Good Design Does Not Compromise

I can’t help but smile at good design.

For example, I grin like a Cheshire Cat every time I approach a busy roundabout just South of Ohio University.

Even when the intersection stacks up at five on a Homecoming Friday, it still beats the bad old days when it had a traffic light.

These days, at worst, you’re looking at a queue maybe five cars deep. It seldom if ever takes more than a minute to get through.

But six years ago, when lighted signals controlled the intersection, traffic would back up for blocks. Even on a good day, I routinely waited through 4+ signal changes to get through.

It was awful to sit in a sea of exhaust pipes, overheating engines, grumpy faces and twitchy fingers hovering over horns.

And it was dangerous: traffic flowed in twelve directions, people raced through just as yellow turned to red. There were a lot of high-speed side-impact collisions.

The perfect design for random suffering.

Inappropriately enough, a well-traveled friend of mine had giggle fits at America’s profusion of traffic lights.

She thought it hilarious that we, who value our freedom and mobility above all, should grid our streets with little robot dictators that order us to “stop” and “go” at arbitrary intervals.  

Design Patterns

Streets and traffic lights are examples of design patterns: named solutions to known problems.

Together, the patterns around us combine in what architect Christopher Alexander has dubbed a pattern language.

Though pattern languages quietly govern our lives, we usually don’t think about them any more than we think about the way we speak.

Once in awhile, though, we encounter a new design pattern. When that happens, we may not even know its name, let alone how to use it.

It’s foreign and shocking; not a part of our language. We tend to reject it.

Photo by Daniel Páscoa on Unsplash

I’ve lived in two neighborhoods that bitterly resisted roundabouts. In one, the roundabout went in, and kids stopped dying in that intersection.

In the other, a few elderly neighbors bitterly testified how they were afraid of roundabouts. If one went in, they said, they would have to give up driving.

They prevailed, and to this day, dangerous speeders still cut through what would otherwise be a very walkable neighborhood.

Prior to 1990, the U.S. had some traffic circles, but no roundabouts.

The difference? A roundabout has:

  • angled entries
  • crosswalks one or two car lengths behind the intersection,
  • yield signs for entering traffic, and
  • a center island not meant for pedestrians.

These features combine to make roundabouts safer and less congested than either traffic circles or traffic lights.

Good Roundabout Design

In a proper roundabout, you never need to look in more than one direction at once or worry about more than one thing at a time. Here’s the sequence:

  • Slow, watch for pedestrians, and be ready to yield to them.
  • Then, when the crosswalk is clear, pull forward and wait for your lane to clear.
  • Look left. Not right. When there’s a gap in traffic, enter the intersection.
  • Now look right to find your exit. If traffic ahead of you stops suddenly or fails to yield right of way, it will invariably be in front of you or to your right. At no time will you face a side impact, nor will your speed relative to vehicles in the intersection exceed 20 miles per hour.

By contrast, in a lighted or signed intersection, you have to be aware of traffic going 3 different directions from each of the 3 or more intersecting streets. If someone goes out of turn, it can come from any direction. In the case of the Ohio University intersection before the roundabout, collision speeds could easily exceed 50 miles per hour.

Traffic circles, a visual compromise between the two approaches, are notoriously unsafe. Without the angled entries, offset crosswalks, and pedestrian free center island, these proved confusing and chaotic.  

Design patterns should not compromise

That’s right. I said it.

Good design starts with fully understanding the problem, and factoring it down to its essentials.

Design focuses on data: the physics of the situation.

And tradition? It should only touch the functional elements of a design when it aligns with the physics. Otherwise its one and only legitimate place in design is decoration.

You know you got the design right when you can measure vast improvements in domains that seemed opposed in the old design. Things like convenience versus safety.

We’ve already seen how much better the roundabout is at speeding traffic flow.

As for safety, a study of 24 new roundabouts by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that collisions decreased by 36% and serious injuries (including pedestrians) by 90%.

Patterns old and new have consequences

Right now the pattern language of human settlement in most countries encourages sprawling townships, wider roads, bigger houses, and ever more waste.

Two consequences, habitat loss and climate change, are driving species extinct thousands of times faster than the natural rate. National Geographic calls this the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Before the toll includes any of the  12 crops and 5 animal species that most humans depend on for survival, we need to find alternative patterns.

Photo by imagesthai.com / Pexels

Fortunately, we live in a world filled with proven design patterns of every description. A few of these, combined, could end the sixth extinction (we’ll talk more about these later).

But here’s the rub: if we introduce these patterns one at a time, we face a very slow, uphill battle.

Even now, most people in Athens, Ohio will tell you they hate the roundabout.

Everyone feels like they have had a near miss in that intersection, and everyone knows someone who had a fender bender there.

Never mind that, by design, the intersection is 10x safer.

Even great patterns feel just plain wrong at first

They defile the language that shapes our lives.

And when they invade our neighborhoods and skew our streets, we resist it and complain about the nanny state.

Hard data can resolve these false dichotomies between safety and freedom. Good design patterns, such as the roundabout, give us more of both.

That’s why we need to design new neighborhoods, towns and cities as total lifestyle products.

Places with carefully selected pattern languages that make our everyday lives incomparably richer, freer, and more secure while healing rather than harming the world.

Places where it all comes together and  just works.

Places where lots of people want to live.

And that’s worth smiling about.


If you are a land developer or planner, I invite you to apply for a free Abundance Factor  call.

In this 30-minute video session, we’ll map out a strategy to:

  • Position your projects as world leaders in sustainable living.
  • Factor your site plan to multiply its market value and dramatically reduce costs.
  • Attract high-quality partners, buyers and tenants.

I only have a few time slots available, so apply now before they’re all taken.

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