The Eye of the Fish

May 30, 2008

Suffragette City

A few weeks ago now there was a brief article in the DomPost about the possibility of the Parliamentary Precinct around Wellington’s Beehive being brightened up by having Green Women crossing signals, rather than the more traditional Green Man. While some may dismiss this as typical Labour last minute pre-election spin, and others doubt that it even made it into the news at all, it turns out there is more to the business of crossing a road than you might have guessed. 

dontwalk.jpg greenman.jpg redhand.JPG traffic-lights-2a.JPG  

For a start, there is a graphic history of men and women telling you how and when to cross the road. In America it was always assumed that anyone with enough intelligence to walk upright and chew gum, could also read a simple sign, and so the signs used to read WALK or DONT WALK (in Harlem of course, it was rumoured that signs offered the choice of DONT WALK, BOOGIE, although that may just be urban myth or Michael Jackson legend). But gradually in the USA it has been recognised that presumption of English can’t be taken for granted, and pictogrammes are taking over. Memories of Dustin Hoffman come back in Rain Man, obeying the DONT WALK ruling to his peril, and exciting Tom Cruise to a state not seen again till Oprah. The DONT WALK signs have been gradually replaced with a supposedly more commonly understandable Red Hand. Back in Great Britain, where of course in certain circles the image of a Red Hand has more serious political overtones, they just have a Red Man, standing still. And by contrast of course, a Green Man in Ireland normally just refers to fertility rites or to St Patrick.  In New Zealand we have stuck with Green Man Walking, Red Man Standing to get the message across. All seems pretty simple to me, but then I’m a pretty simple woman.

Is it really a sexist statement to have Green Man, Red Man symbols? Or should the all powerful sisterhood of New Zealand politics strike out by replacing these horrid sexist symbols with a profile of a confident striding woman instead? Sounds good on paper, although when you get down to it, what does it really mean? That a Green Woman would have to wear a skirt? That only men wear trousers? That’s certainly not true in Wellington, where even our Great Leader shies away from skirts in a big way, even when meeting the Queen. Hell, the whole of Parliament is filled with strong-willed wimmin, sensible shoes and short greying hair, hand in hand through the corridors of power. But with the cold weather this week, no one is wearing a skirt, not even Mr Freak. Certainly its an all-women cabal that rules the roost and wears the trousers in New Zealand at present. Girls on top? Why not! We’re all for that here at Eye of the Fish. But how long should a skirt be? Would it be a sensible knee length number, a long slinky black satin number, or a power-dressing Armani instead? What about a sari? How about Scotsmen in kilts? How could we make sure their silhouette was not mistaken for a woman instead?

No, surely skirts are out – its all just too complicated. So if we discount the gender-specific wearing of trousers, how else are we to distinguish our Green Woman from our Green Man? Breasts are an obvious choice, although not easy to show a significant difference in chest size in a 15cm flashing sign, and it may root men to the spot if made too obvious. What about a pair of high heels or a casually tossed pony-tail? Hold on – that’s a sexist line of thinking as well – high heels just imply a patriachal subjugation of the servile female idiom and pony tail implies a lack of commitment to the political process and a certain blonde flippancy not just relegated to the pony tail itself. Its hard to know what to do.  But of course, like everything in the world, its all been done before.

ampelfrau_amsterdam.jpg . ampelm.jpg ampelf.jpg ampelmann1.jpg

In East Germany, where for years they have harboured a love for a little fellow called the Ampelmann (invented in 1961 by Karl Peglau in Berlin), and who was threatened to be run out of town by the all purpose, striding manly profile of the West German, androgenous, bland profile of a sexless pictogramme, Ampelmann has recently been joined by Ampelfrau, and even some Ampelkinder. In Belgium, couples crossing the road evidently do so hand in hand. A more politically correct solution for New Zealand could be to have a Maori warrior leaping up in mid-haka, but whether that would make people stop and stare or run for the hills would be a moot point. Of course, the greatest improvement the Wellington City Council could make would be to import the Auckland style “barn dance” crossing to the Capital city, where all the pedestrians can cross at once, and all the cars can just wait their turn. That way, we don’t care what sex or size our Green People are, and we could cross the Parliamentary Precinct at leisure, hand in hand, skirt or trouser.


30 - 05 - 08

Actually, it is Barnes Dance ( ), having very little to do with any rural hoe-down (which is more civilised is open to question).

What worries me is that if we gender the signs, do men and women have to use separate crossings?

