KUNM

Broken Streetlights And Pedestrian Deaths In ABQ's International District

May 7, 2019

There’s a part of Southeast Albuquerque that sees more than its share of people who are walking being hit and killed by drivers. In just five years, there were 26 pedestrian fatalities in the few square miles known as the International District—but none in neighboring Nob Hill. People who live in the district say a big part of this problem is broken streetlights that don’t get fixed, even though they’ve been asking for over a decade.

Bernadette Hardy stood on a side street just off Central just as the sun sets. She’s the co-coordinator of the International District’s Healthy Communities Coalition. Years ago, she helped survey residents about their health but found that streetlights were actually their main concern. "It was, 'I can’t walk around. It’s too dark.' Or 'It’s not safe, my kids don’t want to walk around. People are driving too fast. There’s not brightly marked crosswalks,' " she said. "And it’s just dangerous."

This map shows that there are fewer streetlights (darker) and more pedestrian fatalities (red diamonds) in the International District compared with other similarly populated neighborhoods across the City of Albuquerque. 

It got hard for Hardy as she remembered the night about a year and a half ago when a young boy was hit and killed by speeding cars on Louisiana Boulevard near Trumbull. "I saw that one, so that was traumatizing, because there was no lights out," she said. "It was pitch black. I understand they couldn’t see him. And he was just a little 8-year-old out in the darkness." 

It’s especially tough because she’s been sure of one clear solution for a long time: Get those streetlights back on. News coverage of the boy’s death in 2017 showed broken streetlights in the background. PNM, the biggest electric utility in the state, is responsible for those lights—and most of the lights in the district—but the company refused to answer our questions about this.

The dark streets, Hardy said, are still an urgent, daily problem. "Our kids cross these streets every day. They’re busy busy streets."

One broken light in a string of them over several blocks on Louisiana Boulevard near Copper
Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM

After so many years in the dark, Hardy and the coalition passed around a hat. They bought solar-powered lights and poles, and in the last five years, they put up 24 streetlights themselves. The city of Albuquerque didn’t put up any streetlights here during the same time period, aside from a couple that are part of the delayed Albuquerque Rapid Transit project, or ART.

In his Downtown office, City Councilor Pat Davis acknowledged that lighting has been a problem for a long time. "Running for office, they basically said, 'No one has paid attention to this for really at least a decade.' I am equally as frustrated that it has taken us years to where we are finally are getting started on fixing streetlights," he said.

No one has the whole picture of which lights work and which lights don’t work in Albuquerque. The city isn’t responsible for all of the streetlights. PNM is responsible for a lot of them.

PNM will say how many are out across the whole city—about 260. But spokespeople won’t say where they are exactly, even though they have that information. And they can do that because PNM’s a private company, so they don’t have to provide records to the public.

The city doesn’t require that information from PNM, either, so the city doesn’t know—and we don’t know— which lights are out or how long they’ve been that way.

This is a map of the locations of pedestrian injuries and fatalities combined with the locations of each street light, color coded by owner.  

Residents just want to see the streetlights on at night. Councilor Davis said he understands. "They’re totally right to be mad. Nothing got done. And this was just not a priority, right?" he said. "When you have something tragic that happens, and people can directly point to that and say, 'If you had changed your lights out, maybe somebody would have seen that kid who is not always at fault when they’re running across the street excited to go to the store.' "

KUNM did the math. In all of Bernalillo County, one out of every five wrecks involving a person who was walking happens in the International District—328 in five years. In neighboring Nob Hill, a more white and more affluent area, there were just 28 in the same time period. Traffic is lighter there but not by that much.

Because there aren't any lights on either side of the street, it's pretty dark outside Van Buren Middle School, just a little ways up from where an 8-year-old boy died crossing the street in 2017
Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM

Sarah Ijadi works for the Mid-Region Council of Governments and the county’s Healthy Here Initiative. "The vast majority of pedestrian crashes, both fatalities and injuries, happen in our low-income neighborhoods," she said. "Those are just straight-up facts."

Ijadi said there are of course many factors in pedestrian fatalities, "one of the most important being the built environment, and that includes the lack of lighting. So it does show that there’s disparities in the way our city takes care of infrastructure, particularly as it pertains to pedestrians."

PNM is expected to announce this week that the company will replace all of its streetlight bulbs with LEDs, starting in the International District.

Will all the broken ones be repaired in the process? We asked PNM but haven’t heard back.

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Rashad Mahmood and Lissa Knudsen did the data analysis for this series using some tools provided by the New Mexico Community Data Collaborative.