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D.C. Ain't Paris: Welcome to the City of Darkness

I had no idea: Way back in 1977, President Jimmy Carter, in an effort to save on energy bills, ordered the District to cut back so dramatically on street lighting that nearly half of the lamps on many blocks went dark--and were actually removed from the city's sidewalks. Nearly three decades later, many of those lights are still gone, according to a story by Daniel Goldstein of Bloomberg news service.

Goldstein's report notes that poor street lighting was considered a factor in the tragic death of retired New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum, and that almost five percent of streets lights are dark at any given time in downtown Washington--five times the rate in, for example, Paris.

The city and downtown business improvement districts are trying to lighten up the downtown and other parts of the District, but it's an expensive and slow process that will take years and cost $450 million, according to the D.C. Department of Transportation. That number sounds impossibly high--heck, you can almost build a wildly overpriced baseball stadium for that money. But a light city is a safer city, and one more inviting for walkers, who, in the end, are the people who make a city feel vibrant and safe.

By Marc Fisher |  November 1, 2006; 7:57 AM ET
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This would seem to be a no brainer. If a President ordered the darkening of DC streets, then the Feds need to help in restoring the lights.

I can say that a lot of city streets in DC seem unusually dark, when compared to streets in other cities.

And decent lighting is the cheapest anti-crime measure you can use.

One small thing that would help a lot - residents and businesses need to leave their exterior lights on at night. I'd say one of every two outdoor lights in my neighborhood are regularly off.

Posted by: Hillman | November 1, 2006 9:05 AM

Marc, do yourself and us a favor and please find a thesaurus and stop using the word vibrant every time you describe your ideal urban environment. It's getting old.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 1, 2006 9:08 AM

Yeah, I can't wait to see you try and get more street lights installed in the toney areas of upper Northwest where the NYTimes reporter was murdered (never mind the countless others who've been murdered because of dark streets, it only counts when it's a white guy in upper Northwest). I bet you money those NIMBYs in upper Northwest would start screaming bloody murder (pun intended) if you tried to start adding more streetlights to their tree-lined streets.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | November 1, 2006 9:33 AM

Where are we going to get the energy to light all these streets? The Saudis? The Venezuelans? Drill in Alaska?

Posted by: KK | November 1, 2006 9:38 AM

Great! One more bone-headed, pointless, stupid, symbolic action to blame on Carter. He's a loser who just keeps on giving even 30 years later.

Posted by: Stick | November 1, 2006 9:48 AM


Posted by: to KK | November 1, 2006 9:49 AM

It's not just the number of lampposts; we should rethink their design. Most of our streetlamps are "Washington Globes" and point upwards. On residential streets, folks often spray paint black the half that shines into their windows (see example at We need lamps that point downwards, just onto the crosswalk. And while we're comparing ourselves to Paris, have you noticed how many of our monuments, buildings, and fountains are dark at night? For example, the lights at the Senate Garage fountain just aren't on, the Library of Congress's Neptune fountain is dark, the Navy fountain is dark, and so is the Banneker fountain - among others (see And then out fountain which anchors Embassy Row in Dupont Circle doesn't even have lights for it - see

Posted by: Michael | November 1, 2006 9:51 AM

This should be perceived as an opportunity instead of as a problem. Light pollution from obsolete technology wastes energy and gives many areas a depressed, post-industrial look.

Current and emerging lighting technologies that are energy efficient, that direct light where it is wanted and keep light off of areas where it is not wanted, would help the District wrest the City of Lights title from Paris.

As for the Jimmy Carter slam, let's see how history judges the current denizen of the White House. Anyone wanna place a bet on whether he ever receives a Nobel Peace Prize? Or anything other than the Boobie Prize as Historian's Consensus Choice for Worst President? Anyone wanna bet that we'll see a Former President Bush helping to build hosues for Habitat for Humanity?


