Traffic Circles and the Imperial City

For those of you who have yet to have the pleasure of visiting our nation’s capital, take it from me that it’s spectacular. Appointed in 1791 by General Washington to design the new Federal City, Pierre L’Enfant proved himself to be not only a talented and artistic city planner, but a giant pain in the ass and extremely difficult to work with. So much so that he was dismissed less than a year after he had been hired. However, what L’Enfant did accomplish was a vision for a magnificent capital, laid out on a grid, intending to convey the shimmering promise of this brave, new democracy.


Along with impressively named avenues (Independence, Constitution), the National Mall, Washington Monument, White House, and a coterie of museums that have come to form the visual image of this City, one critical piece of infrastructure is the series of traffic circles that make it possible to get from one part of town to another. Names such as Ward, Sheridan, Tenley, Dupont, and Logan attach themselves to these circles where thousands of vehicles and pedestrians cross each day as they make their way from one Very Important Meeting to the next.


The thing about these circles is that they can be difficult to negotiate. With so much rush, rush traffic whirling about, changing lanes, entering and exiting at multiple points, it requires a certain amount of verve to enter the fray. One doesn’t just casually approach Dupont Circle—you must take into consideration the speed and flow of traffic, the number of lane changes required to get to the spoke you wish to exit on, and the wild cards such as jaywalkers, non-signal types, and whether or not the traffic lights are out. Not for the feint of heart.


Alas, it goes without saying that far too many drivers who are not familiar with negotiating these large traffic circles push their way into the fracas, causing problems of their own. All too often, I find myself stuck behind one, terrified to enter the nonstop stream of humanity that they must get past in order to reach Point B. Such hesitation on their part triggers an irritation in me that I can only link to my more aggressive City Girl tendencies. Unlike these motorists, I am accustomed to and unafraid of the circles; I take an unreasonable amount of pride in my ability to display bold finesse in identifying and seizing the traffic openings before they present themselves. But, such talents are impossible to use when other (more timid) commuters are blocking me. Argh.


So, what does this have to do with re-booting?


Well, a couple of things. We are, each of us, the Capital of our own nation. We each must negotiate the traffic circles that transect the various parts of our lives: child to adult, private to public; professional to social. Most of the time, we know where we want to go. Sometimes, we get stuck going round and round (metaphorically speaking), unable to exit if we refuse to learn new strategies to negotiate our way through some challenge. What I mean by this is, think of someone who, repeatedly, creates and re-creates a particular problem for themselves. Why? Because they refuse to acknowledge that their approach ain’t working. Instead, they trap themselves in a whirlpool of their own making, repeating their mistakes. Sound familiar?


Second, as we proceed through life, focused on achieving forward momentum, more often than not, there will be something (or someone) who interferes, delaying us from the instant gratification of making progress. If you suffer from a lack of patience (as do I), this can send one into paroxysms of frustration. The trick is to remember that these obstructions—whether they be traffic or bumps in the road—are only temporary. When feeling stymied by the actions of others, I try to remind myself that these hesitant drivers want to get somewhere, too; they don’t want to sit at the traffic circle simply to watch other cars pass them by! Why is this important? It’s important for several reasons: 1. Just because someone has interfered with your timetable by getting in your way does not mean their behavior is personal against you; 2. The delay is short-lived and will not interfere with your achieving your ultimate goal of where you need to be; and 3. Traffic (and life) is like this; there will always be others crowding around you, trying to get somewhere, and it’s your responsibility to take this into consideration when formulating your plans. Delay does not mean defeat.


I mean, how foolhardy would it be for me to plan a trip to Georgetown allowing for a mere 15 minutes to get hither and yon (including parking), despite the fact that if the streets were clear, that would be about right? The streets of our lives are never clear! There are always other journeymen to consider. Aren’t you better off expecting this, planning for it, and enjoying the circle fountains or plantings while you wait? If you zipped right through, you’d never even notice.


So, next time you’re stuck behind some yahoo, try to think of this as an analogy for your life. Practice the patience and goodwill you would hope someone would extend to you if you were a little bit unsure. While you’re waiting to go, look around and see if you can spot anything surprising. Maybe you’ll be glad you did.


Fun fact: The two men General Washington commissioned in 1791 to conduct the critically important original survey for the planned Federal City were Marylanders Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker. Ellicott, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was from a prominent Quaker family for whom Ellicott City, MD is named  [why would a Quaker be fighting a war?]. Benjamin Banneker, a Baltimore native whose father was a freed slave, was an autodidact who learned astronomy and surveying as a result of using books lent to him by Andrew Ellicott’s father. Banneker corresponded with Thomas Jefferson on the issues of slavery and racial equality.


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2 Responses to “Traffic Circles and the Imperial City”

  1. Jim Patterson Says:

    Nice blog today. Good job

  2. grasshopper Says:

    love it! Great analogy!

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