In the words of Ald. Mike Clear, District 19, “It’s Madison, everything has to be controversial.” This is an extremely apt description of the debate surrounding lighting the currently unlit southwest commuter path. The new lights, which would cost around $200,000, would run from the Beltline to Breese Terrace. There has been much dispute surrounding these lights (more of which will surely rear its head at a public meeting on the issue tonight). However, a simple analysis shows that the benefits of lighting the path far outweigh any negatives.
The benefits of adding these lights are fairly straightforward. The southwest commuter path sees thousands of walkers and bikers each day. At night, one can imagine that things could get dicey with pedestrians and cyclists all trying not to hit anyone and avoiding being hit themselves. Of course, crime is also a worry in poorly-lit areas. Adding lights would help to remedy both of these problems. Further, electrical wiring was installed when the path was built, so adding the lights wouldn’t involve any serious excavation.
Opposition to the lights has come from a variety of sources. First, there are those who live close to the path and don’t want to deal with the excess light coming into their yards and homes. Second, there are commuters who use the path who enjoy its current dark state at night and don’t want to see it change. Finally, there are “dark sky” advocates, who want to keep light pollution to a minimum so as not to obstruct the night sky.
In a perfect world, we would be able to balance all of these interests and keep everyone happy. However, we live in the real world, and not everyone can be happy all the time. The real world necessitates that we make trade-offs that result in, if not everyone being better off, at least most people being better off and the rest not being too badly off.
In this context, lighting the path seems like a no-brainer. While all of the arguments against lighting the path have some merit, none of them, or even all of them combined, outweigh the benefits of finally and properly lighting the path. While it’s unfortunate that some people will have undesired light spilling on to their property, the number of homes adversely affected is very small compared to the thousands of people who use to commuter path every day and night.
And yes, I’m sure it’s very nice and relaxing to be able to stargaze while walking on the path at night. However, the primary purpose of a commuter path is not to be a stargazing location – it’s to provide a safe and efficient means of transportation. There are plenty of other places in the area that offer a view of the night sky without bikes zipping by.
Finally, Madison is a city. It’s going to produce a lot of light. While it would be wonderful to be able to see the night sky without light pollution from Madison, that simply is not going to happen in a city of this size. Regardless, stopping the addition of 70 more lights is not going to change anything.
Madisonians certainly love some good controversy in our government. While occasionally frustrating, this is a good sign. It means that people are engaged with the political process and care about the city. Let’s just hope that our love for controversy doesn’t get in the way of good public policy – in this case, lighting the commuter path.
Joe Timmerman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sophomore majoring in math and economics.