smart city pedestrian safety and automotive

How Cities Are Using Smart Technology to Help Keep Pedestrians Safe

The percentage1 of Americans who rely on cars to get to work is on the decline.

In 2007, 85 percent of Americans drove themselves to work. In 2018, that number fell to 77 percent1. Instead, alternatives like public transit, biking and walking are on the rise — especially in dense, urban environments.

smart city pedestrian safety and automotive

With the growth of these multimodal options, safety is a looming concern for city-dwellers. According to a recent report, pedestrian fatalities increased2 35 percent between 2008 and 2017. The reason? Many intersections were designed for cars, not people, and lack proper infrastructure like sidewalks and bike lanes.

With the preferred mode of commute moving away from cars, cities are enlisting the help of smart city technology — from AI-enabled streetlights to traffic sensors — to ensure the roads are safe for all who occupy them. From San Diego, CA, to Portland, ME, public and private sector organizations are finding ways to develop, implement and leverage these solutions to help prepare their cities’ intersections for the future.

San Diego Makes Pedestrians a Priority

According to a 2019 report, California is the 16th most dangerous state2 for pedestrians. The City of San Diego, for one, sees more than 500 pedestrian injuries related to vehicle accidents annually3, and 40 percent of the 50 traffic-related fatalities each year are pedestrians.

smart city pedestrian safety and automotive

The city is taking measures to remedy that, participating in the international Vision Zero4 effort to eliminate pedestrian deaths by 2025 through changes to intersections and traffic regulations — and technology plays a major role. The City recently worked with a technology provider5 to implement a network of smart sensors across its 15 most dangerous intersections.

By deploying sensor nodes into the streetlights, the city can track information about local environmental and atmospheric changes, which impact how fast a pedestrian or bicyclist might move about in an area. The nodes collect and processes this data — and, with the help of a pedestrian-planning API, they track and store a timestamped event each time a pedestrian passes one of the streetlights.

The city hopes to use this information to make future infrastructure improvements to the most congested intersections.

Equipping Old Cities with New Technology

In 2017, pedestrian casualties rose to 21 across Maine, the most on record6 in one year since 1993. In Portland, density challenges are especially apparent with a street network over 200 years old and a growing population (14 percent of whom walk or bike to work7).

To curb pedestrian accidents, the city teamed up with Rapid Flow, a Pittsburgh-based startup born from a university grant8. The method? Improve overall traffic flow. Rapid Flow’s product, Surtrac, is a decentralized, AI-powered robotic system that can optimize traffic conditions dynamically using edge processing. Surtrac senses its surroundings in real-time using an existing API and uses scheduling software to create an optimization plan and communicate it to both neighboring intersections and any connected vehicle or device.

smart city pedestrian safety and automotive
Photo Courtesy of Rapid Flow

After implementing Surtrac at Morrill’s Corner, Portland’s busiest intersection, traffic wait times decreased. Overall, the city saw a 20 percent9 10 drop in delays and congestion, which helped to bring down the number of pedestrian accidents, Portland Transportation Systems Engineer Jeremiah Bartlett said.

“You don’t usually see that level of improvement,” Bartlett said. “I’ve been consulting cities for 20 years and I’ve never seen that myself.”

In the future, the dynamic elements of this product could be used to support disabled pedestrians. Rapid Flow is experimenting with a dedicated short-range communication product that would integrate into a disabled pedestrian’s cellular device. Using a voice-activated tool that communicates with the surrounding infrastructure, a blind pedestrian could request an extension if they need more time to cross the street.

Preparing for the Future of Transportation

Cities are also using smart technology to support the rise of new innovations like autonomous vehicles. London-based startup Vivacity Labs, for example, is honing a camera-based sensor that produces comprehensive datasets about traffic activity. Through imaging and machine learning algorithms, the sensor classifies each object on the road (i.e. a person versus a vehicle) and tracks activity patterns.

Over time, these sensors assess average vehicle speeds and volume of pedestrian activity. Cities can use this information to help identify accidents before they happen using Vivacity Labs’ machine learning-based predictive solution.

Peter Milton, COO of Vivacity Labs, says these sensors may one day be used to help autonomous vehicles navigate intersections. The sensors would broadcast data collected to warn a vehicle of an approaching pedestrian, even if they are not within the car’s direct line of sight.

smart city pedestrian safety and automotive

But additional technology that helps make autonomous vehicles safe isn’t specific to city intersections—instead, it’s stored locally in the vehicles themselves. According to Garima Mathur, Senior Manager of Product Marketing for Western Digital’s automotive segment, autonomous vehicles of the future will require even more storage to accommodate software updates with new information about city streets and conditions.

“We’re already seeing some 5G based deployments of V2X [vehicle-to-infrastructure] communication systems, where cars are communicating with the whole infrastructure around them, or to each other,” Mathur said.

These innovations are just the beginning. As urban design becomes more complex, new technology will be pivotal in streamlining infrastructure. Smart city technology will help pave the way for a safer pedestrian experience as the city of the future becomes a new reality.

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FORWARD-LOOKING STATEMENTS: This article may contain forward-looking statements, including statements relating to expectations for storage products, the market for storage products, product development efforts, and the capacities, capabilities and applications of Western Digital products. These forward-looking statements are subject to risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from those expressed in the forward-looking statements, including development challenges or delays, supply chain and logistics issues, changes in markets, demand, global economic conditions and other risks and uncertainties listed in Western Digital Corporation’s most recent quarterly and annual reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, to which your attention is directed. Readers are cautioned not to place undue reliance on these forward-looking statements and we undertake no obligation to update these forward-looking statements to reflect subsequent events or circumstances.

This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.



  1. More U.S. Commuters Get to Work Without Cars Than in Past
  2. Dangerous By Design 2019
  3. Pedestrian deaths in San Diego rack up as city drags on Vision Zero campaign
  4. Vision Zero Network
  5. San Diego Technology Provider
  6. 2017 was deadly for Maine motorists, pedestrians
  7. Census Reporter
  8. Metro21: Smart Cities Institute
  9. Portland Tests Smart Traffic Signals
  10. Portland Reduces Delays by 20% at Maine’s Busiest Traffic Intersection After Surtrac Deployment