Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A Trip To Traffex

I spent part of today at the Traffex 2015 trade fair, held Birmingham's NEC. The rest of the day was taken up with getting there and back (but that's not very interesting). Traffex 2015 closes tomorrow, so get you skates on if you want to go!

OK, I know what you are thinking, highway engineer goes to a trade fair and all we get is a post about bollards, well, there were some I cannot deny it (thanks Glasdon)! The event is held every two years and as I haven't been or a while I was looking forward to going. Actually, there was something I was really looking forward to see, but more on that later.

Traffex had the usual mix of exhibitors with an emphasis on traffic - designing and providing for (and remember, traffic includes pedestrians and those riding bikes too), but there were some contractors and that meant plenty of big bits of kit parked up for a look around.

An interesting area was set up with dimmed lights to show off kit which lights up such as traffic signs, zebra crossing beacons and the like which was a great idea, even though it was a little surreal. 

I have to mention bicycles of course and two stands caught my eye. First was Cycle-Works who supply all sorts of cycle parking arrangements (secure and open us), but they have an integrated bicycle pump and tool kit in a housing about the size of a bollard - one I will be following up for the day job. There was also Bikes-on-Buses who were there promoting cycle carriers on buses with a couple of case studies in the UK. There was a bit of bike-wash going on, but I won't bother writing about it.

For hi-viz enthusiasts (and I mean when being used on site, not for utility cycling!) Viz Reflectives were showing off clothing which as well as being bright for day use and retroreflective for night use, it also had photo-luminescent stripes which "charge" in UV light giving added visibility in low light or darkness.

I had an interesting discussion with the rep from Charles Endirect about street lighting technology. In the age of austerity and street lighting being turned off or dimmed, it was nice to see some practical ideas and Charles Endirect has a system which detects traffic flow and adjusts lighting accordingly (aimed at motorways on the whole) - when the road is busy, the lighting brightens and vice versa - the system also has an override to provide more illumination if there is an incident. The street lighting can also "talk" to base stations on the network which allows remote monitoring of faults which reduces the need to send people out to physically check things.

There were lots and lots of traffic signals, detectors, speed cameras and more traffic signals which is to be expected and to be honest, much was a variation on a theme. What did stand out was the number of hire companies with temporary traffic signals available with pedestrian and cyclist stages built in - SRL had pretty much every layout on show!. This kit is so easily available, there is no longer an excuse to exclude people walking and riding bicycles when temporary signal control is needed.

Speaking of signals, to my personal highlight of the event and before I go on, remember where you read this first as I really hope this is a success. Neatebox is a small company run by Gavin and Steve which has (among other things) developed a smart phone app which uses bluetooth to control the pedestrian demand on signalised crossings.

It sounds like such a simple idea and it is in a way, but the challenge has been to get the industry and the traffic authorities interested - it does seem some big players are interested and in fact, a full trial site (on-street) is due to come forward in Edinburgh in the next few months (surely an excuse for me to venture north of the border).

Steve (l) and Gavin (r) with the app in action.
The app works by the user activating it as they start their journey and as they get within a pre-set distance of a crossing, the app will tell them that they are near. A touch of the screen presses the button on the crossing for you and shows a red man. When the green man comes in, the app shows the same green man and you are away.

Why is this such a revolutionary idea? There are many people in our society who struggle with the push button on crossings. For example, someone using a wheelchair might find it awkward to get close to the push button or the ramp to the carriageway is steep and it is hard to get into the right position - the app allows the person to stop and wait where they feel happy. Gavin showed me a video of someone walking with her guide dog across a staggered pelican crossing (and, yes, I learned something today).

Green man on the puffin push button, green man on the app.
As the woman approached the crossing with her dog, she instructed him to sit while she found the push button. She holds her dog on her left and so pushes the button with her right hand. The green man came in and she started walking, but almost immediately, her dog stopped at the kerb (as they are trained) and so vital seconds of crossing time where lost.

On the island, the push button was on the woman's left which was no good for her when walking with her dog and so she crossed by putting her arm out and waiting for drivers to stop - pretty scary and hardly inclusive. The app would have mean the woman could have stopped with the dog without having to reach the push button. With a green showing on the app (with an audible signal) she could have crossed over the the centre and instructed the dog to keep going. On the island, the button in an unhelpful place would not have mattered. You might be interested in this video giving some more examples of who could benefit.

Tap the screen and press that button!
Of course, I had to see the cycling angle and I mused on the application with Gavin whereby toucan crossings would no longer be the reach-over-your-handle-bars-to-reach-the-button pain that they can be (I have to deal with one every day which gets me half off the bike). You could have your phone on your handlebars and activate the crossing from where you wish. Or how about, automatic demand as you reach the crossing!

This is a great application of technology and I sincerely wish Gavin and Steve well with this project. I look forward to Neatebox being a standard component in our crossings and those engineers and campaigners reading this, please spread the word. For me, this is another one of the little things which we can do which can help make our streets accessible for all and proves once again, we don't always need huge projects to make a difference to everyday journeys. Three cheers for Neatebox!


  1. That Neatebox idea is quite clever and I can see that it would make a real difference for people with mobility difficulties. I'm in Brisbane at the moment, where it's legal to cycle on footpaths, so I'm seeing a lot more pedestrian beg-buttons than I usually do. Few are located in good positions, and every time I struggle to reach them from a bike I think how it's only going to be more difficult from a wheelchair or with limited vision.

    I guess my only gripe with that sort of thing (the app) is that it's addressing a symptom, not the cause. We can reduce the need for beg buttons with better street design. But that's the ideal world, and this is handy in the short term :-)

    1. Yes, mixing people and traffic is not a long-term solution, but for the time being at least, this idea could make an immediate difference to so many people.

  2. The problem with bikes on buses is that it doesn't scale at all beyond a tiny minority of people cycling. Nice to have, but applicable only with few cyclists. Can you imagine getting all these bikes onto the buses which their owners caught ?

    As for the Neatebox idea with an app, I can see real advantages of this, but I wonder how long it will work. Will the app work with all current phones and be updated for new phones ? Will the equipment in the street be updated to work with tomorrow's phones ? That's the problem with such solutions. A button on the street just works.

    Ten+ years ago when I was involved in software for real time bus information we had small key chain radio transmitters which were given to blind people who lived in the areas that we covered. The bus stop sign would then speak the predictions (I had much fun making all this work). A similar technique could also used for crossings but of course you would have to give a transmitter to every blind person (they're simple and quite cheap) and this must have good batteries and be in a working state and not lost etc. I've no idea if the same low power transmitters and receivers in the signs which we used then are still in use now.

    1. Well yes, bike on bus will only ever be of use in rural areas, but I found it interesting and I need to weave bikes into my blog somehow ;)

      I do think Neatebox have come up with something great. I accept that "kit" gets upgraded every so often, but traffic signals kit runs on roughly 15 year cycles and so this would be long-lived; plus bluetooth is a well supported standard.

      I asked Gavin about a stand alone fob or somesuch and his view was it would be an extra thing to send out to people (even if free) and many disabled people are finding that smart phones are helpful for all sort of things.

      I do try and not get seduced by clever kit (even though I do sometimes), but the hardware involved is cheap and simple and it simply uses something lots of people have - the smart phone. This is really something and I really hope it gets added as a standard to UK signals.