The Case of Bloomington’s Disappearing Street Lights

Missing Street Light

A Disappearing Street Light in the Oxboro neighborhood.

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.

Missing Street Light on Lyndale

Another missing light on Lyndale, gone for years. The neon sign is really cool though.

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:

Minneapolis Streetlight Map

Minneapolis Street Light Map


And Richfield:

Richfield Streetlight Map

Richfield Street Light Map


And Bloomington:

Bloomington Street Light Map

Bloomington Street Light Map

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:

Shakopee Street Light Map

Shakopee Street Light Map


Moving beyond dots on a map, how do these areas look at night?

Typical Richfield Street at night

Typical Richfield Street at night.


Typical Bloomington Street at Night

Typical Bloomington Street 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).


Minneapolis Lantern Installation

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.).

Average Illumination Levels in Foot-Candles


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.

Foot-Candles Over Distance

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.

Normandale Blvd Street Light Map

Normandale Boulevard in Bloomington.

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?

Nicollet Ave Street Light Map

Nicollet Avenue in Bloomington.

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.

Normandale Blvd, Improved Street Light Spacing

Normandale Blvd, Improved Street Light Spacing

Nicollet Ave, Improved Street Light Spacing

Nicollet Ave, Improved Street Light Spacing

Additional Weirdness

Two Street Lights right next to each other

98th St. and Logan Ave

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.

How many civil servants does it take to change a light bulb? After two emails to Mn/DOT, three to the city, and two tickets to Xcel they removed this light rather than fix it. 90th and I-35W

90th St and I-35W


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.


About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.

25 thoughts on “The Case of Bloomington’s Disappearing Street Lights

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    This is a great article. Street lighting is often overlooked, but it’s an important aspect of making people safe when walking at night — and especially important for cities like Richfield and Bloomington, where many streets have no sidewalks.

    The Minneapolis street lighting is obviously the most impressive — beautiful fixtures, and by far the most evenly lit block. But it would be nice if they could find a way to find a more inexpensive option to provide a similar level of evenness. My understanding is that lighting assessments alone (not including street costs) can be about $5000 for a typical household.

    Question about the results in this chart. Why are the peaks for Bloomington so much lower than for Richfield? I get that there are fewer fixtures, but are the lights also dimmer?

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      They’re all both 100 watt fixtures- I’m guessing the difference is the lamps in Bloomington are a lot older; the Bloomington street I measured is the one I live on and I know it hasn’t been relamped in many years. It might have been better to measure several streets and average them, but I didn’t have the wherewithal at this time and it doesn’t change the point about the lack of uniformity.

    2. Monte Castleman Post author

      Without doing any computer modeling, my guess is that three mid-block high mounted fixtures instead of two, combined with LED luminaires, would meet uniformity requirements. Also, each fixture wouldn’t need to be as bright to meet average level requirements, you could have three 70 watt equivalents instead of two 100 watt equivalents.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Agreed! St. Paul has been doing the post lights as a matter of course for much, much longer than Minneapolis. (I think Mpls’ current policy is only about 10 years old.)

        My only gripe with St. Paul lighting is the weird-as-hell bucket lights you still use on those streets that don’t have the post lights.

        1. Scott

          I love the weird-as-hell bucket lights. There aren’t that many of them, but whenever I see one I think to myself, 1974. And you have to admit, in some weird way they kind of fit Saint Paul.

          1. Monte Castleman Post author

            The style St. Paul uses (NEMA) predates cobrahead lights by a bit, it was developed in 1941. The advantage was that the fixture and optical assembly were separate and standardized, so you could replace a smashed globe on a GE fixture with a Westinghouse globe from your truck, or if you wanted more light you could put in a larger globe on the same fixture. Initially there were all kinds of different optical assemblies, but after cobraheads with street light patterns were developed NEMA lights were relegated to area lights, with only open bucket assemblies still being made (until the full cutoff reflectors Xcel uses for area lights now). You do see a lot more of them as street lights in small towns, and as late as the mid 1990s I saw some that were still incandescent in a small town in Illinois.

  2. Susan Tincher

    This is a really impressive piece of investigative research on an important local issue! I hope the Bloomington lighting situation improves soon. I live in Mineeapolis, and as a frequent night walker, I am left with a renewed appreciation of our street lighting, something I had previously taken for granted.

  3. Wayne

    I quite enjoyed this article. Street lighting is important to all road users, and especially so for more vulnerable users like pedestrians and cyclists. This level of service in a semi-urban-ish environment is totally unacceptable. Bloomington should be ashamed, but they’re probably more concerned about spending everything they have on subsidizing the MOA at this point.

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Oh and the double-up “me too” lights, where the signal light is side-by-side with an old, still-running Xcel light seems to be somewhat common. Here’s an example still in place at County Road 70 and Cedar Avenue in Lakeville. There was a similar situation 177 blocks north at 38th and Cedar, but that was finally taken down in 2014.

