John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The “Flo” system uses cute creatures to tell cyclists to speed up or slow down to catch a green light.
Red lights are the momentum-sucking bane of any bicyclist—they add time to the trip and kill your physical efficiency (just ask a physicist!). But thanks to some weird, animal-based technology in the Netherlands, riders may soon be able to sail through the city on a magic wave of green lights without having to worry about stopping for cars.
Flo, a traffic system that went into place last week in Utrecht, is a tall, blue kiosk abutting a bike path. Using sensors, it determines cyclists’ speed from hundreds of feet out and displays several kinds of symbolic advice. If cyclists need to speed up to catch a green light at the next intersection, they get a hare (not to be confused with a rabbit):
If it’s better to slow down and coast a bit until the light turns from red to green, they get a turtle or perhaps a tortoise:
In the happy occasion their pace is perfectly timed to reach the green, it’s a thumbs-up:
And if they’re not going to make the green no matter how spry or sluggish they are, they receive…. uh, a cow:
Yeah, what is with that heifer? “Our mission is to make cycling more fun, and for that reason we looked for a playful way to help cyclists,” says Jan-Paul de Beer, the chief of Springlab, a Utrecht-based innovation company that designed Flo. “We chose animals because a hare and a turtle are universal symbols for high speed and slow pace. A cow, however is a new symbol, because we couldn’t find a playful, widely known symbol for waiting. We chose a cow because when you go on holiday to France, which every Dutchman does, you often find yourself waiting for cows blocking the road.”
De Beer got the idea for Flo after querying local cyclists regarding their least-favorite things about urban riding. “The number-one frustration in the Netherlands is the traffic light,” he says. “There are too many and you have to wait very long. It is impossible to stay in a flow when cycling through the city.”
Flo ensures a near-constant line of greens because it works with dynamic light systems that react to the present amount of traffic. “This makes it extra-interesting for cyclists, because a cyclist is detected 120 meters before the traffic light and the traffic-light system reacts to that,” says de Beer. “If it is possible to give a green, the cyclists will get a green, which means cyclists get more green lights than normal and more possibilities to stay in a flow. This has, as far as we know, never been done in the world for cyclists.”
There’s only one Flo kiosk in Utrecht, but in a couple months the city will roll out two more. Eindhoven and Antwerp are also about to test Flo machines, and de Beer is planning a worldwide marketing campaign for the devices, which he asserts are “in line” with normal costs for traffic-light systems. So far the public reception in Utrecht has been positive, he says. ”People who use the system really like it. When they cycle farther through the city, they already miss Flo at other crossroads.”