Sunday, March 18, 2012

Circle game

If you've traveled in France, you will have noticed that ronds-points or carrefours giratoires (traffic circles) are everywhere. For the past thirty or so years, France has been converting intersections into traffic circles to improve traffic flow and safety. Circles slow traffic down, but keep it moving, and they eliminate nasty crashes due to drivers running red lights or stop signs.

A circle in Noyers-sur-Cher, across the river from where I live. Notice the lack of pavement markings. This is a two-lane circle and one that I use frequently.

Some of the communities around my home town in upstate New York have been putting in traffic circles in recent years. I've read that they're met with howls; American drivers are not used to them and tend to panic. But the data I've seen on them show that, while minor accidents increase in the period just after the circle is built, the severity of accidents drops dramatically. As people become used to the circles the minor accidents decrease as well.

A similar sized circle outside of Albany, NY, USA. See all those lines and words and arrows painted on the street surface? No wonder people panic.

When I first navigated these new circles in the US, I was struck by the overkill of signage and pavement markings around them. Here in France, there is normally one sign to tell you that you are approaching a circle and that you must yield in addition to the standard directional signs. There are very few pavement markings.

Navigating the circles here is just matter-of-fact. Nobody panics. You enter the circle when it's clear (you don't have to stop) and when you're in the circle, you have the right of way. And you signal when you're exiting the circle. With the lack of signage and pavement markings, you can pay more attention to other vehicles moving in and out of the circle.

This little circle in Paris can be a bit challenging. Still, notice the lack of pavement markings!

Mind you, I'm talking about circles outside of major urban areas. Suburban circles can clog with high volumes of traffic and big city circles, or places, are a different animal altogether (although not as much as you might think).

I think traffic circles are a vast improvement over signalized intersections. First of all, there's no set of traffic signals to maintain. And to me there's nothing more frustrating that idling at a red light when there is no other traffic in the intersection or having to sit through over-engineered multiple turning phases waiting for my green arrow. The fact that all traffic has to slow down to enter and navigate the circle makes me feel a whole lot safer, too.

20 comments:

  1. The one at the Arc de Triomphe is not a round about because as you said there are no pavement markings. For that one (and some smaller ones where we are) the priorité à droite applies!! Crazy huh?

    I do agree that round abouts are soooooo nice once your used to them :-)

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  2. One clarification. Priorité à droite is not an absolute at the Arc de Triomphe. Our daughter was rammed into by a car coming from behind on the left and yet the insurance company claimed that, at the Arc, it's 50/50 responsibility, no matter what the circumstances! Lesson learned.
    Sufferers of bad backs (I am one) find that a succession of circles is a real pain as it is hard to take the centrifugal force, even slowly.

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  3. Sometimes the volume of traffic is just so great that a round about can't cope and you get a bank up. I am surprised to learn that they are newish to the US.

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  4. I notice that there is a carpark near the one in Albany.... a place to recover? And our comprehensive insurance with Allianz specifically excludes the Arc de Triomphe... we are insured only for third party at that one point in France!

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  5. The best thing about "roundabouts" is that if you overshoot your destination in France, you know there is another one so that you can return.
    A common occurrence for us Aussies in France.

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  6. In the UK, in the seventies, there were attempts to "simplify" multi-way junctions... there was one at Colchester [Essex]... a two-way roundabout with seven mini-roundabouts at each exit... in High Wycombe [Buckinghamshire] there was one with 12! I used to have to drive that one... and I treated it as an ordinary roundabout... I never tried to go the "wrong" way round... to my knowledge there is only one left the UK... Swindon's Magic Roundabout[Third down at this link!] I would as Pauline to find a "pretty" route to avoid this horror!!
    In the 2CV we just keep going round the roundabout until we reach escape velocity...

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  7. I agree that traffic circles are a wonderful solution. However, when I moved to Boston in the '80s and found myself completely overwhelmed by what they call "rotaries," I asked several locals who had the right-of-way in a rotary (assuming the driver already in the rotary would, but not experiencing that). I was consistently told that you just don't make eye contact with the other drivers and they'll get out of your way!

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  8. Part of the 6-way at Hemel Hempstead [Hertfordshire] still exists... it is now a normal island with junctions and only one mini-roundabout left!... I used to have to drive this one as well!

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  9. I love them! People will get used to them eventually in the US.

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  10. We're actually just beginning to see a few in northeast Ohio....I'd only seen them in the UK until a few years ago.

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  11. I see .com here.......I remember being very confused about traffic circles in ireland......but then I had problems driving on the left to start with

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  12. Excellent post, Walt. A round about was discussed here in Alabama to my surprise- but it was turned down. There is an intersection with too many accidents and a round about was considered which tells me that the times, they are a changing. I love round abouts and miss them when I return from France.

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  13. My wife Evelyn forwarded this to me. I really enjoyed it and the link to the world's worst intersections.
    I am a big fan of the circles but the Magic- one would take some getting used to.
    I was caught up in the Etoile in 1969 and swore if I got out alive I would never enter it again.
    A "round-a-bout has been proposed for Osford, AL. It has 0% chance of being implemented.

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  14. I remember driving in one in Paris, at Nation, and it was very stressful - those big-city ones are tough to navigate, and too dangerous, I think, but I don't mind them in lighter-traffic areas. We have a few in St. Louis, too.

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  15. Walt

    The examples of how drivers can't adhere to round-about can be found in Washington DC- the one at Chevy Chase and the other one at K street and Pennsylvania . Dupont Circle is not bad btw.

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  16. When I live in Rochester NY in the 60s, I found them common on the north side of town. I liked them then and still like them now.

    In Palo Alto, which certainly is no metropolis, they have been experimenting with a form of roundabout as a "traffic calmer." There are stop signs at some of the entrances into the circle. I find that the same people that don't stop at regular stop signs are even less likely to stop at these. We've had a number of close calls.

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  17. In a "rond-point" the rule of "Priority to the Right" applies; those cars entering the circle have the right of way. The circle at the Arc de Triomphe is a "rond-point".
    Most roundabouts in France are set up as "carrefours giratoires"; the cars already in the circle have the right of way. All cars approaching the circle are met by a Yield sign and pavement markings.
    The one and two lane circles I can manage. Anything bigger and I feel like Clark Griswold in European Vacation.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAgX6qlJEMc

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  18. An awful admission, but even living here I can't get my head around the 'who has the right of way' in France. I ask natives and they can't tell me and other incomers say 'It depends'. The road markings are often almost worn away and I think that there is some thing to do with being within the 50kph Village/Town limits. Our local litte town clearly has some sort of odd priority where the side road has the right of way to join. We just drive very defensively and find it funny that some, but not all, other drivers will Stop to let us proceed.

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  19. I knew this topic would draw a lot of comments! And yes, a rond-point is different from a standard traffic circle in that the right-priority applies. Which is funny because, if you think about it, all those already in the circle have to stop to let newcomers in from the right, so the circle could just fill up and grind to a halt (and some do)!

    Right-priority also always applies in towns and cities unless there is signage or markings to the contrary (like stop or yield signs or a broad solid stripe across the traffic lane).

    Thanks for all the comments!

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  20. We would probably have more roundabouts in Sydney if our road network wasn't as narrow as it is. We don't have as many broad boulevardes as I have seen in Europe.

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