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The Vacuum Issue 12 Down Mexico Way spacer The Vacuum Issue 12 - Down Mexico Way
Wide Streets, Mad Cows and Roundabouts
by Justin Carville
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There is something of the cosmos that surrounds roundabouts. Not in a celestial sense, for there is nothing heavenly about a traffic interchange. Rather it is more to do with the physics of orbiting that the roundabout may be said to have links with the cosmos. Cars are not so much driven towards as drawn by the gravitational pull of the roundabout. Decelerating on approach, cars accelerate out of the orbit of the roundabout as if being slung by the gravitational force of a planet's atmosphere. Of course cars rarely do a full 360º orbit of the roundabouts atmosphere. 180º or 240º at most appears to be the extent of the cars orbital existence on a roundabout. Any further would at best suggest a navigational error on the part of the driver or at worst disorientate other drivers waiting to find a path into the roundabouts atmosphere. On the other hand continually orbiting a roundabout, while fun, is probably a drivers worst nightmare, not being able to exit a road is no doubt an anxiety shared by most drivers.
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The roundabout introduces a very different dimension to the vocabulary driving experience. For the most part roads are driven along and geographical locations driven through. These roads are measured in distance and duration. The road is measured in miles, or in these EU directed metric times, kilometres and the journey in hours and minutes. The roundabout introduces geometry into the descriptive vocabulary of the car journey. Roundabouts are quite obviously driven around, and the journey is measured not by distance and duration but by fractions as if a pie chart. The geometry of the modern roundabout is a much more fraught affair than the average driver might think. An article by the Dublin Cycling Campaign www.connect.ie/dcc on multilane roundabouts, recently suggested that physically changing the geometry of the roundabout by making entry and exit layouts perpendicular rather than tangential to the central island would vastly improve the safety of roundabouts to cyclists. A solution that would no doubt result in the National Roads Authority introducing a more budgetary mathematical dimension into the equation to put an end to any organisation taking their protractors and slide rules to the country's roundabouts.
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Such geometric challenges aside, roundabouts have become something of an obsession with County Councils, planners and the Roads Authority throughout Ireland. They are a road planners dream. Everything about the roundabout suggests fluidity, mobility and speed. They convey a sense of automotive perpetual motion to the beleaguered commuter. Their circular form and horticultural decoration with flora and fauna also give them the appearance of being aesthetically in tune with their surrounding environment. Of course this is all a ruse, an illusion that lulls the driver into a false perception of the duration of their commute. Witness Dublin's Red Cow roundabout. Named after the Red Cow Bar and Restaurant that sit to one side of the roundabout. This traffic intersection which promised so much when it was first developed in the late 1980's, has proved to be the graveyard of many a drivers hopes of a smooth, stoppage free journey. Affectionately known as the Mad Cow Roundabout to those who slowly, inch-by-inch negotiate their way towards, around and away from this intersection on a twice daily basis, this eight exit/entrance, nine traffic light junction has become a faux-pas of Irish road design. A geometric conundrum of such gigantic proportions that even the most mathematical minded, protractor wielding road planner could not solve the delays caused by this roundabout. The only automotive perpetual aspect to the Mad Cow is unrelenting congestion.
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As someone who regularly sits in the humming queues of traffic that stop-start their way the last mile or so towards the entrance of the Mad Cow, I am a regular moaner and complainer about this roundabout that is likely to rob me of several days of my life across a calendar year. Like my fellow travellers I wake each morning with certain inevitability that despite my complaints and procrastinations about my frustration with driving through the Mad Cow, I will do it all again today, tomorrow and the next day. Groundhog Day would be a useful analogy to explain my morning and evening commutes. Reliving the same experience over and over, knowing what is likely to happen next yet powerless to influence the outcome.
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It somehow disquieting to know, that this daily traffic grind goes far beyond my own personal recurring history of traffic congestion. In fact, Dublin's congestion problems have a history all of its own. The past, it is said, plays an important part in Dublin's sense of identity. The city's Viking heritage plays an important part in Dublin's historical origins, and monuments, statues and street-names are displayed as concrete reminders of the individuals and events that shaped the city. Yet the city itself is a living monument to the beginnings of complaints about traffic congestion and the actions taken to rectifying them. It is a history that has much more to do with geometry, mad cows and roundabouts than we might think.
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The origins of Dublin's congestion problems can be traced back to the mid-seventeenth century, precisely the same time as the origins of complaining about Dublin's traffic. The reason for Dublin's traffic congestion? That age old problem of Taxi de-regulation. In the 1670's, the city's Corporation received complaints about the traffic congestion caused by hackney coaches. Their response was to license and regulate the city's taxis. When complaints then emerged of a lack of taxi's to meet demand, they proceeded to licence more vehicles. The congestion was such that that the visiting Clergyman Revd. Campbell stated in 1777 that hackney coaches where about as 'common as St. James' and that he was 'hurt by the nastiness of these streets'. However, it was not just Hackney coaches that caused the congestion of Dublin's streets. The livestock that was walked to the city's markets caused equal offence with cows in particular causing congestion around the Temple Bar area. The response was to pass an Act of parliament to establish The Commissioners for the Making of Wide and Convenient Way's, Streets, and Passages.
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The Wide Street Commissioners did exactly what their title suggests, they widened the streets and re-developed the buildings around Dublin's city centre. Dame Street, College Green, Christchurch and George's Street are all the result of the project of widening Dublin's congested streets. One of the first projects was to widen Essex Bridge, now Grattan Bridge, in 1755 to cope with the traffic congestion caused by humans and bovine creatures alike crossing the Liffey from Capel Street. The building of Parliament Street and a Merchants Exchange, now City Hall to create a vista from across the river Liffey on Capel Street soon followed. The Wide Street Commissioners objectives were very clear, to release the congestion of Dublin's streets by allowing for the fluid mobility of human and animal traffic around the city. They in effect designed a roundabout around the city extending from Capel Street on the North Side through to Dame Street and College Green on the South Side back to the North side onto Sackville Street (O'Connell Street) and Parnell Square. It was a roundabout of quite different geometric proportions than roundabouts such as the Mad Cow. Rules of Harmony and proportion were judiciously employed to ensure that not only did the widening of the streets contribute to the easing of traffic congestion but that they fitted in with the overall aesthetic environment around it. Like the roundabouts of today they were based on an illusion, lulling Dublin's inhabitants into a false sense of time and space.
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To drive around this city roundabout today would take has long as it would have on a horse drawn hackney coach in the eighteenth century and as long again as it will take to get around the Mad Cow roundabout tomorrow. Dublin is now itself a kind of multilane roundabout. A roundabout of ever increasing circles stretching back to the mid-eighteenth century. It is a roundabout measured not in distance but duration, a life-time and more of traffic congestion and complaints. Dublin, a city built on wide streets, mad cows and roundabouts. The drivers nightmare has come true; we are on the roundabout and can't get off.
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