Responsive Crosswalk Shows A Glimpse Of The Future Of Public Space

London-based design agency Umbrellium is testing an interactive pedestrian crossing that responds dynamically in real-time to make pedestrians, cyclists and drivers safer and more aware of each other.

The traditional road crossing, consisting of horizontal black and white stripes is in need of an overhaul. According to design firm Umbrellium, that developed a prototype of a re-invented pedestrian crossing, “pedestrian crossing designs have not been updated for the ways that we use, or need to use, our streets in the 21st century.” Its key design principles aim to enhance people’s perceptual awareness without distracting them, and emphasizing safety relationships between people and cars “so they can make their own decisions, rather than telling them what to do.” It is only a prototype, but the Starling Crossing (Stigmergic Adaptive Responsive Learning Crossing) could soon become a reality that would help us think about pedestrian crossings in a way that fits our current-day needs.

The prototype consists of a slip-free, load baring LED screen that lays atop the road and the adjacent sidewalk. During all times of day, it displays familiar, attractive looking road signs and colors that are visible from all angles and in all weather conditions. The display enables the crossing to take many different forms, depending on time of day, weather conditions, predicted road user behavior, and road user needs.

The crossing adapts to times of day and volumes of pedestrians by widening, narrowing, and positioning crossing patterns in a way that match pedestrian’s crossing patterns. During mornings and nights, with light pedestrian traffic, the crossing does not pop up until a pedestrian approaches the side of the street. During busier times, the sidewalk remains visible. In areas of dense pedestrian flows, or at peak times, pedestrian traffic is significantly higher, the crossing will be made wider or even multi-directional, allowing pedestrians to cross in multiple directions. In rainy weather, pedestrians can be kept at a distance from motorized traffic as the crossing creates a buffer zone around each pedestrian.

The adaptivity and interactive aspect of the crossing becomes clear when the crossing does not only indicate to pedestrians how they can cross safely, but when it also directs other road users like cyclists and motorists around them. The crossing has the capacity to show cyclists and motorists when and where to stop while pedestrians cross. With the use of cameras, the crossing registers the locations, trajectories and velocities of all road users while anticipating where they may move towards. For example, the crossing can warn motorists about playing children, creating a buffer zone around them. In other instances, pedestrians who are browsing their smartphones while crossing are warned by flashing lights around them. The crossing can also warn cyclists and motorists about pedestrians who are located in their blind spots.

Additional development is needed to make the prototype into a finalized design. Audible signals for visually impaired pedestrians need to be added and more testing is to be done. When the final design rolls out, we will not see it everywhere. Usman Haque, co-founder of Umbrellium, says that the crossing is not designed to be installed just anywhere. It is aimed at major intersections where road user’s desires change drastically throughout the day. As Haque has recognized, most road current-day technology is aimed at cars and traffic control systems. As congestion in major cities around the world is a pressing issue, the people-centered design of Starling Crossing might provide some relief, albeit in the realm of perceived safety of pedestrians, mainly in chaotic inner-city areas. Putting people first is a step in making bustling cities more livable.