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Ample for man? - click opera
February 2010
 
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Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 11:22 am
Ample for man?

Last week I was showing a Japanese friend around Berlin (the standard Momasu-no Berlin Tour, prices on application). Our itinerary took in the cafes of Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain, a couple of theatres, and, inevitably, the Ampelmann store in Mitte's Hackescher Hof.

Ampelmann is the name given to the green pedestrian crossing signal seen all over former Eastern German cities. He was designed in 1961 by a "traffic psychologist" called Karl Peglau. Wikipedia tells us that Peglau "theorised that people would respond better to the traffic signals if they were presented by a friendly character, instead of meaningless coloured lights. The spring in his step is reminiscent of typical communist imagery of the enthusiastic worker advancing to an utopian socialist future. However, Peglau is said to have feared initially that the design might be rejected because of its 'bourgeois' hat."

The Ampelmann store is a typical tourist joint, selling every imaginable kind of crossing signal souvenir, and tapping into ostalgie, the particularly German form of nostalgia for communism. One thing the shop is somewhat light on, though, is information. I found myself wondering whether pedestrian crossing times ("clearance intervals" in the transport planning jargon) were longer under communism. I'd imagine they were, and not just because there was less traffic in those days.

It's always seemed to me that a society's respect for humanity might be better measured by the length of its pedestrian crossing signals than by any number of abstract declarations of support for "universal human rights". Cars are the closest thing we have in our society to predators, capable of picking off the weak; they're malevolent steel sharks or pumas, cruising our cities, hogging the head of the food chain.

I remember a visit to Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. It's a beautiful city, but one thing appalled me. The centre of the town is ringed by a road completely uncontrolled by traffic signals. Getting across this road is almost impossible. Cars zoom around it. You take your life in your hands every time you try. It also stinks of fumes. Such things leave an impression; the walking human counts for rather little here.



It seems to me that pedestrian crossing times have gone down during my lifetime. Crossing Berlin's Bismarckstrasse the other day, I noted that even if I started walking briskly immediately the signal turned to green, it turned red before I could reach the other side of the wide avenue. What's more, even these few precious seconds were not inviolable: on the second half of my journey I had to negotiate with traffic turning right through the signal. I saw a father lift his small son to his shoulders and run to make the journey in time. Old people needn't even have bothered trying. The question arises: is the Ampelmann giving us ample time?

The technical literature informs us that traffic planners assume a pedestrian speed of 4 feet per second. However, "research on pedestrian characteristics verify that over 60% of all pedestrians move slower than 4 ft/s and 15% walk at or below 3.5 ft/s".

Personally, I feel that cars simply shouldn't be allowed in city centres at all. If they are, they should ideally be underground. Failing that, bridge-style walkways or underpasses should be built at frequent intervals, like the ones in Japanese cities, and major traffic routes should be lifted to rooftop level, channelled along elevated freeways. It's still polluting and unpleasant (one such freeway mars Tokyo's Roppongi district), but it's better than putting cars and people together.

Failing all those measures (and schemes like London mayor Ken Livingstone's exemplary Congestion Charge for traffic entering the city centre), there should be more equity between traffic signals for cars and those for people. Car signals stay green up to ten times longer than foot traffic signals do. Pedestrians sometimes only get a cross signal when they "apply" for it by pressing a request button. It just seems that car traffic is seen as "economically rational" and "necessary", whereas foot traffic is somewhat dilettante, an afterthought, unimportant.

Often, in studies, only the motorist's convenience is taken into account. Manhattan traffic police admitted, for instance, that a barrier scheme to prevent pedestrians crossing 6th Avenue by forcing them to walk up the block to the next crossing point was deemed a success because it reduced traffic wait times. The extra time added to the pedestrian's journey wasn't even measured, though, and this despite the fact that 6 or 7 times more people were crossing town on foot at these locations than in cars.

That's a good example of how "creative accountancy" often cooks the books in the studies on which policy is based. One can imagine studies showing that longer traffic signals for motorized traffic would result in umpteen million dollar losses for the local economy, as efficiency slackened. Yet a counter-study could show that not only was quality of life raised by longer crossing times, and the tourist and leisure industry's takings enhanced, but that all the people run over in cities (Tokyo wards display the figures on every koban: 2 dead, 38 injured) are a huge waste of productive manpower, and therefore money.

My next Wired piece, running on Tuesday, plays with the concept of waste, something that also came up in the piezo electricity piece I wrote last month, which pondered the use of piezoelectric transducers "to harvest wasted energy in the foot strike of a human being".

Now, obviously the concept of "waste" there is a very flexible one. We only think of something as a waste if we can think up good ways of putting the forces generated to better use. That "thinking up" depends on how imaginative we are, and what our technology allows us to do at any given point. The concept of waste is, in a sense, "creative accountancy". It's something we create by seeing missed opportunities around us. Anti-car urban planners need to use the concept of waste as creatively as the pro-car planners do.

One thing's for sure. Like leprechauns at the bottom of the garden, shining little green men are a rare sight in our cities, and getting rarer. As a result, urban life is less than ample for man. We waste time standing on the kerb, and sometimes we waste entire lives. According to the World Health Organization, car accidents kill about 1.2 million people worldwide each year, and injure about fifty million. And if you factor in all the people killed by oil wars... well, that's a hell of a lot of waste.

33CommentReplyShare


imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 10:33 am (UTC)

You know, I wonder if seeing cars as "predators at the top of the food chain" doesn't give us a glimpse of hope. After all, animals that eat humans are all endangered now. Could cars become an endangered species for the same reasons?


