With sensors and smartphones to make roads more flexible, Tilburg is addressing the question: how can a city become safer for less able residents?
The distance from Noud Rommen’s front door to the local shops is just 100 yards, but to get there, the 71-year-old with mobility problems must negotiate a six-lane dual carriageway with a notoriously short pedestrian crossing time.
“If I stick to the rules I can only get to the island halfway across before it turns red, so I have to press the button and wait again,” he says. “But nobody wants to do that, so you try to cut between the traffic. It’s not good, but that’s what happens.”
Since April, however, Rommen has been able to cross the road without dodging cars – with the help of his smartphone. He is one of 10 people in the Dutch city of Tilburg trialling the Crosswalk, an app that gives pedestrians with restricted mobility extra crossing time.
A sensor in the lights constantly scans the pavement on either side of the junction, and if it “sees” Rommen waiting when the button is pressed it adjusts the green-light time. The app comes pre-installed with one of four time settings, depending on the user’s level of mobility, to minimise delays to other traffic.
Dynniq, the Dutch company that develops intelligent traffic systems and is helping the city council with the trial, explains the app works in combination with GPS and the software that operates the traffic lights, so there is no need to install extra devices.
The company is also developing a spin-off for cyclists, the CrossCycle, which will sense when bikes are approaching a junction and change the lights sooner. Another version detects visually impaired pedestrians and activates the ticking sounds that tell them whether the light is red or green.
“The essential difference is that the lights can respond to individual users,” says Dynniq’s product manager Martin de Vries. “In the past someone could press a button, but we didn’t know if there was one person standing there or 10. Say there’s a class of schoolchildren needing to cross the road: we can create a category for them in the app so that the light stays green until the teacher confirms that all the children are safely across.”
The pilot project is part of a 25-year plan to make Tilburg’s road network more pedestrian and cycle-friendly. “We want to do more with smart mobility and use technology rather than just putting down more asphalt,” says Mark Clijsen, urban planning specialist at the city council.
Further down the line the technology could be used across a wider network, such as setting the lights to green to let an ambulance or fire crew pass through. Since 2013 the Dutch government has invested €600 million in 350 local projects to encourage more diverse road use, and interactive traffic lights are a key part of this, as Dutch cities become more densely populated, and populations age.
Smart traffic lights, in addition to pedestrian crossings, can have environmental benefits, for example by giving goods vehicles a clear run through urban areas. “We can give an HGV priority through the lights so it doesn’t have to stop and start so often, which saves time, emissions, noise pollution and damage to the road surface,” says De Vries.
The first set of smart traffic lights was switched on in the southern city of Maastricht at the start of June, and by the end of this year 1,250 sets of lights are due to be upgraded across the country. The ministry of infrastructure has calculated that the conversion of all 5,500 urban traffic lights will save the economy €90m a year by improving road safety and reducing congestion and emissions.
In Tilburg, one of the main challenges in developing the Crosswalk app was finding people to test it, says Clijsen. Most potential users are elderly and often wary of relying on unfamiliar technology. “We had to approach them one-on-one and show them how the app worked on their phones. Once we did that they were keen to get involved, but the barrier was very high. We held a presentation and put an advert in a local newspaper with a circulation of 2,000 and 10 people came forward.”
Tilburg’s long-term mobility strategy, which runs up to 2040, aims to redress the balance in traffic and encourage people to walk or cycle. “For a long time pedestrians have been the neglected kids in traffic who get relatively little time on green,” says Clijsen. “What we want is to give the pedestrians more priority so the cars will have to cross from one side of the city centre to the other. It’s about thinking differently.”
The pilot is due to be assessed in the autumn, and if successful, Clijsen estimates that the traffic lights could be converted at a rate of around one every two weeks. There are still teething problems to iron out: the crossing Rommen uses is right next to a 16-storey block of flats, which makes it hard to pick up a GPS signal. “When it works it’s excellent,” says Rommen. “There are a lot of older people in my block; my neighbour is nearly 90 and walks with a frame. This means they can cross safely.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Lead Image: The Crosswalk project uses a smartphone and a sensor to scan the road, allowing users one of four crossing time options depending on their level of mobility. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters