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UK Authorizes Traffic Control Device for ‘Bike Bus’; It May Never Reach the US

bike traffic controller(Photo/Shawlands Bike Bus)
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Under approval from Scottish officials, one device allows Bike Bus chaperones to control traffic lights while a large group of children bike to school.

When one school started a “Bike Bus” for young schoolchildren in Glasgow, Scotland, they encountered a big problem right away.

The idea’s popularity was not the issue — that’s clear from an adorable Twitter video the group posted recently (see below). The problem was that traffic lights would often stop some of the kindergarten-aged students along their route but let others through.

Obviously, kindergarteners aren’t old enough to handle themselves alone in traffic on bicycles.

Enter U.K.-based accessibility tech firm Sm@rt Technology. Working with the Glasgow City Council, the company developed a device, not officially named yet, that the Shawlands Bike Bus chaperones could use to toggle traffic signals on and off along the group’s daily route. The result: more kids on bikes, riding safely to school in a group now protected from fragmenting.

Traffic Gadget Changes the Game

The adult rider holding the device presses a button as the group approaches the light. It turns green and stays green for 45 seconds.

We know you’re thinking, “That would really come in handy on my rides.” And the answer is yes, yes it would. But if you want to get your hands on one, you’ll have to cut through the red tape to do it. A programmer can only make the device work for a certain traffic signal if they have the codes that control that signal. And the codes are all buried in government offices.

In the case of Sm@rt Technology and the Bike Bus, there’s also a time restriction. The signal controller only works while the kids are on their way to school, from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. (And only on Fridays, which is the only day the Bike Bus currently runs.)

Still, any non-government-employed citizen controlling traffic signals legally is a landmark. And for applications like the Bike Bus, it makes perfect sense. A 45-second traffic stoppage isn’t going to make anybody late for work who’s not late for work already. And the safety benefit of riding in a cohesive group — especially for schoolchildren — is obvious.

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Could the technology make its way into more cities across the U.K., or even into the U.S.? In England’s case, we’d give it a better shot. Sm@rt Technologies’ other devices already proliferate throughout the nation, a company spokesperson said. Before the signal controller, the company had previously built a moderate range of handheld gadgets and electronic solutions to help disabled people control crosswalk buttons.

Many are already in use — for instance, the SmartCross app works with a Bluetooth headset to let amputees or paralyzed individuals tell a crosswalk to change. Visually impaired people can use a watch-like device along with the app to make it tell them which street is safe to cross at what time — versus the usual beeping noise, which they can mistake as a cue to cross the wrong street.

Applications in the US

Admittedly, crosswalks are a different story than traffic lights. And the strong emphasis on car transportation in the U.S. might stand most squarely in the way of cyclists using Sm@rt Technology’s signal controller here.

Sm@rt Technology engineer Steve Pearson said residents of Bowling Green, Ill., and Greenville, S.C., will soon see the company’s crosswalk technology in use on delivery robots. For now, that’s the extent of its reach in the U.S.

Pearson said cycling groups would be the best candidates for the signal controllers. They’re affordable for groups at around $600 each, and using one only requires cooperation with local officials.

“Transportation authorities control the roads and ultimately the purse strings,” he acknowledged. “However, because the technology is affordable, there’s nothing to stop groups of cyclists from getting together, each planning to pay a few dollars, and pitching it to their local officials so that it doesn’t cost them anything.”

If something like the Shawlands Bike Bus could become reality in your area, Sm@rt Technology’s work could just “change the game” enough to make it happen.

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