Germans and their pedestrian crossings

Nearly every English-speaking German expat writes, with much glee, about how Germans will patiently wait 15 minutes for the walk signal to come on even if there have been no cars on the road for the past hour.


Note: I’m posting out of chronological order, because if I don’t, this blog will not be updated until climate change kills us all.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nearly every English-speaking German expat writes, with much glee, about how Germans will patiently wait 15 minutes for the walk signal to come on even if there have been no cars on the road for the past hour, and about how the easiest way to upset a German pedestrian’s travel plans is to tell them to take a route that does not involve clearly delineated road crossings, maybe throw in a war joke about how the Allies should have set up zebra crossings and red men. I suspect this is a Germany blogger initiation ritual of some kind; I’ll update you if I receive a membership card in the mail a few weeks after publishing this post.

Despite this, I have found in my 2.5 weeks here so far that the “Germans never jaywalk” stereotype is nowhere as extreme as most make it out to be. It’s been a little disappointing, to be honest, as I was looking forward to finally feeling comfortable about waiting for the walk signal to come on surrounded by my non-jaywalking brethren. Being at university has diluted it a great deal, but it still pleases my law-abiding Singaporean heart to only cross the road when the green man comes on.

Among the few other places in this country I’ve been to, the truth of the stereotype fluctuates quite drastically with how dense and urban the area is. It makes sense, I suppose – you should be the most careful in places where you think you’re the least likely to get hit by a car. Hence, mostly deserted suburban street in Mainz: traffic signals are the word of God. Quiet downtown Berlin: most people wait if there are cars in sight, but some do cross the road if it seems empty. Busy downtown Berlin: more jaywalkers than – I would say Elm Street*, but I don’t think anything in the Western world surpasses that, so let’s just say those parts of Berlin have lots of jaywalkers.

Central downtown Mannheim is the same as the last, although I think the jaywalkers here do not do it out of spite for rules, nor for convenience, really. I don’t even know if it counts as jaywalking if you have no other way of crossing the road: the urban planners in this city at some point thought to themselves “pah, who will ever need to cross Kurpfalzstrasse (for instance)? Anyone can get all they require in their half of the Quadrate!”. The section of Kurpfalzstrasse that I cross daily is just so blatantly unfriendly to foot traffic, with odd turns for traffic and several foot-snagging tram tracks laid on the already-uneven cobblestone (and no road crossings of course), that they couldn’t have been thinking anything else. More about Mannheim’s sometimes bizarre city layout later.

I think, though, that Germany bloggers shouldn’t make fun of traffic-light obedience so mercilessly. You do see flickers of irritation and self-doubt on people’s faces when they stand waiting by a road that has but one car in the far distance, happily and harmlessly trundling on at 5km/h…towards the collision that can only be averted if the pedestrians do not so much as take one foot off the sidewalk. They fiddle with shopping bags. There are anxious glances to the car and back to the traffic lights. People standing across each other on either side of the crossing avoid each other’s gazes, both knowing they seem a little foolish, and that in no way would their lives be endangered if they crossed the road, but yet…something compels them to remain waiting. Should I go or should I stay? Imagine having to enter this world of inner strife several times a day, every day. Have some sympathy.


*Actually, the section of Elm Street in New Haven that runs between two sides of the Yale campus must surely be one of the most jaywalked roads in North America, or at least New England.

Related reading: The Red Dictator: Crossing the Strasse