What makes people feel safe at night? On the science of street lights

Street lights in Kabul, shortly after they were installed for the first time in 2003. Image: Getty.

Winter is coming: the nights are drawing in and in the Northern Hemisphere the hours of darkness already outnumber the hours of daylight. Research has shown that darkness produces a big fall in the number of people out walking – and a major reason for this is that people feel less safe walking in the dark.

There may be an evolutionary explanation for why people feel less safe at night – we can’t see as well, and this may have exposed our ancestors to greater threat from predators. Nowadays, it’s not so much the prospect of being eaten by a savage beast that concerns would-be pedestrians, but the fear of being mugged or victimised.

Some studies suggest that new outdoor lighting can reduce crime rates in an area, but there is conflicting evidence on this. A large review of research found a link between new lighting and reduced crime rates, but improvements were seen in daylight as well as darkness, suggesting that street lighting is not the only factor. This review has also been criticised by other researchers, and a large statistical analysis found no link between crime rates and switching off or dimming street lighting at night.

Street lights may or may not have an effect on crime, but one thing’s for sure – brighter levels of light do make people feel safer when walking at night. This can lead to a significant increase in the number of minutes people spend walking each week. It can also reduce the number of people who avoid leaving their homes at night, reduce social isolation, improve physical and mental well-being and increase community pride.

Street lighting can improve the quality of neighbourhood life by making people feel safer – but, even so, it would be unwise to flood our streets with light at night. Street lighting costs money: the UK’s annual bill is estimated at around £220m. Artificial light at night may also have a negative impact on wildlife and the natural world, for example by stunting the growth of frogs and toads and preventing them from laying their eggs.

The skyglow from street lights also means we rarely get to see the true wonder of the night sky, frustrating astronomers and limiting our appreciation of the natural environment. For these reasons, lighting should be used selectively and efficiently – and this requires good guidance to help those responsible for installing and maintaining our street lighting.

The guidelines for street lighting in the UK and many other countries are currently based on questionable evidence. That’s why our lighting research group at the University of Sheffield undertook a programme of research to find out how lighting relates to feelings of reassurance after dark, and improve the evidence on which lighting guidelines are based.


Illuminating evidence

In one recent experiment, we asked people to walk along a number of streets in the city of Sheffield at night and rate how safe they felt. We also asked these people to walk and rate the streets in the day, to create a baseline measure of safety and to account for biases that may occur if safety ratings were taken only after dark.

The difference in safety ratings between the day and night walks told us something about the lighting on that street – the smaller the difference between day and dark ratings, the safer people felt due to the lighting. We compared our participants’ different ratings against measures of the lighting on each street, including the average illuminance (amount of light falling on the street surface) and uniformity (how evenly spread out the lighting was).

Today, average illuminance is the main measure used when installing and evaluating street lighting. But we found that, while increasing average illuminance was linked with improved feelings of safety, uniformity was more important for making people feel safe. So it might be more important to have evenly distributed lighting, rather than bright lighting, to make people feel safer.

Local authorities are undergoing major changes to their lighting, as they replace the traditional orange sodium lamps with new LED lighting. These new LEDs are more energy efficient, which saves taxpayers’ money. They also give councils greater control over the lighting they provide, for example by dimming and switching off when there are no pedestrians about.

Used properly, street lights can improve people’s lives and help neighbourhoods come alive at night. But there’s still a lot to discover about how people respond to street lighting and the impacts it has on society and the environment – experiments such as these can help to light the way.

The Conversation

Jim Uttley, Research Fellow, University of Leeds; Aleksandra Liachenko Monteiro, PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield, and Steve Fotios, Professor of Lighting and Visual Perception, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.