originally published July 9, 2013
The astute scholars of classic prog-rock in my audience will recognize today’s title as lyrics from the brilliant 1972 kick-off track from Yes’ Fragile album, “Roundabout.” This is my attempt at the clumsiest introduction in my 556 day history, as today’s topic is about that bane of so many drivers’ confounded experiences – the roundabout. Or the traffic circle. Whichever.
I have lived in Edmonton (located conveniently closer to the arctic circle than any other capital city in Canada, dammit) for all but three months of my life, and eighteen of those years were spent within two blocks of what I have always called a traffic circle. I remember being taught that Canadians have traffic circles, Europeans have roundabouts (which I assumed to be a fancy way of saying the same thing, like how they call pants ‘trousers’ or how they call coffee ‘jiggly-juice’), and Americans have none of the above.
That may have been close enough to pass for the truth back in the 80’s, but the reality is quite different today.
Also, I think I have been using the wrong term for the greater part of four decades.
A modern roundabout, as developed by the United Kingdom Transport Research Laboratory in the mid-20th century, is quickly becoming the standard around the world. When approaching one of these, you must yield to any and all traffic already swooshing around inside the roundabout. By contrast, many traffic circles give the right of way to entering traffic, meaning folks already in the circle have to slow down or stop completely to allow new traffic to enter. That’s one point for roundabout safety, and one point in favor of my city’s circular intersections actually being roundabouts.
Roundabouts are set up with little ‘splitter islands’ – mini-medians around which you must maneuver so that you enter the circle a little slower than the speed limit. Traffic circles usually have no splitter islands, so that traffic roars in at full-throttle, or else they require a 90-degree turn, meaning entering cars are moving awkwardly slow in comparison to the cars already in the circle. From a roundabout, you can exit from the inside lane, but from a traffic circle, you usually have to switch to the outside lane before you exit. That’s because of monstrous traffic circles like this:
Technically, ‘roundabout’, ‘traffic circle’, and even ‘rotary’ are all listed in the dictionary as being synonyms of one another. But according to the official definition, it looks like the circular doohickies in Edmonton are indeed roundabouts. My piece of trivia about the non-existence of roundabouts in the US is also terribly outdated; ever since the first American modern roundabout sprung up in Summerlin, Nevada in 1990, more than 3000 have been laid down around the country.
And why shouldn’t they? Roundabouts are technically safer than standard intersections. Because of the way cars merge into the circle, you’re looking at side-swipe damage instead of the more common T-bone or head-on collisions in a regular intersection. As long as you know how to use them, roundabouts are much safer… unless you’re on a bicycle.
Cyclists hate these things. And the worst thing a city can do is slap a bike lane around the outside of the circle. When a cyclist has a lane around the outside, they always have the right of way. So this means cars exiting the roundabout have to slam on their brakes if a cyclist is scooting past that exit to the next one. Often they don’t. You can see how that would be a problem.
Over in Shanghai, they came up with a clever solution to this problem. The Lujiazui traffic circle features an elevated pedestrian and bike circle – not a common solution for most roundabouts, but with as much traffic as this intersection sees, it makes sense.
Some smaller British intersections feature ‘mini-roundabouts’, which have either a painted circle or an easily traversable bump in the middle. Cars can scoot right through if traffic is light, or treat it like a normal roundabout when they’ve got company on the road. It may sound dangerous to leave that judgment call in the hands of motorists, but I’m sure smarter people than I have decided that system works.
Where traffic is particularly heavy in Great Britain and Ireland, they’ve put up traffic signals in the middle of the roundabouts. We have one such intersection in this city, and it’s a great way to confuse tourists or new drivers who have just gotten used to the rules of a regular roundabout. As a special reward, Sherbrooke Liquor, the greatest beer store in our city, is accessible from this roundabout, so it’s worth learning how to navigate the thing.
In numerous countries around the world, roundabouts are constructed with tram service in mind, so that drivers have to yield to roundabout traffic, but also to the trams that might be approaching from another angle. Our local light-rail transit system is sufficiently pathetic so as to ensure that problem never comes up in our city.
If you want to really stretch your brain to the point of acute whatthefuckery, check out the Magic Roundabout in Swindon, England. In a magic roundabout, you can scoot around the perimeter like a normal person, or you can hook into the inner circle, which flows in the opposite direction. This means you can avoid taking the long way around (magic roundabouts tend to have five or six exits), or shoot through the middle and take the shortcut.
Essentially what you end up with is five mini-roundabouts inside one giant one.
If that makes your stomach lurch a little bit at the thought of figuring it out on the fly, you’re not alone. The magic roundabout in Swindon was voted the fourth scariest junction in Britain back in 2009.
Whatever the proper term may be – and I think I may be too old to switch to ‘roundabout’ now, especially when almost everyone else in this city calls them ‘traffic circles’ – these things are a great way to speed up traffic flow. They don’t kill off rush-hour congestion completely, but you also never find yourself sitting at a red light while an empty intersecting street has the right of way. The numbers don’t lie – in cities contemplating building a roundabout, public opinion usually chimes in at about 68% against it. After they open up, their approval rating lands somewhere between 73 and 87%.
If you’re really nuts about them, there’s a Roundabout Appreciation Society in the UK who will cater to your passion – no doubt there are a few members in France where, with 30,000 in their roads, they possess roughly half the world’s total roundabouts. The R.A.S. was founded by Kevin Beresford after a calendar of twelve roundabouts sold an unexpected 100,000 copies worldwide. According to an article in The Sun, the society wants to become “a bit more sexy”, so they dropped a windmill on the front of this year’s calendar. You know, to attract more women.