May 21, 2024   

L.A. Grapples With 25,000 Streetlight Outages

With prolonged repair times, are burying wires deeper and solar-powered lights the answer?


An estimated 25,000 streetlights across Los Angeles are not functioning, plunging many areas into darkness and raising significant safety concerns. The issue is particularly heightened in the downtown industrial area, where nearly 40% of streetlights are reportedly out, creating a haven for criminal activity and endangering pedestrians. The situation has been worsening over recent months, with entire blocks remaining unlit.

Joel Grover of the NBC4 Los Angeles News I-Team reported that these darkened streets pose a severe public safety risk. In certain neighborhoods, residents have begun paying $500 per year over a ten year period to fund new streetlights, yet these lights are now out of service. David Schneiderman, a resident, expressed his frustration, "I would not want to walk my dog on the street since there is no light here."

An unnamed study cited in the I-Team report highlights the link between street lighting and crime reduction, stating that proper lighting can reduce outdoor night crimes by approximately 36%.


Causes of Outages: Vandalism and Theft

The outages are primarily due to vandalism and copper theft. Grover revealed that power is often diverted from streetlights to tents set up by homeless individuals, as the news report shows a household 6-outlet power strip being tapped into the power supply of a streetlight.

Furthermore, copper wire theft has reportedly skyrocketed by 800%. "While researching the story, the lights went dark in my neighborhood, and I noticed that the copper wire had been stolen from the poles," Grover reported. The city is struggling to address these issues as wait times for repairs can extend up to a year, a timeframe that residents find unacceptable. "To have this not repaired for a year is not satisfactory," Grover was told when he reported an outage.


Efforts to Address and Prevent Issues

City officials acknowledge the need for additional resources. "We need more boots on the ground," an official stated, referring to the need for up to 100 more repair workers to tackle the backlog of outages.

Preventative measures are also being considered to curb future thefts. Strategies include burying wires deeper underground and experimenting with solar-powered lights. These efforts aim to protect the infrastructure from vandalism and reduce the frequency of repairs needed.


Other measures:

As reported by Route Fifty in late 2023, Los Angeles is taking steps to curb streetlight copper thefts, which often leave neighborhoods without overhead lighting. The city's Bureau of Street Lighting has implemented several measures, including installing 1,000 solar-powered lights, alarms on pull boxes, and surveillance cameras. According to Miguel Sangalang, the agency’s executive director, workers have also reinforced structures with cement and steel.

With 220,000 streetlights connected by extensive copper wiring, the city is exploring additional solutions. A recent "call for innovation" seeks scalable, cost-effective methods to protect the street lighting system, such as surveillance systems, alarms, sensors, GPS tracking, copper wire markings, locking mechanisms, alternatives to copper, and educational campaigns.

Copper wire thefts are a widespread issue affecting multiple cities across the U.S., not just Los Angeles. In response to this problem, Minnesota has just passed new legislation aimed at curbing these thefts. The law, which was included in an omnibus commerce bill (HF 4757), passed the Minnesota Senate by a narrow margin of 34-32 on May 19. This legislation specifically targets the rampant theft of copper wire that has caused significant damage to streetlights and left many areas in Minnesota without proper street lighting.


Considering the existing streetlight and power infrastructure in Los Angeles and all major cities, along with certain limitations of solar lighting, it seems that the answers lie in finding effective ways to deter theft and enforce penalties for vandals and thieves. Addressing this issue demands a multifaceted strategy that balances immediate security enhancements with longer-term technological and legislative solutions. Ultimately, restoring and maintaining streetlighting infrastructure is essential not just for public safety but for the overall quality of life in many neighborhoods in Los Angeles and across the country.