Getting the glare out of city streetlights

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January 24, 2005 // UPDATED 1:51 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Better street lighting that's less harsh and cheaper? Some say yes; others shrug.

Steve Orfield wants the city to take the glare out of its streetlights.

Orfield, owner of Minneapolis-based Orfield Labs, has pushed the city to create lighting codes that focus on better visibility, not simply brightness.

"Lighting is thought of as a quantity problem rather than a quality problem; it is 97 percent a quality problem," he said from his lighting and acoustic testing facility, 2709 E. 25th St.

"Conceivably, the city could have a lighting standard where the lighting level is lower than it is now but where the ability to see is dramatically higher," he said.

Orfield is not a disinterested party. He wants to work with the city and lighting industry to develop the visibility standard, he said. Potential light vendors then would pay his firm to test their light fixtures. If they meet the visibility standard, the company would qualify to compete for city lighting contracts.

Orfield said his firm worked on the lighting at the University of Minnesota's Mariucci Arena, to improve visibility for both spectators and players. It has created lighting systems for industrial clients, such as Harley Davidson.

At his lab, Orfield demonstrates how less light is more for a worker looking for part imperfections. He turns on one high-intensity light to show how it reflects off the part. The glare would make it difficult for an inspector to see the flaw. A much softer - and better-targeted light - makes the imperfection much easier to see.

Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) has toured Orfield's lab and has pushed for a lighting visibility standard for six years, both as a Councilmember and in his previous job as a city crime-prevention specialist. He said it would improve public safety and aesthetics.

"Drive down Hennepin and look at how much glare is there. Then go down Excelsior [Boulevard]," he said. "They have hooded their lights. There isn't much glare. Most of it shines straight down on the sidewalk [and] they have illuminated the trees. It is a much softer, more enjoyable environment and [has] much better visibility."

Councilmember Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward), chair of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, said she supports creating a lighting visibility standard. Her committee asked city staff to work with Orfield labs and report back in February.

The Council already is working on a city lighting policy, which, among other things, would set appropriate light levels for residential, pedestrian and the central business district.

Pedestrian-level lights have been popular with neighborhood groups. Some initiated their own lighting programs, in part to improve safety. They paid for them through special assessments and/or Neighborhood Revitalization Program money.

The City Council put a moratorium on new neighborhood pedestrian lighting programs in 2002, until it created a lighting policy. A draft policy includes approved fixtures and poles and a petition process for neighborhood groups to follow.

Colvin Roy said her committee delayed approving the draft policy until it could address the visibility issue. She called it part of a government trend - "moving away from just measuring the number of widgets and instead trying to determine whether the widgets are effective."

Orfield said because pedestrian-level lights are on shorter poles, the light is more likely to shine in people's eyes. That creates glare.

Typically, city codes require that lights illuminate the sidewalk with a certain amount of light, but don't address glare, he said. A city visibility standard could require fixture designs that both improve the quality of light on the sidewalk, reduce the light directly in people's faces and make it easier to see.

The low-glare fixtures would also be more energy-efficient, he said. High-glare fixtures shoot light horizontally, where it isn't needed.

Older people are 200 times more sensitive to glare than younger people, Orfield said. "What we should be doing is making it easier for the least able of our population to function. We are making it more difficult," he said.

Jon Wertjes, the Public Works Department's point person on the lighting code, said the question is whether the city could lower the lights to pedestrian level, reduce glare - and make it cost-effective.

He had not heard public complaints about glare from existing pedestrian-level lights, he said. He planned to talk to Orfield, lighting industry representatives, the Illuminating Engineering Society and other cities to evaluate a visibility standard.

"We are going to be challenged to try to figure out what that 'quality' means," he said.

Orfield said he is not aware of any city in the country that has created a lighting visibility standard.

He did not have an estimate of what it would cost to develop the standard and test the lights. The project didn't need to cost the city anything, he said. The lighting vendors themselves could pay for the testing.

Niziolek agreed the city needed to do a better job with its outside lights.

"We don't think about how annoying lighting is in our environment and how much, especially as we age, how much it hurts our ability to see," he said.