Round Abouts versus Stoplights

I had an epiphany today driving from our village of 2000 people in St. Quentin la-Poterie to Uzes a village of 8,000 people 5 kilometers away through the countryside to the larger town of Nimes 30 kiliometers away with a population of 60,000. I realized that if I never went to Nimes or outside of the Uzege region (about the size of Marin country) I would be able to drive without ever stopping at a red light. The reason I realized is that there are no stoplights in this entire area. In 14 summers and over a year living her this is the first time I noticed this. No stoplights. The reason I even noticed it was because I was driving alone and had to stop at a red light.  Wow a red light I thought. I haven't seen one of these in a long time.


Instead France and especially in the country roundabouts are loved. Those beautiful circles that are planted with various landscape designs, fountains, vineyards (yes on a roundabout) gardens and trees. The French being a very civilized society knows how to weave their cars through the double lanes, pass a car on the left and cut over just in the nick of time to the cut off to the road on their right. Cars entering the roundabout yield to those already in the circle (first come firt serve) and somehow they all move together.


In driving through these roundabouts I’m amazed at the feeling of flow. There are no abrupt stops where you wait forever for the light to turn green or in the worse cases for the left hand turn lane to go, then the right hand turn lane, then the opposite turn lane, and ten minutes later you get to go. I could have finished the New York Times crossword puzzle in the amount of time I waited.


Now roundabouts have their challenges also, especially if you don’t know which direction to take. More marriages have been lost in a roundabout when the wife is reading the map and the husband is yelling “Which way do I go.” The solution is simple however; keep going around until your wife figures it out. Sometimes it’s one time around, sometimes two and our all time record was four times around.


Once when Jean and I were sitting in a café near a roundabout we saw a car go around for a good hour. No kidding a good hour. Finally the car took off in one direction and no sooner was it gone that it turned around and came back heading in the other direction. We hoped they found their way.


The other benefit about a roundabout is that it is aesthetically pleasing. Zoe-Pascale loves roundabouts. In fact she asks me to take photos of her favorite roundabouts for her collection. She’s given up dolls and instead she now collects roundabouts. Her favorites are the ones with fountains and farmyard scenes. On one roundabout there was even a goat. We aren’t sure whose it was, but it was there. My favorite is the vineyard roundabout. What a great use of space. Only the French would think of planting a vineyard on a roundabout.




Roundabout in Ales




So after this epiphany I decided to look up the invention of the stoplight. Of course, I discovered it was invented in America, the country of practical inventions. A man named Garrett Morgan; a black American born of former slaves witnessed a terrible traffic accident when a car collided with a horse and carriage. The driver was injured and the horse had to be put down. As a successful inventor he set out to develop a signal for the city of Cleveland. His hand cranked invention was patented in1923.


Simultaneously a policeman named William Potts in Detroit decided that the police were spending so much time directing traffic something needed to be done. As a result he invented the red, green and amber light model based on a design used by the railroads. And the rest is history, stoplights took off and the childhood game red light green light was invented.


Today the stop light is computerized and can decide how many lights should be green, red and yellow managing traffic flow. The problem with this, however, as I remember well from driving down 19th avenue in San Francisco is that the lights were never timed for your car to go through all in one fell swoop. What could have taken me 15 minutes to get through San Francisco’s 19th Avenue with all green lights, took me 30 minutes with stop go, stop go, stop go.


So to my list of why we love France, I add roundabouts. It is one of those daily encounters which makes your life a little better and your day flow a little easier.


With 15,000 roundabouts in France I hope to continue flowing.