What traffic lights can tell us about our cities

The ever-popular Ampelmännchen. Source: Loozrboy/Flickr/creative commons.

Stop, pause… go. Among the chaos of everyday life, it’s rare to stop, pause and see what makes a city unique. Particularly if what sets cities apart is part of the furniture: signs, roads and, well, traffic lights.

That’s right: even the humble traffic light can tell us about the history, language and culture of our metropolises.

Take Berlin. Before the fall of the wall, East Germany had developed a rather distinct figure to adorn their signals. Where in the West, the red and green people used to indicate stop and go were a generic outfit, the GDR used Ampelmännchen.

Ampelmännchen, which literally translates to ‘little traffic light man’, is a cartoonish figure, with large rounded arms and a hat. The hat itself is said to be inspired by an image of East German Chancellor Erich Honecker, kicking back to enjoy some rays of sun.

To indicate that it’s safe to walk, the Ampelmännchen takes wide strides and sticks out a hand. To stop pedestrians in their tracks, it does not simply stand still, but forms an exaggerated ‘T’ pose. Legs in, arms splayed wide – gesturing no.

After reunification, the German state tried to standardise lights across the city into the much less expressive, generic figures we see across Europe today. But faced with protests from fans of the lights and citizens with a certain nostalgia for the East, they decided to let the Ampelmännchen live on.

Today, the curious little men have even made it to West Berlin and beyond. Their cult status has led them to be incorporated into cities across Germany. And much in contrast their origins in the communist East, they have become a profit-driver themselves.

The ‘AMPELMANN’ website describes the figure as “Berlin’s iconic brand”. On the site you can buy sportswear, soap, chocolate, phone cases and even condoms (“Hey baby, let’s tear down some walls tonight”, the packet says), all decorated with the Ampelmännchen.

The lights’ inventor, Karl Peglau, said they “represent a positive aspect of a failed social order”, becoming so popular across the West because they have an “indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth”.

But it is not just the figures which adorn the lights which have been a source of interest. Sometimes it is the colour of the lights themselves.


What colour means go? Well, if you go to most countries, it’s green – a bright green in fact.

But in Japan, the go light is blue. Or rather, officially, blue-green.

This may seem like just an unusual, but ultimately meaningless, quirk. But the question of traffic lights has been central to wide-reaching debate, which even involved the Japanese government.

Originally, the lights used to be coloured like any other, with a bright green light indicating it was safe to drive.  But the most widely-used word for green in Japanese is “ao”, one of the four main colours in the Japanese language. Ao itself refers to a sort of ‘grue’, a green-blue spectrum of colour, rather than green itself.

A distinct colour for a brighter shade of green only came later, with “midori”.

According to international convention, all “go” lights are required to be green. But this standardised green is rather different to what the Japanese language refers to. Linguists lobbied the Japanese government, insisting that traffic lights were not actually the green that people referred to, ao. They were the brighter shade of green, midori.

In a fudge of sorts, the Japanese government decided that all traffic lights would be green. Just the bluest shade of green.

By doing this, they abide by international convention and linguistic convention. Drivers and pedestrians can continue to say that the light is ao, while they are officially recognised as green.

True blue… or is that green? Image: Redoxkun/Flickr/creative commons.

And it seems many countries are now waking up to the impact that these everyday symbols can have.

Just as traffic lights can exemplify nostalgia or cause linguistic arguments, they can also display messages for residents and the outside world.

Inspired by Vienna’s signals during the 2015 Eurovision song contest, Sadiq Khan unveiled new traffic lights across London to mark the 2016 Pride celebrations. The lights, including 50 around Trafalgar Square, include symbols and figures to represent the LGBT+ community.

In a Tweet, the Mayor said that this move, originally intended to be temporary but becoming permanent fixture, was here to “display & celebrate our tolerance and diversity”.

“#LoveWins”. London’s Pride traffic lights. Image: Matt Buck/Flickr/creative commons.

Despite the initial, and frankly ridiculous, backlash from some members of the public and the right-wing press, the lights are a popular feature in London. So much so, that they are being installed across the country and the world.

In 2018, they were installed across Manchester for the city’s Pride celebrations. A year earlier, Stockholm installed 48 new traffic lights. Across many other towns and cities, similar ideas are being discussed to display inclusivity.

Of course, these displays will not change the world; we need good, progressive policy for that. However, it shows that policymakers are becoming more sensitive to how the fabric of our cities affects how we act and feel.

These signs and symbols can tell us something more about the places we live. Particularly if we stop and pause, before we go about our daily lives.

 
 
 
 

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