A roundabout way of doing something is a term that is always used pejoratively – shorthand for time wasted and a more direct route not followed.
But such a turn of phrase fails to give credit to one of the great infrastructure elements of the modern world. The humble roundabout may be a mere item of traffic furniture but it serves a critical function, especially in our cities and across busy road networks.
But what I had failed to appreciate until recently is what the roundabout really says about us. Here in London we are blessed with some of the most impressive gyratory systems you’ll find anywhere on the planet.
Negotiating the notoriously busy Hyde Park Corner on a bicycle at the weekend I was struck by the nuances and cooperation that it takes to tackle a big roundabout effectively. Buses, cars, bikes and even the odd member of the household cavalry were all being kept on the move as a result.
There is a more expansive worldview necessary, perhaps, to engage with the ebb and flow of these islands in our streets. And maybe that’s why some of our friends overseas are slightly more suspicious of roundabouts. The traffic light-controlled intersections favoured in America for example are absolute – it’s tough easing a path through a stop sign. Some might say that suits the no-nonsense US mindset – you know where you stand when red means stop and green means go.
But one American mayor has led his city into a brave, new and circle-shaped world. James Brainard is running an ongoing programme to replace 100 intersections with roundabouts throughout his city of Carmel, Indiana. Over 80 have been converted so far, and Brainard cites savings in time, fuel bills, and lives as the happy consequences of his brainchild. Not only that but the new junctions can feature well designed and managed gardens and monuments – providing a little oasis in the midst of a busy cityscape.
Carmel has enjoyed the fruits of this labour in other ways, too – the city has a burgeoning reputation on the international stage – last year it played host to no less than the International Roundabout Conference. And the good folks of the town? They love their new road furniture.
Not only do they save fuel but they say that their journey times have been massively reduced. They just can’t understand why the rest of the US isn’t more enthused.
From the humble mini-roundabout to the mighty motorway interchange, it’s not hard to see the benefits. It seems going round in circles really is the fastest way from A to B after all.