Traffic Signals Abroad

As the next part in my ongoing series of traffic signals and controllers, here is a look at what the rest of the nation, Canada, and the rest of the world do differently than Minnesota.

Minnesota vs the Rest of the Country

1) As I’ve mentioned before, protected only turns (where left turning traffic has a red arrow and must wait a whole cycle if they arrive one second after the typical 10 second green), are much less common. Only in California have I seen more than in the Twin Cities suburbs. These are becoming less common with the debut of flashing yellow arrows, the feeling being that with the extra warning to yield, left turning drivers can now be trusted to make good decisions.

The Capacity Killer

Hurry up and wait.


2) The usual arrangement for 5-light signals is the “doghouse”, rather than the 5-light vertical. Vertical signals are mainly used in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, South Dakota, and Arkansas; other areas use the doghouse configuration. With the adoption of the 5-light bimodal flashing yellow arrow, probably at the urging of the FHWA, Minnesota and Wisconsin are adopting the doghouse. (And much more common is a 5-light vertical  to be replaced with a 4-section flashing yellow arrow, although agencies that refuse to use flashing yellow arrows, like the city of Minneapolis, are still erecting new vertical installations.)

Typical protected / pemissive signal as used in Minnesota

Old 5-Light Vertical

2) Signals hung from overhead span wires are not used in Minnesota, except in temporary installations (although some, like MN 62 at Hiawatha, persisted for decades for various reasons). MN 36 in Lake Elmo will likely be the same story. These are more common in permanent installations out east, which are usually metal poles, and usually a lot neater than the wood poles that Minnesota slops together. There are also quite a few surviving 4-way signals, some converted to LED. With the requirement of more than one signal head in each direction, these were augmented with two single faces tied together on either side, for a total of two facing each direction. Looking at old photos, Minnesota always seems to have preferred putting them on posts on the side, I’ve never seen a 4-way here.

Old 4-Way signal in Cleveland, TN

Old 4-Way signal in Cleveland, TN


3)  Minnesota always puts signals on the poles on each side of the mast (and these are useful if there’s a truck blocking your overhead view. Other states do not always do this. It might be carried over from masts supplementing side signals in Minnesota, and replacing overhead span wires in other states.

3) Of course, some signals are mounted horizontally elsewhere, as we’ve all seen in Wisconsin (although their new standards are vertical only). These are also common in Texas and Florida.

4) Eagle brand signals are a lot less common elsewhere. Possibly because of their Quad Cities location (stuff cost a lot more to ship in days gone by), Eagle in all its various incarnations, from the 1940’s Eagleluxes up to the 2000’s Bubblebacks, had a virtual monopoly on the signal market. In other areas of the country, Crouse-Hinds (of New York), and Econolite (of southern California) are a lot more common. McCain, a new player making a big splash with boring but functional equipment, is becoming more common both in Minnesota and nationwide.

Type SIG "Bubblebacks, later version, 98th and Dupont Ave / I-35W, Bloomington.

Type SIG “Bubblebacks, later version, 98th and Dupont Ave / I-35W, Bloomington.

5) Of course other agencies have their own quirks. Obviously there are too many to list, but Chicago DOT does whatever they feel like, nationals standards be damned.

We don't need any stinkin' red arrows for protected only turns.

We don’t need any stinkin’ red arrows for protected only turns.

The US vs Canada

1) The flashing green ball in BC is used at intersections where a pedestrian can stop traffic to cross. The light will flash green until a button is pushed, then solid green, yellow, and red.

In Ontario it has the same meaning as a left turn arrow in the US. In some places the flashing is much faster than in the US. I called them “seizure lights” and my sister called them “disco lights”.

2) Some provinces use square reds and yellow diamonds as assistance to the colorblind. Except for Quebec, they seem to be on their way out.


Traffic light in Charlottetowne

3) Pedestrian symbols are red and green, and are always outlines (as opposed to the US where they’re now required to be all solid). There’s a subtle difference to the hands, but a large difference to the mans.  This one is Canadian standard but is actually in Osseo. A Canadian company called Ecolux was one of the first with LED signals, so some Canadian stuff snuck in down here. Canada also generally uses circular lenses.



