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App Designed to Turn Lights Green for Cyclists Goes National

The app, called GiveMeGreen!, has been undergoing tests in California and Indiana with positive feedback. By telling traffic lights when a cyclist is coming, it aims to make rides smoother and keep hands off buttons.

Imagine a traffic light that knows you’re coming, acknowledges your presence and tries its best to turn green by the time you reach it.

That’s the idea behind an app, called GiveMeGreen!, which has been going through pilot testing for a little more than a year and is now going through a wider release — albeit more of a soft launch than originally planned, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The app, developed by Sensys Networks, is meant for bicyclists specifically. It got its first taste of the real world starting in Santa Clarita, Calif., at the end of 2018, before going in for another test in Fort Wayne, Ind. The basic concept of the app is to connect a smartphone to an intersection’s Sensys FlexControl gateway via Bluetooth, starting when the cyclist is 300 feet away — the length of a football field. Once the intersection registers the cyclist’s approach, it sends a message via the app to let the person know. That can be either a text notification in the app or a vibration.

That accomplishes a few things. For one, it’s more convenient for the cyclists.

“They don’t want to have to stop and take their bike over and press the pedestrian push button to get across, to be seen,” said Bill Weber, vice president of sales and marketing for Sensys. “They could just sit there at a light and not be detected.”

In the COVID-19 era, that also means removing the need for a cyclist to put their hands on a button other people are pressing.

In Santa Clarita, the city extended the functionality of the system to put more emphasis on safety as well. The city, which has more than 70 miles of dedicated bike lanes, had been hearing calls from cyclists to add a separate phase for bicycles into its traffic light patterns.

“We couldn’t really afford to provide a phase for the bicyclists because once we add another phase it means I either have to add more timing to the signal or I have to take it away from another movement,” said Cesar Romo, traffic signal system administrator for the city of Santa Clarita. “So what we decided to do was bring awareness to motorists and make it easy for the bicyclists to get detected.”

They did that by working with the company Iteris to put up “blank-out” signage — signs that only turn on in a given circumstance. In this case, when a cyclist is approaching, they flash a warning to drivers.

“Cars, where these bikes are crossing on this corridor, are taking right turns right into the bikes and creating near-misses and accidents and collisions,” said Weber. “And so this app, actually, in Santa Clarita, feeds the signs that flash and warn the cars saying ‘We detected bikes that are approaching this intersection, watch for bikes.’”

For people without smartphones, the city augmented with video cameras as well as small detection loops placed in the bike lanes.

Feedback, said Romo, has been very positive.

“One of the bicycle advocates gave my contact information to other agencies, and they call me the ‘bike guru’ because I was able to come up with this idea, and there have been other agencies that have contacted me and asked me how we did this project,” he said. “So the bicycle community is very happy.”

The app largely uses existing equipment available in many cities, but it does require a Sensys controller and a Bluetooth receiver. Sensys counts more than 300 agencies as customers in countries around the world.

The company took some deliberate security steps, as well. Packets sent back and forth are all encrypted, and the Bluetooth setup helps avoid people trying to “spoof” their location.

“The biggest thing that we have security-wise and the reason we did this architecture the way we did is because you have to be within range of that Bluetooth router,” said Brian Fuller, chief operations officer for Sensys. “There’s a limited range on that radio, and so no matter what you tell your phone as far as your GPS location, you’re trying to trick your phone into thinking you’re in a different location — if you’re not within 300 feet of that Bluetooth router, you physically can’t communicate with it.”

The idea was to start putting in place some of the smart transportation concepts proposed for dedicated short-range communications and 5G without waiting for that equipment to be installed en masse.

“That’s an infrastructure step that is going to … take a long time,” Weber said. “So what we thought is we can start the movement by using something that’s ubiquitous, which is the smartphone, and essentially create this kind of vehicle-to-infrastructure communication immediately. And maybe the best place to start with is this underserved group that is the cyclists, who always feel like they’re not being seen, they’re not being detected, have vehicles and would prefer to be treated as another vehicle on the road.”

The company was originally planning to officially launch the app for wide release at the end of March, but after the pandemic hit it decided to change the official date. Meanwhile, the app is available for download.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.