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.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.