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Shining a light on Baltimore’s new LED streetlights

1 bob curran in the dark LED

Baltimore City Councilman Robert Curran on Hillen Rd. near Hartsdale under a LED street light.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

It’s 9:30 on a recent weekday night, and Robert Curran is standing at Hillen Road near Morgan State University in northeast Baltimore.

A light-emitting diode (LED) bulb has just been installed in the street lamp above us, and Curran is conducting a test.

He stands on the sidewalk directly beneath the lamp pole. “Look at how dark it is,” the 3rd District City Councilman grumbles.

Then he strides down the street. Even before he reaches an identical-looking light pole, he is drenched in a yellowish glare, courtesy of a standard sodium light bulb.

“When you compare these two types of lighting directly, the difference is stark,” he says. (It’s easy to spot which is which: LED lights are white and can be looked at directly, while the halo-like glow of sodium lights makes eye contact difficult.)

Now that's better: Curran stands near a sodium light shining on Hillen Rd. (Photo by Mark Reutter, with no touchups)

That's better: Curran stands near a sodium street light on Hillen Rd. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Less “Light Trespass,” City Says

The Baltimore Department of Transportation has embarked on what it calls a concerted effort to retrofit the city’s 80,000 roadway, park and pedestrian lamps with energy-saving LED bulbs.

By this time next year, the agency hopes to have in place more than 15,000 LED lights on major roadways, which it says will save $1.9 million in Baltimore Gas and Electric utility bills and $275,000 in reduced maintenance and overtime for lighting crews.

Baltimore is not alone, it seems. City officials across the country have been stretching tight budgets by cutting down on street lighting costs. Highland Park, Mich., for example, has gone from 1,600 streetlights to 500, prompting complaints they were potentially fostering crime and creating driving hazards. Detroit’s mayor recently announced a plan to upgrade streetlights and reduce the total number in the city by half – an initiative that requires borrowing $160 million for a projected $10 million annual savings.

Besides saving money, Baltimore officials say LED lights are superior to sodium lights. “LED lighting lumens [a measure of visible light output] are typically less than that of sodium lights due to the fact that there is no wasted light with the LEDs,” Kathy Chopper, a city Department of Transportation spokesperson, said in an email.

Sodium lights have long been faulted for their “light trespass” or “light pollution” because their rays shoot off in many directions. They also create “bright spots” that can obstruct vision.

LED technology allows for lighting to be more focused, which for city DOT means illuminating streets and not allowing lumens to spill over into residents’ yards and windows.

Chopper says public feedback about the new lights has so far been favorable.

“DOT has received very few complaints about the [new] lighting. Most concerns are due to the fact that there was a change in the light fixture and that the light looks different. Most citizens just need to be educated on the LED lights.”

Less Public Safety, Says Curran

This kind of response annoys Curran, who voiced his complaint about the new lighting at a City Council budget hearing recently.

He says the issue isn’t about the new lighting looking different, but that there’s much less of it on sidewalks and streets.

“Public safety includes sidewalks as well as streets. LED lights may be okay for drivers. But where do people get mugged? Not in the middle of the street. They get mugged on sidewalks,” he says.

Curran said he noticed the difference of illumination driving one night along Belvedere Avenue. One block of sidewalks was illuminated, while the next block looked like the overhead lamps were out of service.

The illuminated block had sodium lights, while the darker block was equipped with LED bulbs. “Either the output of the LED lights is too low or the city needs to install more street lamps,” he says.

Our inspection of LED lights along Hillen Road and Cold Spring Lane revealed that the new LED lights were adequate when free from any interference.

But whenever the poles were alongside trees, the illumination seemed to disintegrate into patchy white blotches on the street. This problem will only grow worse as the trees leaf out during summer, Curran says.

Driving up Charles Street

Our inspection was on a drizzly night. If anything, a clear night makes for a greater difference.

Last Wednesday, I was driving up Charles St. at 11 p.m. when I entered into what appeared to be a tunnel of darkness north of North Ave.

I reflexively thought the city lights were out, then noticed that all of the overheads – three to a block – were operating between North Ave. and 25th Street. All were equipped with LED lights.

It was only from my headlights and the glowing traffic lights that I could see the roadway clearly until I reached the Safeway store. There the sodium floodlights in the parking lot spilled onto the 2400 block of Charles St., bringing restorative light.

Chopper says the agency uses photometric calculations and field testing to determine the proper illumination of street lights.

Councilman Curran asks residents and community representatives to use their own eyes, which, he says, will “shine a light” on the problem of night-time visibility.

