EDITORIAL: Questioning city’s bright idea

Surrey's proposed move to LED street lights could come at a cost that's difficult to calculate.

Earlier this month, the City of Surrey announced it will spend $11 million over the next five years upgrading street lights to LED, joining the legion of municipalities the world over that are also making the switch.

While the move to 28,000 LEDs will save the city approximately $1 million a year once the conversion is complete, those annual savings could come at a price that’s difficult to calculate.

The LED lights consume less power than sodium lights and are less costly to maintain.

They’re also brighter. The city’s news release – issued Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, a daylight-inspired event to be sure – claims the LED lights make it easier for motorists to see pedestrians and signs, and reduces eyestrain and fatigue for drivers.

That’s welcome news in a city that has seen a string of serious and fatal vehicle-pedestrian collisions in the past month. Increased visibility will no doubt help increase driver and pedestrian awareness at intersections.

However, where the LED lights go, it seems a litany of complaints follows. In other jurisdictions, LED street lights aren’t exactly winning over fans when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, or feeling safe from crime.

Critics point out that blue-rich LED light at night can zap the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms of sleeping and waking up, a side-effect that – at the very least – will send insomniacs in search of blackout blinds.

Other complaints suggests LED lamps can leave patches of sidewalks and streets unlit, making neighbourhoods and cityscapes seem less well-lit and secure than intended.

LEDs only provide directional light, and as such, can’t produce a soft glow that emanates in all directions, resulting in sharp shadows.

Others say the white-blue light changes the perception of their streets at night, making them feel cold and unwelcoming. Alternatives such as yellow-white LED lights create a warmer ambience, but aren’t quite as energy efficient.

According to the City of Surrey, these concerns can and will be addressed. Once installed, the city will have the ability to dim – or brighten – the new lights, depending on need and the situation.

It will take at least a decade to cover the installation costs through energy savings, according to the city’s own calculations. As such, it will be quite a while before we find an answer to an important question – is the city’s plan one that seems bright on paper, but perhaps not quite as bright in reality?

Only in time will the answer become clear.

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