Traffic roundabouts as we know them today are a rather recent refinement, having been only developed and refined during the 1960s. The leader of the roundabout movement was Frank Blackmore, a traffic engineer with the United Kingdom’s Transport Research Laboratory who realised their advantages both in making traffic flows safer and in their cost-effectiveness compared to other types of junctions. Not only did Blackmore successfully campaign for the inauguration of new roundabouts across the UK in which traffic entering the circle would yield to traffic on the right (a major development in traffic safety design which resulted in the construction of thousands of roundabouts across the UK and eventually tens of thousands around the world), Blackmore also invented outright the mini-roundabout; a roundabout with no central island that could be employed in roadways with limited space for a roundabout. Drivers at a mini-roundabout navigate around small painted circles or low mounds placed directly in the roadway. Not only did Blackmore successfully minimise the concept of a roundabout, he also took the concept of the roundabout to the other extreme when he designed a type of massive, complex intersection in the early 1970s that became known as ‘magic roundabouts’ after a popular children’s programme.
To the outsider, a magic roundabout may seem completely baffling to navigate: not only is there a central circular ring road which itself often takes the appearance of a roundabout, but the circle road itself contains numerous mini-roundabouts within it. The most famous (or infamous) is the original Magic Roundabout on the A4312 in Swindon, Wiltshire, converted by Blackmore from a previously-existing conventional roundabout into something far greater. Here, drivers enter the outer clockwise loop of the ring road, upon which they can encounter any one of five mini-roundabouts which have to be navigated in order to access one of the six different roadways that enter the junction. Once a driver has entered the circle and navigated a mini-roundabout, the driver is sent into the main roundabout in the centre, which counter-intuitively operates counter-clockwise. The driver drives around until reaching the desired exit and leaves the main roundabout in order to navigate around another mini-roundabout to leave.
A schematic of the Magic Roundabout in Swindon. Source: Hk kng, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Swindon-Magic-Roundabout.svg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
While locals adapted to the configuration, become proficient at navigating the multiple paths, and made the junction a local point of pride (even selling ‘I Survived the Magic Roundabout’ t-shirts), visitors to Swindon are often rather baffled by the Magic Roundabout, becoming stuck for long periods of time or finding themselves heading in the wrong direction. In 2005, the Magic Roundabout was voted as Britain’s worst roundabout by a survey of motorists, and Auto Express proclaimed it one of the ten worst junctions in the entire world in 2007. The junction works just fine, though. Because vehicles are slowed down considerably when travelling through, accidents are reduced drastically. As well, the large number of turning lanes in such a compressed area means the junction can handle a far greater amount of vehicles compared to a regular junction, actually improving overall traffic flow even with the slower speeds.
Finishing second in that 2005 survey was Blackmore’s other magic roundabout design: the Plough Roundabout constructed in 1973 in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. Interestingly, in 2011, this same roundabout was voted as Britain’s best thanks to its charm. Hemel’s Magic Roundabout was also converted from a standard roundabout, but the main island takes the form of a proper ring road more so than the Swindon version (i.e., no auxiliary traffic islands separating the inner ring from the outer ring). The Hemel version, however, features six mini-roundabouts in a ring as opposed to five, and also features a river (the River Gade) running through the middle of the traffic island and then under the ring road. When it first appeared, the alignment was considered so initimidating at first that policemen were positioned on each of the mini-roundabouts to direct traffic. Again, it may scare visitors, but it works in making traffic safer.
The Magic Roundabout (a.k.a. the Plough Roundabout) in Hemel Hempstead. Source: Stannered, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Magicroundabout_hemel.svg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Genericlicence.
The magic roundabout concept applied in Swindon and Hemel Hempstead was also applied in Colchester, Essex around the same time. Similar to Hemel but unlike Swindon, the Colchester Magic Roundabout has no internal traffic islands, simply the main island in the middle. A previous experimental roundabout was abandoned at this junction due to a high accident rate as traffic was only permitted to flow in one direction. The improved Blackmore-style magic roundabout was then applied to much success.
In the wake of Swindon and Hemel Hempstead’s magic roundabouts, other such junctions were constructed around England. One can only think that at some point, this will be tried in other countries, creating legions of new drivers who will be needlessly intimidated by them around the world.
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