Thursday, July 17, 2014


Round Squares and Gyration

When I began driving motor vehicles in France and England over thirty years ago, a certain style of road junction was unfamiliar to me from driving a car in California. It is the junction called a roundabout in English, rond-point in French--or so I thought. Simply put, it is a junctions of roads with an obstacle in the middle which obliges vehicles to swerve around it --clockwise in England (where vehicles and drivers are on the wrong side) and counter-clockwise in civilized lands--at reduced speed. This system is very popular in France: while the rest of the world may now have followed to a greater extent, a few years ago (2008) France boasted half the world's count--over 30,000 of them! Towns in France (but elsewhere too) may go to great effort to decorate their big round junctions, particularly at entrances to the town. (A catalogue of the artistic ones was available several years ago (2007) and the url still responds, but with an error connecting to the database. Is it still there, will access be restored?)

Driving past a particularly spectacularly decorated junction near Bitche, France, and having noticed that during these past three decades, it seems "giratoire" displaced "rond point" as the preferred term in French, I wondered whether they had also come to be called "giratory" in English. What I found was that yes, the term giratory is used in English but reserved for larger, complex junctions; and no, rond-point and giratoire (or "carrefour giratoire") are not strictly the same thing in French (at least according to a Wikipedia article on rond-point). Is "rond point" a term in French for which there is no English equivalent?

Round Squares, Traffic Circles and Circuses

The distinction in French asserted in the Wikipedia article is that a rond-point is a place (wide space) that is round, oval or polygonal but not rectangular, and which may have an obstacle (statue, stele or similar) in the center. The term was used to designate a junction from which alleys in a formal garden radiated, with no implicit rule for walkers to traverse them one supposes. They were introduced into urban street systems to enable horse-drawn carriages to negotiate turns and to turn around where streets were otherwise too narrow. Presumably, a sufficiently spacious dead end (cul-de-sac) can be termed a rond point even though it only joins a road with itself.

Dictionary Research

In addition to a couple of français/English dictionaries (Larousse, TV5) which simply translate place [Fr.] as square [En.] in the context of streets and roads, I've collected some definitions from a French dictionary (over a century old) and an American dictionary (a half century old).
From this, I conclude that

Postscript: More About Traffic Circles in France

Historical note on traffic priorities

For as long as I can remember (and probably quite a bit longer) there has been a rule applied to decide whose turn it is to enter an intersection in the absence of working traffic signals or stop signs or posted priorities: priority to the right. By posted priorities, it may be posted by signs
France road sign AB6.svg
"France road sign AB6" by Roulex 45 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
that the road on which one is travelling gives one priority over cross traffic, and side roads would normally have the complementary indication to yield to cross traffic
France road sign AB2.svg
« France road sign AB2 » par Roulex 45Travail personnel. Sous licence CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
. Until 1984, the priority to the right was applied on giratories in France unless specifically changed by signs restricting entry to the giratory. This was the source of much confusion and frustration, some accidents, and some apparent gridlock as a giratory. The gridlock was an illusion (as I should probably try to demonstrate mathematically) because even when full, the cars could always creep forward until one could exit, but it could happen that some vehicles would be blocked by an uninterrupted flow coming in just downstream of them; this is the same problem now faced by vehicles waiting to enter while blocked by an uninterrupted flow coming in upstream of them.

Why giratories, what are they good for?

Before arguing in favor of traffic circles, it should be noted that they have some drawbacks.

The advantages are multiple increases in efficiency and reliability.

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