This is why pedestrians and cyclists disappear when it starts getting dark

Where did everybody go? Darkened London streets, 1929 vintage. Image: Getty.

Picture the scene: it is 5:30pm on a Tuesday at the end of October, and the streets are full of people walking and cycling home from work. The following week, at the same time, the number of walkers and cyclists has dropped by almost half. The only difference is the clocks have moved back one hour to mark the beginning of Daylight Saving Time.

Naturally, the number of people walking or cycling varies greatly at different times during the day. But twice every year, when the clocks change, researchers like myself get a rare opportunity to compare numbers of pedestrians and cyclists in the same hour of the day, but under different lighting conditions. This enables us to measure the impact that darkness has on how people choose to get around, while other influential factors such as the reason for travelling or the temperature remain largely unchanged.

Using open-source data from automated pedestrian and cyclist counters in a United States district, my colleagues and I analysed the number of pedestrians and cyclists in the same hour of the day, over a two-week period, both before and after the clocks changed.

Darkness effectively reduced the volume of pedestrians by 38 per cent and the volume of cyclists by 27 per cent, after taking into account any changes unrelated to light conditions.

Night and day

There are a number of reasons why people might prefer not to walk or cycle after dark. It’s more difficult to see the path when it’s dark and harder to spot potential trip hazards. Pedestrians have to spend more time looking down and are also less likely to be able to detect obstacles.

Darkness also makes it more difficult for walkers and cyclists to be seen by other road users. As a result, pedestrians are 1.7 times more likely to be hit by a vehicle while using a pedestrian crossing at night, compared with during the day.

Example pedestrian crossing in daylight (left) and after-dark (right). Image: author provided.

Another reason people may not choose to walk or cycle when it is dark is because they feel less safe. One theory suggests that people assess the safety of an environment based on three things: the ability to see clearly for a distance, the presence of features which could conceal a threat and the potential to escape from the area. Therefore, most places are likely to feel less safe at night, because we cannot see as well in the dark.

Fighting the darkness

Ideally, people should be encouraged to walk or cycle, even when it turns dark, because of the huge potential health and environmental benefits. Of course, networks of public street lights have been combating darkness in cities since the 19th century, following the discovery of coal-gas as an illuminant by Scottish engineer William Murdoch. Smoking his pipe beside a fire one night, Murdoch decided to put coal dust in the pipe and put it in the fire. The bright flame that emerged from the mouthpiece prompted the revelation of using gas as a light source.

William Murdoch, pioneer of street gas-lighting. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

But it’s increasingly important to use street lighting effectively to avoid wasting energy and creating needless light pollution, which can have negative effects on plants and animals. To that end, lots of research has been carried out to pinpoint the perfect level of lighting, which still enables pedestrians and cyclists to see effectively without wasting any energy.

Current guidelines for street lighting recommend average light levels of two to 15 lux, depending on the type of street. The evidence supporting these guidelines may be flawed however. The 2.5 GWh of energy used by street lighting every year may therefore be misplaced.

Laboratory research has been conducted to measure the impact of light spectrum and intensity on a pedestrian’s ability to detect a trip hazard. The study found that people are able to perceive a hazard with just two lux of illuminance. When the light was brighter than this, people did not get any better at detecting hazards.

The research also found that white light can be used at lower intensities, without affecting pedestrians’ visual performance. Similar results were found for cyclists’ ability to detect hazards.

Experimental apparatus to assess effect of lighting on cyclists’ detection of a hazard in the road (Fotios, Qasem, Cheal & Uttley, 2017).

Building on work carried out in the US at the end of the 1990s, our team at Sheffield University is also trying to identify lighting conditions which help people feel safe on the streets at night. The US research, carried out in parking lots, found that people felt safer when lights were brighter but that the benefits did not increase correspondingly as brightness increased. We are now verifying these findings on residential streets.

The change of the clocks every autumn – and the earlier onset of darkness – serves as a reminder of how significant daylight is to people’s everyday behaviour, particularly the way they choose to travel. Lighting can help us continue our day-to-day lives even when the sun goes down – and in this new age of highly controllable and efficient LED lighting it is tempting to assume “the more light the better”.


The ConversationIdentifying lighting conditions that meet our requirements without being excessive can help us save energy, reduce carbon emissions, reduce the ecological impact of our lighting and even make astronomers happier.

Jim Uttley is a postdoctoral researcher in lighting & environmental psychology at the University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

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