The crossing has been preparing for you before you set foot on it. Radar and thermal cameras detect your approach and notify a central control system, which triggers rows of LED warning lights on either side of the walkway to alert approaching drivers to your presence. To keep you alert, the system sounds an alarm and projects a warning image on the ground in front of you. It also sounds an alert on your smartphone. As the driver comes within 30 metres, a blinking electronic sign notifies them of your crossing.
This pedestrian crossing is located in three locations across South Korea, designed by the Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT). It aims to minimise road traffic accidents in response to rising pedestrian casualties, 52.9 per cent of which occur at crossings. Many of these are caused by people crossing while looking at their phones (South Korea has the world’s highest smartphone penetration rate, and some of the highest road fatality and injury rates among developed countries). “So, I came to think of a smart crossing system that recognises the urgency of pedestrian safety on the crosswalk,” Kim Jong-hoon, a senior researcher at KICT says.
In tests, 83.4 per cent of vehicles reduced their speed, by an average of nearly 20 per cent — a result that Jong-hoon believes can drive wider rollout, and eventually a tapestry of intelligent crossings that will communicate with one another. “We hope that the smart pedestrian safety system will evolve into a co-operative network of AI-enabled entities working together,” he says.
Jong-hoon is not alone in his quest to redesign the road crossing. Traffic accidents often occur while pedestrians are crossing the road, and traditional crossings — on set timings or activated by a button — create needless delays and extra pollution.
Focusing more acutely on traffic flow, Vienna has rolled out four smart crossings engineered by the Graz University of Technology that employ cameras and deep-learning algorithms to anticipate a pedestrian’s trajectory. If someone appears likely to cross, the system halts traffic automatically, thereby minimising wait times to discourage people from crossing before the light has changed. It cancels the walk-light if the pedestrian walks away, and adjusts the walk-light’s timing according to the number of people crossing.
In the UK, Transport for London (TfL) is experimenting with crossings that show a continuous green signal for pedestrians until they detect a vehicle. The length of the green man phase increased by more than 20 seconds at one site, giving disabled and elderly people more time to safely cross.
TfL is also already working on a central control system, similar to the one envisaged by Jong-hoon, which connects individual junctions and regulates the traffic flow through the city. Zürich, in Switzerland, is a step ahead with Zürcher Modell, which adjusts signals at the city’s perimeter depending on feedback from inside.
For many urban road networks the signal systems that determine traffic flow “do not respond as they could and should to network demands in real time,” says Isobel Dedring, former deputy mayor for transport in London. If you imagine traffic as water, we’re not using the pipes efficiently because the valves are not synced; some pipes flow freely, others clog up. With better flow-timing, we can create additional time across the network, she explains.
Greater use of network-wide, real-time management could prove the key to urban change. “People know we need to pedestrianise streets, but it often doesn’t happen because there’s a perception that all road space is a zero-sum game: if we give space to pedestrians and cyclists then you must be taking it away from someone else, and it creates political opposition,” Dedring says. “If we can create more space in the pipe through more efficient systems, we can allocate it to cyclists and pedestrianisation without getting bogged down in political arguments.”
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