The 1900 block of Charles Street last Wednesday night, looking north along a stretch of new LED street lights. Below the same block, looking south on Charles toward North Ave. (Photos by Mark Reutter)

The 1900 block of Charles Street last Wednesday night, looking north along a stretch of new LED street lights. Below the same block, looking south on Charles. (Photos by Mark Reutter)

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  • Paulio

    Granted digital cameras are designed to capture the amount of light available, the photos above do not appear to portray a “tunnel of darkness” as described. My impression is that it only seemed as such because it was juxtaposed with an intersection of the sodium lights. I am guessing that as longer stretches of road are lit with the LED lights our eyes will adjust to the amount of light.

    • Dhenderson

      This is just not great LEDs. Our street lights provide greater illumination, brighter streets and sidewalks and safer environments. But US assembled lights are more expensive, about $200 more per street light in government pricing. But, greater light, 60,000 hour life, zero degradation of light until the power supply dies around 60,000 hours Plus 20 year warranty.

      Try to get that with cheap Chinese crap.

      Maybe this Curran can point to the city quality lights where 70% of the revenue stays in the US.

      We just lost a bid to Dept of interior.

      Our light was $125 more than Chinese.

      We used 50 watts and produced 250 metal halide equivalent, 20 year warranty, 55,000 hour l80 life, 4100k (dark skies compliant), us assembly and design.

      They went with Chinese company, 50 watts, produces 125 watt equivalent, 5 year warranty if u ship back to china, 5500k (more light spill, they’re using higher kelvin to compensate for inefficient LEDs) and 2r0,000 hour LEDs with a nifty 8000 hour power supply (try running your street light when the power supply dies).

      Please check us out at http://www.laledus.com or call me at 337-205-0550

      We’re real, us assembled, honest manufacturers of LEDs. From mr 16′s to stadiums (800 skus)

  • CB

    The real issue is that most of Baltimore have highway style lightposts which only illuminate the street. There are not sufficient pedestrian style lights. If the city replaced the lights with those that are lower and closer to the street, it would improve the lighting on the sidewalk tremendously

  • Freddie

    They have been repalced on my block and you can tell a difference.  Not sure about being less bright but definitey not as warm a light. Just seems like a “cold” light compared to sodium lights.

  • Fire and Metal

    Why does Council Curran look like he just ran from an inner harbor mob.  The guy looks like he is homeless.  Even the brightest lights wont bring visitors back to the inner harbor as long as these mobs of “mischievious children” keep beating people to a pulp.

  • http://thebaltimorechop.com/ The Baltimore Chop

    A couple of things to say about this: Curran does look like a bum. Can’t even tuck his shirt in for a picture? And he comes off like an old coot in this article who hates change because it’s different.

    That stretch of Charles street has always been darker  than other parts of the street, even before LED’s were installed. Part of that is because of the very large trees along the street, and part of it is that there are absolutely no porch lights, house lights etc attached to what’s mostly cheap apartments.

    I think LED’s are wonderful, and am looking forward to a time when the whole city, and entire country are covered with them.

  • Anonymous

    We don’t need the entire outside world to be lit up like it’s high noon 24/7. 

    • Andrew Kinamore

      I couldn’t agree more. And WHAT is with the design of these ‘lights’?

  • glsever

    I always felt that the imfamous orange lights of Baltimore were ugly and looked “dirty”, if that makes any sense.  Streets where the new lights are installed now look cleaner, more elegant, and more desireable; and while it may not look like it’s daylight anymore, you can definitely see the street and sidewalk just fine.

    I grew up in Severna Park – 30 miles south of the city – and I remember that the night sky always glowed orange when you looked to the north.  When I went to school at UMBC, same phenominon existed to the east.  Lighting is important for public safety, but there is such a thing as overkill…

  • Bmorepanic

    I like LED lighting but agree that the sidewalks could be better lit.  It is transportation’s responsibility to light them, not the adjoining property owners.  That may mean adding fixtures at appropriate heights to light sidewalks,  but that would interfere with their cost saving calculations.

    Be fun if a reporter asked DOT what the city standard is for acceptable “photometric calculations and field testing” results on the sidewalk. :)

  • Kim Trueheart

    I hope that during the budget hearing the Council tasked the DOT to provide a briefing on the Cost/Benefit Analysis which led to their decision to change the bulbs … Seems cost was the driver, but no mention of safety … Competing outcomes, Hum!!! 

  • Tom Kiefaber

    Sounds like we have another ideological “belief” issue brewing. The belief partisans already weighing in are taking umbrage at the glaringly obvious A/B comparisons of the present streetlights and the ones on the way. 

