In a roundabout sort of way

This article has been removed. An edited version appears in the book, The People’s Scrum, published by Dymaxicon, May 2013.
Read original comments…

I recently moved to a new apartment, and almost every day I am obliged to drive to and from my home via an incomprehensible junction.  Eventually I was exasperated enough to twitter out loud: “The city of Palo Alto misses the point. A roundabout with stop signs is like a self-organizing team with a manager.”  Figuring I wasn’t the first person to find this arrangement ridiculous, I decided to read a little more about roundabouts, so common in Europe, so sparse in the USA (and so sadly misunderstood in Palo Alto).I found this wonderful page, Q&As: Roundabouts, published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which describes clearly the benefits (and the few limitations) of roundabouts.  There is also a good Wikipedia article.  Take a look.  Road planning is an intriguing metaphor for organizational culture.

Stop signs are very much a controlling, and mistrustful system.  In Palo Alto, there are stop signs on almost every junction… but not every junction, which simply causes confusion to all but long-term residents, and the potential for accidents is high.  It’s as if we are forever being told what to do, and then all of a sudden someone says, oh just do what you like.  Eek!  Every time I cross one of those rare intersections where I have the right of way, I am afraid that the person coming at right angles to me does not know that I have the right of way.  Tiny lettering on an otherwise identical stop sign tells him “two way stop sign”.  Will he read it?  I have no idea; I’ll assume not.  People cannot be trusted in an environment where mistrust is cultivated.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were no stop signs at all?  I’d like to see a city which simply trusts that people will drive responsibly, and provide some guides to assist in that process (roundabouts, road bumps, etc.).  After all, most people would like to not die in a road accident.  Before you cry, no, no!  that could never work, take a look at the statistics. It is known that the introduction of roundabouts seriously reduces intersection collisions, e.g.

“Studies of intersections in Europe and Australia that were converted to roundabouts have reported […] 45-75 percent reductions in severe injury crashes”.

Interesting.  It seems that trusting drivers to be responsible, rather than keeping them under strict control, actually saves lives.  I wonder what the “crash-rate” statistics of command & control companies look like.  Will Agile be the Roundabout of the corporate world?

And what happened in the USA to leave them so far behind the rest of the world in terms of the way they manage their traffic flow?  After all, roundabouts have existed for a long time.

“…the widespread use of roundabouts began when British engineers re-engineered circular intersections during the mid-1960s and Frank Blackmore invented the mini roundabout” and compare… “The first modern roundabouts in the United States were constructed in Nevada in 1990.  Since that time […] approximately 1,000 have been built. By comparison, there are about 20,000 roundabouts in France, 15,000 in Australia, and 10,000 in the United Kingdom.”

I started wondering what this was telling us of the nature of USA local governments & city planners compared to France, Australia and UK.  Is it something about inability to make quick decisions, or is it about a reluctance to release power?  And then I read this section:

What are the impediments to building roundabouts?
“Despite the safety and other benefits of roundabouts, as well as the high levels of public acceptance once they are built, some states and cities have been slow to build roundabouts, and some are even opposed to building them. The principal impediment is the negative perception held by some drivers and elected officials. Transportation agencies also have long been accustomed to installing traffic signals, and it can take time for deeply rooted design practices to change.”

You don’t say!

Take a spin in roundabout land for a few minutes — you may be surprised by what you learn there.

19 responses to “In a roundabout sort of way

  1. Beautiful analogy Tobias! The trust-based, low-tech, simple solutions rule!

  2. Just great! An inspiring and useful analogy to explain the matter of self-organization.

  3. Excellent points Tobias. The trick is educating both the public AND the jurisdictions on how to properly design and implement roundabouts in order to achieve the safety and capacity benefits. If you ever need to recommend to the City a roundabout expert to assist in local planning and engineering projects, I would be happy to assist and ensure roundabouts are implemented properly since roundabouts are what I do. Scott – (928) 284-0295

  4. Francois Bachmann

    Love the analogy – in fact I held presentations using it earlier this year, in Paris (XP Day 09, French) and Zurich (Agile-from Hype to Practice, German) :

    I should probably come up with an English version…. any suggestions on where to present this?