Posted by: Mister Methane | November 1, 2006 9:59 AM

I like having fewer street lights. I think it is a waste of precious natural resources. I seriously doubt it is any real deterent to crime at all. In my opinion the NY times reporters murder seems to underline that point. The killers hid in bushes near the sidewalk - street lights don't work in shuberry. Let's save the money on electricity and get some cops out walking around out there - which we can all agree is a proven crime deterent.

Posted by: Macacawitz | November 1, 2006 10:04 AM

I actually moved downtown to Penn Quarter in part (not the major reason but one among several) because I started to feel unsafe on the dark streets of Cleveland Park. All those sloping, hilly streets, leafy trees, bushes, etc., are pretty, but when you're walking home from the Metro at night, they're not such a good thing.

Now I have a 1-block walk to the Metro on a flat, main street with tons of people and light, even late at night. I'm not saying nothing could ever happen, but at least you can see what's going on around you.

Posted by: Penn Quarterite | November 1, 2006 10:04 AM

I'm the person who would stand up and say that we need LESS light in residential areas, not more. In my bedroom, I can read by the light of the streetlamps. It's wasteful and annoying and impacts my quality of life, which I paid-- and continue to pay-- rather dearly for.

The previous poster hit it on the head: NEW technology. BETTER lights. More energy efficient (because seriously, Carter's move was intended to save energy-- say what you will about the man, but when has conservation alone become a sneer-worthy goal?), more practical to residents and visitors.

And seriously, people. Get some bids! Break the job up if you have to! I'm so sick of seeing my tax dollars swindled away by contractors who have learned they can suck whatever they want to from the governemnt teat.

Posted by: WDC | November 1, 2006 10:07 AM

Now we're going to blame the murder of a person on poor street lighting? Mr. Rosenbaum was tragically murdered due to the savage actions of two thugs in addition to the incompetent action by DC emergency medical technicians. Street lights would not have prevented this tragedy. Rosenbaum had ear phones on his head and was attacked from behind. How would additional street lights have helped Mr. Rosenbaum?

Daniel Goldstein is trying to connect two dots that are nowhere near each other and do not belong in the same conversation. Has Goldstein even bothered to see what street lighting exists on Gramercy St., NW before coming to his conclusion? Or is the murder of Mr. Rosenbaum a convenient help to Goldstein's poor argument?

Posted by: Give me a break | November 1, 2006 10:28 AM

Adequate lighting is a good (but not sufficient) crime deterrent tool. I frankly doubt that anyone who thinks otherwise has spent much time in high-crime areas. Adequate lighting also greatly adds to people's subjective perception of safety. Taken together, these objective and subjective improvements in safety encourage more people to be on the streets, and those increased numbers, in turn, improve safety yet further.

One poster's point about the inefficiency of Washington Globe-style lamps should be paid attention to. It makes little sense to throw light in all directions, rather than lighting the curb, treebox, sidewalk, and "public parking" areas. Another curious thing is DC's reliance on "cobra" style lamps in many areas. These are the tall angled-arm lamps, which seem mainly effective at illuminating the street, and not so effective at lighting the sidewalk.

And then there is the matter of how long it takes DC Department of Transportation to repair/replace broken streetlights. Often this stretches into months of time. That is unacceptable.

Clearly we can do better than we are. I imagine the increased tax revenue might more than offset the increased energy cost.

Posted by: Mark | November 1, 2006 10:36 AM

I would welcome more light in our city. One reason I like the holidays so much is that everything feels brighter with the additional lights. Let the Feds help pay for it. They waste my tax dollars on all sorts of stupid stuff, they can at least spend a portion of it making my city brighter.

By the way, I was in NYC last Thursday on business and noticed how many police were around, tons of them around Times Square, 7th Ave, and Penn Station. That too makes a difference, but let there be light!

Posted by: Chris | November 1, 2006 10:58 AM

Actually, when we called to complain about a street light out in our alley, that night, someone was out to fix it. If someone doesn't come within a week, call again. My son was thrilled to watch the man in the bucket fix the light and especially excited when he waved back to us!

Posted by: Capitol hill mom | November 1, 2006 12:22 PM

We're going to place Fisher in the middle of DC and strategically reflect bright lights off of his dome. Let there be light!!

