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5,000 broken streetlights, 8 electricians: San Diego uses data to 'do more with less'

People living in San Diego have probably seen a broken streetlight or two… or maybe a few dozen. The city has a massive backlog of broken streetlights, and it takes an average of just under a year to fix each one. KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen digs into what's behind that problem, and how the city is trying to use data to keep the lights on.

San Diego is struggling to deal with a massive backlog of broken streetlights — and it hopes a new data-driven approach will help.

The city has more than 5,000 streetlights reported broken. The average wait time for each one to get fixed is roughly 10 months — far longer than the three-month average wait time seen just a few years ago.

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Officials attribute the problem to two main factors: First, supply chain constraints have delayed getting the necessary materials, which can take up to three months to arrive. Second, the streetlight repair division is extraordinarily understaffed.

The city's current budget includes funding for 18 electricians. But seven of those positions are vacant, and three electricians are injured and out of work with no return date. That leaves eight electricians responsible for maintaining the 65,000 to 70,000 streetlights in San Diego.

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"We've been asked to do more with less," said Derek Mack, who supervises the city's streetlight repair division. "It's nobody's fault, it's just what we have to deal with right now."

As is the case with a host of city jobs, recruiting and retaining qualified employees is a chronic challenge for the city, where salaries are much lower than electricians working in the private sector. But Mack said the city offers good benefits and more stability.

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"Your salary's guaranteed, you don’t have to worry about getting sent home because it’s raining," Mack said. "You have your job security here."

It could take years to fill all of the open electrician jobs if the city is able to achieve full staffing at all. That's why Kirby Brady, San Diego's city chief innovation officer and head of the Performance and Analytics Department, was tasked with finding ways to improve streetlight repairs with the resources the city already has.

Brady developed an algorithm that gives each broken streetlight a prioritization score based on factors including proximity to parks and schools.

"Of course, these things are important for safety, we want safe routes for people to walk or bike or drive," Brady said. "We also know things about traffic density. So if a particular streetlight is located in an area where there are a high volume of traffic collisions, that should factor into the urgency of the repair."
Streetlights that have been waiting abnormally long to be fixed are also prioritized, as are streetlights in the city's historically underserved neighborhoods. And the algorithm identifies clusters of repairs so crews spend less time driving across the city to their next job.

A city electrician replaces a streetlight fixture in San Diego's Bay Terraces neighborhood, March 25, 2022.
Matthew Bowler
A city electrician replaces a streetlight fixture in San Diego's Bay Terraces neighborhood, March 25, 2022.

Mack said the system has been embraced by the city's electricians, who feel there is now more logic behind their assignments. Previously, he said, they would be "jumping around" from streetlight to streetlight without much strategy.

"Whoever was making the most noise, that’s where we were going — wherever upper management sent us," Mack said. "But this system right here I think is a perfect system for us."

Fixing a broken streetlight is often not as simple as replacing a lightbulb. Some of the city's streetlights are wired via century-old series circuits, meaning one broken streetlight can affect an entire neighborhood. Replacing damaged or corroded underground wiring can take weeks if not months, and no amount of data can speed up those repairs.

"In any given year, the city never has enough money to throw at all the departments to fix things. But our hope is that by spotlighting some of the most frequently requested services by residents, we can start to funnel resources there and improve those service levels over time."
Kirby Brady, San Diego's city chief innovation officer and head of the Performance and Analytics Department

Still, Brady said the city hopes being honest and transparent about the scale of the streetlight repair backlog — and all of the city's other unfunded infrastructure needs — will help build public support for pledging more money to fix it.

"In any given year, the city never has enough money to throw at all the departments to fix things," Brady said. "But our hope is that by spotlighting some of the most frequently requested services by residents, we can start to funnel resources there and improve those service levels over time."