POSTED ON DECEMBER 24, 2008:
Blinded By the Light
A lamp unto my feet, not a glare unto my eyes
"We have seen his star in the east and have come with gifts to worship him." -- The Magi
The darkest time of the year is the season of light. Jewish families light a nine-branched lampstand at Hanukah to recall the purification of the temple and the miraculous supply of consecrated oil. Many Christians light one pink and three purple Advent candles to mark the coming of the Light of the World. On Christmas a bigger and brighter white candle is lit to signify His arrival.
Christmastide concludes on January 6 with Epiphany -- a word that means "shining forth". It's also known as Three Kings' Day, in honor of the skywatchers who followed a star to Judaea in search of the great King whose birth it portended.
If 2007 Christmases later, the Three Kings were based in Tulsa, one wonders whether they would be able to see the star for all of our excessively bright streetlights.
Except for the moon, three or four planets, and a handful of very bright stars, city dwellers are deprived of the beauty of the night sky. Even worse, the eyes of passing drivers and pedestrians are assaulted by intense glare, thanks to the misguided notion that if a little light is a good thing, lots more is necessarily better.
Recently, new light standards were installed in the parking lots at the Tulsa County Fairgrounds. Standing as tall as the QuikTrip Center (nee IPE Building), each light has eight bright lamps shining outward in all directions, lighting up acres of asphalt emptiness. In the middle of the night, the backs of homes along 21st Street were bathed in harsh, bright light.
Some days later, I noticed that only four of the eight lamps were lit on each of the new standards -- better, but still too much light to inflict on the neighbors.
The county is a recent offender compared to the City of Tulsa. City government is infesting downtown with a plague of "acorn" streetlights, so named after the acorn-shaped globes that sit atop metal posts. As the city refurbishes downtown sidewalks, they're installing as many as six of these streetlights along each side of a single block.
Acorn lights are meant to look old-fashioned in the daytime, but at night they produce a glare that would be nostalgic to no one but a retired prison guard. Because the acorn globe sits atop a post, most of the light shines up toward the sky and out into the eyes of passersby. Blocked by the post, very little of it can falls where it's really needed -- on the sidewalk. There's a pool of darkness around each post.
The acorn lights are just the right height and brightness to obscure signage and the interesting details you find along the rooflines or above the first floors of older buildings.
Drive north on Main Street at night, and you'll find Cain's Ballroom's wonderful neon sign largely obscured by a tight cluster of acorn lights.
Acorns are replacing "cobra head" lights, which also have a problem with horizontal glare and blocking out starlight, but those older fixtures have the advantage of being twice as high as the acorn lights, putting them high enough to be out of the line of sight.
As bad as they are, acorn lights are ubiquitous. Small towns and big cities alike have been suckered into buying these dazzling money-wasters to line the sidewalks of their historic districts. In one southwest Oklahoma town, the lights are so close together and so bright that you can't see the historic buildings for the glare.
Let There be Light
How could such a light be so popular? Decision-makers seem to consider only the appearance of the light during the day and the up-front installation cost, but not the long-term operating cost.
At least one area municipality has done something sensible about streetlights. Main Street in Jenks has a combination of high-mounted cobra head lights to illuminate the road and "full-cutoff" fixtures closer to the ground to light up the sidewalks. Full-cutoff means that the lamp is fully recessed in the fixture, so that all the light goes some place useful. The sidewalk lights prove that you can have old-fashioned-looking lights that provide a secure and pleasant walking environment and do so efficiently.
You'll find another example of good street lighting in front of St. John Medical Center. A combination of taller full-cutoff lights and smaller footlights about three feet off the ground provide good visibility without blinding passing drivers.
Streetlights aren't the only source of wasteful and hazardous lighting. Business owners use excessive amounts of bad lighting to attract the attention of passing drivers. For the sake of home security, homeowners often use too-bright and badly aimed floodlights. But it seems that businesses and residents who pay their own light bill are quicker than government in figuring out how to spend less to get the lighting they need.
Increasingly, merchants are using full-cutoff fixtures for their parking lots, economically providing the sense of safety their customers seek.
The ideal is the right amount of light, directed precisely to where it's needed. Excessive, indiscriminate lighting is distracting, annoying, wasteful and dangerous.
It's dangerous because of its effect on night vision. When lights are too bright and aimed straight at our eyes, it becomes harder to see in the darkness. While the human eye can adjust over time to a low level of light, direct exposure to bright light can cause momentary blindness. That's a bigger problem for older eyes, which are slower to adjust to changing light levels.
Too-bright lights don't help security either. Security lighting gives bad guys the visibility to do their dirty work. They don't have to worry about being seen -- too-bright, badly aimed light encourages homeowners to shut their blinds.
The City of Tulsa ought to be listening to Patric Johnstone, who has been carrying the torch (so to speak) for good lighting in Tulsa for more than a decade. His interest in the issue was triggered by a neighbor's security light shining right into his bedroom window.
Since that time, Johnstone has educated hundreds of his fellow citizens about good and bad lighting. Sadly, none of those enlightened Tulsans seems to work in City Hall.
The City should stop installing acorn streetlights, identify a more efficient type of streetlight, and replace or retrofit the acorns as they fail. We can and should provide the best lighting for our pedestrians and drivers and the lowest cost.
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