We need to talk about pedestrians: Why does technology continue to put cars before people?

A pedestrian crossing in Hong Kong. Image: Getty.

On Australia's roads, one pedestrian is killed every two days, the majority in metropolitan areas. While advances in safety systems and technology over past decades have greatly improved driver and passenger safety, there has been relatively little new technology to ensure the safety of pedestrians. Even current innovations to improve pedestrian safety are still designed from a car-centric approach.

In many places walking is significantly more dangerous than travelling by car, despite mostly separated facilities and slower speeds than any other mode of travel. Worldwide, more than 270,000 pedestrians lose their lives on roads each year – 22 per cent of all road traffic deaths.

Improvements in pedestrian safety are mainly byproducts of driver-focused policies such as random breath-testing and speed cameras. No doubt these reduce pedestrian fatalities, but are we relying too much on driver behaviour when a significant proportion of drivers are unwilling to change?

Despite 34 years of random breath testing in New South Wales, 12 per cent of crashes in the state’s cities involve alcohol. Speed cameras have been in use in NSW for 25 years, but 33 per cent of crashes in cities still involve speeding.

Technology design focus is still on cars

In spite of efforts to increase walking, Australian cities continue to be built with cars, rather than pedestrians, in mind. Australia is attempting to update traffic lights, which have shown little innovation since first introduced in the US in 1912.

Trials of countdown timers are underway at major Sydney CBD crossings, such as Elizabeth Street in Sydney, and throughout Brisbane. But this technology is only exacerbating the problem. By encouraging people to make a “run for it” across an intersection, they put themselves at greater risk of an accident.

Countdown timer at a pedestrian crossing in the Brisbane CBD. Image: Martin Tomitsch.

Neither the technology nor pedestrians are to blame for this. The issue is that these initiatives still take a car-centric perspective: they prioritise a rapid clearing of the road so cars can pass.

What matters to pedestrians is how long they have to wait until they can cross the road, but their needs are often treated as an afterthought. As urban populations continue to grow and age, it is critical to put people before cars.

Understanding people’s behaviour and needs is at the heart of designing technology. It’s what has led to new products and services that are disrupting industries and transforming our lives – whether it’s booking a hotel, catching a taxi or watching TV. But the roll-out of costly road safety systems seems to be lagging and ignoring this important principle.

Instead, we blame people for texting while crossing roads as the cause of pedestrian fatalities, despite a lack of crash data to support this. Evidence from hospitals suggests talking on a mobile or listening to music is more dangerous for pedestrians.

Even then, it must be recognised that pedestrians die due to collisions with vehicles, not each other. Any safety solution must consider the way all road users interact with each other and infrastructure.

New sensors aimed at pedestrian safety

The car industry is slowly taking on this challenge by trialling new sensors that automatically stop the vehicle when approaching a pedestrian.

Safety systems that focus on the people around the car will become even more important as we move closer to a future of autonomous vehicles. Audi’s driverless concept car achieves this by using a display behind the windscreen that lets onlookers know that the car sees them.

Audi’s driverless concept car has a display to show pedestrians that the car has seen them. Image: Audi.

New sensors collect data about conditions and the movement of people and vehicles in cities. In 2014, Chicago announced it was installing 40 sensors, with plans for 1,000 over the next few years. In Australia, Melbourne has been installing and testing pedestrian-counting sensors since 2012.

At the same time algorithms are being developed to make sense of the massive amounts of data being collected and to assist cities in their decision-making and planning processes.

However, these systems are mostly designed for city and government authorities, instead of making data available to those using the city infrastructure. The technology exists to extract information from these data sources and transmit them in real time to whomever and wherever it is needed, but has yet to be utilised.


Pedestrian and car sensor data.

A recent hackathon at the University of Sydney, held in collaboration with the NSW government’s Data Analytics Centre, demonstrated the growing interest in finding solutions to pedestrian safety.

The data is there, but we need to identify and test solutions that bring a direct benefit to pedestrians. For example, it may be possible to warn drivers and/or pedestrians of an impending collision, recognising that all people make mistakes.

We require a more detailed study of which digital solutions will make our roads and cities safer. It’s important to understand people’s needs before rolling out these technologies on a large scale – whether it’s countdown timers or traffic lights embedded in the road.The Conversation

An Australian proposal for ground-level traffic lights to prevent pedestrian accidents.

Martin Tomitsch is associate professor and head of design, and Adrian B. Ellison a research fellow, at the University of Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.