At first glance it looks like any normal road in the middle of a quiet street.
But when this stretch of highway identifies pedestrians preparing to cross from one side to the other, it bursts into action with an interactive light-up display showing the safest route to walk and alerting drivers and cyclists of people in the road ahead.
The prototype has been commissioned by insurer Direct Line to showcase how urban streets could become reactive to save the lives of pedestrians in the future.
This is Money’s Rob Hull had an exclusive first look – and walk-through – of the ‘Smart Crossing’ at a secret location in London.
What’s wrong with the good old fashioned zebra crossing, we hear you ask? It turns out they – and other pedestrian crossing – aren’t doing enough to save lives.
Newly published road casualty statistics for 2016 showed that deaths rose by four per cent last year to 1,792 fatalities.
Some 448 of these were pedestrians, accounting for a quarter the full quota of casualties – a 10 per cent rise on the figures for the year previous.
One reason for the rise is the fact that some 20 collisions involving pedestrians occur at crossings every day in the UK – that’s more than 7,000 a year. So something needs to be done to reduce these worrying numbers.
This is Direct Line’s solution – a Smart Crossing that uses light-up panels that illuminate the road.
It said many of the features were brainstormed using Transport Research Laboratory data identifying a number of reasons why crossings are a potential danger zone.
The road to the future? Direct Line said its Smart Crossing re-imagines what our streets should be like and puts people first
The patchwork of LED panels are completely waterproof. They could also be adapted into pressure pads to identify if a person or vehicle is treading on them, experts behind the creation told This is Money
It found that a pedestrian’s position and route as they cross the road, the influence of other pedestrians who are dangerously walking from one side of the street to the other and overcrowded crossings are all factors that can make them hazardous.
To reduce the risk, it came up with the idea of responsive roads that could cope with the growing number of users.
To put the theory and technology into practice, the insurer worked with University College London and urban design specialists Umbrellium to create this section of highway that can light-up like the advertising screens at Piccadilly Circus.
The working prototype is a 22-metre long section made up of a patchwork of LED panels.
TRL stats claim there are around 20 incidents that take place on UK roads at pedestrian crossing every day
A 22-metre long stretch of Smart Crossing road was setup in a secret location in London to showcase the technology
Recent DfT figures showed that road casualties increased by 4% in 2016. The infographic on the right shows that pedestrian fatalities grew more than any other road user last year
Using cameras positioned at each end of the street, the technological brain of the system monitors what’s happening on the stretch of highwa
y and triggers the panels to lights up to offer a safe place for pedestrians to cross and also alert other road users that there are people in the road up ahead.
The intelligent computer can even map and pre-empt pedestrians’ movement to respond to alerts it flashes up through the road surface.
Because it is fully adaptable, it means it can measure how many people are stood at the side of the road waiting to cross and adjust the width of the zebra crossing it creates through the panels.
This could be extremely useful outside schools and live sport and music events where large crowds are attempting to cross busy routes, Direct Line said.
The cameras can also detect when unusual risks occur, such as a child chasing a football into oncoming traffic.
The system can detect when something unusual is happening, such as a child chasing a football into the road. The red chevrons suggest to road users where the child may enter the road and ‘STOP’ markings appear before them to stop oncoming cars and vans
The interactive Smart Crossing alerts pedestrians it can see are looking at their mobile phones and could be unaware of their surroundings
A bright red arrow identifies the route the child would take and at the same time alerts incoming drivers, motorcyclists and cyclists to stop further up the road with illuminated signals flashed through the surface.
It can also provide warning signals to pedestrians, notifying them when they’re being hidden from another road user’s view by a high sided vehicle, like a bus or lorry.
The pavements also glow to grab to attention of daydreaming pedestrians engrossed in their mobile phones or listening to music to prevent them from strolling into the road without looking.
Speaking about the creation, Rachael Lynch, innovation marketing manager at Direct Line, said: ‘Cities across the world are future proofing and we believe our model could be an essential part of everyday life.
‘In a world where we are immersed in mobile technology, the Smart Crossing can pre-empt danger and urge pedestrians to look up before crossing a road.’
Step 1: The Smart Crossing identifies which part of the road would be the safest place for a crossing after scanning the risk in the area. Walk up to the spot on the pavement that suggests where the crossing will be and it assesses the risk based on the traffic flow
Step 2: Once the progress bar turns green, so does the spot you are stood on. A zebra crossing then shines through the road directing you to head across. There are also new markings on the road from cars and vans telling them where they need to stop and a blue section for any approaching cyclists to stop in ahead of the other vehicles
Get to stepping: Once you’ve crossed the road and the system confirms there are no other pedestrians, the zebra markings vanish to allow drivers to carry on their journey
Usman Haque, founding partner of Umbrellium and o
ne of the masterminds behind the working prototype, said; ‘This is a genuine problem and we’ve developed a genuine solution.
‘The Smarter Crossing dynamically responds in real-time using technology which has been designed with colours that we know and understand and practical designs that help those on the crossing feel comfortable, confident and safe.
‘This is about bringing pedestrian crossings up-to-speed with the rest of a modern-day city. Pedestrian crossings as we know them were made for a different age, when the human relationship with the city was completely different.
‘Our prototype is waterproof, can hold the weight of vehicles and can recognise the difference between pedestrians, vehicles and cyclists – it’s ready to change the future of how we cross the road.’
David Davies, executive director at The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety added: ‘PACTS welcomes this innovative contribution from Direct Line towards improving pedestrian safety.’
Who would pay for a Smart Crossing? It won’t be the Government, says ROB HULL
This might look like a bit of a gimmick, but it does work – believe me, I tried it. The system is quick to identify when you’re waiting to cross, and the visual impact of road markings appearing out of nowhere in seconds in an impressive thing to behold.
My walk-through with the developers involved a number of different scenarios, from just myself crossing to a bigger group of people and examples when a driver or cyclist might not see pedestrians because of other vehicles blocking their vision.
But despite how well it works, one massive elephant remains in the room – what is the cost of all this technology?
Usman Haque from Umbrellium was reluctant to tell me what the final bill was for this one-off prototype, but did say it took nine months to construct, with the final three months being the most intensive to have the system functional for last week’s top-secret display.
One thing’s for sure, it’s definitely more expensive than a tin of road paint – and the government is unlikely to fund such an elaborate solution, even if evidence does suggest it will improve pedestrian safety.
Just look at the how neglected our existing roads are today.
They’ve been riddled with hazardous potholes for years. And the government is struggling to play catch-up with the ever-increasing problem, despite numerous reports of accidents that have been caused by craters in the tarmac.
According to the Local Government Association, it would take 14 years and cost £12billion to repair the entire road network – and that’s just in England and Wales.
How did the government respond? It announced a £250million ‘pothole action fund’ in the 2016 Budget – only £11.75billion short of the LGA’s calculation.
That fund will be drip-fed to local councils at a rate of £50million a year for the next five years to help repair more than 4million potholes, in theory. That sounds very optimistic to me.
And all the while our highways continue to fall into disrepair, councils also face additional financial pressure from motorists who can rightfully make a claim if they are injured or their vehicle is damaged by a pothole.
A fund of £50million a year spread across all the authorities in England and Wales soon disappears, I imagine.
This reluctance to improve the condition of our roads means there’s fat chance the government is going to back the idea of tearing-up tarmac and replacing it with expensive LED panels. Especially considering a litre tin of white road paint costs less than £20.