Brighter, safer, more efficient: How LEDS are changing public spaces

(ACEEE blog, 30 Jan 2019) Washington, D.C.’s commute just got brighter—and possibly safer. In late 2018, the city’s Metro made a $50 million dollar commitment to install LED lights in its subway stations.

As of January, 15 stations have been upgraded to energy-efficient lighting, with the remaining 33 stations to follow within two-and- a-half years.

The difference is staggering. In addition to being more efficient, LEDs (light emitting diodes) have made stations an average of six times brighter. They make Metro more accessible to people who are visually impaired or other disabilities. They may also make passengers feel safer and contribute to Metro’s 2018 crime rate, its lowest in 19 years.

Several cities are using LEDs to save money and increase the safety of public spaces. While some studies question whether bright lights actually deter crime, others do find an increased perception of safety.

Pedestrians felt safer in areas lit by bright white lights such as LEDs, as opposed to less efficient high-pressure sodium lights commonly used for streetlamps, according to a 2016 study by Antonio Manuel Peña-García, engineering professor at the University of Granada. His research suggests increased ability to recognize faces could be one reason white lights put people at ease. In addition to facial recognition, improved lighting allows citizens and law enforcement to provide more accurate descriptions of clothing color, car color, and other details when reporting crimes or searching for missing persons.

In an interview, Pena-García said higher perceived safety may not actually increase safety, because it “can make people more exposed to crime.” He said LEDs’ greatest advantage is their ability to be easily turned on, off, or dimmed. In contrast, dimming high pressure sodium or metal halide streetlights has negative effects on their lifetime. He adds: “That decrease in lifetime was bad in economic and environmental terms.”

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ACEEE blog, 30 Jan 2019: Brighter, safer, more efficient: How LEDS are changing public spaces