The project is about safety, certainly. But for Ijeoma, it’s also about empathy and energy. He wants to help preserve the essential vitality of the city that is lost, most obviously, when a car crash results in bodily harm. He sees a loss of energy in subtler ways, as well. “I’m always cycling, seeing people walking and looking down at their phone as if they’re somewhere else when they’re right in front of me,” Ijeoma explained. “Where is there a space in this city where we can just be aware of each other and the city itself?”
Walking while texting—or checking email, or, more recently, playing Pokémon Go—has become enough of an epidemic that even city governments have taken notice. In Australia and Germany, the response in two cities has been to install traffic signal lights into the sidewalks themselves, allowing pedestrians to traverse the streets safely without once looking up from their phones. A proposed bill in New Jersey, on the other hand, would impose a $50 fine and even potential jail time on those walking and using their smartphone simultaneously.
Ijeoma’s app is a third sort of approach—not scolding like New Jersey or accommodating like Australia or Germany. It’s a gentle reminder, helping to foreground an issue at the exact moment we should be thinking about it. In a way, he’s hoping to retrain New Yorkers. “I was thinking of it as sort of a ritual,” he said. “You have cultural etiquettes already. What if in New York City it was like ‘Hey, we’re going to make intersections a space for no phones?’”