Everyone likes to complain about pedestrians (or people walking as I prefer to call them) just popping out in front of drivers like magic, but in fact in the USA 22 percent of walkers’ deaths happen in marked or signalled intersections. 36 percent of walkers’ over age 65 die in intersections. So clearly there’s something wrong here.
In the UK, software design consultancy Umbrellium has come up with what they call the Starling Crossing (STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) that they say “puts people first.”
While it uses familiar and understandable road markings and colours, the Starling Crossing reacts dynamically in real-time to different conditions and is able to modify the patterns, layout, configuration, size and orientation of pedestrian crossings in order to prioritise pedestrian safety. The entire road surface at the crossing area is monitored by cameras and embedded with computer-controlled LEDs that can be seen from all angles, during both day and night.
It adapts to circumstance; when there are not too many walkers around, it comes on when needed. When the pubs close, it gets wider and stays up longer. If an older walker is crossing, it gives them more time. And wait, there’s more:
If a person is distracted, looking down at their mobile, and veers too close to the road surface when a car is nearby, a warning pattern lights around them to fill their field of vision. If a child runs into the road unexpectedly, a large buffer zone is created around them to make their trajectory clear to any nearby drivers or cyclists.
Founder Usman Haque tells Dezeen: “The pedestrian crossing one of the most complex moments of interaction that almost everyone experiences on a daily basis," he continued. "It's that one moment where you're actually negotiating with others as well as potentially as with big chunks of metal.”
If you discount worries about cost, durability, salt and snow, or whether the pavement is easily visible to the guy sitting high up in a pickup truck, it is an interesting idea. Haque tells Wired:
We have to question whether traffic lights even make sense anymore. This crossing is a step toward a near future reimagining of how pedestrians can use technology.
There are some really interesting aspects to it, particularly how it recognizes “desire lines”- the fact that people naturally find the place to walk that makes the most sense. That’s where the word STigmergic in their name for it comes from:
Using the principles of stigmergy(c.f. the pheromone traces that ants leave, attracting other ants to the best paths toward food sources) the Starling Crossing is able to monitor and adapt to pedestrian desire lines over long term use so that, for example, if most people exiting a tube station end up walking diagonally across the road towards a park entrance, the crossing is able to reconfigure as a diagonal or even trapezoidal crossing, with corresponding safety buffer zones.
Of course, one can infer from the number of people killed in intersections that drivers are not necessarily looking or respecting signals now, and may not give these any more attention. But at least Umbrellium is trying to put people first.