Roundabouts make better intersections

I hate cars.

But really what I hate are the changes attendant on cars: the distance, the ugliness, the isolation, the fear. I hate the distance between houses, between shops, between here and there. I hate the ugliness of vast, often empty, parking lots. I hate the isolation of people within cars. I hate the fear of large vehicles bearing down on you at high speed. Cars may reduce travel time for some of us but make all of us further apart.

I read some time ago that Americans have an odd sense of distance. When asked how far something is they give the answer in units of time–fifteen minutes, an hour–rather than distance, a mile or two. Our sense of distance is tightly tied to speed, to how long it takes to get somewhere. We have no sense of what a mile is.

This morning on WAMC’s Roundtable there was some discussion of the pending infrastructure spending plan, and the topic of roundabouts came up about 55 minutes in. Alan Chartock doesn’t like the thought of replacing traffic lights with roundabouts because he thinks they slow down traffic.

Alan: “…and we can’t really afford to make mistakes. Somebody wrote–I forget who I don’t have it in front of me [Me: That was probably No. 1 Son.]–that instead of lights we should have traffic circles. Well, I disagree with that.”
Ray: “Why? They work very well.”
Alan: “Excuse me, I haven’t finished my sentence yet.”
Ray: “Fine. Go ahead.”
Alan: “and uh, traffic circles I tend to–there are a lot of them in New Jersey I don’t want to start up on New Jersey so I won’t right now–but I’m gonna tell you right now: Route 7 is the major artery that goes through Great Barrington and all the way up into Williamstown and everything else. If you start putting traffic circles in as they do in New Jersey and other places and you’re going to see a very slow traffic pattern. I’m opposed to–“
Ray: “Well, you are wrong, sir.”
Alan: “I’m right, sir.”
Ray: “You’re incorrect.”

Alan Chartock is confusing traffic circles with roundabouts–the difference is in who has the right of way–but may be right to blame New Jersey. New Jersey helped pioneer a number of traffic designs, including incorrectly specifying who should have right-of-way at a circular intersection. Giving entering traffic the right-of-way in traffic circles causes traffic in the circle to stop, thus defeating the purpose of the design, which is to clear the intersection.

If there’s one thing I hate worse than driving, it is stopping. Traffic flows faster through a roundabout than through a traffic light for one very simple reason: you don’t stop.

Roundabouts even out traffic flow, reduce accidents, function during power outages, and, even if traffic throughput is your only consideration, they, along with four-way stop signs, are the most efficient way to govern an intersection.

What traffic lights do do is direct attention to the light and not the road. People drive faster because they are ignoring their surroundings. People get into accidents because they are ignoring their surroundings. And people almost hit new driver No. 2 Daughter while she’s making a left-hand turn because they don’t slow down for intersections because they have a green light to go fast and are ignoring their surroundings.

There is one valid argument against roundabouts: lack of space for their construction. And this is where one would use a stop sign.

But what about 10-lane highways like Queens Boulevard? Or 4-lane highways like U. S. Route 9?

First, WTF are you doing building 10-lane highways like the Queens Boulevard of Death? Second, I think you’re missing the point of roads. Roads connect the people who live along them, not the two points at the ends of a line. The point of roads is most emphatically not speeding from point A to point B. A 4-lane semi-divided highway is a design decision based on the invalid assumption that one can fit more vehicles on a given road by widening the road. While seemingly correct, it is wrong in practice because any given road is not isolated from all other roads. Parallel paths offering alternate routes are a better solution, because a net holds more than one strand does.

I’ll ignore here that some roads are built a certain way because of legal limitations on public action, so that expanding an existing right-of-way is easier than building a new one. It remains that the engineering problem is naively seen as simply one of speed rather than convenience, and favors straight lines over curves, single paths over multiple, and cars over everything else.

I hate cars.

Because what I like is to walk. Perhaps the American Jobs Plan will help put in some sidewalks.