Mood swings and roundabouts

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Whilst the US favours the intersection, here we often use roundabouts to funnel our traffic this way and that.

When motor cars were young- and slow,  the roundabout seemed the perfect solution to everyone. It depended heavily on weaving theory – which, if I understand it correctly, is all about how, with a continuous stretch of road, vehicles can often cross lanes without causing disruption to the flow.

It worked perfectly with model T Fords and other ancient bunclacters, but as cars got faster, and there were more of them, this caused a huge problem on roundabouts.

As Edmund Waddell, Transport Planner for the State of Michigan, observed:  “Built in 1907, the Place de l’Etoille surrounds the Arc de Triumph with a twelve-leg, twelve-lane traffic circle, and a circulating roadway 38 meters wide. 7 After the war, U.S. occupation forces visiting Paris would have seen the Place de l’Etoille jammed with nearly 20,000 vehicles per hour and frequent crashes. ”

Circles, which should be the epitome of order, were reduced to chaos. And the US took one look at this and halted development of the roundabout concept.

The Brits had other ideas. They were not about to take no for an answer. The convention for a roundabout had always been that those on the roundabout simply allowed those entering it on. But what, they wondered, would happen if people coming onto the roundabout had to stop and give way?

It solved the problem. Seamlessly. “A roundabout IS geometry, Wadell said. “Unlike a signal, roundabout performance is entirely controlled by geometry and markings. ”

Which is probably why the Brits, consummate queuers, rule-book junkies, love them so much.

Or do we? Our road planners use them mercilessly. And I remember Phil coming in one day and explaining how he came up to a mini-roundabout at exactly the same time as two other motorists came to the other entrances onto the tiny circle. “We all went on,” he said “and it worked. No-one crashed. Everyone went on their way. Sorted.”

And that’s how you handle a roundabout. Whilst one must wait for a gap and then launch into the melée, there is an extent to which you can play the system and use that weaving theory to its utmost.

But on occasion, you just have to push.

It helps in this situation to have an ancient car with several battle scars so that everyone is well aware you have nothing to lose. Like a dog with ragged ears the pedigree cars are likely to give way to protect their sassy paint jobs.

Step 1: check who’s where in the mirror. Step 2: signal your intention. And Chevy Chase. this is for you: step 3, gently , firmly, inexorably, move towards that which you desire: the exit to the roundabout.

Even a London Cabbie, wth all his swagger, will stop when the rules says he has to.

That’s easier said than done when your roundabout has five or six tiny mini roundabouts circling it. When roundabouts hunt in packs it’s best to be respectful.

I have tackled the Magic Roundabout: that maelstrøm in Swindon, Wiltshire which answers to the above description. I was fortunate enough to be always glancing off it, never heading to its eye. That would be a Herculean labour and I fear I, like Chevy, would be still circling once darkness had come, looking helplessly for the way out.

Written in rather late response (with apologies to Sidey) to Side View’s last weekend theme: Swings and Roundabouts, which you can find here.


48 thoughts on “Mood swings and roundabouts

  1. We have some of the reasonable sized ones, then Johannesburg went CRAZY! We have what I call fried-eggs at normal 2-road intersections. They are built-up humps painted yellow in the middle with white around the yellow. They force you into the craziest contortions to turn right – you go a bit left then keep a hard lock on the right turn till you come out at what should have been a 90 degree turn (except you have done over 100 degree turn because if that first forced move to the left.).

    Actually I think the bigger roundabouts (we call them traffic circles) do work well.

    1. The problem is, we Californian’s don’t know how to use them. There was one I didn’t realize was a roundabout until my second time around the loop – luckily, it was 10 PM.
      I suppose it’s better to have a roundabout that allows you to legally do what we call the “California Roll” – come up slowly to a stop sign, and then proceed on without actually stopping.

    1. It’s one of mine, Roger, and I was being indulgent. I invented it when I was two.
      Chevy Chase never fails to make me laugh out loud in that film. Makes you want to reach for the popcorn and watch the whole thing!

