Poorly lit off-campus areas spark concern

By Anastassios Adamopoulos, Daily Staff Reporter
and Andrew Almani, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 12, 2015

Ann Arbor might soon see the light.

During the Feb. 17 Ann Arbor City Council meeting, the City Council adopted a resolution that lifted a moratorium on the installation of new lighting that had been in effect in since 2005.

The moratorium has been in effect since fiscal year 2006 and was adopted due to the increasing costs of DTE Energy lighting. With the moratorium lifted, several student governments are considering proposals to evaluate off-campus lighting after hearing student concerns about off-campus safety.

There are two owners of off-campus streetlights in Ann Arbor — the city and DTE. The city compensates DTE for the streetlights that DTE owns, both for their use and their maintenance. The city is responsible for the maintenance of the streetlights that it owns, but still pays DTE for the energy use.

According to a streetlight whitepaper created by the Systems Planning Unit in September 2013, by the close of the 2013 fiscal year Ann Arbor had 7,437 streetlights. Of these DTE owned 5,234 while the city owned the remaining 2,203.

The city began using LED streetlights in 2006, according to the whitepaper. LED lights are more expensive but have fewer maintenance and energy expenses, which makes them preferable.

The moratorium does not mean that new lights have not been installed or that old ones have not been replaced in the city. The condition is that these replacements and installments do not cause a net increase in streetlight costs.

The resolution for lifting the moratorium was introduced by Councilmember Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3) and seconded by Councilmember Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4).

Safety

The streetlight whitepaper notes that a Streetlight De-energizing Pilot in 2010 found that the public believed more lighting increases nighttime personal safety and a lot of residents believed home thefts would be more likely in under-lit areas.

However the report also found that there is no correlation between crime and lighting on streets, whether that is crime committed against pedestrians or occurs in the neighborhood.

The student community has also expressed concerns about streetlights. LSA junior Michael Fakhoury, chair of the Central Student Government’s Commission on Student Safety and Security, said many students have complained to CSG about lighting on campus.

“There’s a lot of safety issues — there’s actually being safe, and the feeling of safety, which are two different things,” Fakhoury said. “A lot of the areas that are not well lit on campus are being explored right now. Obviously we’re taking it one step at a time and looking at different issues.”

At the CSG meeting on Wednesday, a resolution regarding the moratorium and lighting was presented.

Assembly Resolution 4-033 expressed support for the city’s removal of the moratorium, and called for the addition of new street lighting in areas where students have expressed grievances. CSG has begun collecting and analyzing data based off of student complaints, to establish a more comprehensive lighting recommendation to the city.

“Before the moratorium was lifted, there wasn’t much we could accomplish at our meetings with the city,” Fakhoury said. “The city officials were very encouraging, telling us to look into this and gather data so they could examine it more and investigate these areas.”

A map of lighting in the vicinity of Hill Street, Oxford Road and Geddes Road was included in the agenda. Other areas being investigated by CSG include South Campus and Kerrytown.

“So we’re looking at areas where lighting is inadequate, and we’re welcome to receive any additional areas that students would want to see more lighting at,” Fakhoury added. “We’re gathering the data right now, and the points on this map represent areas that have more than 250 feet of space between lights, which is ridiculous … I welcome anyone to e-mail me with crossroads at areas of concern and we will definitely look into them.”

LSA senior Serena Bidwell, a member of CSG, was one of the students who brought forward issues about lighting.

“A lot of my friends have complained because we all live in off-campus housing, so the walks at night going home from the library or the weekends can feel very unsafe, and we shouldn’t feel unsafe on our campus,” she said.

LSA Student Government’s Student Life Committee has also received complaints. Committee Chair Arun Datta, an LSA sophomore, said in the past year, two students have submitted complaints, one for catcalling at night and the other for feeling unsafe while walking off campus.

“They didn’t give a specific location, but it is pretty easy to understand that the whole off-campus area isn't really lighted well," Datta said. "LSA Student Government also held a walk along with administrators around campus recently, in which members of the government helped point out spots that need lighting.”

Greg Bazick, the deputy chief of the Ann Arbor Police Department, also said that perception of safety seems to be greater in places that have more lighting.

“While it’s generally believed in crime prevention circles that lighting is a very effective deterrent to crime, studies conducted over time by various organizations have not been able to establish an absolute correlation between lighting and crime from a statistical perspective. Results have been mixed.”

Bazick added that he does not expect the AAPD to be impacted immediately by the lifting of the moratorium.

“The department certainly wouldn't discourage enhanced lighting in public rights of way, yet at the same time there is no data to indicate that those enhancements would affect substantive change in those areas from a statistical crime measurement perspective,” he said.

Eaton also noted that citizens have raised safety concerns due to lack of lighting on some streets. He gave Packard Street, from its intersection with State Street until Stadium Boulevard, as an example of an under-lit area people have complained about.

“We can’t instantly solve everybody’s desire to have well-lit streets," he said. "But we can start the plan by identifying which areas are high priority. And I believe that those will really be matters of safety."

Funding

The lifting of moratorium has no immediate effect on the city aside from giving City Council the option to increase its budget for street lighting. If and when this increase will actually happen depends on the budget City Council is currently discussing for the fiscal years of 2016 and 2017.

During the same City Council meeting last month, City Administrator Steve Powers suggested that City Council target which areas need relighting so that staff could incorporate lighting for those areas in the budget.

The next budget meeting will take place March 23.

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor (D) said he expects staff to come back with a proposed policy for when the city should introduce or decommission streetlights depending on the immediate need.

“Streetlight maintenance and the energy associated with it is a surprisingly large portion of our budget — somewhere in excess of $2 million a year,” Taylor said. “So cost containment is something that we will need to consider as we determine whether and where to place new streetlights.”

Eaton said the lifting of the moratorium is an important first step, but nothing is going to happen quickly — and that assessing how to fund potential new lighting is an issue.

“Lifting the moratorium is the first step in a multi-step process. Next we identify priorities and then we identify revenue that we can spend on that. It will take years to actually roll out what we fully intend to do,” he said.

Councilmember Julie Grand (D–Ward 3) noted that the lifting of the moratorium is not attached with any funding and simply gives the city more flexibility when considering street lighting.

“Really for me the only way we are going to have more funding for this is if we strengthen our tax base which means attracting more residents to live in the city,” Grand said.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated Arun Datta's position with the LSA Student Government Student Life Committee. He is the chair.