Thursday, May 24, 2012

Flashlights in Detroit

Children in Detroit might need a flashlight to walk to school this fall.

The city is so broke it can’t afford to maintain its streetlights. It estimates that only about 60 percent of them are still working, and the situation will get worse as time goes on.

There is no magic solution. But to reduce the appearance of chaos, the city is planning to abandon the streetlights in more than half of the city. They will be permanently turned off at some point this summer. This means that more than 100,000 people will be living on unlit streets. And when the shorter days of fall roll around, they will be driving to work on unlit streets, and walking to school on unlit streets.

It is hardly a happy solution. Walking to school with a bag full of books and other supplies is hard enough. Having to carry a flashlight so you can find your way will just make it harder.

But the city’s plan to borrow money so it can pay to maintain the streetlights that will still operate in the other half of the city doesn’t make sense either. When you are borrowing money to pay for routine maintenance, that is almost the definition of living beyond your means.

The United States does not have much experience with large cities that shrink to become medium-sized cities. There will be a great deal to be learned from the solutions that Detroit comes up with.