HOUSTON – A report from Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, "Streetlights in the City: Understanding the Distribution of Houston Streetlights," says that of Houston's 173,724 streetlights, most are concentrated in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, as opposed to white neighborhoods, as of August 2015.
The report was prompted by the city's conversion to LED bulbs in streetlights.
“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.”
The university said the 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.
During her research, O'Connell found that majority-white neighborhoods had an average streetlight density of 15 lights per mile of road, while black or Hispanic neighborhoods had an average of 18 streetlights per mile of road. The highest concentration of streetlights are found in the downtown area, with pockets of high streetlight density just east of downtown, toward the Houston Ship Channel, as well as fanning out in the northern area of the city, while the areas with fewer than five streetlights per mile of road are along all the edges of the city in all directions, as well as just east of Bellaire.
The report shows a neighborhood with a median income of $40,000 and a poverty rate of 15 percent had one more streetlight for every 3 miles compared with a neighborhood that had the same poverty rate but a median income of only $20,000.
O'Connell said her research suggests that as the city considers whether an area is sufficiently lit, it should consider whether an area may be overly lit, adding that excessive streetlights are considered by some to be a nuisance.
“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 research will gauge whether having more streetlights is, in fact, related to lower levels of crimes.