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LA's Streetlights Are In Need Of Constant Repair. What's Happening, And How To Get One Fixed

The top of a streetlight in Los Angeles. Below it is a street placard that says Missouri Ave.
(Ryanne Mena
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The city of Los Angeles has approximately 223,000 streetlights which are designed, constructed and maintained by the Bureau of Street Lighting (BSL). These lights come in more than 400 different styles, ranging from modern to ornate to historic. Together, they illuminate roughly two-thirds of the city.

The agency, formed in 1925 as the Bureau of Street Lights, operates under the Department of Public Works. The Bureau’s maintenance division responds to over 45,000 light outages each year.

Currently, at any given time, more than 25,000 streetlights in Los Angeles need some kind of repair. The backlog of streetlight outages is a challenge for the BSL’s field team of about 200 people.

An LAist reader wanted to know why the streetlight repair situation seems bad, and what the expectations should be for how long it’ll take to fix all the lamps. We found out.

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Who we talked to for this article

  • Miguel Sangalang, director, Bureau of Street Lighting

A little history

Back when L.A. had a population of fewer than 10,000, a lamplighter on horseback would ride around town to light the gas streetlights at dusk. That was in 1867, when the first gas lamps were installed on Main Street in modern day downtown Los Angeles.

The city of L.A. installed its first seven electric streetlights in downtown in 1882, at a height of 150 feet, that shined with 3,000 candles worth of power. Those tall lights were called “moonlight towers,” because of how they illuminated large areas like the moon. Some of L.A.’s oldest streetlights can still be found downtown.

In the San Fernando Valley, streetlights were developed in the 1940s and 1950s. Street lighting came to south, central and west Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s, according to the bureau.

One of the oldest remaining original electrical systems in Los Angeles can be found on the northeast corner of West 3rd St and Norton Ave. That streetlight dates back to around 1911, according to Miguel Sangalang, BSL’s director.

Why do streetlights matter?

According to a 2009 review of the safety benefit and the effects of roadway lighting by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, street lighting can reduce pedestrian crashes at night by about 50%. The review also found that street lighting resulted in a 23% reduction in nighttime car crashes.

A 2019 University of Chicago study found that nighttime crimes were reduced by about 36% in areas treated with adequate lighting.

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How are streetlights maintained in LA?

Street lighting maintenance is financed primarily by the money collected from annual assessments on property owners, about $58 on average per home. That collected money goes into the Street Lighting Maintenance Assessment Fund, which generates $42 million annually. The fund covers all costs associated with the operation and maintenance of the city’s street lighting system, according to the bureau.

How do you get an LA streetlight fixed?

If there’s a streetlight repair to be made anywhere in the city of Los Angeles, residents can report that outage:

Sangalang said the BSL uses reported outage information to keep track of streetlight-related trends throughout the city. All those reports filter into one asset management system overseen by the BSL field team.

What's the average wait time when a streetlight goes out?

Due to a lack of funding, it can take more than three months to repair a streetlight, according to the bureau.

“Unfortunately, we’re facing times that are much longer than I think anyone would want,” Sangalang said. “For things that have been taking us, you know, two to three days before if it was like a single light out that was burned out, it’s now taking us three to four weeks.”

He says situations involving vandalism or theft, which used to take three to four weeks, can now take months for the BSL to fix.

“Sometimes residents have told us six months or longer. So unfortunately, right now we’re finding ourselves really, really grappling with an issue that has been growing over the past five years,” Sangalang said.

That issue is theft of copper wire, which basically all of L.A.’s streetlights require. Fifteen years ago there would be around one to 10 incidents of copper theft a year. Sangalang said 2022 saw the highest amount the BSL has ever seen, with 4,500 incidents of copper wiring theft.

“Those are the types of repairs that actually take a considerable amount of time — it’s not changing a light bulb anymore,” Sangalang said. “What takes a few minutes for someone to steal, it takes us hours if not days to repair.”

So, why are people stealing copper wiring? Sangalang said it’s a valuable material that can be recycled and sold. “For the thousands of dollars it costs us, it’s probably 100 bucks or so that people are actually getting out of it,” Sangalang said. In addition to getting a mediocre return, thieves can also get electrocuted.

Copper wire theft can take out a large area of neighborhood streetlights. On average, there are 18 to 36 streetlights on one electrical circuit. So if the copper wiring is taken from the first light in a circuit, then the rest of those streetlights also go out.

About a third of the total repair incidents being requested involve copper wire theft. But in the San Fernando Valley, copper wire theft has grown to make up about 50% of total incidents being requested.

“Valley parts of the city do see a longer kind of repair length,” Sangalang said. He also said that longer wait time is because light maintenance field staff come from BSL’s downtown office.

What are the considerations for where streetlights are placed?

Most of the city of L.A.’s street lighting network has been built and established over the last century. According to Sangalang, the BSL continues to add some throughout the city, like when residents request a new lighting system to be installed, which requires going through a process involving property owners around the area. Each system usually costs around $10,000, which Sangalang says can be mitigated through grant funding.

LA’s love affair with streetlights

L.A. has a wide variety of streetlights, and the designs can vary by neighborhood. Sangalang says streetlights are kind of like neighborhood artifacts, ones that can bring a resurgence of community in neighborhoods. “We really see it’s more than just lighting. It’s this very valuable neighborhood amenity that has tremendous value for multiple purposes,” Sangalang said.

And while LACMA might get all the love, for those who want some history with their art, the BSL holds a monthly museum of streetlights in its downtown office.

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