Americans love cool, new technology, and it's probably safe to say that most of the world is becoming just as obsessed with novelty as Americans. Cool and new does not always mean better, however. To demonstrate this point, I am starting a new series of posts that will compare an example of something that is undoubtedly cool-and-new with something that many might consider dull-and-pedestrian. In making these comparisons, I will show that dull-and-pedestrian is usually better than cool-and-new.
I will begin this series with a face off between cool-and-new hybrid automobiles and dull-and-pedestrian roundabouts.
Stop and go traffic kills automotive efficiency, because when you stop or slow down, you have to speed up again, and it takes force to accelerate the vehicle, and this force comes from consuming energy. The loss of efficiency is suffered by all types of vehicles, even if they are electrically powered. In recent years hybrid vehicles have gained popularity, because they store the mechanical energy normally wasted in braking in the form of chemical energy in a battery, which can then be used to run an electric motor to accelerate the car once you are ready to go again. The use of energy normally lost as heat during breaking is called regenerative braking. The combination of regenerative braking along with using electrical power at low speeds, when electrical motors are most efficient, and gasoline power at high speeds, when internal combustion engines are most efficient, gives hybrids a 25% boost in fuel efficiency over their conventional automobile counterparts.
All advantages come at a cost, however. Hybrid technology is complicated and comparatively expensive, and it requires large, heavy batteries that don't last forever. What if I offered you a simpler and more reliable technology that is far cheaper and can boost your fuel efficiency by 30%, a full 5% higher than what is achievable with hybrids? That technology exists and most of you have probably already encountered it - the roundabout. Don't yawn! The old fashioned roundabout, that so many people find annoying and confusing, is a fuel efficiency booster. They save on fuel by eliminating the necessity of stopping. As I mentioned already, most of the energy used in transportation comes from accelerating, that's when most of the force is applied to a vehicle. A roundabout allows traffic to flow smoothly through an intersection without the necessity of ever coming to a stop.
Roundabouts have gotten a bad rap in the US, because they compete with the far more common intersections regulated by stop signs or traffic signals, and people just haven't had much opportunity to get used to them.
In addition to being automobile fuel efficiency boosters, roundabouts are quite a bit safer than stop-and-go intersections. According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), roundabouts reduce the incidence of crashes causing injury by 75% at intersections where stop signs or stop lights had previously been used for traffic control. Also, the elimination of traffic signs and signals to control traffic makes roundabouts cheaper to build and maintain than ordinary intersections. I will go further and argue that roundabouts are more aesthetically pleasing than a cross made from concrete or asphalt.
It's very satisfying to have a nice, new automobile in your drive way, and if you are concerned about efficiency and climate change, it's doubly satisfying to have a hybrid. With a hybrid, you are getting a fun toy that isn't doing as much harm to the planet as your neighbor's gas guzzler. However, your hybrid doesn't make your neighbor's vehicle any more fuel efficient. A roundabout will. In fact, a roundabout will almost magically turn your neighbor's gas guzzler into its hybrid equivalent, and your neighbor wouldn't have to have paid to replace his vehicle. The roundabout will even help your lovely hybrid be just a little bit more fuel efficient.
You can't force everybody to buy a hybrid, but with some activist city planning, everybody can be made to use roundabouts. In science, we often speak of Occam's razor, which is a principle that states the simplest solution is usually the best. The application of Occam's principle to the contest of hybrid vs. roundabout, decidedly shows that from the point of view of fuel efficiency, cost, and aesthetics, the roundabout is the clear winner.