A row of traditional street lights are seen along Pier 7 in San Francisco, Calif. Monday, October 24, 2016. (Photo illustration: Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

SF to install LED lights in street lamps to minimize maintenance, improve safety

A well-lit San Francisco keeps pedestrians safer and deters crime, but The City’s flickering and burned-out street lights are a popular complaint among residents.

There are 45,474 street lights in San Francisco. Some 6,460 requests were made, via 311, to fix street light outages last fiscal year.

City officials have previously called on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which owns most of the street lamps, and PG&E, which owns about 40 percent of them, to respond better to outages and to coordinate efforts.

Street lighting is set to receive a boost as a long-discussed plan to make a large-scale switch to LED lights will move a step closer to reality next month.

The SFPUC responds to outage complaints within an average of 2.75 days. PG&E, on the other hand, responds to outage complaints 95 percent of time within five days.

That’s according to data presented Monday at the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee. The SFPUC data was based on its response to 3,520 complaints, via 311, last fiscal year to street lights within its jurisdiction.

“I have noticed, in general, I think we are getting fewer constituent complaints overall in terms of long-term, burned-out street lights,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, the District 11 state Senate candidate who called for the hearing and has drawn attention to the issue in recent years. “I do feel like there has been progress made.”

Meanwhile, The City is moving forward with long-discussed plans to replace the traditional sodium street lights with light-emitting diodes, also called LED lights. Potential LED light providers must respond to a request for proposals by Nov. 4. The City plans to install some 18,000 LED lights within 14 months after buying them.

“We have had trouble getting this program off the ground, but it is close to coming to a milestone point here with this Nov. 4 bid response due date,” said Barbara Hale, the SFPUC assistant general manager of the power enterprise. “We are really looking forward to seeing the financial savings both in less maintenance cost and less energy used and also the perceived safer streets because of the brighter quality of the light.”

Sodium lights last between three and five years, but LEDs last between 15 and 20 years, according to SFPUC spokesperson Charles Sheehan. They also consume 50 percent less energy, he said. The agency plans to install as part of the LED project a wireless system to monitor the status of the lights.

More than 10 percent of U.S. street lights have already been converted to LED lights. But in June, the American Medical Association raised concerns about the increasing use of LED lights by major cities across the country.

The medical association said in a statement that “discomfort and disability from intense, blue-rich LED lighting can decrease visual acuity and safety, resulting in concerns and creating a road hazard.”

And the impact isn’t just on drivers.

“Blue-rich LED street lights operate at a wavelength that most adversely suppresses melatonin during night,” the statement reads. “It is estimated that white LED lamps have five times greater impact on circadian sleep rhythms than conventional street lamps.”

The association said LED lights can lead to “reduced sleep times, dissatisfaction with sleep quality, excessive sleepiness, impaired daytime functioning and obesity.” Poorly designed LED lighting also “disorients some bird, insect, turtle and fish species,” the association said.

“We’re directly addressing those concerns by buying 3,000 color temperature lights,” said Sheehan, adding that the blue hue does not manifest itself at those temperatures. “There’s really no blue light in that range.”

The SFPUC has, on a smaller scale, already experimented with installing LED lights beginning years ago.

Hale noted during the hearing that the SFPUC has “installed some higher temperature lamps and [has] received some negative feedback from residents.” She added, “We’ll use the lower, less blue color temperature lamps.”

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, a group that advocates for improved urban design, said San Francisco often designs its street lighting “poorly” and called for more pedestrian level lighting, not the larger 1950s-style hanging fixtures that compete with tree canopies.

“There is a terrific amount of light that floods into second- and third-story windows. If you set the lights lower, if you shield them, then you get more light on the street and sidewalk, less in peoples’ window,” Radulovich said.

Some city officials view street lighting as a crime deterrent. Supervisor Malia Cohen said she has called attention to inadequate street lighting in the past.

“We’ve worked diligently maybe three years ago on lighting the southeastern neighborhoods, Dogpatch, Potrero Hill,” Cohen told Hale. “When you add light it actually significantly decreases car break-ins and muggings.”

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