If you step on the curb on this street of the future, a pedestrian crossing will automatically appear in front of you when it’s safe to cross. If a crowd wants to cross simultaneously, the crossing widens; if someone staring at a smartphone veers into traffic, warning lights illuminate around them. The markings look similar to those that are usually painted on the road, but because they’re created with LED lights, they can continually change.
“Pedestrian crossings as we know them in the U.K. came about several decades ago and were designed for a kind of city that’s quite different from today,” Usman Haque, founding partner of Umbrellium, the London-based design firm that created a prototype of the new crossing, tells Fast Company via email. “As with many urban traffic interventions, they were designed largely from the perspective of vehicular traffic and the city as we know it today has changed (as it always does) because we have different interactions with each other and our environments.”
The new design, instead, prioritizes pedestrians. “Typically, when we hear about road technology, it’s almost always about cars, autonomous vehicles, traffic light control systems, but what we wanted to do is create a pedestrian crossing technology that puts people first, responding to their needs,” he says. In this case, “technology enables a more interactive, fluid, and adaptive relationship between pedestrians and the street–you might almost think of it as a ‘conversational interface’ with the road.”
Cameras monitor the street from each end, using the data and machine learning to identify whether someone is on a bike, or walking, or driving a car or truck, calculating the speed and trajectory of each road user, and then generating LED-lit patterns that stop traffic, highlight where bikes should wait, and help pedestrians cross. The lights are embedded in high-impact plastic strong enough to handle the weight of cars.
Over time, the system learns the shortcuts people take across the street, and reshapes the crossing to fit those natural paths. The idea was inspired by ants, which leave a path of pheromones for other ants; the process is an example of “stigmergy,” a way of generating complex systems without planning. (The new road design is called the Starling Crossing, short for “STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING”). The system can also learn where crossing is safest, and guide pedestrians to those locations.
At any given time, the crossing will behave differently. In wet weather, the system creates a larger buffer zone around pedestrians. If a child runs into the road, similarly, the road instantly creates a large buffer zone. Near a school, the crossing could create a larger buffer zone when a polluting vehicle is waiting. Early in the morning, when few pedestrians are out, the crossing won’t appear until someone approaches.
A full-scale prototype of the system is temporarily in place on a fake street at a TV studio in London, where the designers have tested and tweaked the graphics. There’s a fine line, Haque says, between graphics that are so quick that they startle pedestrians and drivers, and those that aren’t distracting.
“It wasn’t clear at the start that we would be able to build this with existing technology, so it was a key outcome that we be able to create a road surface that deals with the messy facts of everyday reality: supporting the weight of vehicles, dealing with rain, etc.,” he says. “What was interesting to observe was how quickly people got used to the crossing even during testing, leading to a sense almost of a ‘superpower’ in being able to call up a crossing on-demand.”
The system is still very much a prototype: More tests of safety and materials are necessary before it could be deployed on an actual road, and other features–such as audible signals for people who are visually impaired–still need to be added. But when it’s ready, Haque envisions that the crossings wouldn’t be in use everywhere, but at key intersections.
“The Starling Crossing would be most useful in areas that have dramatically changing conditions–numbers of people, pedestrian desire lines, school opening/closing–at different times of day,” he says.