Not really related, but because I think they’re cool, a moose warning sign in New Brunswick, and a stained glass representation of the Confederation Bridge at the visitors center. Tolls on PEI are one way leaving the island, leading to the slogan “You only have to pay if you want to leave”, but still was a bit of a shock paying a $45 bridge toll.



The Rest of the World

I’ve not been out of the US and Canada since 1985, when I was a child, but here are some of my understandings based on conversations with other road and traffic signal enthusiasts.

1) Fixed time signals are much more common than actuated signals.

2) There’s a much wider variety of configurations, and some vehicle signals have countdown displays until the light turns green light, or until the light turns red. These are specifically banned by the MUTCD on the grounds that studies have shown no benefit, and there’s been suggestions to try to hide pedestrian countdowns from motorists because motorists were looking at them.  I’m guilty of that myself. After driving around San Francisco for several days where the vehicle light turns yellow at zero, I angered a truck driver behind me in Grant’s Pass by slowing down where the countdown went to zero with the light still green.

To get vehicle countdowns to work in the US requires technology that hasn’t been implemented here yet. The pedestrian countdowns were designed to “drop in” to existing installations and memorize how long the change interval is, which works because unlike a vehicle signal the pedestrian change interval never varies; there’s no additional wiring beyond the mains wiring for the two indications.

The beautiful “Spiderweb” lenses were only used in the US in the 1940s; they stuck around in Europe

1940s vintage signal in Cleveland, TN

1940s vintage signal in Cleveland, TN

2) They have stuck with LED look indications, and in turn have developed thinner signal heads that can only accommodate them rather than switching to “incandescent look” modules that require as much depth as an incandescent reflector.

Relative depth of LED look module on the left, incandescent look on the right.

Relative depth of LED look module on the left, incandescent look on the right.

Early Leotek LED module

Early Leotek LED module

The famous Ampelmännchen of East Germany.



Animations are common in Asian countries. Notice that the animated pedestrian speeds up and starts “running” as time expires

Uniquely, some German pedestrian push-buttons allow you to play Pong with the person across the street while waiting for a “Walk” signal.

This was actually an ad campaign: people could walk into a booth where their dance moves were copied on the Don’t Walk light, but 81% more pedestrians waited for the light.

Fundamentally too, other countries, including Canada, use red and green for pedestrian signals, instead of orange and white. I covered the development of pedestrian signals earlier, but I’ll repeat, expand,and speculate. In the US the word “Walk” was originally in thin art-deco letters on  8″ round lenses, usually mounted on the same head as vehicle signals.

A green lens would have made it even harder to read across an intersection and possibly be confused with the adjacent green vehicle light. When the orange “Wait” indication was added and moved to a separate head, an orange stripe was added to the top and bottom to make it easy to see and differentiate. The neons, which were a large separate head and one color, were as efficient as another and no way to be mistaken for a vehicle signal, used red and green until they were forced to change. (Red is the “default” color in neon because it is cheaper and lasts longer than other colors). I believe Europe used icons (easier to see) on a separate head from the beginning.

Early pedestrian accomidations, first with the green lens designed to throw some light downward, then with the seperate "Walk" lens

Easy to see in my basement, not across a bright sunny street.

Later evolution to two indication Wait / Walk and then square Walk / Don't Walks.

No mistaking this for a vehicle signal

No trouble reading this or mistaking this for a vehicle signal

4) Some areas have a yellow before the green. This reduces reaction time and gives motorists with manual transmissions (the norm in much of the rest of the world) time to drop the clutch, but can also encourage people to jump the light. Interestingly some early American signals by their design also used a yellow before the green, like the el-cheapo 3-lamp Darley

5) Installations are usually less elaborate than in the US. 

6) Right turn on red is prohibited unless specifically allowed. Universal RTOR is one of the legacies of the 1970’s oil crises,  the other being the 55 mph speed limit. The first is definitely pro-motorist, the second anti-motorist, so it’s not hard to understand why the first hung around in North America but not the second. Various countries use various means to indicate that a RTOR is allowed. Some use signs and some use signal indications, for example Germany uses a sign and France uses a flashing yellow arrow.