    I’m reminded of stereo speaker sales years ago when the “specs” of a particular loudspeaker favored by the retailers for whatever reason, would be relentlessly  cited to try and  trump the A/B tests of two sets of speakers by switching back and forth to judge the difference. When the “lesser” spec set of speakers sounded better with an A/B test, then the real “sales job” became that much more difficult and surreal in order to steer the customer towards the “preferred” set. This would involve pulling rank in terms of expertise, authority, and even some put-down, demeaning talk of aesthetic discernment from snooty sales personnel. The new lights suck in comparison to the existing lighting in effectiveness, yet they may shine when comparing stats and costs, and how GREEN they are, etc. While Bob Curran may not be a fastidious beau brummel, sartorial spendor is not why those of us who have come to love Bob, appreciate him so much. In an empire of lies, the truth is considered treason, and Bob’s straightforward, salt of the earth observations are heretical in certain circles. His district constituents generally love and appreciate his, no-bull-crap honesty. His concerns are about them, not what some folks determined at some municipal lighting conference selling these new LED’s as the second coming.  So what do those who are governed by  ideology do in the face of practical , “Like Duh” observations that don’t fit the preferred beliefs of the moment?  Why attack the heretic of course and discredit an individual dissenter. After all that’s one of our traditions here in Balwlmer City.               

  • Rokkinrobin55

    For those who opine that Councilman Curran “looks like a bum” with a partially tucked shirt; Are YOU always “Picture Perfect”?  He is not the POINT of the picture. Any pedestrian standing where he is standing would appear “less visible” to someone driving up the street.
    AS to LED lights there are pros and cons. I daresay any astronomers (amateur or professional) are probably in favor of less light pollution. I wonder how well these would work on upper Park Heights Avenue with all the trees and those “Public Safety Cameras”?

    • http://baltomatic.com Lars Peterson

       Actually many astronomers are unhappy with these streetlights, because they emit much more broad-spectrum light than  sodium lamps, which pollute a narrow spectrum that can be easily filtered out.

    • glad to be gone

      He is a dang officer of the city man! This is just some of the things wrong with the city!

  • glad to be gone

    Jesus!!!! tuck your damn shirt in man….. OMG! really!

  • glad to be gone

    I have NEVER been impressed by his actions. He is only in power due to nobody else wants the job.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jamiehunt344 James Hunt

    Smiley wrote: ” … The real question is not whether on light illuminates better than another. It’s whether street lights reduce crime at all in the first place. …”

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    Good point. Most of the city is lit up like Attica at night, and to what end? Considering the horrific number of drive-bys, a little less light might help the intended targets.

  • Anonymous

    Someone should have snapped a picture of Curran under a blue light camera. 

  • Tbird

    It looks like the LED lights are doing just what they are supposed to do.  Illuminate without being too bright and saving energy.  Who needs to have every corner lit up like a Christmas tree?

  • Foobard

    I like the LEDs. I also wonder at the question “Does lighting have any affect on crime?”. Rather than just assuming, someone should do some research. Lighting can allow you to spot potential attackers, but it also illuminates jucy targets, which can be preyed upon by people hiding in pools of darkness nearby.

  • Baltimoreplaces

    I like LEDs and happy that they are now affordable enough to provide a cost benefit. 

    Cities are stuggling, instead of tackling the difficult issues and ridding themselves of waste and cutting that which is not necessary, they are making trims here and there.  Detroit last week announced that it will be turning off half of there street lights in order to save money.  While LED lights will be dimmer at least there will still be light.  I can’t even imagine half of this town in the dark – scary! 

    • Skypie6

      How do we know they will save money when no ones auditing the money being spent? There are no checks and balances to determine if there will be a savings.

  • Sevit Sevit

    Baltimore has a great LED company… They should call

    SavWatt

  • Skypie6

    How do we know the lights are saving money if no one is doing audits. I changed the light bulbs in my house because BGE said it would save me money. My BGE bill is higher than ever since I changed the bulbs…. I’m not a believer

    • RoscoeBMore

      Energy prices have gone up since you changed them as well.  I’ve had nothing but savings with respect to actual energy used.

  • Montgty

    Buy from a local company callled savwatt. Great products.

  • Micvic73

    I’m not big on these new LED lights, my neighborhood is a high drug traffic area and its darker than normal. Coming home @ night you never know who’s out now. Bring back the old lights my safety is more important that a dollar

    • RoscoeBMore

      As always, a dark street can be just as safe as an illuminated one.  Public safety is a much bigger problem than streetlights.

  • Sanman555

    Another obvious scam. Who is pocketing kick-backs on this one. The difference in lighting is as plain as “day”! Normal people would wanna walk down a very well lite street at night. However, people with an agenda may not want too much light as whatever it is they’re up to may be discovered. Give the people what their tax dollars are paying for. Streets that have decent lighting at night.
    No exceptions can be made when public safety is a concern. People working second shift and dragging themselves home at night should at least be able to see enough to put their key in their doors.
    No LED lighting!!!!!! LET THERE BE LIGHT!!!!!

