World News

This is why traffic lights are so much better in Germany

Posted July 20

A city in western Germany may soon be home to a rather unusual pedestrian light.

The typical walking figure -- found on lights across the country -- could be replaced with a miner, complete with lamp and safety helmet.

Regional news website "Der Westen" launched a campaign for the change in Duisburg this week, calling for "a pedestrian light that reminds us of our culture and life in the Ruhr region."

This industrial region of Germany was once home to hundreds of mines, with thousands of local men heading underground every day. But the pits have now all but disappeared.

Jens Hapke, spokesperson for the Ruhr regional association, is delighted by the idea. "The miner is a symbol of this region's industrial past, and of someone who's dependable and down-to-earth and who seizes opportunities."

And Duisburg is not alone in wanting to make a point with its pedestrian lights.

Berlin has long been home to the East German "Ampelmann" (traffic light man), a relic of the city's divided past.

While in Berlin in the mid-1990s, a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, Markus Heckhausen -- who founded and now runs the firm Ampelmann -- spoke with many frustrated former East Germans who felt they were witnessing the disappearance of their country.

"One person I met told me that although he still lived in the same house, he felt as if he was living in a foreign country," Heckhausen said. "He no longer felt at home."

Noticing that the East German pedestrian lights were much brighter and better than the West German ones with which they were being replaced, he started a campaign to keep them.

It was about the preservation of a piece of history, he explained.

The squat, hatted figure has since acquired global cult status and can be found on an array of branded products, from mugs and t-shirts to deck chairs and scented candles.

"The history is still there," said Heckhausen, "just no longer at the forefront. It's now a symbol of the new Berlin, of reunified Berlin."

The appearance of pedestrian lights in Germany is regulated by federal law -- but some states are now allowing towns to override that law in individual cases.

Last week, Augsburg in southern Germany unveiled a new pedestrian figure at a crossing a short walk from the town's famous puppet theater.

The design was inspired by the "Kasperl" puppet -- similar to Punch from the traditional children's puppet show "Punch and Judy" -- which has become a symbol of both the town and its theater in recent years.

Well-loved fictional characters also inspired a new version of Ampelmann in Mainz, western Germany, installed in November last year.

The "Mainzelmanner" light pays homage to Anton, Berti, Conni, Det, Edi and Fritzchen -- six popular cartoon characters who first appeared on television in 1963.

They were created by national broadcaster ZDF, whose headquarters is in Mainz.

And the locals seem pleased.

"The Mainzelmannchen-Ampel is an eye-catcher," wrote Doreen Fiedler soon after. "Every morning I see people who are enjoying it. Let's have more of these."

Erfurt in central Germany has its fair share of left field figures too, including a baker, a vagabond, an ice cream eater and a man carrying an umbrella.

Campaigners in Stuttgart, in the country's southwest, have called for a pedestrian light to be dedicated to the local cartoon characters Affle and Pferdle (a monkey and a horse).

"The pedestrian light could be a new tourist attraction," their petition reads. "In Mainz it has finally happened and the time is also ripe in Stuttgart to give the green light to Affle & Pferdle!"

Pedestrian lights have become the site of political and social action in recent years too, with cities across Germany -- and across the world -- replacing their conventional, and often male, figures with females or with symbols of homosexuality or transgender identity.

Heckhausen is convinced that Berlin's Ampelmann has been the catalyst for these actions.

"Before him, no one cared what the green man looked like," he said, but now people "pay much more attention" to the figures displayed on pedestrian lights.

Whether the people of Duisburg will soon be able to welcome a miner to a local road crossing is uncertain. Local law doesn't yet allow for pedestrian lights to be altered.

But if a poll carried out on the website of "Der Westen" -- where 86% of readers support the action -- is anything to go by, that could change in the future.

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