If a cow appears as you cycle through the Dutch city of Utrecht, it’s a good idea to brake.
This cow is not a wandering animal, but part of a traffic sign called Fietsflo, which aims to make cycling less frustrating by predicting whether you should change speed to make the next traffic light.
The traffic sign sits 120 metres before the lights, measures your speed and gives cyclists advice as they approach it. “A hare means you should pedal harder, thumbs-up means you should maintain your speed to get through the green, a tortoise means pedal slower, and a cow means you won’t make it,” says Jan-Paul de Beer, head of SpringLab, which developed the technology.
Cycling is one of the best ways to be active every day, adds De Beer, but in cities it isn’t appealing as there are so many lights. “Our mission is to make it as fun as possible, and in simulations we saw a 40% better traffic flow.”
The Fietsflo (“fiets” is Dutch for bike) pilot launched last month at a traffic-sensitive set of lights in Utrecht, and SpringLab is starting trials in Eindhoven and Antwerp, Belgium.
This is just one of many smart technology initiatives that aim to make road, cycle and foot traffic flow better as our cities expand from holding 54% of the world’s population to an estimated 66% by 2050, according to the UN (pdf).
Some cities are proposing major changes: Oslo is creating a car-free zone and subsidising electric bikes, Paris has instituted car bans, while Amsterdam plans to make all taxis electric by 2025, and ban the most polluting vehicles from a central “environmental zone” by next year.
But radical city measures can be considered punitive and aren’t socially-acceptable everywhere, says Susan Grant-Muller, technologies and informatics professor at Leeds University’s institute for transport studies. Grant-Muller is leading a project investigating how European cities can encourage behavioural change in order to become more liveable.
“For many of our developed cities, redesign isn’t an option so we have to look at these marginal technologies and believe in what they can achieve just by getting people to alter their travel by 5%,” she says.
No scheme is a magic bullet for solving the problems of big cities, she says, but a combination of behavioural measures could encourage people to rethink the choices they make. “Getting people out of sole-use, private vehicles and walking and cycling gets people a little healthier, the city a little cleaner, and some demand out of the transport system.”
One Dutch project aims to help the traffic flow by making pedestrians more aware of the road and follow the lights rather than crossing at their own whim. The trial in Bodegraven-Reeuwijk projects red and green lights on to an LED strip on the pavement. This reaches not only the downward gaze of smartphone addicts, but also children and old people whose movement is limited, says Mark Hofman, commercial manager of HIG Traffic Systems.
A LED traffic light strip to warn pedestrians that they are about to cross the road. Photograph: Edwin M. Bruining/Landmark Photography
In the UK, altering traffic lights could help the government target of getting 75% of ambulances to reach life-threatening cases within eight minutes. Raggy Jha, chief product officer at technology firm Red Ninja, is working with three partners and £600,000 in government funding to create an app that will change lights at the right time to let ambulances through but avoid excessive congestion.
Red Ninja is also working on a project to analyse how people move around the bus system of Belo Horizonte in Brazil in order to reduce overcrowding – responding to different needs of developing world cities.
Other technology is being used to clear the roads by facilitating parking. Later this year Lisbon-based Parqly will launch a scanning system and app to help the city’s drivers find a parking space. Co-founder Bruno Nascimento says: “Eventually cars are going to be taken out of the city centre and there will be bigger parking lots on the periphery – people are going to need to find this parking.”
However, some believe that – rather than technology – a radical change in street design might make cities work better. Norman Garrick, associate professor at the University of Connecticut, who has studied how sharing the road space can be better for pedestrians and vehicles, says we need to fundamentally rethink movement in cities.
“The philosophy that emanated from the US was that we needed to separate people and machines, which gives priority to vehicles and makes the environment less friendly for people,” he says. Technology can improve cities for people, he says, but “it can equally make them more hostile if you facilitate faster car travel. We have to change our engineering philosophy to go back to more connected, compacted street networks like Amsterdam and Seattle.”