Sunday, March 24, 2013

Round And Round We Go

Where do you think the first roundabout in Spain was built? Madrid? Barcelona? Valencia? None of these. It was in Mallorca. Palmanova to be precise. The year was 1976. So a mere 67 years after the claim to the first roundabout having been built - in Letchworth (actually, Paris lays claim to having had one in 1907) - Spanish roads finally entered the modern era of motoring. Since that time, roundabouts have been built with a fervour and a fever that would leave breathless even the motorists of Swindon and Hemel Hempstead (two towns with more surreal and simply more roundabouts than most other places).

In pre-1976 film footage for Palma there are what look like roundabouts but which weren't. They were just obstacles in the middle of the road that motorists went past; obstacles created by some old landmark or other. In fact, it had been common enough in cities and towns in different countries to construct something, be it say artistic or a garden, at road intersections. Or, for purely aesthetic reasons, in the middle of old, primitive roads. Artistic creations in the middle of roads, on roundabouts, have since then acquired a whole new lease of life, as can be seen by the numerous examples of roundabout furniture in Mallorca.

The island's roundabouts, indeed Spain's roundabouts, are the stuff of great debate. Party to this debate are environmentalists, road designers and engineers, urban planners, artists and sometimes even motorists. Roundabouts are by no means universally popular, and this lack of popularity stems from different perspectives.

The environmentally conscious road design lobby against roundabouts helped to bring about a report in 2005. This contrasted Spain's roundabouts with its traffic light junctions. On cost alone, there was much to be said for the latter. Roundabouts, obviously of a certain size, cost on average 120,000 euros to build plus any cost of expropriation. Traffic-light junctions cost a mere 25,000 euros and took up far less space. The report also highlighted the costs in terms of energy consumption, the result of all the braking and accelerating demanded by  roundabouts, if they were as regular as many now are. A conclusion of the report was that, generally speaking, roundabouts should only be built at entry points into towns and not within or through them. The report was clearly ignored. Playa de Muro and Can Picafort are just two places that have seen several, small roundabouts placed along the main road in recent years.

A further report, of 2009, by researchers at the department of geography at the Independent University of Madrid, considered the "public art" of roundabouts, all those sculptures that are now to be typically seen. Or not seen. One of the researchers' arguments against all this art was that it was pointless as motorists don't see it. Indeed, you would hope they probably don't, as they should be concentrating on something else. Or maybe they are seeing, hence the accidents at roundabouts. For the most part, the researchers were unimpressed; this public art was of limited cultural merit and had little to do with its location.

What they didn't delve into was what it all cost. Just as an example, though, in 2010 Calvià town hall put out to tender work for three new "ornamental objects" for roundabouts in Santa Ponsa. They were to cost 53,000 euros in total, which may have represented a nice earner for a local artist, even if Balearics artists as a collective have been less than enthusiastic about roundabout art, partly because no one knows who the artist is and partly because they reckon that much if it has been rubbish.

Traffic circulation is obviously the reason for the rapid expansion that there has been in the number of roundabouts in Mallorca. I say obviously, but I am far from convinced that they have helped. Roundabout fever has, at times, seemed to have been designed to alleviate Trafico's boredom and enhance the quality of their worklife: increase the number of roundabouts, and there is a greater choice for where they can stand around plus a greater choice of scenery. The growth in roundabouts may offer more variety when it comes to traffic controls, but do the cops ever bother to advise motorists on their roundabout etiquette?

There are people who claim to know what the rules are at roundabouts. Some of them are probably with Trafico or are driving instructors. But this still doesn't stop articles appearing, at least once a year, in the local Spanish papers which discuss the "chaos" at roundabouts. The truth is that no one seems to know for sure, and even if they do know, then they ignore the rules anyway. Either that, or they're admiring the artwork.

Any comments to please.

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