In the sticks of my childhood, we had to use our imaginations at times to find diversion. Once the state highway bypass down the road at the capitol was integrated into the Interstate Highway system and extended through our back woodlots, we had a regular source of entertainment dropped into our laps. The start of every major holiday produced a steady stream of flatlanders coming north for their amusement. The end of every major holiday produced a steady stream of flatlanders heading south for our amusement.
You see, near the centre of the capitol was a highway feature which, in our innocence, we called a "traffic circle." Highway engineers blanched with horror at this term and hastened to say, "no, it's a rotary
." Either way, it was a colossal choke point. A couple of miles up the road, we innocent country children would gather on the overpass with spitballs, peashooters and ripe vocabulary, and mock the fuming flatlanders, lined up past the horizon, as they edged toward the traff...err...rotary
at two miles per hour.
Eventually, even the most stalwart engineering defenders of rotaries seemed to throw in their hand. Most disappeared. Here on the North Shore, we maintain a few as museum pieces and as places to annoy commuters and drive tourists mad. We also have the so-called Bell Circle in Revere. After a generation as a traffic nightmare, this was "improved" with changes which pretty much took geometry out of the equation, and which made the normal rush-hour delay twice as long from twice as many directions.
This would simply be reminiscence save for one unsettling detail. These things
are back, backed by a prodigious public relations effort
. (I used to be in that business: I know hype when I smell it.) The hype assures us that it's OK: They're roundabouts
. And oh my stars and garters, don't dare call them traffic circles or rotaries. They're new and different, just like rotaries were new and different when they replaced traffic circles. We have this
, for example, and this
, from Minnesota, which prissily dismisses criticism of roundabouts as opposition to change. A few minutes of googling will find you many others. If you should follow those links and detect a similarity between them, the New Hampshire DOT's defense of roundabouts below, and the representations of Roundabouts USA, it might be coincidence. Then again, it might be what public relations does best: sparing journalists, customers, and the public the trouble of thinking.
Now of course, it's all different, because we've borrowed a British expression and that makes an old idea all right: sort of like watching your mayhem on Masterpiece Mystery
instead of Law and Order: SVU.
The PR blitz has been much more successful in some places than in others. My unscientific survey suggests that less metropolitan places are more vulnerable to these pitches than places like Boston, where we never stopped having to fight our way through the goddam things every day. We are disinclined to acquiesce to their requests: means no
I had my first inkling that these monstrosities were back this spring, just west of Peterborough, NH. They've built a strip mall on the only piece of flat ground between Peterborough's principal traffic light and the Dublin, NH town line. This was apparently because the previous strip mall adjacent to the light wasn't good enough. So fine: this new mall has been there for a couple of years, but now it has a roundabout.
Roundabouts USA, whose name suggests they're willing to jump up and take resp--um, credit for this revival, will tell you how important it is to use roundabouts to control traffic flow. This is very important in Peterborough—at what we'll call exhibit A—in the middle of an area with a population density under 50 per square mile. The only time it gets anything approximating traffic flow is probably on Friday night. Second, we're told it moderates traffic. Uh-huh. From the east, exhibit A is approached by a state highway with a half mile of six percent uphill grade from that light I mentioned. Any semi-trailer unlucky enough to get caught at the light down that hill is moving about three mph when it reaches exhibit A. From the north, it's approached only by the driveway from the strip mall. From the west, it's approached by the state highway coming down
two or three miles of six percent grade. Exhibit A is so effective at slowing traffic from this direction that there are now rumble strips every 100 feet or so for the half mile or so preceding it, to let those of us who still freewheel down hills like this know that there's an obstruction at the bottom. There is no entry from the south.
Roundabouts USA and its customers also assure us that roundabouts
are scientifically designed to moderate traffic flow. (I suppose the rotaries were designed by crop circle cultists?) The scientific designers of exhibit A were clearly biased in favour of small vehicles: like motor scooters. Exhibit A's diameter doesn't allow a typical highway semi to get around it without cutting over the middle: I've seen this for myself. My wife's Scion can just about make the turn. I'd like to be there on a Friday night and watch the local stream of SUVs, pickups and vintage rides work around this thing.
I was prepared to think that exhibit A was an aberration: a weak moment on the part of the Peterborough selectfolk, but no, they've sold the state
. Keene, NH has , at present count, two new "roundabouts" in addition to its good old-fashioned traffic circle at the centre of the city. Only one of them even remotely resembles the ideal of the modern, scientific
They do slow traffic though: very dramatically, says my sister-in-law the OR nurse, who plays a part in picking up the pieces after the traffic is slowed by serious to fatal accidents. Never mind: if the evolutionary record is anything to go by, in a few years it should be impossible to make any speed at all approaching these roundabouts.
There were well-established interests advocating these trafficy roundy things
when they first appeared, more than 100 years ago. Those of us who derived part of our childish amusement from them were happy they were disappearing by the time we became drivers. But that was only rotaries.
As it happens, I'm all for change, when the term involves forward motion and new ideas, not recycled oats
. When last I looked, doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result was the definition of insanity. Besides, when I need a lecture on forward thinking from Minnesota, I'll call Garrison Keillor.
Labels: public relations, roundabouts, traffic