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kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 10:18 am (UTC)

Are you saying that the DDR had, by your metric, more respect for humanity than any car-centric capitalist society? Does prioritising human-scale foot traffic, in your view, outweigh things like ubiquitous Stasi-style informers and similar mechanisms of repression?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 10:31 am (UTC)

The Stasi is what always comes up when people look back at East German society. What I'm saying is that we don't get off so easily if other factors are taken into account. Ostalgie isn't based on nothing, there are reasons for it. Specific things like pedestrian crossing times are an alternative way to measure a society's humanity -- as are things like unemployment benefit, public transport provision, health coverage, access to education, etc.

In fact, we don't get off so easily even on the "Stasi Index". Did the Stasi have as many video cameras as the UK now has, reading every car number plate that enters London? Did the Stasi have internet searches stored until 2038, or biometric ID and passports?


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 10:51 am (UTC)

Not for the first time, I find Click Opera thinking in parallel lines with PingMag, which leads today with Waste needn't be wasted, which ties in with my waste theme today and the Wired column on waste (and shit) which runs on Tuesday.


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intergalactim
intergalactim
intergalactim
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 12:06 pm (UTC)

there is a crossing near where i work (just outside the city council building, incidently) where the green man when you are walking up hill across four lanes and right-turning traffic is just *miniscule*, you are only 1/3 of the way when you start getting run-over.

i don't know about stasi stuff (pretty terrible and destructive to social & family life), but really with all the talk of "people out to kill us" and terrorists and anthrax or whatever these days, really the things that are more likely to kill you are everyday (yet man-made) things. like chemicals from industrial agriculture, or getting hit by a car, or unfitness and depression from sitting at a desk all day.



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mcfnord
mcfnord
shoop
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 12:08 pm (UTC)


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 12:37 pm (UTC)

Funny thing about cars as predators, because in Sweden we have a law that "forces" the car drivers to stop when they see a pedestrian crossing at the crossing (is that what it is called?) .

The campaign for it was a movie, or commercial of sort, with the pedestrains being compared to Zebras and the Car drivers being compared to Lions.


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sleepyworm
sleepyworm
Compton G. Olive
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 02:29 pm (UTC)

Even "applying" for a walk signal in new york city won't do a pedestrian much good; I've heard that as many as 75% of the walk request buttons in NYC just plain don't work anymore. Apparently the city decided that it would cost too much money to actually go and fix them; they just didn't think the meager benefit of safely crossing the street was worth the money, I guess.


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rothko
rothko
scorpionic maelstrom
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 03:32 pm (UTC)

i love berlin, and i love seeing your photos.


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Sun, Sep. 10th, 2006 08:30 am (UTC)

me 2


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 06:03 pm (UTC)

Growing up in the sixties in the eastern U.S. I remember a time when most signs were just words. So you had to be able to read english to know when it was safe to cross the street. The signal for pedestrians was Walk and Don't Walk. When I was very little I thought that Don't Walk meant RUN. Really. And that is what you usually had to do to get across a city street.

When I visit Europe I like seeing old signs with graphic elements.

Two of my favorites from Spain:

puppet show

puppet show

With this one though, if you couldn't read Spanish, you might think it meant beware of mad scientist.


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gogogh
Alex
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 06:52 pm (UTC)

Thanks for this entry. I was wondering who that green fellow is.

Boston has been trying to put cars underground with the Big Dig. I wonder what social impacts will come from that.


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nato_dakke
nate
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 07:29 pm (UTC)

more like this!
When you can google statistics and societal good to your aid, without getting to be "too creative", you're 100 times the blogger marxy is. The rest of the time you tell us about japan.


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whirlings
whirlings
Nikolas
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 07:57 pm (UTC)

given your experience in geographic relocation and anylisation, what city would you say promotes the least 'waste' and provides the more ideal living? waste and ideal living meaning all they may imply.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 08:10 pm (UTC)
strawberry kazoo

Tried to send you a donation as a patron this morning, after downloading the LP twice ( viva Cherry Red and my clumsiness) but got side walked by the germania language schtick..Today has been spent listening to Ocky Milk with friends at my soon to be gone basement apartment in Brighton; friendly indeed. I think its your finest Lp since 1897. Fortunately O Milk is relentlessly lemoncholy, it reminds me of how I miss things and how in love I am with things.. It also made me think how rubbish most of the music and poets I liked/like really are..an epiphany indeed. Wonderous

Where are the sampled operatic whoo hoos on The Birdcatcher from, priceless,

Ex- coprophile. Ex-drinker. Ex……………

maf

“we are only people”


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 09:36 pm (UTC)
Re: strawberry kazoo

I think its your finest Lp since 1897.

What was my 1897 album again? Ah yes, "Mr Momus' Runcible Patent Song Method (By Appointment To HRH The Prince Consort)".

Glad you liked it!


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cityramica
cityramica
cityramica
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 09:10 pm (UTC)

you probably get this question a lot, but...has anyone ever slathered you in curry?

p.s. that is the cutest crossing man i have ever seen.

do any of your lights have indicators counting down the number of seconds left you have to cross? i've come to rely on those. i'm a very talented pedestrian. i think because i was born in new york.

o.k. x.o. m.s.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 09:39 pm (UTC)

Never been curry-slathered, but there's always a first time.

The Berlin lights don't count down in seconds. Neither do they emit birdsong, like the Tokyo ones. I suppose it would be a bit odd to hear Mr Ampelmann twitter like a bird.


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zdover
zdover
Zac
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 10:13 pm (UTC)

How does one make application for this tour?


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pansyriot
pansyriot
Elisabeth Serenade
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 11:20 pm (UTC)

I made Ampelmann cookies using cookie cutters from that shop, they were excellent.


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