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.
But an approach like Monderman’s can be a dangerous gamble. “I don’t think pedestrians can be safe without regulations in place,” says Sarah Kauffman, assistant director for Technology Programming at the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation. She points to London, where traffic officials paint the words “look right” or “look left” on the pavement at pedestrian crossings, to remind people to glance up. “Sidewalk LEDs are a more advanced version of that,” she says.
Other designers have attempted to tackle the problem by creating apps that remind people to look up when they’re near an intersection. Stephanie Lermen of SW Augsburg, the agency that installed the LEDs in Germany, says her company toyed with the idea of building an app before deciding that LEDs were a better option. “We wanted something that didn’t require you to do something extra,” she says. “If you have to download an app, it’s kind of a barrier.”
Luckins says in a perfect world, he could design a solution that would inspire better behavior, rather than encourage the bad habits we’ve already developed. But that’s not the world we live in. “If you believe people always do the right thing then we wouldn’t have designed what we did,” he says. “The fact is, there’s a huge spike in vehicular and traffic incidents and that’s because people don’t always do the right thing.” Lermen agrees. “It’s not our duty to teach people how to lead better lives, its our duty to get them safely from A to B.”
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