How Not to Jaywalk


It’s a curious thing, jaywalking.


In the US, it’s against the law (you know, to save lives and all), but no one seems to follow that. Generally, if it’s clear, most Americans will cross in disregard of flashing neon signs. (In no way do I condone this, but it’s an interesting study in culture.)

Perhaps it’s our spirit of adventure or willingness to take risks, but Americans apparently need to be reminded of jaywalking’s dangers in other countries:


"No jaywalking" sign in Singapore (source)


Sign in Shanghai (source)


"No jaywalking" sign in Malaysia (source)


But apparently it was enough of a problem in America in the late ’30s, as evidence of this WPA sign:


WPA sign warning Americans not to jaywalk (source)


Which brings us to Germany (how’s that for an awkward transition?). Picture this:


You’re walking down the street in Germany and approach a cross street. Wanting to cross to the other side, you quickly pull the grade-school drill: listen, look left, look right, look left again, and if it’s okay, cross. Looks okay to you!

Though the crossing sign is red, you step one foot out on the street, but suddenly notice that everyone else is patiently waiting at the pedestrian crossing, waiting for the sign to turn from red to green.

“Ummmm…okay,” you think to yourself, looking around to see if there’s a policeman or another car coming that would be preventing this people from crossing. Nope, nothing. There are absolutely no cars in the vicinity.

It looks safe, so you begin to cross. You notice that everyone on the opposite side of the road is burning holes into you with their eyes (oh, if looks could kill…). Slightly puzzled by this display of hostility, you continue towards the angry mob, when suddenly one of the old men waiting starts yelling at you in German.

“He doesn’t look happy…maybe I’m not supposed to be doing this.” You weigh your options: a) continue on your path, or b) retreat back to where you came. You’re already more than halfway to the other side, so you nervously power-walk, head down, trying to pretend that if you can’t see them, they can’t see you. You’ve never wanted to be more invisible in your life.

Reaching the other side, you quickly scurry away and keep your eyes fixed straight ahead, in case direct eye contact would incite the pedestrians further. “Next time,” you pant, “I’m waiting.”


Welcome to Germany.


In all honesty, the strict “won’t-cross-the-street-until-the-signal-tells-me-so” occurs in some areas of Germany more than others, and with some types of people more than others. For instance, it’s more likely to occur in East Germany and with older people. I have seem some kids jaywalk, for full disclosure.

In West Germany, the pedestrian signals are simply the figure of a man standing with his hands at his sides in red, and the profile of a man walking in green. However, in some places in East Germany, as a vestige of the DDR (GDR), the pedestrian signals are affectionately called, “Ampelmännchen,” or “little traffic light man.”


"Don't Cross" Ampelmännchen in Dresden


Notice how he wears a little hat, a rather plush accessory for East Germany, don’t you think? (The light above him reads, “The signal is coming.”)


"Cross" Ampelmännchen


There are some variations on the Ampelmännchen, such as one carrying an umbrella or with an umbrella, but the one above appears to be carrying a bird? I was lucky enough to spot the female version of the Ampelmännchen, die “Ampelfrau,” in Dresden a few weeks ago.


"Don't Cross" Ampelfrau



"Cross!" Ampelfrau


It’s a bit endearing.


What interesting street signs have you seen?

If you’ve been to Germany, have you noticed the Ampelmännchen?


11 thoughts on “How Not to Jaywalk

  1. Jaywalking in Germany? Guilty as charged 🙂 I live in a university area so there are usually enough young people around who are also jaywalking.

    In general, I get a kick out of the shape of the people on lots of different street signs around here. Very round and cartoonish but with some specific odd details at the same time (like the bird!)

  2. This is so funny and true! I live in Germany and it is so true that you will be stared down if you cross on a red. I always look around to make sure no old people are watching before I dart across 😛

  3. i’ve seen this little man! the hat made me giggle and i asked a german friend of mine why there weren’t more little-hatted-men crossing the street in real life.

    i never knew there was a little hatted girl though, will be thoroughly checking my street crossings (oh, and watching for cars, too?) next time I’m in Deutschland

    There she goes, wind in her braids, obviously off somewhere important, fun sighting 🙂

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