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.