Walking in London & the Future of Connected Pedestrians

Look right! London crosswalk

Locomotion. Hoofing it. Strolling around. Whatever you call it, walking is unquestionably one of the major leaps that impelled our evolution from forest-loving apes to savannah-scanning hominids. It’s a developmental milestone that parents of young children look forward to with great excitement. Walking is a basic form of mobility — and freedom — that’s easy to overlook.

I walked a lot this week as I spent time on the road for work in New York then London. These are without a doubt some of the best pedestrian cities in the world, and I loved the chance to get around more on two feet. But man if I didn’t find myself hesitating, Frogger-style a number of times on the sidewalk contemplating exactly how and when to cross the road.

Now, I really did think I had a fair handle on this walking thing, particularly in cities. I take pride in being able to skillfully anticipate gaps in traffic and generally love a good crosswalk. But I was grateful for the prominent “look right” curb paintings that were so ubiquitous in London. I never realized how instinctive something like scanning left for cars was until they were driving at me from the “wrong” (i.e., opposite) direction. The intersection near the hotel was particularly confusing for no reason other than the fact that there were extra turn lanes at the intersection.

Because I was traveling I missed the chance to check out Monday’s opening of Mcity, the University of Michigan’s new test environment for connected and driverless vehicles out in Ann Arbor. It’s a 32-acre simulated outdoor lab complete with roads, buildings, intersections, traffic signals, and sidewalks.

A highlight at the new facility are connected, mechatronic pedestrians that will walk out into traffic just like their sometimes oblivious plugged-in human counterparts. These robots will let automakers and others develop and test innovations that could reduce the 4000+ pedestrian deaths and 76,000 pedestrian injuries that occur each year in the US.

Most technologies currently under development focus on using radar and cameras to predict route conflicts and send warnings to connected pedestrians and drivers about potential collisions. On the vehicle side, this can be taken one level further to slow and stop the car to prevent a crash. For pedestrians, this is not so simple. There are no brakes to deploy or gates to stop someone from walking out in a dangerous situation.

Could there be?

As a connected pedestrian of the future, will I encounter invisible fences that somehow prevent my crossing out of turn? Will my iPhone which is connected to Apple Pay immediately and automatically register a violation and deduct a fine for jaywalking? Will a Fitbit-integrated app put me in competition with friends to earn leaderboard status as a good neighbor who doesn’t dart out into traffic? Will I slow and linger, hoping my neighborhood Starbucks on the corner will push another drink offer to me? Will I have a higher rating and lower premium on my new pedestrian insurance policy because I don’t cross the street haphazardly?

Will drivers finally, reliably yield to pedestrians who have the right of way in a crosswalk? Will my Google Maps automatically recognize me as an American walking in London and kindly remind me to “Mind the traffic” as I approach the curb?

Photo credit: David Tubau

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