British Columbia

Why thousands of city street lights are turning purple

The indigo lights have spawned theories online about everything from vampires to vaccines, but the City of Vancouver says the LED street lights now shining purple are the result of a manufacturing defect.

It is an issue in Vancouver — and in other cities across Canada and the U.S.

People cross the street at night under street lights.
In Vancouver, more than 100 blue or purple street lights have been reported to the city — the result of a manufacturing defect involving a coating on the light. The downtown intersection of Davie and Richards streets shows the contrast between the indigo lights and the traditional orange street light. (Susana Da Silva/CBC)

There's disagreement about what hue the street lights currently are in parts of downtown Vancouver, but they're definitely not white.

Perhaps "light blue," "definitely purple,'' or "black light-ish" — all depending on who you ask walking under their glow on Davie Street, near Richards.

Nancy and Sebastian Schlote have been puzzling about the new street light colour while out on walks, and came up with their own theories.

"I thought they were experimenting with something, like energy savings," Nancy theorized. Sebastian was looking at it from a safety angle. "Maybe easier to see people crossing," he said. 

The issue of the odd-coloured lighting hasn't only arisen in Vancouver. B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation says it has had to replace around two dozen lights on Vancouver Island so far.

And Manitoba Hydro says it has so far replaced close to 1,000 defective street lights in that province, with another 750 likely needing replacement.

The purple glow has also been seen all over the United States, in places like Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska and Kansas.

WATCH | Vancouver residents react to the purple street lights:

Vancouver residents react to purple street lights

1 year ago
Duration 0:12
Featured VideoSome street lights in Vancouver have turned purple and residents are wondering why.

While the indigo lights have also spawned theories online about everything from vampires to vaccines, the City of Vancouver says the LED street lights now shining purple are the result of a manufacturing defect.

"There is a coating on these fixtures that has failed," said Eric Mital, with the City of Vancouver's engineering department.

Vancouver is working to replace the more than 100 purple lights reported since the lights started changing colour last year. The fixtures were all installed between 2017 and 2019 and remain under warranty, the city said, so replacing them will not cost taxpayers.

Staff are planning to replace all 350 lights installed during that time to prevent any others from turning to the dark side and the city has been told this problem shouldn't happen again.

"Our understanding is they have identified and addressed the issue," Mital said. "We are not expecting to see this problem come up with the more recently installed new generation of lights."

A purple light in front of an office building.
Purple street lights have also been spotted in Winnipeg, like this post in the city's Osborne Village neighbourhood. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The true colour of LEDs

It turns out the LED's true colour is what is shining through.

David Beron is president and CEO of RAB Design Lighting in Etobicoke, Ont., which manufactures a wide variety of LED fixtures, though not street lights.

But Beron says at their base, no LEDs are ever just white. They only get that way once an egg yolk-coloured coating called phosphor gets painted on.

"Behind the white light there is a blue or sort of purplish colour, and they put this phosphor over it and this phosphor then glows white."

A white man in front of a sign that reads 'RAB Design'.
David Beron, of RAB Design Lighting, in Etobicoke, Ont., says the blue or purple colour showing through the defective street lights is the actual colour of the LEDs. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

Current purple problem notwithstanding, Beron says LED technology provides a lower maintenance and more energy efficient lighting system — and continues to improve.

"The difference between a traditional street light and an LED is what they call lumen maintenance, so the stability of the colour and the light coming out should be significantly more stable and more consistent over its lifetime than one of the traditional light sources," he said.

A panel showing yellow phosphor coating.
The combination of the yellow phosphor coating and purple or blue light below results in a white shine. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

The City of Vancouver is working to replace all 55,000 of its outdoor lights with LEDs, starting with approximately 44,000 of the street ones in the next four years. Once all the lights are converted, the city estimates it will save $1.65 million on energy and another $650,000 in labour costs annually.

While cities across the continent work to bring back the white lights, not everyone minds the current look.

Christina James was not bothered by the light while out walking her dog.

"I do actually like the look. I like it when things are glowing different colours," she said. "I would actually be a little disappointed; I kind of like the vibe."

Cool vibe or not, the City of Vancouver says the Halloween hues can't stay.

A Downtown street coloured purple.
Despite the issue with these street lights, experts say LED technology provides a lower maintenance and more energy-efficient lighting system. (Susana da Silva/CBC)


Susana da Silva

Video Journalist

You can reach me by e-mail at or on twitter @CBCSusana.

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