Ever walk halfway across a road only to have the light change and force you to make an undignified rush to the other side? The answer is almost certainly yes. If you’re in London, that may soon be a thing of the past however, with Transport for London (TfL) announcing upcoming trials of an "intelligent" pedestrian crossing. Called the Pedestrian Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique (SCOOT), it’s part of a £2 billion to £4 billion (US$3.3 billion to US$6.6 billion) program to improve roads over the next ten years and decrease traffic fatalities in the capital by 40 percent by the year 2020.

SCOOT addresses the problem of how to properly time pedestrian crossings in such a way as to make sure as many people as possible cross with the lights, as well as keeping traffic flowing as smoothly as possible. This is especially difficult in high traffic areas. Ideally, the light should be timed to allow everyone to cross, but pedestrian traffic isn't uniform and what might work for two people might not work for a dozen. Worse, there’s the problem of pedestrians pressing the request button and then crossing against the lights or simply walking away, which creates needless delays.

Pedestrian SCOOT seeks to remedy this by using video cameras to count the number of people in a digital “box” on the crossing pavement. If a large number of people are detected, the system alters the timing of the green walk light to allow more people to cross safely. In addition, if no one is at the crossing, or if someone presses the request button and then crosses against the lights or walks away, the system switches to “call cancel” and doesn't activate the walk light.

The system also increases pedestrian safety by adopting what's known as a puffin crossing design. Unlike older pelican crossings, where the walk signal is displayed across the road, the signal is displayed above the request button. This forces the pedestrian to look in the direction of oncoming traffic while waiting for the light to change, decreasing the chances of stepping off the curb in front of an oncoming car.

Announced in an outline by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and TfL, Pedestrian SCOOT is billed as a world first. It’s based on the Vehicle SCOOT system developed by the Transport Research Laboratory in collaboration with the UK traffic systems industry, which uses sensors at intersections to gather traffic data and a computer system that adjusts light timings to allow traffic to flow as efficiently as possible. It caused controversy during the 2012 Olympics when it was programmed to allow official vehicles to move through the capital more quickly.

The Pedestrian SCOOT system will be tested at high-traffic crossing areas with the first installed outside Balham and Tooting Bec Underground stations.

“I am delighted that London is the first city in the world to be trialling this cutting-edge equipment, which will benefit pedestrians across the city,” says Boris Johnson.

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