Street lights aren’t just lights. They’re supposed not only to reveal the potholes and parking meters that would otherwise be in the dark, but also to change what’s there. Specifically, they’re supposed to reduce crime.
There is some evidence to support this. One oft-cited meta-analysis found that better street lighting could reduce crime by as much as 21%. But that reduction happened, strangely, as much during the day as at night. As much as our guts may tell us that the darkness is where crime happens, the data—and the researchers themselves—caution that it isn’t so simple.
The quandary has caught the attention of news organization Voice of San Diego. They plan to "examine the relationship between street lights and crime and economic development." As a first step they’ve taken a few stories of San Diegans in the dark. From this anecdotal sample, what happens is a mix of falls, scares and actual crime.
Roger Leszczynski was bicycling back from a dinner and hit a train track, getting third degree burns on his knuckles. Now he tries not to bike at night. "I barely ever do it unless forced," he told Voice of San Diego.
Esperanza Gonzalez was walking at night when she sensed someone following her on a bicycle. She screamed and threw her bag into a friend’s yard. "The guy kept looking at me, but just turned around on his bike and left," she says. Now, at night she runs, instead of walking, and avoids carrying a bag.
Ben Parmentier was walking home from a restaurant when a passerby asked him some questions. While he was distracted, two other men came from behind, pushing him to the ground, brandishing a handgun and going through his pockets. "Almost directly above where I was attacked there was a streetlight but that week it was not lit for some reason," he says. "Six weeks later it still remains unlit."
Cody Livingston doesn’t feel secure enough to walk around by herself after dark. But in the morning she does, and collects trash: hypodermic needles, liquor bottles, condom boxes and used condoms. All of it seems of place with the neighbors she sees during the day. "I don’t know if they actually live in the community or [come] from the outside," she says.
Whatever effect the street lights have, VoSD reports that at least in that city, there are options for citizens who want to take matters into their own hands. For $15 a month, the local electric company will install a 100-watt light—so long as you have an overhead power line with a wooden pole. "If your power is underground then it’s impossible."
Photos by Sam Hodgson