Notes from the Field

  • by Ken Ames
  • August 25, 2014

In Praise of Roundabouts

I set off yesterday afternoon on an automobile trip to the bank. I can sense that you are already unsympathetic. Why don’t I do my banking online and stay off the road? But the bank is not the point here. The point is time and the nature of travel itself. The route I took was a familiar one. First a turn to the left, then another to the left and one to the right. All fine so far. But then the red light. If I had wanted to go right, I would have been on my way; Pennsylvania allows a right turn on red. But I wanted to turn left and that meant waiting.

I have no problem with waiting my turn. Nor do I wish to be seen as one of those restless, impatient American, always in a rush. That’s not it. It’s just the senseless waiting at an intersection when there are no cars coming either way and thus no real reason to stop. Except for that red light.

While pausing there for nearly two minutes with the car’s engine idling away, fumes lightly wafting into the air, thoughts of driving in France came gently to my mind. Yes, there are traffic lights in France. Quite a few of them. But there are also roundabouts.  And it is about the benefits of roundabouts that I sing today. They make so much sense. Look left, go right. I wish that I had thought to count roundabouts when we first set out on our most recent trip to France. We didn’t, so I could only guess how many we went through, but the number was considerable. Sometimes you could simply slide into the roundabout, only slowing enough to navigate the turn. In other cases, it really was necessary to stop for other traffic already in or entering. The point is that one only stopped when the flow of traffic made it necessary. Little or no traffic in the roundabout, little or no waiting. It all makes so much sense. 

And since it does, I find myself wondering why roundabouts are so rare in this country. While waiting for yet another red light to change to green, I often find myself measuring the area taken up by the intersection and mentally calculating whether a roundabout could fit into the same space. I am sure that it often would. But, of course, roads are only half of the travel equation. Vehicles are the other half. And that may be where the plot thickens. 

Cars in Europe are, on average, smaller than cars in this country. Not a novel observation, of course, but for me, at least, the source of one of the chief delights of travel there. It is not just old towns and cities, ancient buildings, and the like that differ from what we have here in the United States but contemporary material culture as well and automobiles in particular. It is true that no place in Europe seems to be immune to invasion by large Mercedes equally familiar here but they are in the minority. Far more common, in France at any rate, are all of those many models of Renault, Peugeot, Citroën, and others that we never see in this country. Travel in France offers an ongoing exhibition of contemporary European automobile design and the show is very impressive. Having small cars in France or elsewhere in Europe is not wholly a matter of choice but it does incline one to consider the possibility that cars in this country are rather larger than they need to be. A matter worth pondering at some point….

But it is not just large cars that make the idea roundabouts in this country problematic. Imagine trucks hauling fifty-three-foot trailers entering the average French roundabout. The maximum allowable length of a trailer in France (and nearly everywhere else is Europe) is 12 meters, or just a hair under 40 feet. A little elementary geometry leads one to recognize that American-size trucks could not navigate the average French roundabout.  Vehicles must conform to the roads they travel and vice-versa. The scale is smaller in France and larger here. Whether that is the real reason for the paucity of roundabouts in the United States I do not know, but they have a positive function in smoothing the flow of traffic and make good sense where employed.

So, to the many delights of travel in France, add driving a wonderful little car that you can’t buy here over secondary roads and around the many roundabouts that dot the landscape. For the best effect, lease a small diesel with five forward gears and make driving through roundabouts into a dance of sorts. For one feature of roundabouts I have not mentioned here is that they can be fun. I don’t know anyone who would say that about waiting for red lights to turn green.



Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.


1 Comment
November 1, 2014

For reasons unknown, the Wisconsin DOT has begun to install roundabouts in the midsection of the state (In a belt I have noticed from Madison up towards Green Bay) and when getting my DL renewed in Michigan, I noted a flier on 'How to navigate a roundabout". So the idea is catching on. And indeed, traffic engineers have long known that the roundabout has higher throughput than a controlled intersection. It is more interesting, however, to think about the roundabout vs. the traffic light as manifestations of two different societies and the implications of control/freedom and obedience/autonomy in North America vs. Europe, respectively. Isn't it fascinating that a country that praises the freedom of the open road (as well as the free individual) has so much more controlling traffic technologies? Or perhaps we praise the open road because so many of them are anything but open.

Posted By Steve Walton

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