DETROIT – The news was met with exasperation, shock, and disbelief last week as Detroit Mayor Dave Bing announced a plan to eliminate nearly half of the city’s streetlights in an effort to move people to more densely populated areas of the city. As it currently stands, of the estimated 88,000 streetlights in Detroit, 40 percent of them are broken,meaning that many city neighborhoods are left in the dark.
Bing’s plan would create a regional authority to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the number of streetlights by nearly half, as well as cutting all of the lights in alleys, saving the financially strapped city — which signed a consent agreement to have its financial situation overseen by the state of Michigan in April — at least $10 million per year. Maintenance on the lights would be privatized.
The stated goal of the plan is two-fold. Along with attempting to rectify the situation financially, it is also seen as a method of moving people out of neighborhoods that are largely deserted to more heavily populated areas, in turn shrinking the city’s area.
“You have to identify those neighborhoods where you want to concentrate your population,” said Chris Brown, the city’s chief operating officer. “We’re not going to light distressed areas like we light other areas.”
Detroit, in terms of land area, is one of the largest cities in the country. At nearly 140 square miles, the city could fit Boston and San Francisco inside of its city limits and still have room to spare.
At its peak during the 1950s, Detroit was the fourth most populous city in the United States and all of that space was needed. However, Detroit’s population has plummeted since 1950, from nearly 2 million to just over 713,000 today, with nearly a quarter of its population leaving since 2000.
According to John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor, some neighborhoods are just 10 to 15 percent occupied. This puts even more of a strain on many services, as they are spread dangerously thin.
The city’s financial strife – which saw a deficit of over $300 million at one point — has led to police, EMS, and city buses becoming substandard. Residents have had to wait as long as three hours for a bus, and calls to police often go unanswered due to the lack of available officers. The streetlight situation has made a difficult situation more problematic to public safety.
Of the lights that work, at least 15,000 of them are using technology from the 1920s. Additionally, a 2010 study showed that at least 22 percent of the city’s electric bills are unpaid.