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.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.