The “ghoulish” color of LED streetlights

Written by
Tang Yau Hoong

In the past few years, cities have begun using LED lights to illuminate their streets. Los Angeles did it. So did Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit. But they soon heard from residents who found the light cold, oddly bluish and they created a harsh glare.

We visited the LA Convention Center to attend Light Show West, a big trade show for lighting experts. The seminar that caught our eye was “The Ten Biggest Lies about LEDS.” The panelists discussed some major myths about LEDs. For example, the myths that LEDs don’t flicker or buzz, produce glare or heat, are easy to replace, never fail and are the greenest source of lighting.

“I think it comes down to a question of efficiency,” said Heather Libonati, design principal for Luminesce Design. “The cooler LEDs tend to be more efficient. And so when people are making efficiency the priority they start sacrificing things like quality of color, because they’re just mostly concerned about saving energy and getting as much light on a surface as possible, but maybe not making an informed decision.”

This issue of quality of the cold color has become one of the biggest complaints when it comes to LED streetlights. And some residents have fought back: In Berlin, Germany citizens were so upset that the city had the lights redesigned. In Davis, California they ended up changing out the street lights to be warmer.


Lionel Shriver is a novelist and lives part of the year in Brooklyn. She wrote a recent New York Times op-ed called “Ruining That Moody Urban Glow” in which she called the new LED streetlights in her neighborhood “ugly,” “invasive,” and “depressing.”

“Previously the sodium bulb  which is just a regular old street light bulb that we’d all be familiar with  never called attention to itself. It was a little orange and had a nice warm glow to it,” Shriver said. “Then overnight it gets replaced by an LED. And these bulbs are blaring. They are fantastically bright, many times brighter than the original. The color is very blue. I would have to call it almost ghoulish. It is invasive.”

The more blue the color range is for LEDs, the less energy they use. The bulbs are coated with a material that can make the color more yellow or orange, but they will produce less light and thus use more energy.

“If you get a yellow LED it will be 10 to 15 percent more efficient than the blue ones,” Shriver said. “But not enough emphasis is being put in the design of these things on what it feels like to be underneath them and to be subjected to them. And I believe that a modest sacrifice of energy savings is worth it to make the environment seem warmer and more human.”

A California worker installs an LED streelight
A California worker installs an LED streelight. Photo source: (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Just last week the California Energy Commission proposed new lighting standards. They effectively prohibit sales of small halogen and incandescent bulbs—commonly used in track lighting—in favor of LED lights. Commissioner Andrew McAllister says the switch will save Californians 3,000 gigawatt hours of energy per year.

Does this mean ghoulishly lit interiors? Not necessarily, say the lighting designers, because the technology is improving so fast.

“They are virtually mandated now by the state of California under the new energy regulations. It is very difficult to use the older lighting sources in any new construction project, and LEDs magically came along at just same time the California has tightened up its energy code. And frankly they work perfectly together,” said Scott Johnson, principal at Brilliant Lighting Studio. “They will be part of our lives from now on. Since they’re so much greener and more efficient than any of the previous lighting sources.”

A panel on LEDs at Light Show West. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
A panel on LEDs at Light Show West, featuring, from left, Scott Johnson (standing), Sean McMurray, Heather Libonati, Archit Jain and Moritz Hammer. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Moritz Hammer, Senior Associate at KGM Lighting, was among designers discussing “The Ten Biggest Lies about LEDS.” He told DnA that now “there is no reason to fight against LEDs because all the manufacturers are investing in this research and R+D technology. All LEDs are starting to become more interesting. There is new technology that is out there that is going to evolve out of LEDs.”

And fellow panelist Archit Jain, principal at Oculus Light Studio, added that now “100 percent of most of our projects are LED lighting, they are the source of the future. Until a couple years ago we had to sell LED lighting to our clients, now our clients are coming to us and asking for LED lighting on our projects, but the challenge we are now facing is that the kind of quality required for a project may not be available at the price the client wants.”

The reason people like Lionel Shriver seem to dislike LED streetlights so much is because many of them were installed when the technology was still in its infancy.

“I live in Berkeley California, and Berkeley’s an early adopter in technology,” said Sean McMurray, president and founder of ALVA Lighting. “And my neighborhood now has very high glare, very blue streetlights. And if we had waited a year we could have gotten what we wanted, we could have gotten the power savings and had a much warmer color temperature.”

In her article, Shriver also expressed a certain nostalgia for the light of sodium bulbs:

Sodium bulbs are around 2,200 Kelvin — light in which one might fall in love. The brutal LED outside our house is 4,000 — light more conducive to dismembering a corpse.

Scott Johnson agreed that the LED streetlights in Shriver’s neighborhood in Brooklyn were probably specified a few years ago, before the bulbs had gotten better. But he said her fondness for old-fashioned lighting is misplaced.

“There was a certain nostalgia she expressed for sodium lighting,” Johnson said. “Which you and I are familiar with is usually inside garages and down city streets. It’s a much warmer color temperature, a kind of tangerine or pink color. And most people hate it. And to express nostalgia now for it because cool lighting has been provided on that Brooklyn street, I find a little humorous, frankly. How quickly they forget.”

Johnson, by the way, mentioned another use for LEDs that we hadn’t heard about.

“I have not delved deeply into their practice. But I am told that the marijuana growers of Colorado  which are a legally protected group  have found there is sufficient ultraviolet emitted by LED lighting that they can grow their crop 24/7, basically, under LED lighting. And it was previously rumored that LEDs lack sufficient ultraviolet to sustain photosynthesis.”

In fact, there are lighting companies that market their LED bulbs specifically to marijuana producers. So as marijuana legalization laws continue to be passed nationwide, LED lights also seem here to stay.

Listen to Scott Johnson and Lionel Shriver talk about LEDs on this episode of DnA.