In many cities and municipalities, savings are made on street lighting. “These measures should be reversed as soon as possible,” KNAC editor Anne Bateman wrote in her weekly De Zoetzure column on Tuesday. “Even if we really want the street to belong to everyone.”
It was so dark that I had to rummage through my bag for several minutes before I found my key. Since I couldn’t see the lock very well either, I took my phone, turned on the flashlight, and pointed it at the front door. Just as I finally managed to put the key in the lock, I heard an unfamiliar male voice behind me. He asked if he could help me. I replied I could handle it myself, but he wouldn’t budge. Before I knew it, he was standing next to me on the porch. Ready to snatch the key from my hand. Only then did the lock loosen. When I went in as fast as I could and closed the front door behind me, I heard him shout something about ungrateful bitches who think they don’t need men. It must have been a little after midnight. Many times I have returned from a lecture in one corner or another of Flanders. The only difference from all those other times was that the street lights didn’t work that night for some reason.
So I’m not looking forward to the next months. As many other cities and municipalities have already done or will do, the city council of Ghent, the city where I live, has also decided to save on public lighting. Soon those lights will go out between midnight and 5 am. From Sunday to Wednesday anyway, because on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays the streets and squares are lit up as usual. the reason? These are the evenings when most students, theater lovers, concert-goers, restaurant visitors and café friends go out. This in itself makes sense, but isn’t it just when there is no one on the street and all forms of social control are gone that we are the most vulnerable?
Now, of course, I understand that in these difficult times the local authorities have no choice but to put their money where their mouth is. It’s also clear that they, just like all of us, are doing everything they can to keep their escalating energy bills within limits as much as possible. But don’t come around and say there are no safety savings, because that’s what happens. Let’s take a look at some studies. It is shown again and again that “a direct link” between the level of public illumination and crime cannot be proven. Only very determined offenders would use the darkness to beat them. Very reassuring. There is also road safety: not only are there more accidents on unlit roads, they are usually more dangerous. Vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists in particular are at greater risk.
Whatever all of these studies prove or disprove, the truth is that many people feel much less safe in the dark. Just when #metoo and other measures have convinced us that the street should be for everyone, is action being taken that will discourage some women and girls in particular from leaving their homes late at night. Just like the elderly and people with walking difficulties. Not only do they feel more vulnerable on the street, they often desperately need their eyes to navigate the streets safely. “Cobblestones are horrible on their own for someone like me, but unlit stones are hell,” 82-year-old Rosa told me. From now on, I have to make sure I’m always home before the clock strikes twelve during the week. Kind of like an aging Cinderella.
Only offenders who work very purposefully use darkness to beat them. Very reassuring.
Personally, I don’t plan on canceling lectures and dinners so I don’t have to come home after midnight. Right now I don’t follow the example of some friends and neighbors in getting a light with a motion sensor installed next to my door – my energy bill is already high enough. Maybe make sure I actually have the front door key in my hand before I get out of the car.
And during those unlit nights, I probably sleep less. Even if I knew my son would still have to bike home from downtown. Like most students, he doesn’t do it from Thursday to Saturday and certainly not before midnight. At his age, he feels very free and uninhibited to even think about it. This is how we should all feel. So it is quite possible that, given the high energy prices, there is no other choice but to save on street lighting. As long as these actions are reversed afterwards. Until the street is truly for everyone again.