Are traffic circles always fair?
While some dispute whether traffic circles and roundabouts are synonymous, everyone knows one when they see one. I’m in commercial real estate development, and when we pitch a site to a gas station and convenience store tenant, we cringe when the traffic consultant says DOT would like to see a site plan option for a roundabout instead of an intersection with a signal. Our tenant wants all the cars to pause and take time at a light to consider stopping for coffee and fuel.
But most people see traffic circles as kinder and safer and more efficient than a traditional signal. Less waiting, everyone gets a turn, lots of common sense.
And I may agree - most of the time. But recently when I was picking up my son from his school day, my justice meter picked up something new and my perspective on roundabouts changed.
Circles are all about perspective, when you think about it. I enter at the circle's six o'clock, of course; and proceed counterclockwise (just like daylights savings this weekend, boo) to its three o'clock; and then I might exit the circle, if I'm going straight, at its noon; or if I'm turning left, all the way to its nine o'clock; or if I'm feeling frisky or forgetful, all the way around and back to six. Meanwhile, what is my neighbor at my three o'clock doing? Well, she’s entering the circle at her six o'clock, and she sees me trying to enter at her nine o'clock. Different perspectives. Can't really argue that one is correct or not. It's a circle. They're hard to argue with.
But that's the catch. Since everyone is entering the circle at their own six o'clock, that's reality and it seems fair and that everyone has an equal opportunity to enter at will. Sure, we take turns, but it all works out. So I thought.
And then I was stuck. By a stream of nine o'clocks. In England it would be the opposite, but in Chattanooga and most other American circles, if your nine o'clocks get a stream going, there is no entering the circle. Like forever. Since you yield to those already in the circle, once the stream gets started, you may as well buckle up and take a nap.
Of course the opposite is also true. If the cars in front of me get in the circle, I can tuck in behind them, and so will the stream behind me, and the poor three o'clock people won't have a chance.
Interestingly, if two streams of cars enter from opposite sides of the circle, it usually flows much better. Some will go three-quarters way around to their nine o'clock, but most will take their respective three o'clock or noon exits and everyone is happy.
It’s those right angle streams that cause the problem, and in particular, those who are perfectly within their rights to follow the car in front of them and enter their six o'clock and then past the queue backed up at their three o'clock.
Those in the circle have power. Those at my three o'clock have no power.
But the one with the most power is me, the one outside the circle, before I choose to enter.
I do have a choice, right? I can enter the circle immediately. Or I can wait 2 seconds. But if you're anything like me, if you have the right to enter the circle, you just do. It’s your turn. You don't want those behind you to have to wait for you. Or most likely, you don't give it a second thought - you just go.
And yes, it may be my turn. But who determines or defines my turn? Yes, the person behind me will have to wait, but how long? If there are no nine o'clocks, I’m not going to get stuck. And neither will those behind me. I literally could pause for two seconds and let a three o'clock car enter the circle - a car that may have been waiting minutes to enter.
Ok. I think it is significant when a thing thought to be fair, isn't. There's no corruption going on here. No malicious intent. No agenda. No real privilege. Just a little, mostly thoughtless, injustice.
Which makes me wonder. A lot of injustice in the world is very intentional. But what if some of the injustice in the world is unintentional? Is it my responsibility to seek to right an unintentional injustice when it is within my power to do so? And what inner circles am I about to enter thoughtlessly, at the expense of my three o'clock friends? What circles do I want to enter, but can’t, because I am unable to call out to my nine o'clocks who don't see or care that I'm stuck?
I will give this further thought, and would be honored to hear yours.