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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.