An extra cherry on an already delicious cake. That is possibly how you could best describe Flo; a new system in the Netherlands that informs people whether they can catch the traffic signal that they are approaching on their bicycle. The device measures people’s individual speed and based on the knowledge of the green cycles it gives these people a personal advice about that speed. You either need to speed up, slow down, or continue as you go, to catch the next green light. Or you should know that, unfortunately, you are not going to catch a green light this time.
The information kiosks were placed in Utrecht on 19 April and in Eindhoven on 19 May 2017. The system evolved from an earlier experiment called the light companion, that took place in Utrecht in 2015. I informed you about that experiment in an earlier post. This is a system that you can think about when all the other requirements have been met. You first need a good cycling network that has no missing links. This is not about the basics, this is the cherry on the cake. With Flo you make the cycling experience better, but it won’t get people cycling on its own.
At the recent opening ceremonies, the director of Springlab, Jan-Paul de Beer, clearly explained what Flo is and where it comes from. So I can simply quote him here: “Springlab has one goal for society and that is stimulating people to get more physical exercise, by making it more fun. Nowadays it is too easy to have no exercise at all. Among other reasons this is also due to technology. That’s what we would like to change. We would like to make exercise as fun as possible. One of the best possible ways to integrate physical exercise in your daily routines is by cycling. A beautiful way to work out, outdoors, every day.
However, cycling becomes less attractive when cities are very busy. So, what can we do to keep cycling a fun activity? We investigated what the main frustrations are when it comes to cycling. By far the number one frustration are the traffic lights. There are many and you often have to wait long. But a cyclist has the need to stay in a flow. We tried to find a solution. First, we experimented with LED lines in the surface. When you approached, a green light would accompany you all the way to the light. If you adjusted your speed to the speed of the running light you would be able to catch the green traffic signal ahead. But this turned out to be a bit too much. There were concerns about safety when cyclists were more occupied following a light on the ground than with traffic on the intersection they approached. There were also concerns about the cost of maintenance and the lights being covered by leaves, dirt or snow. So, we tried to make it simpler – less is more – and we redeveloped that system into Flo. We tested if it would also work to give people just one personal advice. Would that be enough to also catch the light? It turned out to be enough! How does it work? A radar is hidden in the information kiosk. The radar measures the speed of the approaching cyclist. The Flo system is connected to the traffic light installation, so it knows exactly when the light will turn green. Thus, we can give the cyclist four types of information. Either the cyclist will see a hare. That means: ‘speed up and you will just catch the green light’. Or the thumbs up, that means ‘you already cycle at the right speed. Keep it up and you will make it through the green light’. If you see a turtle you must ‘slow down a bit, but you will be able to cycle on’. Finally, if you see a cow lying down in your path, it means that you are not going to catch the light this time. You will have to wait. But we discovered that people do like that information too. They can take it easy that way. We even hope that the urge to run a red light may be less strong with that knowledge. We hope we can make people who cycle a bit happier with Flo.”
The information about the green light is given about 100 to 120 metres ahead of the intersection. In Utrecht, the intersection is fully actuated outside peak hours. That means that when Flo detects an approaching cyclist it will already make sure the traffic light installation lines up that cyclist in the waiting line. Since this information is given so early, this advanced detection means the chance the cyclist can get a green light is much bigger. This is not yet the case in Eindhoven, where the intersection sees more motor traffic than people cycling. Soon, however, Flo will work as an early ‘push button’ there too. Eindhoven is also studying the possibility to move Flo to a different location in a few months’ time, or to get another one for another intersection. That would mean a further investment of €60,000, so it is not yet sure if that is feasible.
The system is also studied by other people who are interested. Two of them are the PhD researchers I was lucky enough to meet in Eindhoven. They are not involved with the company, but, as fans of this blog, they were happy to explain what they had already learned about the system in my video. George Liu studied in Toronto, Canada and is now a researcher in Eindhoven. Matthew Bruno is from the US and works for the universities of Eindhoven as well as Utrecht. He will be able to test both “Flos” as I was now. It takes some time to get used to it, but for people who pass a Flo every day, the information will soon make sense. Yesterday morning I passed the Utrecht Flo in a ride back from the dentist. A real situation and it was nice to know that I didn’t need to speed up when I saw the green light in the distance. After all, I had gotten a “thumbs up”, so I could maintain my speed. Sure enough, the light stayed green until I passed! Now that does make life nicer when you cycle. It turned me from a sceptic into a moderate believer. It will be interesting to see what the official test results will be. Especially if there are any differences between the rural setting in Eindhoven and the city environment in Utrecht. The pilot will include the findings from a third Flo that is expected to be placed in Belgium, in Antwerp, in the coming months.
My video report about Flo in Utrecht and Eindhoven.
A test ride in both Utrecht and Eindhoven.