And this, really, is the essence of David Byrne. He could, we may assume, afford to take a taxi, but, armed with his free maps from the London Cycle Campaign, he chooses to bike it, even when his journey involves an encounter with the Elephant and Castle roundabout. “Oh my God! Yes. I’ve heard that roundabouts are good for traffic, better than stoplights. Some guy [Tom Vanderbilt] has a book out called Traffic; there was a study, and there are fewer accidents on roundabouts than traffic lights because on roundabouts, it’s so precarious, you have to really be aware, and stop texting on your cellphone. Whereas with stoplights, people feel like the light does the job for them. So they’ll pull out when it turns green, and not think that someone else may have missed the light.”
The ‘some guy,’ to me, was rather perfect; it’s cooler in a way than actually being name-checked because a.) this shows that David Byrne doesn’t actually know me, and this isn’t just log-rolling and b.) the ideas are preceding me, which is the way it should be. I wouldn’t necessarily say that this really captures my feelings on roundabouts 100%, but it’s good enough.
After I wrote the roundabouts piece recently in Slate, there was a lot of chatter about pedestrian safety, and how some people don’t feel comfortable crossing at roundabout intersections. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that roundabouts can be as safe, if not safer, for pedestrians than conventional intersections for some of the same reasons they are for drivers. And one reason that might not have been considered is how they use space. To wit, the photos below, which come from Asheville, North Carolina, which has converted a number of downtown intersections, like those pictured on College Street, to roundabouts.
Here’s the before:
And here’s the after (not the most current ‘after,’ mind you, and not the very same location, but you get the general drift):
One thing that roundabouts do away with is the need for a dedicated left-turn lane. Left-turn lanes — there are generally two — have the consequence of making intersections wider. If there’s one iron law of pedestrian safety, it’s that the more lanes you have to cross, the less safe it is (for a number of reasons). Instead of things like left-turn lanes, you can fill the space with planted medians, which are not only more aesthetically pleasing, making the downtown seem more like a downtown than a stretch of asphalt, but provide safer crossings for pedestrians. Looking at the two images above, it’s instantly clear which one you’d rather walk across, traffic lights or not (and incidentally, there have been no pedestrian crashes at these intersections since 2005, the city’s head traffic engineer informs me).