    • eyes light

      Yo, conspiracy guy. Get your med script filled.

  • MP

    Love the new lights…make the mean streets of Bmore look less bleak. I do agree there are dark spots as a result of the LEDS…then again, when I turn out the lights in my house, it looks like it’s daylight out!!

  • Ron Deaver

    People have just gotten used to the extreme glare and light pollution and it will take a while to get used to the new looks. Congratulations on having a progressive administration that took initiative on better lighting.  Look how all that glare is shining into the windows of the buildings and also upward creating so much light pollution that citizens can’t see the stars.  More lighting does not reduce crime. It reduces peoples fear of crime. We need to grow up. Light pollution is being documented as causing all kinds of unhealthy results in people and the rest of nature. Greetings from Kentucky. I only wish our municipalities here were taking such action.

  • six-ft-six

    LEDs degrade and lose output slowly over time. In 5-7 years, these areas will be even darker than they are now. What’s worse is that this type of slow degradation over time probably won’t generate citizen complaints and get addressed, since it’s not as noticeable as the old style fixtures that fail all at once by completely burning out. I’m not against LEDs, but this has to be dealt with, short of an army of technicians with light meters charting the output of each LED fixture over time.

  • Sabina Pade

    I think the new LED lighting is very good in and of itself.  Among its benefits is a superior rendering of colours, which allows the viewer to more accurately interpret them.  The distribution of lamp standards, however, is insufficiently dense, and their height is too great along sidewalks that are planted with trees.  This results in areas of poorly lit sidewalk.  A sensible solution may be to attach light fixtures directly to buildings, rather than atop lamp standards.

    Baltimore’s violent criminals do not appear deterred by conspicuously bright illumination.  They appear to have realised that illumination is their enemy only when people are actively watching them.  Along commercial arteries, during business hours, such is indeed likely to be the case; but in other areas, and during non-business hours, illumination is instead an aid to their endeavours.  All the more so when, as is frequently the case with sodium lighting, illumination renders the criminal as a featureless shadow against a backdrop of glare.

  • Unellu

    What, not a single exhibitionist on this thread, complaining that his or exhibitionism will be lost upon this world under the dark pools spawned on sidewalks by LEDs?  And I thought America has been overrun by exhibitionists.  LEDS favor those who want to remain in the shadows, not those who want to show off their wares–they certainly don’t favor ladies of the evening.  As for James Hunt saying intended targets of would be shooters will be saved by LEDs, hasn’t he heard of firearms with scopes?  I am guessing with such aids shooters should not find LEDS too much of a hindrance to their cause.  Violent criminals are too self absorbed to be deterred by anything.  They are wedded to their goals or guided by impetuosity.  Lighting is merely background noise in their busy lives Sabina Pade. 

    I love Curran’s sartorial asymmetry.  It is the crowning glory of this article.  Mark Reutter could have tucked that shirt in and touched up that face before clicking a photo–but he didn’t.  They are presented to us, warts and all, these politicos, by the BREW.  It is interesting to speculate if the Sun would have spruced up Curran for a photo shoot.       

  • Frosty09

    As for the LED lights…. they may be the latest rage in “savings”…. but I do not like them at all.   They leave way too many shadows and dark spots in a city that’s full of night creepers and gutter-bugs.   But, like I said…. GLOCK is my savior.

  • Concerned Cantonian

    I don’t know why everyone is saying these are so much darker. I hate these new lights because it’s like the police helicopter is shining it’s light into my bedroom. Worst. Lights. Ever.

    • Andrew Kinamore

      THANK you! I don’t like them at all either. Sure, they use less power, but they’re too bright, too ugly, and I actually think they make the city look worse!

  • Sweetdiva731

    I hate the new lights. When walking, the streets are much darker. It feels very unsafe. This was not a smart move.

  • Broford Cox

    Meh, I agree about the safety. But sometimes you have to weigh this out. Better more low energy lights vs ones that are high energy wasting power and costing the city money? It’s time to move towards the future. I’m all for green/greener technology. I have no problem with this. But at the same time, I agree with Curran on safety of the pedestrian, these things are beautiful to look at, but they’re dim. 

  • Christopher Petty

    The LED lights the city is using are the cheaper first generation LEDs. They just installed LED lights on my local Royal Farms parking lot, and I have to say they are extremely bright. They are the newer broad spectrum LEDs do work..but only the newer ones; and consequently, the more expensive ones.

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