  5. Toby,

    This is a fascinating blog. There’s similarly appalling roundabouts in New Jersey-one, outside Somers Point, with its own deathly STOP signs, inevitably incites an argument between me and Karen: I just can’t abide the signs, and so I don’t, and she thinks I’m a suicidal idiot. In Britain, however, I recall the roundabouts as practices in seemlessness and grace.

  6. I once came upon a street outside of Denver in Colorado that had no less than 3 roundabouts on it. I had never seen a roundabout before (except on TV). I almost got myself killed. srsly. I understood the concept of it, but didn’t know there were 2 different lanes within the circle, didn’t know when I should jump into the macabre dance of vehicular death by circle.

    I’m sad to say that after my 3 attempts to figure it out on that fateful street, not only did I fail, but people found themselves having to go home and change their pants after coming up against me. Being too afraid to attempt again, I meekly crawled my way through a series of normal intersections with mistrustful stop signs that ran parallel to the roundabouts.

    I am not to be trusted, I guess. =)

  7. Beautifully crafted and so needed. Thank you.

    I am reminded of a passage from Chris Corrigan’s rendition of the Tao Te Ching for Open Space Facilitators (and, I believe, Agilists):

    If you don’t trust the people,
    they will become untrustworthy.

    (you don’t say…)

    Get Chris Corrigan’s amazing Tao of Holding Space at:

  8. I think that, in the US, the various roundabouts I’ve encountered almost never conform to a standard. There are odd mixes of stop signs, yields, turning lanes, and other complications that make them impossible to understand without experience of a specific one. It isn’t a wonder that drivers in the US are skeptical of them because their familiarity with the concept is based off of a mish mash of poor implementations. In fact, without a common basis of understanding how to drive in them, how to design them, and where to use them, they are probably *more* dangerous than the more pedestrian and dictatorial stop light.

    So in my opinion, the question is “why did traffic designers only implement a round-ish-about-ish?” Was it a Not-Invented-Here problem, and they felt compelled to improve upon the idea to meet their particular needs? Was it a new fad that was implemented before people really understood what value it brought, and why? Were they implementing the simplest thing that could possibly work but got bitten in the ass – maybe because the cost of change is much higher in traffic work – or maybe because they had no metrics to tell when it was no longer working?

    Regardless of what has gone before, I think the roundabout will never catch on in the US, because too many people have an understanding of it (perception) as a flawed idea, based of their experiences of it through flawed implementations. And since the average driver has never experienced a good, consistent implementation of roundabouts, the average driver is probably safer not having to deal with any at all.

    Since we’re using all this as an analogy to software development – would you rather work on a project where Waterfall and BDUF were used well, or a project where Agile practices were used badly?

    • > would you rather work on a project where Waterfall and BDUF were used well, or a project where Agile practices were used badly?

      The latter. A project attempting to use Agile practices has the potential to go from “badly” to “well”. If it does not have that potential it isn’t Agile at all, just some other mess.

      The waterfall/BDUF done well is always going to be a poor and sickly cousin to Scrum/XP done well.

  9. Great analogy, Toby. I notice in some areas of Europe this ‘trust’ element has been extended to removing road markings and traffic lights altogether. I’ll admit I have my doubts but who knows what can happen when we’re allowed to think!

  10. Always pleasure to read your blogs.
    You must visit Indian villages where everyone follows their own rules of the road. For an observer it looks horrifying and as everyone takes the responsibility to at least safeguard themselves there are less accidents.

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  12. Tobias,

    One advantage of the roundabout is that you can go around multiple times if you like. I often do this. In practical terms, this is a single agent (car and driver) interacting with the system according to system-level ground rules. Note that ground rules for roundabout are silent on how many times you may go around in a single pass.

  13. RSS link for this blog is broken
    following seems to be correct

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  15. Great analogy and one that I had been thinking about related to controls one often finds in larger corporations. Especially related to the continued presence of command and control.

    Unfortunately, I think one barrier to roundabouts in the US has to do with revenue. Failure to abide to these traffic controls creates substantial revenue for local and state governments. This may come across as a bit cynical but, revenue will win out over safety every time…

  16. Rick, that’s a good (and sad) point you make about revenue. I hadn’t considered that. I wonder how accurate you are…

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