Of course RTOR is controversial in the cities, with some feeling they should be banned and some noting a problem of drivers doing them illegally anyway in places they are banned. And that’s a subject for another article, along with my ideas to make right turns safer and improve LOS for pedestrians.


About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.

18 thoughts on “Traffic Signals Abroad

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    The thin, LED-look signals are something I’ve admired on new installations in Norway and Denmark. Any idea why those haven’t caught on here? It’s a really sleek look, especially when they forego the shade thing above it. Here’s an example in Copenhagen. Does the sun just shine brighter here, that we need the shade and incandescent-style lens?

    I also appreciate at busy pedestrians intersections, countdowns for both crossing the street (ped clearance) and how long until the next walk signal. Considering Minneapolis has so many fixed-time signals, it seems like something like this could exist (if MUTCD had a legitimate way to convey it). This was especially handy in downtown Copenhagen, crossing H.C. Andersen’s Boulevard (busy, very wide stroad).

    Other interesting differences, unrelated to signals:

    1. Danish sidewalks are almost entirely precast concrete, usually with setts as buffers between the rows of precast panels. This made it more modular and easy to do a spot repair, but they did seem to crack more easily as well. Norwegian sidewalks are almost always asphalt, same as the road and usually with no boulevard. So the only thing that really distinguished the street from the sidewalk is a small curb.

    2. I have never seen integrated curb/gutter in Scandinavia, nor site-poured concrete. Most urban curbs are granite, and rural curbs (where they exist — like at an isolated rural bus stop) are precast concrete. The granite curbs definitely hold up much better than American curbs to plowing, although the precast concrete curbs seem very flimsy. (I’ve also noted some American cities, like Chicago and NYC, integrate a strip of rounded metal into the curb — I assume to avoid plow damage.)

    3. Curbs are generally lower, and Denmark in particular doesn’t seem nearly as preoccupied with flow of water as we are. Curbs just kind of come and go, sometimes they’re mountable. There are tiny stormdrains placed all over, in a seemingly random pattern.

    4. As mentioned before, there are rarely boulevard trees or green space in Scandinavia. This is one area where I think the traditional American street wins out — 6-8′ of grass and trees makes such a difference.

    5. Scandinavia is much more into lighting, including in rural areas. Norway in particular even has completely rural freeways lit all the way to the border. Denmark is fond of lights strung up between buildings (or strung up from posts, in more suburban areas). Sweden uses these ugly yellow lights — perhaps for dark sky reasons?

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      To be precise, it’s the change interval, rather than the clearance time, that’s being counted down. I’m not sure how we could have two countdowns without confusing pedestrians, which is already an issue.

      The pure yellow lights are the most efficient kind before LEDs. Energy is cheaper here than Europe so we generally opted for less efficient but more aesthetically pleasing lighting.

  2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Monte, great series.

    Signals (and stop signs) are used much less in Europe than the U.S. They prefer roundabouts and sharks teeth (yield).

    Not really a signal thing but they also use boxed junctions where the central area is crosshatched and cars may not stop or pause within the box. EG, don’t enter the box unless there’s a place for your entire car where you are going. This prevents a common problem we have in MN with a single truck or car blocking all cross traffic when the lights change.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      You see the latter in New York, and occasionally DC, too. One would think it shouldn’t be necessary to tell drivers not to block cross traffic, but apparently not.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        It amazes me how often people will pull in to an intersection and block cross traffic when it’s obvious what will happen.

        Then again, I’ve done it once or twice myself when I knew that it might take me 5 or 10 minutes to get through otherwise due to extremely long light cycles and the possibility of not making it during the next cycle.

  3. Monte Castleman Post author

    I’m not sure there is a real reason for the preference for “incandescent look” here. Dialight came out with them to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and agencies liked them and competitors followed suit. At the time they were still making deep signals as incandescent reflectors could still be ordered. Now the parts to mount incandescent reflectors have been removed, but they still make them deep to accommodate incandescent look modules that everyone wants to use.

    Ped modules achieve the look with a diffusion lens, rather than a couple of super-bright LEDs mounted farther back with a fresnel lens, and thus are shallower. The new Econolite ped housing is shallower and will not accommodate an incandescent reflector.

