Last weekend, we visited New York. It was a different visit in many ways, as we saw different things and stayed in different neighborhoods than before. One thing that remained the same was our nocturnal lifestyle. Our bus got into the Penn Station area after 10, and it took us almost an hour of transit misadventure to get to the place we were staying in the East Village. By the time we got there, we were ready to get out on the town, and nipped down the block for a tour and drinks. Even though we didn’t even get into New York until after my bedtime. Just as walking and biking are much easier in places worth waling and biking through, staying up is much easier when there are things to do at all hours.
Almost 48 hrs later, we made it back to the same bus to return home, exhausted and happy with all that we had seen and done. My personal quest was finding the remaining mile marker that Benjamin Franklin placed on Broadway. This one was moved a few blocks from its original location, but it is the only one that survives of the dozen that were placed on Manhattan in the 1750s. As you can see there is no writing on it. Our ancestors who lived in “historic” times had little regard for the forward prospects of history. The is just another example of their plunder. So it goes.
The trip home was lengthy, impatient and sore. Going back to reality has that effect. As we made our first stop to drop off passengers, I realized it was unnaturally dark outside. I took for granted my ability to see things clearly the whole weekend, and now everything was dark. There were Sodium lamps spaced drivably apart casting a orange tint over everything, but nothing you could read by. More than the fact that everything was paved in parking spaces and lanes, with but one or two concrete buildings in a suburban forest, I was alarmed by the dark.
When I got over my initial revulsion, I realized that night was only natural. The birds at our feeder only come in the shifting light between night and day, twice a day. The rest of the day our feeders lie vacant. Lights can and do mess up the circadian rhythms of birds, so why can’t they do the same for people? New York’s choice and ability to provide light was the aberration, not the norm.
The decision to light our streets is very modern idea, from the first electric street lights in Wabash, Indiana to today, when lighting streets in cites has become a regulated minimum of safety in cities. This is not a trivial work. There are about 15 million street lights in America, concentrated in towns and cities. Their energy consumption costs about 3 billion a year. Not a majority of our energy by far, but enough to notice. Even from space. The problem with lighting up until now has been waste. Waste in heat and waste in light. Early incandescent bulbs used 90% of the their electricity for heating the filament, and the remainder for lighting. There are still those that defend the incandescent bulb as a heat source for this reason.
Putting aside such poppycock, we have developed cooler lighting sources since the fluorescent in 1925, the compact fluorescent in 1976 and the LED in 2012. LEDs in street lights also address another problem with street lighting: lighting up things that don’t need lighting. If we can see our lighting from space, that escape in energy wasted. The only reason we have street lighting is so that we can see things at night. The bats and nightjars have gotten along for millions of years by other means, thanks. When we reach smart phone or RFID ubiquity, paired with instant startup lights like LEDs, we can even avoid having street lights on for much of the night. We could save significant energy if our street lights only came on when there was someone to enjoy it.