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METROPOLIS | So SoCal

City of Lights

August 04, 1996|Michael R. Forrest

Astronauts can see its glow 170 miles up in space. Seafarers 30 miles from shore can glimpse it beyond the curved horizon of the Pacific. On a clear night, it causes the San Gabriel Mountains to appear as a jagged black silhouette against the incandescent western sky.

Such is the power of L.A.'s nightly show of lights.

There are 217,385 street lights in the City of Los Angeles. The bright lights of downtown and Bunker Hill are metal halide lamps, coveted for the attractive white light they generate (building owners pay slightly more on their taxes for maintenance of the less-energy-efficient lamps). The common pale-yellow street lights skittering across the flats and garlanding the hills are high-pressure sodium lamps. The extremely bright deep-yellow lights seen in Long Beach are among the few remaining low-pressure sodium lamps, while the calming blue-white pools are residential areas still lit with old-fashioned mercury vapor street lights.

Meanwhile, untold millions of house lights and building lights are glowing across the basin. Not to mention the headlights and taillights of 15,000 cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and limousines flitting down each of the busier freeways every hour. Look. Up in the sky. Green and red navigation lights, blazing white landing lights, stuttering stroboscopic warning lights--100 or more planes and helicopters slice through the evening sky at any given time.

Yet for all its dazzle, L.A.'s light show draws only a fraction of the 2,000 to 4,000 megawatts the city consumes on a typical summer night (even though the yearly electric bill for street lights alone comes to roughly $15 million). One of the best places to see the show is from the Griffith Observatory, where each night dozens gather and stare in happy wonderment at the spectacle streaming up at them at 186,000 miles per second.

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