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.”
“Typically, when we hear about road technology, it’s almost always about cars.” 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.
Read the full article originally published here.