Point of View

By Tom Reiland

When the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh formed its Light Pollution Committee, we decided to look into all the problems caused by poorly designed lighting beyond those that affect astronomy. We found the problems to be many and just as destructive to the environment and city budgets as it is to the serious study of the universe.

Shortly after the committeeís formation, one of its members was able to convince the lawmakers of Richland, where he resides, to pass a light-pollution ordinance to prevent the use of wasteful lighting.

The energy crunch of the late 70s and early 80s followed this first success and we became complacent as the growth of illumination either stopped or, in some cases, was cut back.

Cities such as Pittsburgh were switching from the inefficient mercury-vapor lamps to the energy-saving, low-pressure sodium, and it appeared as if the influx of light pollution was leveling off. But there was no chance of that happening.

In the last several years, it has begun to increase drastically. The only ones who are not hurt by this are the power companies and their stockholders.

Pittsburgh was once a city low on the light-pollution scale. Then, not too long after it was named the Most Livable City in the United States, a handful of well-intentioned citizens conceived the idea that a brightly-lit city would be even more attractive. Partially inspired by the success of Light-Up Night and the decline of downtown retail business, they felt that lighting up the bridges and buildings would attract more shoppers.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Shoppers are lured by advertising and the fact that the event happens once a year. The lights are not the sole reason.

If Pittsburgh were lit up year round, shoppers would quickly tire of it or continue to shop at the suburban malls where parking is free. The mall shops are indoors under the same roof and vehicle traffic is not as congested as in the city. Lights are not going to change that. It will, however, cause an increase in rents and taxes and wasted money. Eventually, prices on merchandise sold in the city will be much higher than those on products sold in the suburbs.

This money could be better spent fixing bridges and streets, improving traffic flow with computerized traffic signals, and by increasing and improving the local police and fire departments. Instead, we see more and more lights pollute the night sky and our atmosphere with the burning of fossil fuels needed to keep these lights glaring.

The Greater Pittsburgh Office of Promotions, with its plan to light 11 Downtown bridges, merely is doing cosmetic surgery regarding the problems of lost business in the city. The need is to attack the real problems of parking, traffic flow and crumbling bridges.

This foolish plan comes from a city which has moved its Independence Day celebration to July 3 to save $16,000 in overtime pay for the police. It seems, however, these people are willing to spend in excess of $5 million to light the bridges.

The emphasis on glitz and glitter detracts from the true substance of the city, which is the people of Pittsburgh. Thatís what makes this city one of the best in the country. So much natural beauty in the surrounding areas is disregarded by those who would light the bridges.

By now youíre probably wondering what light pollution is. Simply put, it is the scattering of light into the sky or on locations where it is not wanted or needed. It is caused by unshielded lights, spotlights and ornamental lights that are directed toward the sky or at wide angles rather than straight down. This is not a local or national problem; it is international.

It wastes energy, millions of taxpayer dollars, contributes to air pollution, harms wildlife and, contrary to one argument, does not prevent crime. The convex, unshielded, cobra-style low-pressure sodium lights that are used in Pittsburgh waste at least 25 percent (some say as much as 30 percent) of the light they give off. This means a loss of 25 cents for every tax dollar spent on lighting. The mercury-vapor lamps that the city once employed were even worse. Fifty percent of the light from these fixtures is in the ultraviolet range, which is not visible to the human eye. Subtract the scattered light loss of 25 to 30 percent and you have a light that wastes almost two-thirds of the energy it uses. Companies, towns and individuals who still use mercury-vapor lights are losing about 65 cents of every dollar they spend on the energy to light them.

Of course many of us believe, or used to believe, that all these lights helped prevent crime. Itís too bad that it hasnít worked out that way. Crime has increased in areas where lights were added. Some people believe that lighting actually attracts criminals. One statistic quoted by New York Cityís Street and Highway Lighting Bureau asserts that 98 percent of its streets are not illuminated to minimum standards. They found that 80 percent of all reported crimes occurred on these streets; whereas, 20 percent of the crimes happened on the 2 percent that were properly lit. Why? Because lights give us a false sense of security, criminals can see their victims better, lights provide shadows for them to lurk in, and buildings and houses that are well-lit almost scream out that there is something valuable here.

A good police officer will tell you that if someone wants to commit a crime, they will attempt it regardless of the obstacles. A good security system, watch dogs and vigilant neighbors (block watch programs) will do more to stop crime than any amount of lights.

We do need good lighting for safe travel, whether it be in a car or on foot. Shielded lights do the best job in this area. Local governments and businesses should take a cue from Allegheny County. The county uses the box-style shielded lights in its parks. The state of Pennsylvania has been using the efficiently designed high-mass lights on many of its interstate highways. The Russellton/West Deer area recently installed cobra-style sodium street lights with concave lamps that waste little or no light, unlike the convex lamps used in Pittsburgh. It makes me wonder why such a small community shows good fiscal and environmental sense, while great cities like Pittsburgh still use the old, wasteful convex lamps.

There have been lengthy articles and research papers written about this subject, but because space is limited I will list some of the many problems caused by light pollution:

What do we need to do? We need to stop the current overkill method of lighting our streets, sidewalks, driveways and buildings. Pittsburgh and surrounding communities need to pass light-pollution ordinances as good or better than those of cities in Arizona. Violations there are often reported in local papers.

If lawmakers in Pittsburgh and other communities are interested in designs, methods and ordinances necessary to save energy and tax dollars, they can contact the Light Pollution Committee of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh.

Itís time for this city to become a leader in yet another field. And itís time for all of us to use the common sense and consideration necessary to cut down this disturbing glow that robs us of a God-given gift -- the ability to see our universe and attempt to understand it.