But on a more serious note, more lighting would help somewhat, but there is no way to light up every nook and cranny. Even if the worse crime areas would be better lighted, the ilk would just move to another dark location.

Posted by: Not Einstein | November 1, 2006 12:27 PM

I remember this being an issue once on MacArthur Blvd., that leads all the way into the park area....and if correct I remember a couple of people were hit and killed.

When the public went to fight for more lighting, there was a group "on the rich side" of the potomac park side that argued more lighting would take away from it's forestry look and it was defeated.

How sad, however I personally would support more lighting in the streets of DC, however how about "Solar Lights" tall as the poles are, I'm sure it could provide enough power to even be stored for saving energy cost.


Posted by: Frankey | November 1, 2006 1:05 PM

LEDs use hardly any energy and last a LONG time, and thanks to new technologies are cheaper to produce!
Also, new nano-metals can be thinner than paper, stronger than steel, transparent, and yet still act as a solar panel! Why not incorporate this wonderful technology into our society? Street lights, yes... What about for houses, cars, etc? It would be cheaper than awful lights that just suck "dirty" energy and cost a fortune to install and constantly replace

Posted by: Chris | November 1, 2006 1:20 PM

On my street, the only cars that get broken into are the ones parked directly under streetlamps (where the crook can see what he or she is taking).

I wonder, would street lights seem to be as "safe" if each one had a smokestack on it belching the coal exhaust necessary to generate the electricity required to run it?

Stars give children a moment of wonder, and wonder is the source of all curiosity. Cheating ourselves and our children out the Milky Way is just like the war on terror: a cure that's worse than the disease.

Streetlights may have made sense in 1890. But in today's world, where flashlights and cellphones are inexpensive to all, I think we need to realise that streetlights are a socialistic, corporate welfare solution that is no longer appropriate.

Posted by: Paul | November 1, 2006 1:28 PM

On our block the call went out to keep one's porch light on 24/7 and about 3/4 of the houses follow that rule. It's a good one.

Posted by: Bethesdan | November 1, 2006 1:36 PM

Wait I'm confused. Carter wanted to limit the number of street lights turned on during what was obviously a temporary energy crisis. Why did the street lights need to be pulled up and taken away? That must have cost a fortune. I guess it's more complicated than unscrewing the bulb or snipping a few wires?

Posted by: Head On! | November 1, 2006 2:10 PM

Head On!, they would have had to pay for idle pole maintenance and there's money in the budget for idle pole maintenance.

Posted by: CFO wannabe | November 1, 2006 2:39 PM

Simply having glaring lights shining everywhere in the hope that it may help reduce crime seems wasteful. I have this neat idea for solving the light/crime problem. I envision a mobile lighting system. Each light could be turned on instantly, in a flash, if you will, and could be moved about by some kind of official city employee who travels the sidewalk on foot. This city employee would also be trained to some degree in martial arts and perhaps armed, and would have the authority to detain persons and make arrests. I believe that there are already a number of city employees that are already engaged in similar tasks, so there would be very little additional cost.

Posted by: bkp | November 1, 2006 3:09 PM

I meant to say that there's NO money in the budget for idle pole maintenance. D'oh.

Posted by: CFO Wannabe | November 1, 2006 3:09 PM

bkp, while I do agree that there are already a variety of characters working for the city, they would have to hire someone like Chuck Norris to tackle this. Wait a minute, rats can be trained to sniff out land mines. Can't they be trained to fight crime? Or better yet, put little miners lamps on the head of every rat in the city. Now THAT's moblie lighting!

Posted by: Where's my reward! | November 1, 2006 3:18 PM

It's a fact if the streets were brighter, it would lessen crime. So the money should come out of the MPD budget, due to decrease in crimes.

Posted by: Frankey | November 1, 2006 3:23 PM

I think bpk was referring to those constable type fellows that some other cities seem to have. You know, the ones who wear uniforms and can be seen walking around neighborhoods, getting to know the locals, paying attention to trends and troublemakers, and of course, carrying flashlights.