  4. UrbanDoofus

    Interesting you mention signals on both side of the poles as a means to keeping signals visible in case trucks are blocking the overhead signals. Traveling southbound on Hennepin into downtown from the bridge has signals that are impossible to see when a truck is in front of you. There seem to be all sorts of lights in play there, but if you’re traveling south, be careful! Those postal trucks are always on that road.

  5. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    Regarding #2 and #3 in the US, horizontal signals are standard in New Mexico. New Mexico also puts side-mounted signals on each side. In fact, I found a LOT of similarities between New Mexico standards and Minnesota standards, with the notable differences being black poles and visors in NM, and the horizontal overhead signals (as in MN, NM puts side-mounted 5-lense signals vertically).

    And in those rare occasions where a 5-lens signal is used there, DC’s are also vertical.

  6. Thomas Allen

    California uses side mount traffic signals on each side , as well
    Nevada and Arizona.

  7. Gabe

    Regarding #4, I remember from time in Germany in the mid-90s (things may have changed) that the yellow light before the green was also a time for motorists to restart their engines, not just drop the clutch. With European gas prices, it was quite common for motorists to shut off their engines, particularly those near the front of the wait, since they probably arrived right at the change to red and knew they’d be there a while. Standing at the corner, you’d see red switch to yellow followed by a chorus of starting engines.

  8. Alex

    I thought Minneapolis had some flashing yellows on Glenwood Ave? Although the one I know for sure is on Glenwood at 10th St N under the 394 ramps, so maybe MnDOT installed them.

    1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      Doubtful it’s a MnDOT installation. MnDOT contracts out to Minneapolis for trunk highway traffic signals within the city. This is why signals along Olson Hwy, Hiawatha Ave, and Central Ave all look like normal Minneapolis signals instead of what you typically find out in the ‘burbs.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Some exceptions, tho. The new signals at Portland/Lyndale and Crosstown appear to be MnDOT equipment, as well as 54th/Hiawatha (although those are all on a border). Also, the signal on Cedar Ave for buses to turn onto WB Crosstown, bypassing the cloverleaf. That is undoubtedly in the City of Minneapolis, although unusually on a freeway.

        I can’t think why Glenwood/Lyndale/94 would be in any of those exception categories. On Street View, they still look like five-head “left turn yield on green” as of Sept 2014.

        1. Monte Castleman Post author

          I think the light being talked about is at 10th and Glenwood. And there’s one on the U of M. These are definitely Minneapolis installations, but the only two I know of. Meanwhile dozens of yield on greens have gone up after these two.

          And having the single Minneapolis maintained high pressure sodium light on the Cedar ramp looks stupid amid the sea of the new Mn/DOT LED lights.

        2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

          The county or MnDOT have always maintained the signals at the Crosstown ramps. Probably because the Crosstown is along the city line, the agreement between MnDOT and Minneapolis doesn’t apply to the Crosstown.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            Appear to be Hennepin County signals as of 2008. I suppose that could just be a holdover from when Crosstown was Hennepin County’s freeway.

            Or does MnDOT just use Hennepin County posts sometimes on Hennepin roads? I notice that the relatively new (2006ish?) signals at Cedar Ave and 66th St are Hennepin-style posts, although I assume the lights are managed by MnDOT.

            Also curious detail: that old Portland/Crosstown interchange has crosswalks on the inside of the diamond.

            1. Monte Castleman Post author

              Portland and 62 has 12″ Alusig vehicle heads. These were discontinued right around the time that the great Hennepin highway swap happened, so this is almost assuredly a remnant from county control.

              I’d assume Cedar and 66th are county signals. Mn/DOT usually builds and owns signals at ramp terminals and delegates maintenance to local agencies, but thre are plenty of exceptions. France and I-494, or the good example of the new Hennepin county standard at US 169 and County 30 near Osseo.

          2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            Also weird: Penn/Crosstown has the Hennepin County-style signals, although it’s presumably replaced at the same time as the Portland ones. Xerxes (not replaced as part of that project) has MnDOT style.

            Perhaps I’m straining to find a pattern that isn’t really there.

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