Street lights are disappearing in Bloomington. Last summer I noticed red spray-paint on a bunch of the poles on Lyndale Ave. Then they started to disappear. One day I drove out during my lunch hour, and crews were literally cutting them down with a Sawzall.
An email to the city revealed that many of the 1970s-1980s vintage poles were structurally unsound, and they hope to get funding to replace them in the future. So Lyndale Ave is left with long dark spots and these stubs.
Perhaps it’s excusable that a city is caught off guard when this happens. Bloomington has done what many of us do when the furnace gives out or the car needs transmission work, although ideally we’d have money saved for such eventualities, as should the city. But Bloomington’s issues go deeper and farther back than this one time incident. I’ve been dealing with them over street lighting and traffic signal issues for years.
Here’s another section of Lyndale Ave. Notice the concrete circle. That was a street light. Several years ago the underground wiring failed. After several unacknowledged requests to the city and Xcel Energy (who have a contract for routine maintenance of all city-owned lighting as well as their own), the pole was totally removed.
Another query to the city asking what was going on was returned with “It’s not economical to fix it now.” Maybe I can accept that fixing underground wiring is expensive, but they’ve fixed it in other locations, and if they couldn’t fix it right away they could have budgeted it for the next year. Or the year after. Or the year after that.
Soon after, the light next to this failed, and then the one next to that was sawed down this year leaving a long, dark stretch
Bloomington is Severely Under-lit
Here’s some maps with the street lights highlighted of a random half mile square section in Minneapolis:
Does anyone else see the problem? To be fair, property tax revenues and density are lower, but not that much lower. Note that this includes Nicollet Ave, which as an arterial should be lit better than purely residential streets.
You might think things would keep getting worse the farther out you go, but here’s Shakopee:
Moving beyond dots on a map, how do these areas look at night?
These were shot with identical camera settings: f/8, 8″, ISO 200. Keep in mind there are no sidewalks so pedestrians, likely not wearing the pedestrian safety kit may be walking on the street. I also commonly see bicycles at night without any kind of light; it’s difficult to see them in the dark sections between street lights in these installations if you’re driving in a bright section.
How about those nice Minneapolis lanterns? (This picture wound up zoomed in a bit more, but settings are still the same).
Besides looking at pictures, there are objective ways to measure how good or bad a lighting installation is. There’s a measure of how much light is striking a horizontal surface, the “foot-candle (fc)”, or 1 lumen per square foot. State and national standards for a typical residential street are an average 0.4 foot-candles (fc), with a average to minimum uniformity ratio of 6-1 (and using these we can derive a minimum acceptable level of 0.067 fc.).
Here’s another way to look at it: light levels as you walk down the streets, from the center of a cross-street down a long block to the center of the next cross-street.
The Minneapolis lanterns have an average of 0.38, which is close enough to the 0.40 standard to be statistical noise; even within the 5% accuracy of my light meter. The dip towards the beginning is due to the placement of the lanterns at a “T” intersection to favor the major cross-street. (The streets I measured were nearby but not the same ones I photographed). The spike towards the middle of the Bloomington installation is a private yard light.
(To make up for these shortcomings, private yard and floodlights either burn all night or annoyingly and distractingly turn on with motion are common.)
Improving the Installations
Even the very few lights that Bloomington does have, the spacing is very odd in some areas. You can see in the above map that some superblocks have a light where a street would be, and some don’t. But odd spacing goes beyond that.
Consider this section of Normandale Blvd. What logic is there for the spacing? The two lights at the lower right are decorative lanterns on the housing development sign that cast no useful light on the intersection.
Or this section of Nicollet by Kennedy High School? Why does 96th street (at center left) get two lights plus another immediately adjacent, while 95th Street, (at the far left), a much busier street, gets one?
Even if Bloomington stubbornly refuses to follow state and national standards itself, it’s more than willing to impose them on private businesses. (In fact the lighting code is one of the most restrictive in the nation, mercury vapor and sodium vapor bulbs are banned in all but the smallest fixtures.) As a result, when you’re driving out of a parking lot that’s lit like the Vegas strip, as are the Holiday and Kennedy High School in the second picture, suddenly you’re on a street that might as well be in farm country, and you can’t see anything until your eyes adjust to the blackness. And many students at Kennedy walk across the road to get from the Burger King and Holiday to school, which is legal here provided they yield to motorists since this is not between two signalized intersections.
Here’s a much better spacing, with new lights in red and removed lights in grey. It doesn’t take that many more to make a much better layout.
And some more examples of odd spacing. Here’s where they never bothered to remove the old Xcel Energy wood pole light after a traffic signal went up, so we’re paying for rent for a useless street light.
This is not in some remote, out of the way location, the building in the background is the public works facility, and right across the street is city hall. The personnel responsible for street lights likely drive by this twice a day. (And they obviously don’t walk to work because one of the “Walk” lights was out on the signal.)
In my neighborhood on Wentworth Ave just north of 104th St, there’s a light on two immediately adjacent poles. You can petition to have a street light added. Apparently the residents wanted a yard light, but didn’t want to pay to rent one themselves (which you can do as a private homeowner), so they got one at the city’s expense.
So what would lighting improvements cost? A 100 watt street light rents for about $12 a month, energy and maintenance included. There’s 14 houses on one of the Bloomington blocks in the previous diagram. So to light blocks where there are overhead utilities to the standards of Richfield and Minneapolis wood pole areas (which as noted above still don’t quite meet state and national standards due to lack of uniformity) would cost about $30 a year for each house.
That’s pretty small compared to the typical property tax bill. Even a single mid-block light on the long blocks, at $10 a year, would be an enormous improvement.
Routine Maintenance is Troublesome
Even maintaining what few street lights there are is troublesome. There is the Xcel web based reporting system. But it does not talk to their database; a worker reads the reporting system and then keys it into another system. Ideally the systems would talk to each other, to confirm that the address you keyed in corresponds with one of their lights. Or you could see a graphical representation if you don’t know the address. It’s nearly impossible to get a light fixed in a place like the boat landing parking lot, where there really isn’t a physical address and you have no idea what they have listed for one. Sometimes the actual tech will call back if they run into issues, but the office staff may or may not, so when a light doesn’t get fixed right away you’re left wondering if maybe they got the wrong one.
Furthermore there seems to be plenty of finger pointing to other agencies. In an extreme example, it took several unacknowledged requests to Xcel, then several emails to Bloomington and MnDOT for Bloomington to acknowledge that this light at 90th and I-35W actually belonged to them. When I demanded they either fix it or remove it, they simply removed the luminaire and left the empty pole in place.
There’s a “How many civil servants does it take to change a light bulb?” joke in here some place, and it’s not funny.
As a final note I started writing this article in the summer, and since then to the city’s credit they installed lights at the crosswalk picture on Lyndale Ave, and a light in a new marked crosswalk in the dark spot in front of Kennedy High School. And now that I have the contact information for the city employee actually responsible, they have in fact been very friendly and helpful with my concerns. But that doesn’t excuse the lack of lighting in general or how long it took to resolve these specific issues.