When I was ten years old, the progressive rock band “Yes” released an unforgettable song called “Roundabout”. The lyrics included trippy phrases like, “… mountains come out of the sky and they stand there…”, and, “… go closer hold the land feel partly no more than grains of sand…” The words made no sense but the melody hooked me with its driving beat and wandering synthesizer. “Roundabout” and “Stairway to Heaven” – both released in 1971 – are perfect examples of my rock music baptism.
Turns out, “Roundabout” was not a metaphor for the song’s underlying message nor even a made-up word. The lyrics really were spawned from an overdose of traffic circles. Yes was on tour and traveling from Aberdeen to Glasgow when its lead singer Jon Anderson says their van passed through “maybe 40 or so” roundabouts. Anderson promptly teamed up with guitarist Steve Howe to produce one of Yes’s biggest hits. Wikipedia dedicates an entire article to “Roundabout” here.
Fifty years forward, roundabouts are more prevalent than ever on our city streets – and in some setups, as mind-boggling to navigate as a Yessong lyric. In a neighborhood near my house, I pass through three consecutive roundabouts to get to a friend’s house. Each has two lanes entering and exiting the circle from four directions. If I’m not conscious of the lane I’m in when I enter a circle, I’ll find myself going round and round before I remember it’s safe to exit from both lanes. If I lose track of which circle I’m in (all three look entirely alike), I’ll exit onto a street nowhere near my friend’s house.
You’d think we’d have them figured out by now since roundabouts first appeared in 1966 and have proliferated ever since. (By definition, we’re talking about circles tight enough to induce centrifugal force, not the more leisurely curves of an urban “rotary”.) The Wall Street Journal reports traffic authorities still toy with public awareness campaigns, signage, and modified roadway designs in an almost desperate effort to reduce roundabout fender-benders.
Here are two lingering oversights with the rules of roundabouts. First, drivers entering the circle sometimes assume they have the right-of-way over drivers already in the circle. Second, drivers approaching a two-lane roundabout don’t check signage to see whether one or both lanes also exit the roundabout. On the latter problem, I admit to several instances where I had to quickly change lanes while circling, just to exit where I needed to. Changing lanes in a roundabout ranks among the scariest driving maneuvers of them all.
Roundabouts really do make a lot of sense, even if drivers never, ever figure them out. They eliminate electronic signal systems or stop signs. They create a safer environment for pedestrians (who only have to look one direction for oncoming traffic instead of three). They force vehicles to slow down, and statistics show a dramatic reduction in the number of T-bone and head-on collisions. Finally, roundabouts require less asphalt to create a new intersection, and are sometimes enhanced with an eye-pleasing landscaped island in the center.
The first time I ever drove in circles was in West Los Angeles. A street known as “Bristol Avenue” earned the nickname “Bristol Circles” by teenage drivers in the neighborhood. That’s because Bristol’s four rotaries allowed for a lively game of “car tag”, where my friends and I would zoom around trying to “tag” each other with the headlights of our cars. If we were really daring (i.e stupid), we included the topmost of Bristol’s four circles, which is bisected by busy, unpredictable Sunset Blvd.
Cities in the northeastern states of the U.S. have some pretty good-sized rotaries these days but for the really daring, it’s hard to beat the giant urban circles in France or the tighter many-tentacled roundabouts in the UK. Paris’s Arc de Triomphe rotary may deserve the title “most vicious circle”. Watch the following video and see if you don’t agree. This rotary may be the genesis of the term “distracted driving”. Note to viewer: no lanes. Note to self: no thanks.