Berlin Traffic Lights – Youre Using Them All Wrong

Recht und Ordnung. Law and Order. Theres nothing that a German loves more – or at least that’s the stereotype that everybody spreads around. While there are many ways to piss off a German – the quickest way to earn his ire is Jaywalk i.e cross a red light. While waiting at a pedestrian crossing might be irritating – the majority of people would be even more irritated if they knew that they were using the traffic light the wrong way.

 fussgaengerampel kreuzung berlin

*Disclaimer * – There are multiple models of pedestrian traffic lights and they all vary from city to city. The functions described here might not apply to your location.

Standing in front of a pedestrian crossing and waiting for the light to turn green is just a mild daily annoyance – unless its raining and then we can’t wait for the light to switch green fast enough. Pressing the button of a pedestrian traffic light is a lot like pressing an elevator button. Even though you know the light isn’t going to switch green any faster (it really wont) – you still end up pressing it at least a million times.

But what if I told you that it doesn’t do anything at all?

Have you ever wondered what those 3 Black dots in the yellow circle mean?  Well they aren’t some fancy decoration – the symbol is actually worn by “visually impaired” (aka blind) people in Germany (and Austria) to make others around them aware of the fact that they cannot see. While the origins of the 3 dots are unclear – some say they are meant to symbolize  braille – they do have a specific meaning. 2 Black Dots on top, and 1 on the bottom mean that the person wearing the symbol is visually impaired, 1 black dot on the top, and 2 on the bottom show that the person is deaf.

fussgaengerampel blindenzeichen

So whats the point of having this symbol on the button for the pedestrian traffic light – especially since a blind person wont see it anyway? Well that’s the point! It’s not mean for the visually impaired, its meant for the people who can see. It shows us that we don’t need to press the “button” - in fact there isn’t even a button to press, there’s no sensor or anything on the front side of the panel. Still, everyone that waits at the traffic light magically presses the symbol and expects the light to turn green.

But hold on! Just because there’s no button on the front side, doesn’t mean there isn’t any button at all. As ive mentioned before there are various models, but pedestrian traffic crossings lights fall into 2 main categories known as GDT – Großflächen-DruckTaster (Large Area Push Button) and VDT – Verdeckter-DruckTaster (Hidden Push Button). The VDT model – as the name implies has a button hidden underneath for the blind person (in fact all models that ive encountered in Berlin had a button on the bottom, even the newer versions)

Verdeckter-DruckTaster ampel

This button contains some interesting information about the traffic crossing

fussgaengerampel signalFrom left to right: Crossing with additional requisition, Simple Crossing, Crossing with a Pedestrian Island, Crossing with a Railway Crossing, Crossing in 2 Directions

Despite what many would think now, the button doesn’t make the light turn green any faster. What it does do is vibrate when the light turns green, and in some cases it even prolongs the time that the light stays green. quite useful if you are trying to cross the street with children.

And in case you needed more proof – heres a Crosswalk button without its cover – and you can clearly see that theres nothing behind it! The only button that gets pressed inside is the one underneath.

offene fussgaenger ampel

rote fussgaengerampel berlin 

So the next time you’re standing in front of a pedestrian traffic light – don’t bother pushing the non existent button. But do give the secret button a push and see what happens.

 *PS* – As was pointed out in the comments bellow – id like to make clear that not all traffic light buttons are useless. Some specifically say “Bitte Drücken” – Please Push. You will need to push the Button or else the pedestrian light wont turn green. But unless the button says you should press it, chances are high it wont do anything.

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17 Comments

  1. Interesting post here… although I have seen one or two bike left-turn lanes with their own buttons to push… do those work, or is that just a waste of money?

    I always press the secret buttons, although often I touch the ones that make it louder simply because I am usually listening to music at the same time so that way I hear when the light changes. Didn’t know about the codes on the bottom though. I’ll definitely have to pay closer attention!

    • Mhh never heard of the Bike ones (though im not an expert on the subject) be curious find a live example and give it a test.

  2. I definitely learned something new from your article — I didn’t know that those “secret” buttons for the visually impaired have coded information about the crossings. I will look for those. I also like the photo you took of one of these buttons from underneath. Thanks!

    I do want to point out that parts of your article make it sound (to me at least) like NONE of the yellow boxes at Berlin’s pedestrian crossings make the light change faster. I don’t think this was your intention, as you mentioned that while some of the boxes are for the visually impaired, there are also the “Großflächendrucktaste” — which are for all pedestrians to tell the lights “I’m here.” In my experience, these do actually affect the traffic lights.

    In fact, I’ve sometime arrive at a mid-block crossing where several people have already been waiting… and waiting… because each person assumed that someone else had already pushed the button… and when I finally press the button, the “walk” signal appears shortly thereafter. One example is the tram stop at Warschauer Straße station, which has a set of traffic lights for cars and bikes that are always green unless pedestrians needs to cross to or from the tram station — there is no vehicular cross traffic. The bike lane traffic lights mentioned by @natalye are another example.

    • Yes thanks for pointing that out – was never my intention to say that none of them work! In most cases the traffic light needs to say that you need to push the button in order for it to work. Ive amended that in the bottom of the article ;) Didnt anticipate that it was such a popular topic – there were quite a few discussions on the other channels about this. Just wait until people find out that the East Berlin Ampelmännchen can also be found in West Berlin…..

  3. Sheena P. says:

    I’m bemused. How can anyone think that pressing anything at any small or large intersection is making the lights turn? How is that supposed to work? There are cars going in different directions. Only pedestrian traffic lights that do not regulate any other traffic have buttons to press that make the light go green.

    And of course the three dots are the blind-sign, and the box with the three dots at the traffic lights is for the blind. Isn’t that totally common knowledge?

    • Well its like elevator buttons, if theres a button – people will press it, and judging by the response a whole lot of people didnt know about this (me included until I did some research). As for the Blind-Sign Dots, most foreigners wont know what those are as the symbol is only used in the German Speaking Regions (DACH), and even most Germans wont know the difference between the arrangements of the dots.

  4. Nick S says:

    I’ve noticed that a good number of the hidden push buttons DO NOT vibrate when the light turns green. I don’t know if that’s simply because they are broken or for some other reason though…

    • Theres a million different configurations, not all buttons vibrate, some just activate the crosswalk sound while others prolong the green time.

  5. dario says:

    This is a very detailed explanation.
    As a Visually impaired myself I did not write anything better.
    THANK YOU!!!!!
    You may want to check out the workshop we did in Berlin to understand the good and the bad things when it comes to moving around with visual impairment

    http://www.noisyvision.com/2013/06/08/2276/?lang=en

    • Thank you! Always glad when people get some use out of the stuff that I write. One thing that im always curious about is how blind people find the crosswalk in the first place?

  6. Incredible. I will give all cross-walk buttons more respect now.

  7. wait – so the little red guy in the hat ISN’T asking me for a hug? now that’s confusing.

  8. dario says:

    you may be interested in the short documentary about the Workshop on City and t Berlin Accessibility: The Visioanry Europe

  9. Job says:

    Very cool post. Never knew there was so much information to be taken from a simple traffic-light :)

    Keep up the good work!

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