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The Illuminated Magic of International Pedestrian Crossing Signals

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The United States ranks 24th in the world in literacy, 54th in education expendature, and 31st in student proficiency in science, but we are worryingly falling behind where it really matters: pedestrian crossing traffic signals.

Half a century ago, America pioneered the use of these lights and was at the forefront of ped-crossing technology. The future was exciting—or, at least, it should have been.

Today, if you visit an American city, you will probably see a boring pedestrian signal with a static little man telling you to walk and then a big red blinking hand letting you know when to stop (and maybe a countdown timer, if you're lucky). Meanwhile, in countries like Thailand, Peru, and beyond, their pedestrian lights are visual feasts. These LED miracles display animated little green figures who actually walk when you're supposed to cross, and then run when it comes time to hurry up.

I won't mince words: These international pedestrian crossing lights are making America look like losers on a global scale. To see what I mean, check out these nine examples below. Some are the same make and model of signal, but they are all set to different speeds, giving each little green figure his or her own personality and walking style.

1. Egypt

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Walking Style: Ric Flair's Strut.

2. Peru

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3. Walking Style: Little Cliffhanger guy from the Price is Right.

4. Bangkok, Thailand

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Walking Style: Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.

5. Mexico City, Mexico:

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Walking Style: Kramer dressed as a pimp.

6. Santiago, Chile:

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Walking Style: Tom Cruise sprinting.

7. Manila, the Philippines:

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Walking Style: John Wayne.

8. Cambodia:

Walking Style: Pat Benatar and her crew at the end of the "Love is a Battlefield" video.

9. Guangdong, China

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Walking Style: Classic Chaplin.

Bonus: Las Vegas:

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For a while, it looked like America was catching up. The above lights, which were in Las Vegas, featured ominous, shifting eyes which either told you to look both ways or, if you are an F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar, represent the decay of American society in the 1920s. According to commenters on the YouTube video, however, these kinds of lights were deemed ineffective and have since been removed.

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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Courtesy Umbrellium
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Design
These LED Crosswalks Adapt to Whoever Is Crossing
Courtesy Umbrellium
Courtesy Umbrellium

Crosswalks are an often-neglected part of urban design; they’re usually just white stripes on dark asphalt. But recently, they’re getting more exciting—and safer—makeovers. In the Netherlands, there is a glow-in-the-dark crosswalk. In western India, there is a 3D crosswalk. And now, in London, there’s an interactive LED crosswalk that changes its configuration based on the situation, as Fast Company reports.

Created by the London-based design studio Umbrellium, the Starling Crossing (short for the much more tongue-twisting STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) changes its layout, size, configuration, and other design factors based on who’s waiting to cross and where they’re going.

“The Starling Crossing is a pedestrian crossing, built on today’s technology, that puts people first, enabling them to cross safely the way they want to cross, rather than one that tells them they can only cross in one place or a fixed way,” the company writes. That means that the system—which relies on cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor both pedestrian and vehicle traffic—adapts based on road conditions and where it thinks a pedestrian is going to go.

Starling Crossing - overview from Umbrellium on Vimeo.

If a bike is coming down the street, for example, it will project a place for the cyclist to wait for the light in the crosswalk. If the person is veering left like they’re going to cross diagonally, it will move the light-up crosswalk that way. During rush hour, when there are more pedestrians trying to get across the street, it will widen to accommodate them. It can also detect wet or dark conditions, making the crosswalk path wider to give pedestrians more of a buffer zone. Though the neural network can calculate people’s trajectories and velocity, it can also trigger a pattern of warning lights to alert people that they’re about to walk right into an oncoming bike or other unexpected hazard.

All this is to say that the system adapts to the reality of the road and traffic patterns, rather than forcing pedestrians to stay within the confines of a crosswalk system that was designed for car traffic.

The prototype is currently installed on a TV studio set in London, not a real road, and it still has plenty of safety testing to go through before it will appear on a road near you. But hopefully this is the kind of road infrastructure we’ll soon be able to see out in the real world.

[h/t Fast Company]

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