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September 9th, 2006
Sat, Sep. 9th, 2006 11:22 am

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.

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