Thursday, 5 November 2009

English roundabout

Here is a little piece I did for the FT about the British reinvention of the roundabout. Limitations of space prevented me from mentioning the classic song by XTC, 'English Roundabout', allegedly inspired by the magic roundabout in the band’s hometown of Swindon: ‘And all the horns go “beep! beep!” / All the people follow like sheep … I have had enough, / I just want to get out / Let me off o’ this English roundabout’.

The traffic roundabout first arrived in Paris and New York in the 1900s. Britain was a late developer, only getting round to building its first one at Hyde Park Corner in 1926. But these early “traffic circles” were fairly anarchic. The constant weaving of cars caused frequent hold-ups and accidents, and in heavy traffic they would clog up completely.

Then, in 1966, the British unleashed the full potential of the roundabout: a new law stipulated that vehicles approaching the roundabout had to give way to traffic already on it. The Road Research Laboratory near Slough conducted a series of studies of traffic flow at roundabouts in the late 1960s and early 1970s that made the British the leading authorities in the field. One of the fruits of this research was a uniquely British invention: the mini-roundabout, which began to appear on roads in 1967, and which greatly increased traffic capacity at smaller junctions.

The case for roundabouts soon became compelling. They cut out unnecessary delays and so were less congested than junctions with traffic lights, and they eliminated one of the most dangerous turning movements: right or left into oncoming traffic, with the potential for lethal side-on impacts. The roundabout with offside priority became one of Britain’s most successful international exports – at one point in the 1990s, France was building them at a rate of about a thousand a year.

It seems odd, then, that the roundabout has become the bête noire of the British motorist in a way that traffic lights have not. Perhaps this is because it is the landscape feature most associated with new towns such as Milton Keynes, which are often unfairly dismissed as boring and soulless. There is even an urban myth that car tyres wear out quicker in Milton Keynes than anywhere else in the country because locals drive round the roundabouts too fast. New towns are a traffic engineer’s dream: they can start from scratch without worrying about property lines or existing road layouts. So naturally the traffic engineer with a blank canvas builds the safest form of traffic junction: the roundabout.


The Argleton story is moving fast. My dad found this in an old Francoist newspaper, ABC, which he reads to improve his Spanish:

La principal teoría al respecto es que Argleton fue añadida deliberadamente al mapa para rastrear con mayor eficiencia a compañías que copian los datos de los mapas violando los términos de copyright. "Puede ser un error deliberado para que la gente no copie los mapas. A veces se colocan calles ficticias en los mapas para que no sean robados, pero nunca lo había visto en Google Maps", concluyó Joe Moran, académico de la Universidad John Moores.

I didn’t realise I was so fluent.


  1. i note that your post is called "English Roundabout". Am I right to say that the picture you have used is a roundaboutin Cardiff - a Welsh roundabout no less!

  2. I think you're right. My apologies to Wales - but XTC are to blame.