    It does show a bizarre disconnect. It’s particularly weird in the Minneapolis case, where presumably the agency that installed the signal also has the contract with Xcel. (Whereas the Lakeville example, the signal was probably installed by the county.)

  5. Jimbo Jones

    This article is foolish. There is no clear scientific evidence that increased outdoor lighting deters crimes. It may make us feel safer, but has not been shown to make us safer. Street lighting may actually reduces safety by making it harder for pedestrians to adjust to night vision. Excessive street lighting only contributes to increased operating costs, environmental damage due to power plant emissions from all the wasted electricity, and light pollution that diminishes our ability to enjoy the night sky. I congratulate the city of Bloomington for only using street lighting where it is absolutely required (intersections, etc).

    1. Paul Strebe

      If you have a study or two that supports your position, please share it with us. Common sense would lead most of us to think that lighting increases safety up to some point. In The Triumph of the City, Glaeser says that before outdoor lighting, cities were pretty scary places after dark, and that respectable people stayed indoors.

      I do think light pollution is something we don’t talk about enough. I’ve been to semi-rural places that had entirely too many of those stupid mercury vapor lights that blotted out the stars in the sky.

    2. Nathanael

      For the night sky, to avoid light pollution, *all outdoor lights should point DOWN*. None of these lights pointing up or all directions.

      That is generally sufficient.

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  7. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    The lack of lighting along our street is a disappointment. I wish the residential streets in Hopkins had midblock lights. I’ve heard more than a few of our neighbors complain to city staff at past National Night Out gatherings about the severe darkness making people feel less than safe walking at night.

    I’ve since then decided to put in an LED bulb and leave our porch light on all night.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Nice. If you’re feeling ambitious after it thaws, a post light is a great way to share some more light with neighbors, too. I notice a lot of homes in Richfield have them, probably installed in the era when there were no street lights on those blocks. My block has mid-block lighting, but I still have my porch light (LED) on a timer to stay on all night. It doesn’t put much light out into the street, but I think it seems so much more welcoming for a minuscule energy cost. And I like not having to remember to put it on if somebody is coming over after dark.

      1. Monte Castleman Post author

        It was a fad during the time when the inner ring suburbs were built to put a gas light out in every front yard. These were made illegal in the 1970s and a lot of the infrastructure was removed pr converted to electric over the decades. (Gas lights are now legal again if you have an electronic ignitor). Afton had some city maintained gas lights to light the downtown area for a long time but now are switching to LED.)

  8. GlowBoy

    I’ve always believed a modest amount of lighting goes a long way. Total darkness is a bad thing in an urban environment, both for safety and security. My own house has a 2.5W LED porch light and another 2.5W in the back yard. A couple hundred lumens is enough to make it easy to see where you’re walking, to appear welcoming and to make prowlers visible.

    Along those lines, one of the problems I’m seeing with some of the new LED streetlight heads is they are just so dang bright. Just after we moved to Minneapolis, Portland converted the streetlights by our old house to LED. I stayed in the house on a subsequent trip there, before we sold the house but after the conversion was done, and it cast a LOT more light into the house, very annoying for sleeping.

    One other problem with brighter light heads is that they create (relatively) darker dark spots. The new lights actually made it trickier to walk at night, watching for the occasional trip hazard on the sidewalk, and made the areas between the lights feel darker than before.

    Of course a 1/8 mile interval between lights (as appears to be the case on the Bloomington example above) is too far in a built-up environment, and I’d hope Bloomington can improve the situation. One of the downsides of much-vaunted underground wiring I guess – higher maintenance costs as the infrastructure ages?

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      “One of the downsides of much-vaunted underground wiring I guess – higher maintenance costs as the infrastructure ages?”

      I think this depends on how it’s installed. Richfield’s most common lights are (according to a contact in Public Works) wired by a direct-burial wire that’s basically just tucked behind the curb — which obviously makes it very easy to damage, but was cheaper to install at the time. On the other hand, new street lights are done in conduit. (I believe Mpls’ pricey post light upgrades are, too.) This should last the lifetime of the street — and even if it does fail, it’s fairly easy to pull new wires rather than having to re-bury.

      But Bloomington actually doesn’t do buried lines for most of their lights. The classic neighborhood light is just like Minneapolis’s — strung up on a utility pole. Monte, correct me if I’m wrong, but couldn’t Bloomington basically improve this situation by ordering a thousand new lights from Xcel tomorrow, to be installed quickly and relatively cheaply?

      1. Monte Castleman Post author

        Yes, pretty much. There’s three different configurations in Bloomington- Utilities on the street, behind the houses, and buried. Obviously in increasing order of difficulty to add more lights. I believe they no longer charge rental if a wood pole is needed for the light as in cases where the utility lines are in back, (but they would take longer to install). However when the utilities buried they do cost more to rent.

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