Why Traffic Lights Are Much Cooler in Germany

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You’ve probably waited impatiently at a pedestrian crossing, but have you ever paid close attention to the traffic lights? In Germany, it’s worth taking a closer look at the figures featured in the traffic signals called “Ampelmännchen,” which celebrate their 60th birthday in 2021.

Solving a Problem

Vintage car driving in West-Berlin, 1967.
Credit: atlantic-kid/ iStock

In efforts to make crossing the street in Germany safer, traffic specialist Karl Peglau studied traffic accidents before submitting a project proposal to the East German government in 1961. His research concluded that a surprisingly high number of pedestrians struggled to distinguish between the existing lights and that a significant number of the 10,000 traffic deaths that had occurred in East Germany from 1955 to 1960 could have been prevented.

Peglau proposed that larger signals emitted more light, so he suggested a simpler, two-color signal system that eliminated amber light and included signals for only stop and go. The new walk sign, which featured a pedestrian with childlike stubby legs and a big head, was intended to be a sympathetic figure that people were likely to stop for. On the other hand, the outstretched arms of the red “stop” sign would create a strong visual, attempting to block a pedestrian’s path until the striding green man appeared and signaled it was safe to step into the road. The man’s hat on the stop sign was an afterthought, according to Peglau’s wife, who said it was the result of her husband’s indecisiveness over which hairstyle to choose.

Teaching Children About Safety

Green Ampelmännchen at crosswalk.
Credit: peter jesche/ Shutterstock

Peglau probably had kids in mind when he first drew his chubby Ampelmännchen. He figured if he made them look cute, more people would take notice of them — particularly children. He hoped his design would resonate with small children and improve road safety across the country. The figures even had nicknames — “Stoppi” and “Galoppo” — to make them more relatable. A few years later, the Ministry of Transportation launched a road safety campaign in East German schools using the two figures in jingles, rhymes, and coloring books. In 1968, they were cast in short videos. The red Ampelmänn “Stoppi” would use his outstretched arms to block a child’s path in situations where there might be a collision, while the green Ampelmänn “Galoppo” popped up when it was safe to cross.

Other Variations

Ampelfrau green pedestrian crosswalk.
Credit: OnkelKrischan/ Shutterstock

Given the success of the Ampelmännchen, it was only a matter of time before their distinctive style was adapted. In 1996, a graphic artist named Hans-Jürgen Ellenberger added braids and a skirt to create a female version he called the Ampelfrau. Ampelfrau helped promote gender equality, and she was erected in several cities across East Germany and later appeared in Zwickau in 2004 and Dresden a year later. In 2010, she also reached Bremen in northwestern Germany.

The city of Erfurt, Germany is famous for its unique pedestrian figures that often feature accessories. In the 1980s, someone at the city’s traffic department added an umbrella to Peglau’s figure. Though technically it broke the rules, officials turned a blind eye and it ended up at the junction of Bahnhofstraße and Juri-Gagarin-Ring. Take a walk around the city center and you might also come across a child licking an ice-cream cone, a hiker and his walking pole, a witch with a pointy hat, and a lady in high heels.

A Way to Showcase Creativity

Same sex couple street light in Munich Germany rainbow pride.
Credit: Timo Nausch/ Shutterstock

There’s no German standard when it comes to pedestrian lights. Each city can showcase its creativity with an original design. And the fun’s not confined to the sidewalk — traffic lights are also fair game. So Karl Marx makes it onto the lights in Trier, where he was born, while the Pied Piper makes an appearance in Hamelin. The town of Friedberg even has Elvis on pedestrian lights, since the legendary crooner was stationed there for his national service in the late 1950s. In the city of Mainz, the Ampelmännchen has become a Mainzelmännchen — six cartoon figures which appear on programs broadcast by the ZDF TV station headquartered in the city. In Stuttgart, officials were sticklers for the rules, but a compromise was reached to permit popular cartoon characters Äffle and Pferdle on lights so long as they stood alongside conventional ones.

...But No Elephants Allowed

Artist Otto Waalkes, beside an easel at an art exhibition in 2018
Credit: Tristar Media / Getty Images

In the city of Emden, popular artist Otto Waalkes led a campaign to see his iconic elephant figure, Ottifant, on the city’s pedestrian lights. Though it also had the support of the local MP, authorities say the idea falls foul of a German law which permits only human figures. The artist made a strong case for his design to be adopted, arguing on social media:

“Definitely no one will cross the street when it is red! And not on green either. Everyone would stop and look at the traffic lights. Then it wouldn't always be so hectic in the city.”

However, a compromise has been reached — a cartoon of Waalkes himself is featured on the pedestrian lights closest to a museum celebrating his work.

Starting a Trend

Gay friendly traffic light in Vienna, Austria.
Credit: nobelio/ Shutterstock

Germany’s Ampelmännchen have been around for years, but alternative pedestrian lights are finally catching on elsewhere. The Dutch have Sofie, a ponytailed girl who debuted in Amersfoort in 2000. In Aarhus, Denmark, a handful of pedestrian crossings now bear little men wielding axes and shields —a nod to the city’s Viking heritage. Sometimes, changing up the symbols is a way of making a statement about tolerance. Vienna installed a series of mixed-sex and same-sex lovers for its lights, not long after genderqueer performer Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision Song Contest for Austria in 2014.

In 2017, Melbourne, Australia replaced its pedestrian crossing male figures with female figures for 12 months to make a statement about gender equality; Mumbai, India followed suit in 2020. Over in New Zealand, the idea has been embraced in the capital of Wellington. Head to the Kiwi parliament and you’ll see suffragette Kate Sheppard on the traffic lights, while colorful drag queen Carmen Rupe lights up Cuba Street and a figure performing the ceremonial haka dance can be seen near Waitangi Park.

Becoming a Historic Icon

Statue of an ampelmann figure on the riverside in Berlin, Germany.
Credit: RossHelen/ Shutterstock

Affection for the Ampelmännchen endured after German reunification in 1990. When plans were announced that Peglau’s figures might be scrapped in favor of something more in line with the rest of the E.U., there was a pronounced backlash against removing the chubby men. There was an element of “ostalgia” — the term coined for nostalgic things to have come out of East Germany.

Their continuing popularity is owed in part to Markus Heckhausen, the Berlin-based designer who founded Ampelmann, a company that would develop the figures into a commercial brand. He worked closely with Karl Peglau to create products that prolong the life of the Ampelmännchen. The pair became close friends, with Heckhausen’s own children affectionately referring to Peglau as “Grandpa Traffic Light.” Heckhausen began with lamps using redundant pedestrian lights but the range soon expanded to keyrings, T-shirts, bicycle bells, and other products. Word of these collectible products quickly spread and stores selling Ampelmännchen can now be found as far as Japan and South Korea.


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