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Key Takeaways

  • A range of technologies are helping cities to re-develop thriving streetscapes as car ownership recedes and cycle and pedestrian paths grow more popular.
  • Turning all that people motion into clean energy is the focus of a fast-growing start-up.
  • Such business models carry considerable risk but also considerable upside.

The Secret to Better Air Quality Could Lie in Sidewalks

When Monty Python created its Ministry of Silly Walks sketch in London, the comedians could not have predicted that those oddball steps would one day power the city’s electric grid and clear its traffic-choked air. Yet a company named Pavegen is building flooring for the city that will harness the kinetic energy of footsteps and turn them into off-grid electricity.

And it’s not just London. At a football field in Brazil, players keep the lights on at night, merely by running atop the energy-converting flooring in place. At an outdoor music festival, 250,000 footsteps generated enough electricity to power 10,000 mobile phones. If this feels like the future vision of what cities could be, that’s because influential people have already decided that it is. The idea to transform Londoners’ steps into clean air was championed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has created several initiatives to cut traffic by a hefty 44% in recent years — an especially notable achievement considering that there’s a 23% increase in people entering the city over the same time.

Now, Khan is seeking public-private partnerships to help fund newer “smart city” initiatives that will create even more livable environments. Enter Pavegen, part of the consortium of technology companies that are working together to help make London among the greenest cities in the world.

Here’s how Pavegen’s technology works: The company has built a multi-functional custom flooring system that can harness the kinetic energy of footsteps. As people step or bike on Pavegen’s triangular tiles, their weight pushes the tile down by five millimeters, creating electromagnetic energy that produces off-grid electricity. Each footstep now creates five watts of energy. That’s not much, but thousands of steps on a tile each day really start to add up.

The technology is in third iteration. Today’s Pavegen tiles produce up to 200 more times the energy as the firm’s initial versions. Pavegen is researching ways to store that energy in tiny local batteries. It’s not just electricity that the city is harnessing; it’s also data. Each tile comes with a small chip and software that can help provide information on pedestrian traffic and other analytics.

Heathrow airport is one popular example. The airport’s terminal 3, which gets 15.2 million visitors per year, installed the Pavegen tiles in 2014. That kind of placement has helped boost Pavegen’s business and its profile. More than 200 projects across the globe are now in place, including train stations, shopping centers, airports and public spaces.

To be clear, Pavegen’s innovative yet unproven business model [WHY] carries considerable risks including technology theft, weather-related equipment challenges as well as safety issues that arise from this high-traffic flooring.

The opportunity for smart-streets technology is growing as cars fall out of favor and major cities are now re-designing their central zones to better support pedestrians and cyclists — and cleaner air.