On a busy street near a school in London, a newly painted crosswalk is designed to slow down drivers through an optical illusion: As someone approaches, each white stripe on the road looks like a three-dimensional block.
“It’s unusual when you’re approaching it–it catches the eye,” says Tim Mitchell, cabinet member for environment and city management for Westminster City Council, the local authority for the district where the street is located. “What it does is make drivers concentrate more on the road, because it’s unusual. It focuses the eye on the road rather than being distracted by other things going on around.”
Students age 4 to 11 cross the road to reach a public park across from the elementary school, and parents were concerned about the traffic. Still, Mitchell says, the location didn’t have an accident rate that justified a complete redesign of the area. Instead, the government was looking for a simpler intervention. It took inspiration from crosswalks in New Delhi, India, where a similar optical illusion slowed traffic, and other cities. The final design is similar to a crosswalk in a village in Iceland, though the Icelandic version only works from one direction, and the new London crossing looks three-dimensional from both sides. While the effect is visible to pedestrians from some angles, “the effect is amplified if you see it from a moving vehicle,” Mitchell says.
The city council will be monitoring the crossing for several months with a camera to see how drivers react; one concern was that it would be so realistic that drivers might swerve to try to avoid the imaginary bumps, though there has been no evidence of that so far. The government also wants to see what happens over time as local drivers become accustomed to the crossing; drivers who are new to the area, presumably, will continue to drive more cautiously because of the intervention.
It’s something that could be useful at other locations in the area. “There are a number of locations which wouldn’t necessarily justify putting in a completely new junction, whereas this would be a way of actually impacting on driver behavior in a way which is relatively quick and relatively cheap to introduce,” says Mitchell.