The Staircase With the Traffic Light

Pictured above is a screenshot from Google Maps (it’s here if you want to take a look yourself) of a street in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. There are a dozen or so people standing around doing, seemingly, nothing, and for no obvious reason. Even if you look very closely at the screenshot, there’s only the slightest clue as to what’s going on — there’s a blonde-haired woman facing the gap between the two buildings with her phone out, as if she’s going to take a picture. That’s probably what she’s doing, and there’s good reason why:

She’s facing, perhaps, the world’s only staircase with its very own traffic light.

Here’s another view, via Amusing Planet:

The gap is there for reasons that can only be described as a historical accident. According to a travel blogger (so this isn’t authoritative, but it is the only explanation I can find), this little passageway was created in the 1500s. At the time, per the blog, Prague’s “houses were not usually from bricks, but wood. If a fire broke out, it could spread very quickly,” so the city required spacing between buildings “to stop the fire from spreading across large areas.” Adding stairs only made sense, as the spaces could be used as escape routes in case of emergency, as suggested by Israel National News.

Whether that’s the actual history behind the gap is, per the caveat above, uncertain. But either way, Prague now has a very narrow pedestrian walkway (often called a “street,” but that’s a stretch); at its widest, the passageway is only 28 inches (70 cm) wide, and at its narrowest, it is less than 20 inches (50 cm). Over the years, tourists took notice and their curiosity got the better of many — who could resist wanting to know what was the other end of a creepily narrow set of stairs wedged between two buildings? 

But that created a problem: traffic jams. At 20 inches/50 cm at its narrowest point, you can’t have two people walk side by side. As Atlas Obscura explains, “there’s absolutely no room for two pedestrians approaching from opposite ends to pass one another, which led to quite a few tight situations.” So the city installed a traffic light.

Before entering, pedestrians are supposed to hit a button requesting that the light change in their favor. (You can see the button on the right side of the passageway walls in the image above; on the opposite side of the pathway, seen here, the button is on the outer wall.) Unfortunately, there are plenty of times when tourists or other visitors ignore the button, and there have been many situations where pedestrians do in fact enter from both sides, and as a result, at least one has to about-face and exit the way they came in.

There are no credible reports of anyone getting stuck between the buildings. 

Bonus fact: The walkway above has something the entire country of Bhutan lacks. As the Tourism Council of Bhutan notes, the nation is “is the only country without a single traffic light.” It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. As the BBC reported, “the capital Thimphu was home to Bhutan’s sole traffic light – for just 24 hours. It was quickly removed to be replaced by a now-famous policeman who directs traffic with flamboyant, white-gloved hand movements from the middle of what is one of the city’s busiest streets.” Apparently, drivers were ignoring the light, causing the potential for more accidents than the intersection had previously seen.

From the Archives: Spite Thy Neighbor: Instead of building a staircase in a gap, why not put a house there?