But aside from giving pedestrians a lance in the battle to cross busy streets and keeping us safe, how do they influence our lives? Though unassuming, this ubiquitous, symbolic machine has swayed art, entertainment and the sustainability movement.

Bringing the colourful symbol into art, French sculptor Pierre Vivant installed his “Traffic Light tree” in London’s financial district in 1998. The traffic light tree replaced a dying plane tree on a pollution-plagued roundabout in London’s financial district.

At eight meters tall and with 75 traffic lights, Vivant aimed to fuse a representation of the neighboring plane trees with the artificial nature of the neighborhood. Its changing lights also integrate it into the city tempo.

Two design students in Germany, Holger Michel and Sandro Engel, were intrigued by a more mundane interaction with traffic lights: pedestrians waiting to cross the street.

In their seminar on interactive media, they developed Streetpong, the first videogame meant for play at traffic lights. Touchscreens on either side of the street are installed on the traffic signal pole, ready for pedestrians to notice them. Two opponents — one on each site of the street — play against each other while waiting for the light to turn green. The game, based on the1972 video-game legend Pong, lets two skateboards face off, bouncing the ball from their side of the screen to the other. If one player misses the ball, the opponent receives a point.

Not to ignore the rush, each round lasts as long as the traffic light remains red, and the screen helps players keep track of the remaining wait.

With their approach, the two students show that an element of entertainment and fun can be added to daily traffic routines.

In Taiwan, a more practical traffic signal problem was pinpointed and solved: its massive energy requirements. There they replaced light bulbs at 690,000 traffic lights with LEDs to save energy and make their traffic lights more sustainable. The amount of energy saved can power 70,000 households.

By using yet another approach, Damjan Stanković helped drivers in their personal efforts to be more environmentally friendly and relax.

In his concept Eko, he added a countdown to display to drivers their wait time at red lights. This little gadget gives drivers the option to turn off their engines, cutting carbon emissions and saving fuel. It also gives them a moment of pause, to sit back a moment and clear their heads without worrying about the road — better, happier and safer drivers result.

Yet others even question the need for traffic lights altogether. Austria’s second largest city, Graz, conducted a successful urban planning experiment by removing traffic signs and lights on the Sonnenfelsplatz square. The lack of automated instruction forced cars, bikes and pedestrians to engage with one another, pay attention and respect each other. So far, the project has proved exemplary. Read more about this experimental space here.

Headerimage: steffen-benz, “Ampel bei Nacht”, Source: some rights reserved, Source: www.piqs.de
Images Traffic Light Tree 1: Martin P, “traffic light tree London”, some rights reserved, Source: www.piqs.de
Images Traffic Light Tree 2: William Warby, “Traffic Light Tree”, some rights reserved, Source: www.piqs.de