A new report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research is shining light on Houston’s streetlight situation. It found that Houston’s 173,724 streetlights (as of August 2015) are concentrated more heavily in black and Hispanic neighborhoods than white neighborhoods.
The report, “Streetlights in the City: Understanding the Distribution of Houston Streetlights,” comes as the city of Houston is converting its streetlights to LED bulbs. This activity prompted the Kinder Institute to examine streetlight density across the city.
“We think of streetlights as being a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape, but I wanted to know if that was really true and whether some neighborhoods have greater access to this city service than others,” said Heather O’Connell, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Kinder Institute and the study’s author. “Since the city is already changing the bulbs in the streetlights, I thought it was a good time to look into this question.”
Streetlight density was measured by dividing the number of streetlights in a census block group by the length of road miles within the block group. It ranged from a low of less than one streetlight to a high of 47 streetlights per mile of road. The average streetlight density is about 15 streetlights per mile of roadway.
O’Connell found that majority-white neighborhoods where Asians were the second-largest group had an average streetlight density of 15 streetlights per mile of road (directly comparable to the city average), while neighborhoods that are majority black or Hispanic had an average of 18 streetlights per mile of road. In addition, mixed-income neighborhoods had more lights per mile of road than neighborhoods that were more homogeneous economically. For example, O’Connell found that a neighborhood with a median income of $40,000 and a poverty rate of 15 percent had one more streetlight for every three miles compared with a neighborhood that had the same poverty rate but a median income of only $20,000.
Houston’s highest concentrations of streetlights are found within the downtown area, with pockets of high streetlight density just to the east of downtown, toward the Houston Ship Channel, as well as fanning out in the northern part of the city. Areas with fewer than five streetlights per mile of road are along the edges of the city in all directions, as well as within a slice of Houston just east of Bellaire.
O’Connell said that the results suggest that just as the city would consider whether an area is sufficiently lit, it should consider whether an area may be overly lit. She said that excessive streetlights are considered by some to be a nuisance because the light may stream into their homes and reduce their sense of privacy. The relative influence or power of certain neighborhoods may explain why certain areas have fewer, but not too few, streetlights, especially when considering non-Hispanic white and higher-income neighborhoods.
“Streetlights are meant to provide light to make navigation by drivers, bikers and pedestrians easier and safer at night,” O’Connell said. “That point is pretty straightforward, which could explain why we focus more on places with too few lights. But Houston may also have an issue with neighborhoods that have too many lights. You only need so many streetlights in order to accomplish their original purpose, so it seems like, at some point, there is a diminishing return to adding more lights. The city doesn’t need the added expense and there may even be negative impacts on residents if the extra light really is a nuisance.”
O’Connell said future streetlight research will focus on whether having more streetlights really is related to lower levels of crimes.
To download a copy of the report, visit http://kinder.rice.edu/.