Story: Streets and lighting

Page 5. Street lighting

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Early street lighting

For the first European settlers street lighting was almost non-existent, making travelling after dark hazardous unless guided by moonlight. There were few if any lights in public streets. Citizens regularly fell into streams and open sewers or banged into wandering stock and other obstacles. Lighting was limited to a few candle lanterns over the entrances to hotels, which produced only feeble, flickering light. Kerosene lamps were introduced from the 1860s in many cities, often placed beside bridges, drains and other night-time hazards. Though brighter than candle lamps, they were still dim. They were not used on many streets.

Gas lighting

The first system of street lighting to be installed in many towns and cities was gas street lighting. Gas lamps were in use in the main cities from the 1860s. By 1876 Christchurch boasted 152 gas lamps. Although far superior to previous lighting, their illumination and extent was still limited. In 1902 one commentator thought there were not enough gas lights in Auckland, though lighting was adequate on Queen Street, the main business street.1 Early systems required lamp lighters, although pilot lights were soon introduced, which lit the lamp when the gas was turned on centrally. Their use was also not continuous; the Wellington gas lights were ‘lighted on moonless nights only and then not later than twelve o’clock.’2

Early to bed

In 1897 a Hokitika resident wrote to the West Coast Times enquiring why the town’s lamps were not being lit during the summer holidays ‘when people are apt to be put out later than usual.’ The editor replied that the lights were not being lit because it was ‘scarcely dark till after nine’ and the lights were extinguished at eleven. ‘The City Fathers, being models of propriety, think all people, the lamplighter included, should be in their homes at the last hour named.’3

Electric lighting

The next significant change was replacement of gas with electricity. For many cities this transition carried significant costs. Christchurch debated the change for over a decade, but continued to use gas street lights until 1903, as the cost of changing was beyond its means. Lights were usually on from dusk to dawn, though some suburban areas extinguished them in the early morning. Electric lights were significantly brighter than gas lights. The first street lights were arc lamps. By 1912 incandescent lamps had been invented. They had a longer life and easier maintenance, and most councils began to use them.


Requirements for the brightness of street lights increased – as well as needing stronger and smoother roads, faster motor traffic required much brighter lighting. Experiments were carried out with new bulbs to increase brightness. They led to the introduction of sodium or mercury vapour lamps. These had the added advantage of using less power than the older bulb types.

From the 1950s fluorescent lights also began to be installed and used. In Wellington the city council called tenders in 1964 to replace 5,000 old lamps with modern fluorescent lights.

Fluorescent lighting produces a cool white light, which is very bright, and the lamps have a very long life. They were the predominant method of lighting used until the 1970s, when they began to be replaced by high-pressure sodium and metal halide lights.

In the early 2000s cut-off glass fittings were in use to minimise light spillage onto apartment buildings. These fittings also reduce light pollution, which limits views of the night sky in cities and towns.

Safer streets

Thugs have used the cover of darkness to attack unsuspecting victims since time immemorial. Recognition in the 1990s that many women were afraid to walk city streets at night led women’s groups to lobby for brighter street lighting. Many city councils responded by installing stronger lighting on principal streets and along alleys and lanes, banishing night-time shadows.

Greater efficiency

In 2009 the majority of street lights in New Zealand were high-pressure sodium lamps. There were over 330,000 street lights across the country, running for over 4,000 hours each per year, consuming some $18 million worth of electricity.

The focus in the early 2000s was on lighting that was cheaper and more energy-efficient. The New Zealand Efficient Lighting Strategy, released in 2008 by the Energy Commission, aimed to eliminate inefficient street lights. One option was to use light-emitting diode bulbs. While these were well-suited for traffic lights, the technology needed further advancement before they could be used for street lighting.

  1. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand (Auckland Provincial District), 1902, p. 116. Back
  2. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand (Wellington Provincial District), 1897, p. 274. Back
  3. West Coast Times, 30 December 1897, p. 4. Back
How to cite this page:

Adrian Humphris, 'Streets and lighting - Street lighting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Adrian Humphris, published 11 Mar 2010