Joyce Wagner is a freelance writer and author of the book, “Random Overthoughts: The Best (Give or Take) of the Humor Column ‘Overthinking.’” She resides in West Tisbury and is currently at work on two historical novels. Once a week, she will ponder certain Island truths and institutions in “Overthinking.”
Now that the dust has settled on the roundabout – at least temporarily – some people are finding it more efficient than they expected. Traffic flows a little more quickly and a surprising number of drivers have figured out the pecking order of entering.
Many of us are even thinking, as we pass through Five Corners, or the mess where Vineyard Haven Road meets State Road and Look Street, or the entrance to the bathroom of our summer rentals, “This would be a good place for a roundabout.”
As Islanders, we’re not very gung-ho about change when it’s proposed, but rather accepting after the fact.
Although roundabouts, their pumped-up cousins, rotaries, and the rarer “traffic circles” proliferated in the late 90’s and the early part of whatever century we currently enjoy, they are not new to the U.S. It’s rumored that the American Revolution began a few minutes late because Paul Revere missed his exit into town and had to hoof around a few extra times. Minor skirmishes were avoided during the Civil War through strategically misplaced signs. Boston, with little room for roundabouts, was forced to confound travelers by one-waying already confusing streets.
Europe, however, pre-dates our wagon-wheel configurations with ancient squares, plazas, piazas, places, and such. Built in front of churches, they tended to be in the center of town, with the streets and alleys radiating from the hub. This became the means to populate the villages and burgs as visitors, unable to find their way out, tended to settle in.
The first true modern roundabout is considered to be the one that defines the architecture at Bath Circus in Somerset, England. This was completed in 1768. The largest, and perhaps most confusing, is the Place de l’Étoile (now called “Place Charles de Gaulle”) that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In true French fashion (national slogan: Confrondez toujours!) it currently joins twelve straight avenues in a flurry of traffic that would dizzy a seasoned astronaut.
In fact, the reigning country for roundabouts is France, with more than 30,000. I personally experienced some of these on a recent trip. My travelling companion and I drove around several in mid-town France. Fortunately, we brought GPS. Unfortunately, the French outsmarted it by adding shopping center entrances, bike paths, driveways, and slug trails to the mix. So, when our GPS suggested we take the next right onto L’autoroute Déstastre, it took more than a few circuits (and impromptu shopping trips) to reach our destination.
My first experience with the American roundabout genre occurred when I moved to the Island in 1994, wherein I was welcomed to Cape Cod via neatly maintained flora many more times than was necessary. The sign for the Martha’s Vineyard exit was approximately the size of a Dollar Store notebook and not very readable at the standard rotary speed. My then 18-year-old son, always helpful in these situations, repeatedly repeated “You missed it again!” until I began rethinking my objections to corporal punishment. I finally slowed to a crawl and navigated through honking cars to the correct exit and we were happily on our way – until, of course, the one after the Bourne Bridge. Same drill, but without the welcome.
I’m afraid the apoplectic road system soured my city-bred boy to the beauties of New England and when we reached Vineyard Haven the following month, he promptly left to return to Chicago. I still occasionally hear from him in the form of post-cards from the Bourne rotary.
Our own shiny new Vineyard roundabout has only one lane and four exits, so I suspect it’s not going to be the problem for visitors that the off-Island counterparts have been. Once they learn that the vehicles already in the circle have the right-of-way, they may find it rather convenient. And once it’s planted, it may even be kind of attractive.
So maybe, just maybe, the roundabout might prove to be a good idea – all around.