  2. I love the video, so funny. We have a few one or two lane traffic circles here in the Charleston area and I find it hilarious to see how people approach them, absolutely no concept as to the rules of a roundabout. Some just fly into the circle with no regard to anyone else’s position while others will sit forever and forever and forever until NO ONE ELSE is on the roundabout….AAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH. Oh, yes, don’t get me started on 3 way or 4 way Stop signs, where patience and understanding go to die. Blood pressure check is now required, un momento por favor.

    1. That’s the thing about roundabouts, Lou – it helps if everyone knows the rules. I live in a town notorious for its roundabouts, so much so that our tyre treads give us away at tyre shops. If there’s one thing we do seamlessly, en masse, it’s get left.

  3. I was thinking this only the other day Kate on the way to Leek to see friends. Also do you think roundabouts are getting bigger? – there is probably a blog devoted to them and I will endeavour to find out.

    1. In my town they definitely are, Jim. We have some outrageous roundabouts, with great underpasses underneath them. I’d love to track dwn a roundabout blog. I’d say it would get serious ratings here in the UK.

      1. I am on holiday next week Kate and will put it on my list of things to do. I follow a burglar alarm blog for my sins. Who’d have guessed there were so many!

    1. It is. Shut your eyes and Be The Roundabout. Actually the mother of an ex-boyfriend just ploughed straight across one in Basingstoke once. Left tyre marks in the lawn they insist on carpeting the middle section with.,

    1. We have a few which are light controlled, too, Rafael. By the time the lights go in one is so traumatised by daily battle with the roundabout it is a relief to see them blink on at rush hours.

  4. “Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament” – yep. Our mantra through many-a-vacation and traffic ordeal. It is uttered on expressways, by-ways, country roads – and in Chicago, where there are no roundabouts, but might as well be for all the one way streets., When we were in Concord, MA a few years ago, it was shouted like an obscenity as we tried to navigate one there. We finally did, got out of the car, and sat on a bench, eating ice cream cones, trying to figure it all out. Ice cream cones solve many problems. So funny, Kate, what seems so easy comes so hard when one is not accustomed to it. The really funny thing is, once we got home, we were soon headed over for dinner at a house in a nearby ‘burb we’d never been to. What to our wondering eyes should appear, but, a roundabout. It has to be the only roundabout hereabouts. We almost turned around and came home “sorry, folks, we can’t come to dinner, we already ate a roundabout”. tee hee

    Actually, there are several spots here in the States that are seriously looking at using roundabout (other than the east coast, which already does).

    1. I’ve heard they might be making a comeback, Penny! I’ll watch that space! Roundabouts can have a very similar effect on me, especially ones in London.

  5. Oh, my that Magic Roundabout sign would throw me for a LOOP! :mrgreen:

    In New Jersey (next to New York City), we had a number of traffic circles to feed traffic from corridor to corridor. Now, traffic circles are added in and taken out depending on how busy the road. For mid-range traffic volume, they work great. But if traffic congestion exceeds a certain level, then signaled intersections keep traffic moving at a smoother pace.

  6. We have some roundabouts here, and they stress me out. I’m always scared I won’t get off! But somehow, I always do, and then I think, “Hmm, that was much quicker than a traffic light.” But the next time I use it, I’m anxious again…

    1. I think you have to be using them constantly to become blasé about them, Carrie. I went to Cornwall where there are fewer for a year or two, and when I got back to my new town I had to get used to them all over again.

  7. I don’t mind one-way roundabouts, we have them here in New England, but in England, you actually have two-way roundabouts, and that exceeds my tolerance for insanity. The dread combination of roundabout, driving on the other side (I won’t say wrong side but that did occur to me first) and two way traffic was just too much! I survived, and I didn’t even pull a Chevy Chase. But I have no desire to repeat the experience. 🙂

    1. Do you mean roundabouts which have two directions of traffic on them? I haven’t come across any, bdh, and I think that would certainly give me the heebie jeebies! I wouldn’t be repeating it any time soon either!

