Crosswalks were originally designed with the expectation that the people who used them would look where they were going. Today, thanks to cell phones, that’s a dangerous assumption. Numerous studies on distracted walking have found that injuries related to cell phone use are on the rise. Pedestrians, evidence suggests, are increasingly likely to amble into intersections with their eyes on their phones, instead of the road.

“Human behavior has changed significantly since smartphones turned up, but our environments haven’t adapted,” says Soren Luckins, founder of Melbourne design studio Büro North. His solution: Put the crosswalk signal on the ground—you know, where people are actually looking. The plan is to embed tactile indicators—the bumpy curb-surface designed for visually impaired people—with red and green LEDs that will alert pedestrians when it’s safe to cross the street. He calls it Smart Tactile Pavement.

The concept isn’t totally unprecedented. Earlier this year, a transportation company in Augsburg, Germany installed a row of sidewalk LEDs near two railroad crosswalks that flash red when a tram is nearing. Its neighboring city of Cologne has been experimenting with a similar idea.


You might be thinking: Ground-embedded LEDs aren’t a solution—they’re an admission of just how obsessed we’ve become with our phones. But save your breath; Luckins has heard it already. “It’s like, yeah, I also think it’s sad that society has come to this,” he says. “But you can either stick your head in the sand and pretend its not happening, or you can adapt.” The way Luckins sees it, cities have an obligation to deliver safe environments to their users. “If the users’ behavior has changed, the city has to change,” he says.

The question is: How should it change? For urban planners, this is a matter of philosophy; do you design to accommodate an existing behavior, or to encourage better behavior? Luckins belongs to the former camp. The late traffic engineer Hans Monderman belonged to the latter. Monderman was famous for designing roads in northern Holland with no traffic signals, lane markers, or directional indicators, the idea being that motorists would navigate an ambiguous intersection more vigilantly—and more safely—than they would a traditional one. It seemed counterintuitive, but his designs led to dramatic drops in traffic accidents.

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