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 CircusesThe 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 ResearchIn 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).
- Larousse pour tous
- Lieu public découvert et généralement environné de bâtiments
- place circulaire où aboutissent plusieurs avenues ou allées.
- jardin entouré d'une grille au milieu d'une place publique.
- lieu où se croisent plusieurs chemins, plusieurs rues. La voie publique.
- se dit d'un mouvement circulaire.
American College Dictionary (Random House, 1962)
- 7. Brit. a place, originally circular, where several streets come together.
- 3. a rectangular or quadrilateral area in a city or town, marked off by neighboring and intersecting streets along each side.
- 5. an open area in a city or town, as at the intersection of streets, usually planted with grass, trees, etc.
- 6.Brit. a traffic circle
- traffic circle
- a circular arrangement at the intersection of two or more roads, so that vehicles may pass from one road to another.
- a [carrefour] giratoire (Fr.) is a traffic circle in the United States of America and a roundabout in England.
- A square (Fr.) is an enclosed garden within a square (En.) in the United States. I have not checked a British dictionary to see whether the English usage differs from the Unitedstatesian for this word.
- A rond-point (Fr.) is a circus in England and in the United States is a square that is not rectangular but round or oval or some other shape. A round square?
- A square [En.] in the United States of America is a place [Fr.] in France. I have not checked whether a square has to be rectangular in England.
- ronds-points (Fr.) for vehicles are practically all giratoires (how else to move through them?) but many giratoires are not ronds-points if one insists on having them --as a special type of places-- have neighboring buildings (i.e., within urban settings).
- The Place de la Concorde in Paris, with surrounding buildings, giratory traffic flow and a magnificent obelisk in its center is nevertheless not a rond-point because it is rectangular.
Postscript: More About Traffic Circles in France
Historical note on traffic prioritiesFor 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" 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 » par Roulex 45 — Travail 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.
- They take up more space than a crossroads of the rectangular sort because they must provide space for the vehicles to swerve (comfortably).
- They do not provide a timed break in traffic flow for pedestrians to cross the road, unlike junctions metered by traffic lights; on the other hand, they give pedestrians more of a break for crossing the priority road than an uncontrolled junction of a priority road with side roads does, and drivers attentive as they approach the entry should notice pedestrians (and cyclists) as well as the other cars they must watch for.
- They make shared use with bicycles frustrating and dangerous as well, I believe (but should check whether the statistics and other facts bear this out).
The advantages are multiple increases in efficiency and reliability.
- Vehicles turning across oncoming traffic (left, in France) do not have to wait for a break in oncoming traffic, either natural or caused by a traffic light cycle, they simply round three-quarters of the junction then exit to the right (left in England).
- Vehicles do not have to wait for a light to change if there is no cross traffic or oncoming cross-turning traffic in progress when they arrive, they merely slow down and continue through. Thus, whereas signal controlled junctions meter traffic flow in the various directions based on forecast need (with perhaps some adaptability provided by sensors and sophisticated control switches), roundabouts avoid useless full-stop braking, waiting, idling, polluting, accelerating from a full stop.
- Unlike four-way (and three-way) stops, it is very simple to decide whose turn it is without keeping track of which vehicles arrived from other sides before one's own vehicle did: if the way is clear (no vehicle about to block one's entry) then enter.
- Crossing or turning across traffic from a non-priority (side) road at a priority road (such as a highway) may be facilitated because a break from one direction only (the first one) is usually all that is needed to start in. For instance, to turn left (in France) one would need a break from the left to enter the circle, acquire priority over oncoming traffic from the right (and all other entry points) and thus continue off the other side or to the left (or U-turn)
- They do not cease working normally when there is an electric outage (or a light knocked out by an accident).