Do you think it would be possible for the Nation's Capitol to have some of those constable type fellows? It's worth considering, right? I mean, if the next best idea is to spend $400 million on some lights which are not mobile, and do not detain or arrest bad guys...

Posted by: Haw haw! | November 1, 2006 3:31 PM

Finding power for the proposed street lights is not rocket science, folks. Both the Capitol and the White House is right in the middle of DC. All they would have to do is extract the human hot air that is produced from those buildings and turn it into energy.

Posted by: Maybe I am Einstein after all! | November 1, 2006 3:44 PM

What uses fewer resources -- street lights or the gas, time and other resources used to try to save the lives of innocent citizens like David Rosenberg? What is next, to save gas by banning cop cars? Use the extra fuel on better lighting, hike the gas tax to force drivers to cut back, and spend the tax revenue on more prosecutors and jail cells -- not cops, they'd rather sit around and grab the low-hanging fruit, that is why half of them do not arrest anyone in a given year. As for Carter, he was an unmitigated disater as President, which is exactly why he lost to the man that he lost to. Everything praiseworthy that he has done, he has done since leaving office in an attempt to rehabilitate his image. President Reagan is revered because of what he did in office, whatever reverence Carter gets is in spite of it. Vernon Jordan -- hardly a GOP moothpiece -- called his first year in office quote a disaster unquote. And it got worse from there. And what is up with the no punctuation marks bit? WaPoCorp can't afford better technology than this?

Posted by: RL | November 1, 2006 4:04 PM

Can't we just shine a flashlight off Kornheiser's head? That should light up the whole city.

Posted by: Jacknut | November 1, 2006 4:52 PM

"Can't we just shine a flashlight off Kornheiser's head?"

Hey! Using rats was my suggestion! (Tee-Hee!)

Posted by: Where's my reward! | November 1, 2006 7:51 PM

New street lights should be installed and the bill sent to Jimmy Carter's Habitat for Humanity organization.

Posted by: Bockster | November 2, 2006 11:38 AM

Here's some synonyms for vibrant: active, animated, colorful, dynamic, electrifying, energetic, lively, peppy, responsive, sensitive, sound, sparkling, spirited, vigorous, virile, vital, vivacious, vivid.

Give them a whirl in your next column, Marc!

Posted by: ML | November 2, 2006 12:39 PM

Paul: I'm glad that your neighborhood is safe enough that you can do without lights, spending time instead pondering the beauty of the Milky Way. However, my neighborhood is not that safe. We need decent lighting.

Posted by: Hillman | November 2, 2006 2:50 PM

It's not only DC that's too dark; it's the entire region.

Metro DC is darker than every other major metropolitan area, except possibly Atlanta. I notice how dark this region is compared to other US cities every time I take a nitghtime plane trip. I can see the difference whenever my flight lands and takes off.

And what's with all those darkened lamp posts on the Beltway in Maryland?

Posted by: CEEAF | November 2, 2006 5:30 PM

I'm in the good lighting makes good sense camp, but CEEAF's observation that DC is darker by air probably owes much to the large proportion of open space (trees, parks, rivers etc) we have in relation to many cities. Daytime satellite and air photography shows this clearly.

Posted by: Mark | November 3, 2006 9:51 AM

"I'm in the good lighting makes good sense camp, but CEEAF's observation that DC is darker by air probably owes much to the large proportion of open space (trees, parks, rivers etc) we have in relation to many cities. Daytime satellite and air photography shows this clearly."

That's a good observation and correct, to a point. However, I've flown over areas I know to be densly built up - Tysons, Alexandria, Arlington, Bethesda
for example. They're pretty dark - not much brighter than the open spaces.

Other cities have trees, open space and water; some like Minneapolis and Seattle have at least as much as we do. But one can still see the street lights from 10,000 feet.

We have the trees, rivers, and open spaces. We're lucky to have them. But we don't have enough of the lights.

Posted by: CEEAF | November 3, 2006 6:42 PM

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