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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

Roundabout beauty

In another blog entry I reflect on the nature and content of screensaver imagery on such platforms as Windows and Amazon Prime (see XXX). This entry is about one particular example that Windows chose to add to my screen, which I have reproduced here. (In fact, I have instead sourced another image of the same subject that I don’t think is subject to copyright.)

What do you see? A beautiful bridge designed to complement a stunning natural environment? Or a roundabout? I see both.

In fact, looking closely, it is not quite a roundabout but instead a contrived divergence of a two-way road, which I think technically makes it a dual carriageway. But describing it like that would complete my massacre of the construction as an elegant piece of civil engineering.

Why my preoccupation of what it is? Well, I happen to love roundabouts and this stems from my Master’s degree in Transport three decades ago. I learned the art and science of roundabouts; about ideal geometries and engineering tolerances; how to balance out priorities from their different arms (not always possible); how their greater upfront cost and sometimes higher land take is almost always better in the long run through near-zero technical complexity and ongoing maintenance – apart from pruning the plants in the middle.

But the true joy of roundabouts is the conferring of responsibility on the road user and not some centralised agency that sets up and manages complicated traffic light sequences, telling you when and when you cannot move. By means of a single, simple rule (priority to those already on the roundabout), any competent and responsible road user can interact appropriately with other road users and make his or her own way accordingly.

In the late 1990s I was briefly a junior member of a team working on a prototype automated supermarket replenishment programme, then pretty cutting edge. The strategic guru was a Dutchman who had developed a whole philosophy around user-controlled navigation through complexity using simple rules with the aim of enabling cost-effective mass customisation. In googling his name, I see he is still around and active and I wonder how much of his vision from those largely pre-internet days has actually now come about. Pretty much all of it, I imagine.

The reason I mention this consulting guru is that one of his prime examples was what he described the excellent British common-sense invention and deployment of the roundabout. At the time, continental road engineering practice was largely traffic-light based, to the point that in France the roundabout was known by that ultimate pejorative term “rond point Anglais”. This has all changed these days, even in France, although only recently have the last vestiges of the “priority to get on the roundabout” been rooted out across Europe that in the old days provided such entertainment from the top of the Eiffel Tower. (I’m not going to comment on who actually invented the roundabout, given this obvious non-British example.)

So, in short, the roundabout is intended as an instrument of liberation, of freeing from the tyranny of control by traffic light. Yes, I know, it doesn’t always feel that way but as someone who in learning to drive regularly navigated the “magic roundabout” in Hemel Hempstead, in which one large roundabout is encircled by a ring of what was then six mini-roundabouts, I am biased. Particularly given that the local sport was to adopt a slightly aggressive driving technique that guaranteed non-stop passage around the entire daisy chain at will, everyone else deferentially demurring. The roundabout was such a celebrated local feature that an original sculpture by Auguste Rodin was placed next to it*. (* Actually, the sculpture was there because adjacent to the roundabout was the European headquarters of Kodak.)

Roundabouts, then, are a thing of beauty and, to my expert eye, the only things missing from this stunning construction spanning the water are a completely circular routing option and two additional arms at three o’clock and nine o’clock heading into the local industrial estates.

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Nov 03, 2020

I think traffic flow can be a beautiful and wonderful thing. Human beings navigating simple rules to optimise flow is quite remarkable. I remember some years ago driving in Lebanon and noticing the rules of the road were very different, with fewer traffic lights, often no lane markers outside the cities and roads varying in width. Yet there still seemed to be a way in which flow was optimised.

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