The Light Fight

Good, but not great. The boys in crimson looked a bit rusty on Saturday night but still managed to win 35-10. They left us with reasons for both optimism and concern for the remainder of the year. I suppose it’s not realistic to think we can beat down everyone as we did Notre Dame in last season’s national championship. Speaking of the Golden Domers, this story gave me a chuckle. Maybe that was their problem last year, they came to figth instead of fight. The past is just that however, so here’s to looking forward and to this season’s inexorable march toward another title.

I confess that I enjoy watching a good fight. Perhaps more accurately, I enjoy watching arguments (I don’t care for physical violence, so I’m not so into MMA and the like). I found a pretty good one on the Chattanoogan recently. In an editorial, former city councilperson Deborah Scott, called out the city’s new streetlight provider (Global Green Lighting) both for the way they won the contract, and for failing to deliver what they promised. A few days later, Don Lepard of Global Green made his rebuttal (although it was more of a reply as none of Ms. Scott’s concerns were rebutted). Instead of addressing her concerns about product and performance, he invited her to the plant to see the forty jobs they created. I found it curious that he would say “She will see a manufacturing facility that has received no public money from the state or federal government”, when he once told the TFP that concerning the federal stimulus package "I saw that there was $3.2 billion in energy conservation and retrofit. So ... I decided that I would get into the lighting business." He may be technically correct in that government did not directly fund his facility, but it appears that the reason his business exists is government money. There is nothing wrong with providing services to governments and non-profits (I do it), but I thought that comment was disingenuous at best.

The flabbergasting thing about this little fight is that in all of the related press there has been no mention of what should be the single most important factor in the conversation. When all is said and done, the reason cities have lighting is to increase visibility in the public realm. They have talked about a wide range of issues from jobs, to disaster preparedness, to crime response, to energy savings, to remote control technology, to light brightness. While each of those things is important in their own right, the most basic function the lights to provide for quality light distribution. I’m amazed that the community can go through a several year process that costs as much as $26 million without asking the fundamental question of whether or not this tool will adequately accomplish the primary task. 

The closest we got to that was a quote from Mr. Lepard that the new lights are brighter than the old lights, even when dimmed 50%. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how light works. Brighter does not mean better. As I observed in a previous post, “The human eye is a wondrous, marvelous thing. But like anything, it has strengths and it has weaknesses. Its strength is that it can detect subtle nuance in very low lighting conditions. Think about what you can see when you wake up in the middle of the night and walk through the house. The reason you can see well in that case is that the eye is very good at adapting to low levels of light as long as the level of light is consistent. The weakness of the eye is that it does not do well with high contrast- a phenomenon we call glare. Think now about what happens when you open the fridge or someone turns a flashlight in your dark house- your eye adjusts to the brightest object and your ability to see other things in the room is severely degraded. With this understanding, the goal of exterior lighting should be to create even lighting, not necessarily bright lighting. In fact, bright lighting can actually impair visibility.” When we install very bright lights, we create very dark shadows. When we install very bright lights we create uncomfortable conditions. When we install very bright lights, we betray the very reason we install lights in the first place- to increase visibility.

In this unretouched photo, you can see the bright "glare bombs"
and resulting dark shadows on Market Street. Also note
the light pollution from the non-shielded fixtures.
An excellent example of how not to do pedestrian lighting.

Beyond the primary focus of increasing visibility, there are  a number of other factors that go into creating a good lighting system. Reducing light pollution, minimizing light trespass, and mitigating glare are all important. None of these issues are addressed with the new fixtures. It is worth noting that while the new street lights are full cut-off fixtures (used to reduce light pollution), they have been improperly installed at an angle which defeats their purpose.

If even TDOT can get it right, why can't we?

It has become very clear that when considering the ultimate goal, the new lighting program is an abject failure (at least it will only cost us $26 million). The reality is that everyone officially involved in this conversation has lost the plot. The sex appeal of technology and potential cost-savings trumped the primary goal of quality lighting. The city is worse off, and on top of that, we had to foot the bill. Unfortunately, the architects of this deal cared more about lucre than lighting, and it is the city that suffers.

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