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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Cities are rushing to replace their legacy street lights with "smart" LED fixtures that could one day be able to find you a parking space, monitor air quality, and announce an oncoming thunderstorm.

Why it matters: Despite a bumpy and controversial start to some smart street light programs, cities are saving tons of money on energy by banishing traditional bulbs — and may soon be able to turn a profit by monetizing data from smart LED sensors or leasing space on light poles.

The big picture: There's been lots of hype about "smart cities," where connected technology helps governments serve us better — but also lots of money wasted on expensive projects that fizzled or caused public outcry over police use of camera surveillance.

Today, hopes have coalesced around the potential for "smart" street lights, which bear sensors that can do everything from analyzing traffic patterns to assisting 911 operators.

  • "Streetlights are becoming the backbone of larger smart city initiatives," per a report by the Northeast Group, a smart cities market intelligence firm.
  • Cities will invest $8.2 billion in them in the next 10 years, the report said.
  • It will take time: "Overall, over 90% of streetlights will be LED by 2029 and 35% will be connected," Northeast Group said.

Cities large and small — including Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Cleveland — have been replacing traditional streetlights with LEDs, which consume less energy and can be programmed to dim or or brighten as needed.

  • "Street lighting can be up to 40% of a city's energy bills, so you see huge cost savings across the board," Benjamin Gardner, president of the Northeast Group, tells Axios.
  • Sensors placed on streetlights have manifold applications and will have more in the future.
  • An Intel white paper envisions a day when street lights do everything from traffic and parking control to guiding people out of danger during an emergency (by flashing in the direction of evacuation).

"The vision here is to augment the existing infrastructure via the cloud to allow data and additional functionality to flow through what was a dumb asset," Martin Stephenson, head of North America systems & services for Signify, a major connected lighting vendor, tells Axios.

But, but, but: There's been pushback on various fronts.

  • Surveillance: San Diego got scolded by community activists after its police started using video from its $30 million "Smart Streetlights" program.
  • Aesthetics: Light poles gunked up with sensors, cameras and advertisements can look hideous.
  • Health: "Cities and towns throughout Northern California are issuing ordinances that would exclude new 5G cell sites from residential areas, citing supposed health concerns," per the WSJ.

Smart street light experts say the industry has taken heed from the San Diego debacle and pulled back on intrusive applications.

What's next: Cities hope eventually to turn their smart street lights into cash cows — some of which is happening today.

  • The poles can serve as billboards where companies buy ad space.
  • 5G providers and others can pay monthly fees to hang their equipment on light poles.
  • The brass ring for cities is to compile data from smart street lights and sell it for profit.

The bottom line: "We're seeing a lot of cities buying back their street lights from utilities," Gardner tells Axios.

  • "Because all of a sudden, they've woken up to the fact that, hey — you know, the boring, kind of arcane corner of the municipal infrastructure space, the street light poles? They're actually critical assets that we need to own and control."

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

In photos: Students evacuated as wildfire burns historic Cape Town buildings

Firefighters try, in vain, to extinguish a fire in the Jagger Library, at the University of Cape Town, after a forest fire came down the foothills of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, on Sunday. Photo: Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images

A massive wildfire spread from the foothills of Table Mountain to the University of Cape Town Sunday, burning historic South African buildings and forcing the evacuation of 4,000 students, per Times Live.

The big picture: Visitors to the Table Mountain National Park and other nearby attractions were also evacuated and several roads including a major highway, were closed. South Africa's oldest working windmill and the university's Jagger Library, which houses SA antiquities, are among the buildings damaged.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

3 killed, 2 wounded overnight in Kenosha bar shooting

Three people died and two others were hospitalized with serious injuries after a gunman entered bar in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, the police department said in a statement on Sunday.

The latest: Officers arrested a "person of interest" Sunday afternoon in connection with the 12:42 a.m. shooting and there's "no threat to the community at this time," per a later police statement.

Updated 4 hours ago - Sports

Big European soccer teams announce breakaway league

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (L) after striking the ball during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg match between Liverpool F.C. and Real Madrid at Anfield in Liverpool, England, last Wednesday. Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

12 of world soccer's biggest and richest clubs announced Sunday they've formed a breakaway European "Super League" — with clubs Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona Real Madrid, Juventus and A.C. Milan among those to sign up.

Why it matters: The prime ministers of the U.K. and Italy are among those to express concern at the move — which marks a massive overhaul of the sport's structure and finances, and it effectively ends the decades-old UEFA Champions League's run as the top tournament for European soccer.