ALAN TITCHALL explains why roundabouts are not just about junctions in our roading systems, but represent a cultural link with communities and cities.
IT SHOULD NOT COME as a surprise to learn that the word ‘roundabout’ was added to our vocabulary by the Poms and they are obsessed with the things.
“They lift our spirits during long journeys with their infinite variety,” says Kevin Beresford, the president of the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society.
Kevin was contributing to a story in the UK’s Independent newspaper on the society’s ‘Roundabout of the Year’ – an award doled out each year since 2003.
For 2014 the big prize went to Tewkesbury’s Stonehills roundabout on which sits a very amateur wooden statue of a horse and rider with a lance. Kevin, himself, would have preferred the award went to the tin man sitting in a roundabout in Brownhills, Staffordshire. “It’s like a Soviet-era statue of a miner. On a roundabout,” he says in admiration.
Members of the society meet in a Redditch pub every two months and swap photos of roundabouts around the UK. If any reader knows of such a society in this fair country then let me know, as I would like to join them. I find roundabouts fascinating and New Zealand has gone absolutely bonkers constructing them on every new highway built since the millennium. Hamilton could be called the ‘city of roundabouts’.
I share Kevin Beresford’s motoring appreciation for roundabouts – they break the journey and signal that you are not far from some destination, for rarely do you find them in the middle of nowhere. One of the exceptions is the SH2 and Paeroa-Tahuna Road roundabout in the Waikato.
Most of our large roundabouts have a gradual approach that allows you to keep up a reasonable momentum so you can (as long as it is clear to one’s right) hook around and exit at exciting speeds. There’s a distinct feeling of ‘bad luck’ having to give-way at a large country roundabout.
Older city ones tend to be just the opposite and require a compulsory stop and an anxious wait for a gap in the traffic before giving the accelerator pedal a quick stomp.
If you haven’t negotiated Auckland’s Royal Oak roundabout (five road feeders and pedestrian crossings) you really haven’t lived in a motoring sense. This is a right prick of a roading system. At afternoon peak hour when the local old folks homes liberate their contents so they can painfully zimmer-frame their way over the numerous pedestrian crossings at the roundabout exits, the circulating traffic invariably screws itself into a stationary jam. When Contrafed Publishing was based in Onehunga, I drove through this Gordian traffic knot twice a day. A motoring achievement I put up there with my four years driving taxis in Sydney when I was a lot younger.
The Panmure roundabout in eastern Auckland was so deplorably dangerous that even the Transport Agency gave up, ripped it out and replaced it with a signalised intersection as part of the AMETI project (Contractor September, 2014). The general rule is – roundabouts work wonderfully until the traffic using them gets to a certain level.
Roundabouts are only just over a century old, but their precursor was circular junctions such as the Circus in the English city of Bath completed in 1768, the Columbus Circle built in Manhattan in 1904, and the famous Place de l’Étoile built around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 1907. However, the first roundabout as we love and hate them, was designed in 1907 by architect John McLaren in San Jose, California. The first British ‘circular junction’ followed in Letchworth Garden City in 1909.
‘Traffic circles’ were constructed in the United States in later years but they didn’t really take off, as they did in the UK and France. They were also commonly called ‘a one-way gyratory’ before the English coined the obvious.
By 2010 the French were hurtling around more than 30,000 roundabouts. On my first motoring trip to France I wasn’t used to hurtling around any roundabout the wrong way and tackled them with more of a sedate noodling. That was before I came into a small township with a large and aggressive truck hurrying me along from behind. I suddenly entered a roundabout in the centre of that town at a reckless speed and went, instinctively, around the wrong way and met the said truck head on, avoiding its grill by centimetres, but sending the driver’s wing mirror flying. I had a car full of screaming passengers who were not impressed, and even less impressed when I shot off the first exit to gather my wits and then returned to roundabout to repeat the error. This time I lost the passenger’s wing mirror. I avoided little French towns after that.
I haven’t driven around the Magic Roundabout in Swindon, England and I don’t intend to. Located in a town of 150,000 people and 600 roundabouts, this nightmare was built in 1972 and is made up of five mini-roundabouts arranged around a sixth central, anti-clockwise roundabout. It is consistently voted one of the scariest junctions in Britain.
Kiwi roundabout centres tend to be ‘planted’ gardening jobs rather than sites for sculptures, but who knows? Maybe local councils will take a lesson from the UK where they are ‘planted’ with something reflecting the area, such as the foundry objects on one in Dudley where’s there’s a lot of heavy industry. There’s a six metre cockerel on the (appropriately enough) Dorking Cockerel roundabout; a Chinese pagoda in Birmingham; a laser and light show in Haverhill; and a working windmill in York.
You would think that after 100 years the design of a roundabout would be as easy as buying one from the local service station, but there have been great stuff-ups.
A classic case was the three roundabouts on the East Taupo Arterial designed by the Taupo District Council and signed off by the Transport Agency. They had to be redesigned (twice), demolished and rebuilt at a cost of millions of dollars just before the pass opened in 2011. Apparently, they had forgotten the heavy haulage guys.
In contrast the temporary roundabout on SH1 in Cambridge is to get a $450,000 revamp so it can stay in place, thanks to a partnership between the Transport Agency and Waipa District Council (jointly funded).
This roundabout was only a temporary measure while bridge and roads were rebuilt, but Cambridge residents liked it so much (a little touch of Hamilton or even France maybe?) they petitioned to have it remain in place.
So on that note, I vote Cambridge as the ideal location for the country’s first Roundabout Appreciation Society. Any seconders?