Here are four futuristic new designs for pedestrian crossings

Crossing the old fashioned way in Tokyo. Image: Getty.

More than 7,000 accidents occur at pedestrian crossings every year in the UK, according to data from the Transport Research Laboratory. And there are many factors which impact upon the safety of pedestrians as they cross the street, including their position relative to traffic and how crowded a crossing is.

So far, officials have mostly sought to improve the safety of pedestrian crossings through minor changes to design, with technological developments taking a backseat. In the future, however, smarter technologies may become the primary strategy for making crossings safer, and various high-tech crossing projects are already being trialled around the world.

Here are four of the most notable.

1. The Starling Crossing

One of the most prominent is the Starling Crossing, which is short for STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING. It’s being designed by a London-based company called Umbrellium for insurer Direct Line, and it’s currently at the prototype stage.

Instead of being painted on the road, the markings for this crossing are made of LEDs, which enables them to change according to traffic conditions. If a large group of pedestrians is crossing, the crosswalk widens. If there are no pedestrians, it disappears.

Starling Crossing - quick edit from Umbrellium on Vimeo.

The system uses cameras to monitor car, foot and bike traffic and direct everybody accordingly. It uses machine learning to inform its decisions and adjusts the crosswalk to the route that pedestrians typically take to cross the street.

2. The Line of Sight

Direct Line is also working with a second company, Mettle Studio, on another crossing project called the Line of Sight – a strip of red LEDs that light up when pedestrians are crossing the street. The red lights warn cars anytime someone steps onto the crossing. Once pedestrians cross the street, they flash and then go out entirely.

Image: Mettle Studios.

Like the Starling Crossing, the Line of Sight uses cameras to detect pedestrians and activate the LEDs.

3. FLIR Systems Pedestrian Detectors

Another tech company that’s looking to revolutionise crosswalks is FLIR Systems, which recently acquired the company Traficon, a maker of intelligent traffic systems.

FLIR offers smart city products such as the TrafiOne, a sensor that monitors vehicle and pedestrian traffic and uses that information to control traffic signals. In addition to a camera, this device uses thermal imaging, which enables it to more easily detect pedestrians in the dark. If the system detects pedestrians waiting to cross the street, it can extend the red light for vehicles.

4. Traffic Tech Pedestrian Switch Pads

Image: Traffic Tech.

Another way to detect pedestrians is with pressure-sensitive switch pads, such as those from Australia-based company Traffic Tech. The pads offered by the company are only 3.5 mm tall and can adhere to existing pedestrian ramps. The pad detects when a pedestrian is standing on it and sends a signal to control traffic lights. It can also cancel the signal if the pedestrian steps off of the pad. The device can even detect the direction a pedestrian is walking because it contains multiple rows of buttons that are activated individually.


Implementing Smart Technologies

We already employ some technologies at our pedestrian crossings, such as buttons and sensors – although some question whether these devices actually help pedestrians cross the street faster. At any rate, the technology we currently use is fairly basic, and the more advanced tech is mostly in the prototyping and testing phases.

Implementing these advanced devices into crossings is slow work, since they must undergo stringent testing to ensure safety. Eventually, though, we’ll likely see smart crossings in cities around the world improving pedestrian safety.

Crossings won’t be the only part of the road that will be smart in the future. In fact, other aspects, such as vehicles, are already incorporating smart technologies. In the future, nearly every element of traffic will communicate with one another: self-driving cars, traffic lights, road signs, roads themselves, crosswalks and even pedestrians and cyclists will be able to communicate with each other over a network of sensors and internet-connected components.

This increased connectivity could help to improve safety for pedestrians and drivers and also increase the efficiency of how we get around by improving traffic flow and reducing congestion. Smart technologies are expected to be able to reduce travel times by between 16 and 36 percent.

Building this system, however, will be a long and challenging process. Although it’s already getting started, it’ll be a while before we have fully connected smart roadways. Until then, we should continue the work that’s ongoing in designing better crossings that make life safer and more convenient for pedestrians.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.