Navigating the city, our eyes are increasingly drawn to cell phone screens. Acutely aware of the associated risks, some cities have introduced dedicated cell phone lanes, ground-level traffic lights, and even brand new road signs. Plus a scheme that uses mobile data to boost traffic safety.

“Smombie” – in 2015, a jury of language mavens voted this portmanteau the “German youth slang word of the year.” Its clever blend of “smartphone” and “zombie” denotes anyone unwilling to look up from their screens, even in bustling traffic. This can lead to potentially critical situations in traffic, on streets and sidewalks.

Just like disposable coffee cups, smartphones have become ubiquitous parts of the urban landscape. Appealing to reason shows little effect – people have become far too enamored with their little everyday helpers … occasionally with fatal results.

According to a recent study by the US Governor’s Highway Safety Association, deadly accidents involving pedestrians have gone up by a dire 22 percent since 2014 – and these collisions increasingly involve young people.

Experts state a clear correlation and relationship between this uptick in road accidents and rising smartphone use. By now, cities and communities around the world are starting to acknowledge and tackle this challenge.

Their key question and issue: How to reach these happy-go-lucky, distracted pedestrians and involuntary jaywalkers? While approaches and ideas to this problem may vary around the world, they certainly demonstrate that growing cell phone use is starting to have a lasting effect on traffic infrastructure planning.

A walking lane divided in two: cellphones allowed and cellphones prohibited during walking
Smartphone users get their own walking lane.
Photo: Rob Pegoraro / Flickr

On a smartphone trail through the city

Similar to bicycle paths, some cities have started to install dedicated smartphone lanes on sidewalks and in pedestrian zones. In the center of Antwerp, Belgium, screen addicts can use so-called “text walking lanes,” introduced in 2015 to improve traffic flow and urban interactions after too many involuntary “analog” collisions with pillars, pedestrians, and other road users.

The Chinese metropolis of Chongqing also built a 50-meter lane for smartphone users in one of the city’s leisure parks. Yet the first path of this kind can be found in Washington, D.C., which introduced the world’s first “smartphone lane” in the summer of 2014. The results of these measures? Are decidedly mixed. According to sources, most users in the US capital still ignore the helpful markings.

Instead, during the first few months after installation, the new path actually attracted a different kind of traffic obstruction and interference: Many people blocked the lane trying to capture the novel signs and markings with their own smartphone cameras.

Traffic lights embedded in tarmac

Out in traffic, smartphone users also tend to overlook traffic lights while their eyes are mesmerized by screen distractions. Since they are looking down anyway, some communities have come up with creative extensions to traditional traffic signaling at pedestrian crossings.

The Dutch town of Bodegraven, for example, has been installing additional LED guidance at floor level – i. e. where most smartphone users’ gaze falls anyway.

Meanwhile, urban planners in the German city of Augsburg favor individual signaling dots, also embedded in the tarmac, using red and green lights to indicate when it’s safe to cross the street. Singapore, too, has joined the smartphone traffic light trend. The city state has adopted the Dutch LED strip model with plans to test it for an initial run of six months.

Yet before wide-spread, long-term installation, the responsible Land Transport Authority plans to test the technology’s reliability in Singapore’s warm and humid climate as well as people’s reactions to the concept.

300 new traffic signs

Only last year, the South Korean capital of Seoul installed more than 300 red-and-yellow traffic signs at junctions and pedestrian crossings to encourage more mindful smartphone use in traffic.

One of these signs shows a pictogram of a person staring at their palm paired with a honking car. Several pedestrian zones also display floor-level alerts featuring safety instructions because the Korean metropolis, like many other major cities around the world, has registered a marked uptick in accidents involving cars and careless pedestrians.

In Stockholm, warning signs with smartphone zombies take a slightly more humorous slant. Although these are not official signage, but part of a subversive arts project, local police have decided to turn a blind eye and tolerate the installation by Swedish designer Jacob Sempler.

A traffic sign with smartphone zombies on it
Beware of smartphone zombies – an arts project in Stockholm.
Photo: Jacob & Emil

Heralding Phase Two of smartphone compatible cities

All these cases are examples that we are in Phase One of the world’s urban adjustment to smartphone use. To date, any interventions are primarily concerned with warning users and encouraging them to pay more attention to the traffic around them.

Fast-forward to Phase Two and the Dutch town of Tilburg, which plans to exploit the sheer ubiquity of smartphones to actually improve overall traffic safety.

Tech company Dynniq has developed a clever app for senior citizens and people with disabilities that allows them to alert traffic lights to their presence. When, for example, a wheelchair user plans to cross a street, the light’s green phase could adjust accordingly.

It’s a clever idea with plenty of potential, allowing planners to exploit the sheer processing power and data generation of our by now incredibly powerful pocket computers and their always-on data streams.

Naturally, navigation instructions, incoming messages, or important updates on upcoming appointments constantly clamor for our attention while we weave our way through the city. And the city, in turn, is already adjusting its infrastructure to our new needs – no matter if we traverse it by car, by bike, or even on foot. Yet one thing remains irreplaceable: our own attention to the world around us.