LOS ANGELES — Look up. Those street lights that stretch across 4,500 miles of Los Angeles roads are doing a whole lot more than just lighting the way.
Increasingly, they are also able to charge electric vehicles, provide Wi-Fi service, power up cell phones, and monitor air quality. And in the near future, they’ll be able to do even more.
“We have seen such a transformation in the street light world in design and most recently in technology,” said Norma Isahakian, executive director of the city’s Bureau of Street Lighting, which hosted L.A.’s first smart city street light conference Thursday.
Designed to showcase the role of street lights as Los Angeles transitions into a place that deploys technology to collect data that is then leveraged to improve everything from traffic flow and carbon dioxide emissions to safety and city finances, the virtual conference served as a road map for how L.A. hopes to transform itself in advance of the 2028 Olympics.
Mayor Eric Garcetti kicked off the nearly three-hour-long virtual symposium, saying it was “about using the power of partnerships and innovation to make L.A. better, healthier, and more equitable for everyone.”
L.A.’s street lights have come a long way since 1860, when there were just a few dozen gas lamps illuminating Main Street downtown. Today, the city owns, constructs, and maintains more than 223,000 electric street lights that are poised to play a critical role as the city prepares to host the Olympics.
In 2009, the Bureau of Street Lighting began the slow transformation of replacing the traditional high-intensity discharge bulbs it had used in its lamps to more energy-efficient Light-Emitting Diodes, or LEDs. It has so far converted 91 percent of its lights and plans to have them all converted to LEDs by the end of the year.
On its surface, it would seem the switch to LEDs was simply an effort to conserve energy, and it has. Since making the switch, the city has saved $11 million dollars in electricity costs and prevented 72,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, according to the Bureau.
But that change has had other positive ripple effects, “allowing for the accommodation of other attachments,” Isahakian said, such as electric vehicle chargers. “There was no need to break the sidewalk, to bring new wires, install a meter or increase items on an already crowded sidewalk.”
By reducing the amount of energy used for lighting, LEDs provided an opportunity to attach EV chargers because the electrical infrastructure was already in place and situated next to parking. Since installing its first street light charger in 2015, the Bureau has installed 432 Level 2 EV chargers on its light posts that, collectively, have been used for almost 82,000 charging sessions. It will add another 150 EV chargers before the end of the year.
During normal times, it costs $2 to $3 per hour to charge, but during the COVID pandemic, the street light chargers are free.
With more Angelenos working and attending school from home, the pandemic has brought another, lesser-seen street light function to the fore: co-location of cell phone equipment. About 3,000 of the city’s street lights are now providing extended cellular and data connectivity to LA residents with 4G and 5G service, and much of the equipment is embedded in the poles.
In the future, the street lights’ 5G connectivity will enable the deployment of Wi-Fi, digital signage, sensors, and cameras “that could really help cities make better, smarter decisions and have real-time information,” said Joel Crane, senior real estate manager with the Verizon Wireless Southern California team.
Among other things, the technology would enable smart cars to communicate with traffic infrastructure, such as street lights.
“You have this brand-new structure out there, and you already have this wireless connectivity. You've got power. It makes sense to attach smart devices to it,” Crane said.
Already, L.A.’s street light system is equipped with remote monitoring devices that allow the city to program and control the city’s lights remotely. Since 2012, the RMUs have been able to alert the city when a light is out so it can be quickly repaired. They also allow the Bureau of Street Lighting to turn on a specific set of lights or change the lighting in certain areas as conditions warrant, oftentimes to improve safety.
It recently implemented a program to increase the lighting output by 30 percent at L.A. Live Staples Center from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m., so fans of the L.A. Lakers, Clippers, and Kings can get to their cars more safely. Last month, it also completed a project to bump up the lighting by 50 percent along Hollywood and Highland Boulevards near the Hollywood Bowl, where many concert goers park their cars.
The Bureau of Street Lighting has been piloting “smart solutions” since 2012, according to Angelica Frias, the Bureau’s smart city strategist. It is currently using a mobility counter on some lights to collect data on traffic flows and then use that data to ensure adequate lighting during high peak traffic periods, as well as to identify crosswalks that would benefit from the addition of motion sensors, Frias said. Some lights are also equipped with air quality monitoring sensors to help identify communities with poor air quality.
Future projects the Bureau is working on: solar street lights, solar-to-grid street lights, seismic sensors, safety cameras, and USB charging.
The winner of L.A.'s recent street light design competition incorporates many of the smart city features the Bureau of Street Lighting hopes to incorporate. Designed by the L.A. collaborative, Project Room, the "super bloom" light is able to accommodate solar and cell phone technology, traffic and air quality monitors, EV chargers, and lighting that can change colors in case of an emergency.
Some of the technologies Los Angeles hopes to incorporate in its street lights are already being piloted in West Hollywood, including street lights equipped with public safety cameras to help solve crimes, and so-called “smart poles” that include EV charging, phone chargers, and Wi-Fi.
“The data has immense potential across the city’s connected infrastructure and will continue to inform future projects citywide,” Frias said.