responders, the street lights can be made to blink in areas where help is needed.

Best of all for cities, smart remote management software can lower energy consumption by 80 percent while delivering enhanced safety benefits for citizens.

How Cities Can Improve Safety for Their Citizens with LED Street Lights

While LED lights allow cities to get a quick return on their initial investment, the upfront cost may be prohibitive for some municipalities.

Because of this, FSG and other companies offer upfront financing to cities that want to incorporate lighting projects into their plans to improve public safety and reduce energy costs.

Cities can repay the project’s cost with the money they save on their energy bill. Through creative partnerships like this, companies, cities, and residents can enjoy all the great benefits of LED lighting.

To learn more about LED Street Lighting, Smart Cities, or lighting financing, contact FSG at (512) 886-1258.

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