Flexibility & Resiliency in Design for a Smart Feature-Filled Streetscape

By Sandra Scanlon

Walk into any given Starbucks across the country, and you’ll probably notice that the majority of patrons have their faces buried in an electronic device. Whether it is a cellular phone, laptop or tablet, we are a 24/7 connected society through myriad forms of technology all around us. As we start to design infrastructure that supports our connectedness, new trends are developing beyond handheld devices to address innovation and sustainability in smart feature-filled streetscapes.

Cities are looking to companies, utilities, and engineering professionals that are leading the charge to meet the needs of smart city design. Innovation and sustainability go hand-in-hand. Companies such as Philips, American Tower, and Cisco are developing products and solutions to improve infrastructure features while maximizing benefits to both corporate and environmental triple bottom line of people, planet and profitability sustainability.

Innovation & Sustainability in Roadway Lighting 

According to an article in  Digital Trends conducted in 2016, 30 percent of all energy usage goes towards municipalities for street-level lighting. Mass adoption of LED lighting in households and interior spaces is well documented, but LED usage in exterior and roadway lighting applications has been slow but has recently exploded. In 2009, the New York City Department of Transportation put together a comprehensive report to address power inefficiencies. Street lamps alone cost the city $50 million per year in maintenance and energy usage, not to mention the corresponding carbon footprint. Cities of all sizes across the globe are discussing and implementing strategies to reduce greenhouse emissions and save money on high energy costs. Engineers are working closely with city planners to push innovation and sustainability efforts forward from the ground up, as well as by retrofitting current street lighting infrastructure to meet evolving needs for added street features and roadway lighting.


There is one straightforward answer to the call for a more sustainable lighting solution — LED (light-emitting diodes, or solid-state lighting). For cities seeking to transition to a low carbon economy, the use of LED lighting is recognized globally as one of the most actionable and ready-to-implement technologies for the decade ahead. The benefits of LEDs to city infrastructure are great, beyond simply reducing energy usage, they also help aging systems extend end of life because they place less wattage stress on electrical distribution networks. An LED lifespan is significantly longer than traditional lighting, creating less material waste. LEDs also produce higher amounts of illuminance to increase visibility, give off less heat, and increase flexibility in light controls.

With so many financial, material, and environmental benefits to LED lighting infrastructure, why are some cities hesitant to embrace the transition to LEDs? It might seem like an easy solution to switch out traditional incandescent or fluorescent lighting with LEDs, but to upgrade correctly requires careful planning and involvement of a lighting design expert to fully reap the benefits of LED. Early adopters of LED exchanged LED luminaires for old luminaires based on wattage instead of lumen output. This gave a black eye to the LED market as benefits such as glare minimization were ignored or overlooked. There are also considerations to make in the upfront cost of replacing “traditional” lighting with LEDs and updating wiring and light pole features to accommodate the upgrade. The Colorado Department of Transportation replaced 10,000 state-owned roadway lights with LEDs on a one-for-one basis with no changes to infrastructure. And because they bought 10,000 the cost of the LED luminaire was significantly reduced. It can be a large undertaking to switch lighting sources to LED but the benefits are significant with regard to overall reduction of CO2 and money saved with correct implementation.

Increased Control

Cities are becoming more and more congested, leaving municipalities and design professionals with the task of designing smarter, more efficient and safer environments through innovation. Lighting controls and sensors help keep alternative modes of commuting safe and efficient. Light sensors can be placed along a bike path to light the way for morning and evening commuters, or to light train and bus stops to keep passengers awaiting public transportation safe. LED technology opens possibilities for increased sensor use and lighting control within smart city design. For example, Cisco is working with lighting engineers and city planners to implement Kinetic, their multisensory Internet of Things platform, to optimize lighting integration into smart streetscapes. The new platform aims to reduce energy consumption and lighting maintenance as well as offer an opportunity to make real-time decisions across various city agencies. If a city anticipates increased pedestrian traffic, city officials may choose to increase the amount of lighting to move crowds through the area safely.

Another benefit to lighting control is the collection of valuable data. Cities and design professionals can now inspect and analyze collected data to make informed decisions about energy usage and develop ways to improve pedestrian, bicycle and vehicle safety. 

Smart Street Poles 

If you think back 20 years ago, a street light pole had one sole purpose — lighting. Now, LED light poles, or smart poles, are meeting demand for more broadband coverage and additional features for connected streetscapes. The placement of smart poles is still determined by providing lighting for citizens but has become incredibly attractive to deploying other technology solutions. In Colorado, the City of Aurora is currently in the early stages of deploying smart poles to improve broadband coverage and capacity in high traffic areas.

Smart poles provide benefits for traditional lighting functionality as well. Smart poles allow for controlled lighting of LEDs to raise and lower light levels and completely turn on and off for scheduled repairs. Asset management incorporating LEDs allows cities to better manage inventory and the costs associated with each asset.

Cities should consider first, where the light pole should be placed to provide the best lighting, then, which of a variety of smart pole features are most beneficial to their citizens. Smart poles could include audio for safety announcements, sensors to monitor traffic patterns, cameras to view activity, weather monitoring technology and even car charging stations. The possibilities are endless as innovation around necessary connected infrastructure continues to advance. 

Feature-Filled Future 

With the rise in popularity of electric cars comes the need to charge. Companies like Ubitricity, PlugShare and Ovo have developed solutions to turn existing city street lights into charging stations, providing electric car owners with a way to locate charging stations across North America and even sell energy back to the grid.

As a way to offset the upfront costs associated with implementing smart features, cities are opting for digital kiosks to not only provide public transportation information, tourist activities and city services, but also allows companies to pay into city budgets for advertising opportunities. Digital kiosks can also provide Wi-Fi connectivity, weather information and news.

Some cities will be faster to adopt smart city features than others, and each city can pursue a variety of features to meet their needs. Designers and planners have the opportunity to not only meet current municipal needs, but also look to evolving interconnectivity to meet the demands of the future. LED, smart poles, digital kiosks and lighting control could all play a part that might someday be as common as today’s handheld digital devices.

Sandra Scanlon is the associate principal of the BCER, MEP division. She ensures the electrical team provides good design practices to meet client goals related to cost, schedule, operability and maintenance. Scanlon can be reached at [email protected].

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