I am disgusted by myself. Four days in Britain, and I have fallen in love. And with roundabouts, no less.
I am an American, and so I am supposed to hate the things. In my Florida hometown, whenever the technocratic city planners insist on installing another one, supposedly for everybody’s good, people immediately become frustrated by them and bump into each other constantly. We Yanks curse the things. I fully shared the sentiments of my countrypeople. “Just give me a damn traffic light that tells me when to go and when to stop,” I would grumble. I recited the American national motto: Don’t make me have to think.
And then I came here, and I rented a car, and I drove all over the place, and I came to love roundabouts so much that I nearly wept when I saw a particularly good one. Roundabouts, you see, are magic. They are magic for reasons you do not necessarily notice until you have been through about 60 of them, as I have. Once they become second nature, once you no longer feel a sense of impending terror at the site of them, but instead a kind of excitement and an urge to go “WHEEEE” as you hurtle round them, you may come, as I did, to honor and adore the roundabout and pledge your loyalty to it for all eternity.
Here is the main thing I think non-appreciators of roundabouts are not appreciating: In a city of roundabouts, you spend far less time sitting stopped uselessly. In Florida, we had a grid system with traffic lights, and it made everything very easy to understand, but it also meant that you would spend half your time zipping along at 50 mph and half your time idling at 0 mph waiting for the light to change. Often, there would be no traffic coming in the other direction, and you would just be sitting there. You could go, if you were permitted to use your judgment rather than Obey The Rules, but the light said no, and in our freedom-loving country we force mandatory obedience to the demands of lights.
If you had a roundabout, you would be moving by now. If nothing is coming, you can sail right through it. You do a lot more slowing down, but a lot less actual stopping. And frankly, for me that makes driving a hell of a lot more interesting. Navigating British roads feels like a bit of an amusement park ride, with fast bits and slow bits and constantly whirling around circles. I absolutely hate idling uselessly (both in cars and in life), and roundabouts follow the quite sensible principle: If there is nothing coming, then of course you can go.
The second, far more boring, reason that roundabouts are great is that they kill far fewer people. You are three times more likely to be injured or killed in a traffic light collision than in a collision at a roundabout. Looking at the two, it’s obvious why. Things happen at a traffic light that could never happen in a roundabout. Someone can scream through it at 55 mph and plow into someone making a left turn. At a roundabout, you can’t get a head-on collision, unless some American has entered it the wrong way. You might glide into the side of a fellow roundabouter, but while your car will be bruised you will likely not be. Traffic engineers love roundabouts because, while they have more minor collisions—since the light isn’t telling people what to do, they have to figure more out for themselves—more people are left alive at the end of the year than would have been with traffic lights.
But I am only beginning to touch on the special magic of roundabouts. What truly amazes me, the thing that makes the tears gush from my eyes, is the entry-exit priority system and the elegance of the lane design. How can you not look at this and be amazed?
What makes this so easy to use is the fact that once you are in the roundabout, you have priority over people who are not in the roundabout. So, the people at the bottom right are simply waiting for a gap, which will occur anytime someone in the roundabout goes down the road the orange car is going down. Then they can hop into the roundabout themselves, and spin ’round it to whichever of the four available roads they want to go down. If they miss their turn, as I have, they can go round it again, and they don’t have to worry that cars outside the roundabout are going to come in and cut them off, because that’s not how it works when you’re King Of The Roundabout. The people must defer to the King until the King leaves and they enter and become the new King Of The Roundabout. (Yes, this is how I am imagining it when I am driving.)
Then there are mini-roundabouts, which at first I also hated, because they’re simply a white circle painted on the tarmac that you are supposed to treat as if it’s a proper roundabout, and they’re easy to miss and thereby annoy other drivers. But they, too, have their virtues. They make it easy to turn across a busy street, because again, once you’re in the roundabout, you’re the King and you can get off wherever you like. (Here‘s a helpful roundabout etiquette guide provided by the town government of Whitchurch-Stoufville in Canada.)
As with any good thing, you can go too far. There is a roundabout in Swindon known as the “magic roundabout.” It consists of five small roundabouts combined in a circle to form one gigantic roundabout, and you can go around the big roundabout either counterclockwise or clockwise depending on how you use the little roundabouts. Here is what it looks like:
I do not think this roundabout is magic. I think it shows a country becoming too pleased with itself and getting carried away. It makes me want to be an American again. If they ever try to build one of these monsters in New Orleans, I will join the squadron of angry locals who march to destroy it in the night.
Nevertheless, my loyalties remain circular. The anarchist in me, who does not like deferring to the authority of little red lights, likes the freedom to go when it is safe rather than when the timer has arbitrarily decided. The public safety policy technocrat in me likes the fact that fewer people will be horribly maimed and injured, and more people will be around to watch their children grow up. The aesthete in me loves the beautiful mixture of complexity and simplicity, the way that roundabouts follow rhythms more than rules.
There are many things I will not miss about Britain when I leave. But I will pine for roundabouts until the end of my driving days.
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.