Once upon a time on this Island that has managed to achieve peaceful coexistence without traffic lights, we had a little hoedown at the four-way stop on the Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road. Cars would come down Barnes Road from the airport. Cars would come up Barnes Road from Featherstone. Cars would come from the high school. Cars would come from Cash & Carry. To cross the four-way intersection, it was a fairly basic doh-see-doh — first come, first served. It was sort of an honor system and it seemed to work, most of the time.
But at the height of summer when our population swelled, the four-way stop got a taste of congestion. Drivers actually had to wait — and wait — to get through the intersection. Sometimes as long as a good five minutes, maybe six! The hoedown threatened to become a showdown.
So the Oak Bluffs selectmen decided to replace the four stop signs with a $1.2 million traffic circle that promises to move cars more efficiently and swiftly. Now it’s time to square dance at the roundabout.
First of all, the roundabout is only going to work if the people using it know how it works. The other day on my first approach to it, I got the feeling that it operated with centrifugal force. You got sucked into it, spun around and spat out. On this occasion, I guessed half the drivers using it understood the rules. In Massachusetts, entering traffic is supposed to yield to the traffic already in the circle. You wait your turn to seize an opening and join the flow. However, about eight truck drivers barreling down Barnes Road were going to be damned if any daylight showed at any other entry point in the circle. None of these torpedoes bore Massachusetts plates.
Most of the trucks were from New Jersey, and there’s the rub. When it comes to roundabouts or rotaries or traffic circles, New Jersey and New England have opposing navigation protocols. In the Garden State, the traffic circulating in the circle must yield to entering traffic. Two right-of-ways make a wrong.
Who knows what other regional or cultural differences lurk out there? We need signs that say “Entering Traffic Must Yield.” They have already posted orange signs with counter clockwise directional arrows, but those just warn the British, Irish, Japanese and a host of drivers from assorted islands and African nations not to enter and turn left.
Depending on where you come from, this construction could be called a roundabout, a rotary or a traffic circle. Yes, there are some differences but we need not go there. Some think the traffic rotary went out with the rotary-dial telephone. Others go through life believing it’s just another way to barbecue a chicken. The fact is fewer and fewer are being built. They cost big bucks.
Perhaps before we authorized the $1.2 million for this construction, we should have considered some other options. For example, wouldn’t it have been less expensive to hire a policeman to direct traffic here in July and August? Do we know for a fact that the structure will carry traffic more efficiently, swiftly and safely? Isn’t a rotary what they just took away from the Sagamore Bridge to improve the flow of on-and-off-Cape traffic?
Yes, I realize the new Oak Bluffs structure is a small circle and that forces drivers to slow down. Obviously, if you don’t slow down, you could easily end up as a statue of limitation in the centerpiece. But I sincerely hope it’s not called a roundabout because it’s a roundabout way of getting from here to there.
How did it come to pass that someone proved the shortest distance between two points was a circle? Toward the end of the 19th century, French architect Eugene Henard began toying with the idea of circular intersections as a way to deal with a burgeoning car culture. In 1907 he conceived the first roundabout for Paris sending soon-to-be-mind-numbing Place de l’Etoile traffic around the Arc de Triomphe. Around the same time, American architect William Phelps Eno built Columbus Circle in New York. Known as the father of traffic safety, Eno also came up with the stop sign, the pedestrian crosswalk, the pedestrian safety island, the one-way street and the taxi stand. He managed to accomplish all this and remain a true New Yorker — he never learned to drive a car.
The true test of the roundabout will soon be upon us. As the days heat up, we as civilized drivers should not. It will all come down to obeying the rules and showing some common courtesy.
Getting through the roundabout should be a cakewalk, but I still have some fear it may turn into the hokey pokey. You put your left tire in, you put your left tire out, you put your left tire in and shake your head about. That’s what it’s all about.
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.