      1. Yes, Kate, two different directions of traffic circling a median in opposite directions with elaborate lane markings for rights and lefts, none of which were where I thought they should be. Holy Nocturnal Nightmares! It was night-time, and I was driving from Cheltenham to Heathrow. Never again! Don’t ask me where it was. It lives mostly in my nightmares now, but maybe my husband remembers. He wasn’t driving.

  8. Here in New England, contrarians that we are with our roots still stretching towards British soil, we still have a fair amount of “rotaries” or “traffic circles.” With the exception of the traffic all hurtling to the left instead of the right, I’m confident I could handle even the Magic Roundabout.

  9. Kate, a lovely dissertation.
    Just to let you know we left our mobile phones at home.
    I am answering this from WiFi at the Don Paco hotel in Sevilla, Spain!
    if you find time to whisper a sweet nothing to my tomatoes in the back yard,
    I would be real grateful.
    my email will be unchanged

  10. That roundabout hurts my eyes, Kate… and makes me dizzy! There’s a double-mini-roundabout in Holmes Chapel, Cheshire, that makes my head spin when I approach it… I know we are always meant to look right, but the simple rules are easily forgotten when you’re in a bit of a spin! Closing one’s eyes doesn’t really help either… 😯

  11. I don’t think I could manage. I’m so completely literal that I get in trouble all the time discerning signage. It must be very clear! haha! I’m nearly driven off roads when it says, “turn here,” but it means turn in 100 yards. I would need at least one full hour to decode the Magic Roundabout sign before I’d be confident enough to enter! I never thought about the history or origins of these marvels, and this was a fascinating read. (I also loved your dad’s communication to you through the blog. He knew you’d see it! Love that!)

  12. I was just discussing roundabouts with the kids in the car the other day (when some guy nearly rammed into my car!) – they can be very difficult to negotiate 😉 Roundabouts hunting in packs – hahaha – who would have thought of that (Kate of course). When I was a child and travelling in Europe with my Dad, Mum and three siblings – we got stuck on a spaghetti junction and couldn’t get off for ages – just like Chevy Chase – too ridiculous for words.

  13. Fabulous piece! I see what you mean about the Magic Roundabout – but otherwise, I’ve found they work fine when everyone’s singing from the same song book – you should see what happens here, Kate – makes the Etoille melee seem like a village three way – and I say that as one who’s twice navigated the Etoille, the second time to prove to myself the first wasn’t a fluke! 🙂

  14. I find they work much better than our stupid stops, yields and lights. I think my record number of orbits in London while we tried to figure out where we were supposed to be going was about three.

  15. I hate the roundabout! Hate it! And I blame it on the British contractors after WWII that came over here and installed a roundabout in one of the worst possible places in the city. It is a nightmare because no one really has any idea what they are doing and all I can do is close my eyes when entering praying for the best possible outcome on the other side.

  16. Great post Kate. You Brits left us several, and we – consummate non-queuers, rule-book defiers – are praying the price 😀

  17. I’ve never had to experience Swindon’s Magic Roundabout, and for a long time thought it was a imaginary entity in travellers’ tales, like those urban myths of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. So thank you for the visual confirmation of its existence!

    In rural Pembrokeshire most points where roads meet are simple crossroads or T-junctions. So it comes as a real shock to encounter traffic lights, let alone roundabouts.

    Mind you, the by-passes of our small county town of Haverfordwest must house the National Collection of Roundabouts of Wales, enough for all the motorway junctions between Reading and Bristol. They positively encourage the visitor to drive straight out again.

  18. Some traffic designer put in a roundabout several years ago here in Viera, Florida. For some, it’s a headache and it created quite a fuss. I rarely use it. Unlike Chevy Chase, there is a break in the action and you can get to where you need to go.

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