And if we are all into equality, we are going to have to represent blue and yellow and all other colours of the rainbow… and what about obese people, and dwarves, and when to wheelchair users get to cross, and what about amputees, Sikhs. And the Belgians should really consider same sex couples as well…

Seamonkey Madness
30 - 05 - 08

Surely the Maori warrior concept would raise some ire with the tangata whenua as it is not brown but green or red.

I think (and wholeheartedly agreeing with the tone of the post) that the situation is ridiculous and the money would be better spent elsewhere.

30 - 05 - 08

In Germany they have now started using the East German Ampelmann again, even in the former west. People in the east who grew up have had most of the icons of their own childhood disappear during the westernification – i.e. most of the products they bought in shops cannot be bought anymore as the factories shutdown. I.e. Imagine a New Zealand without Watties tomato sauce or Crunchie bars!

The choice of the East German Ampelmann brings the history out into the open – it is after all an important part of Germany’s identity.

Here in NZ we were the first to give women the vote – why not change the outline to a more feminine outline all round the country (as lights are replaced) – assuming that someone can draw a good outline. I like the way it would put the issue equality in our face everyday, even if it is tokenism.

At the very least it will give tourists something funny to add to the photo collections and blog, and give us something to argue about on this blog.

30 - 05 - 08

I like the idea of a selection of crossing characters. If you’re going to be colour-correct surely a red indian and a green space alien would be appropriate :) But my preference would be to save money overall be replacing the green walking people with green smiley faces and remove the red ones altogether. Let the motorists give way to people who actually have a right to the road for a while.

30 - 05 - 08

Regardless of the outcome it is great to see debate surrounding equality and who our city both represents and is for. For far too long the white upper-class male has dominated architecture and design and created a city that serves and reinforces him and his power at the expense of others. Is it too much to ask to think about others even if it might cost some money and time?

31 - 05 - 08

Apparently in some of the big crossings in Tokyo, they have an animated figure and an electronic timer counting down the time left till the cars get to go again… …and apparently the animation of the person gets faster and faster until they’re sprinting in the last few seconds. A good way to let the elderly and infirm know their impending doom is coming unless they make it to footpath safety. With LED technology nowadays, anything like that is possible.

Question is, are they just talking about it, or will they actually do it? The reporting of a Council urban designer Gerald Blunt on the subject seems to indicate that they’re serious. While it may seem like a flippant waste of money to some, its those small features that make the capital city the interesting place that it is. Mind you, I don’t know if i would make a special visit to Welly just to see the traffic lights! It’d have to be a pretty darn exciting traffic signal to get anyone to do that.

On the other hand, if it was a well animated graphic of a cute butt walking along, i think i’d follow the sign……

31 - 05 - 08

Cute ideas, especially the European ones, but I hope nothing is done as it would be a waste of money.
Nobody is getting hurt or injured currently by the current signals.

Save the dosh for light rail instead!

31 - 05 - 08

Moz – you are so right re: removing the red ones. Let’s have some cars being inconvenienced for a bit. I can think of few intersections – say most of Cuba Street and Willis and Mercer which would make more sense with cars having to give way to pedestrians.

6 - 06 - 08

Check out the animated green man and countdown timer in Lower Hutt, on the Queens Drive/Bunny St/Margaret St intersection, outside Queensgate. Gives you 15 seconds to finish crossing once the green man has stopped striding.

It seems to be the only one out there, you have to take your chances with the hoons on all the other crossings…

10 - 06 - 08

In Mexico City recently, I also saw an animated green man for the ‘OK to cross’ symbol, and it also got more animated as the remaining time to cross diminished.

Also like the numerical countdowns I saw there and earlier in Phnom Penh. The latter also had countdowns for drivers, so they knew when the red light was coming up. Not sure what effect that would have on drivers – maybe they put on a burst of speed to get through before the lights change. Traffic in Phnom Penh was so chaotic that that scarcely mattered, but would be interesting to pilot it here.

Main thing is to make the time available to pedestrians longer overall. The crossing time available at the junction of Willis, Manners and Boulcott, for example is shocking.

12 - 06 - 08

i agree. Wellington has a shockingly poor attitude to people on foot. Mind you, their attitude to skateboards is pretty cool…

12 - 06 - 08

Such as ?

12 - 06 - 08

Such as paying you no attention whether you are on the road or the footpath, wherever, whatever. No one minds…..

12 - 06 - 08

So Wellington should have a dude on a skateboard indicating Go, and a dead skateboarder under a car to indicate Don’t Cross Now?