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One of the things that make Boston oh, so special, is an ancient institution known as the rotary. It's a large traffic island, placed in a major intersection, that makes people circle it counterclockwise in their cars. Those who know how to use it will enter the rotary and then leave on the road they wish to go to. Those who don't circle around a few times and go back whence they came or in some totally new direction.

A rotary is a bewildering experience for the out-of-towner and to the bad driver, not only because they are not to be found in the rest of the country, but also because they are filled with that existentialist's delight, the Boston Driver. The quick lowdown on a rotary is this: yield when entering, and keep an eye out for the exit you. The more interesting part is why these things exist.

Go back a century and a half. Those who can afford to travel by carriage. Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Street in Boston see the most traffic, since the wealthy live out west and commute to Beacon Hill's government offices, law offices, and countinghouses. On Charles Street, at the bottom of the hill, was a large number of coach houses where the carriages were parked, and the horses fed and watered, while their owners worked at the Hub of the Universe. Now, for carriage traffic, rotaries make perfect sense. At the head of any horse team, the driver would always place the smartest horses, so at the rotary, the horses knew well enough to yield when entering, to slow down to match the traffic, and since they went slower than cars, nobody ever started circling out of confusion.

Of course, the lead horses would have to be polite in the rotaries. If any horse broke rotary protocol, word would get around the coach house. It would only be a matter of time before the other horses pooped in his oats and peed on his salt lick. If you're a horse, it does not pay to be a schmuck.

Nowadays we use horseless carriages, and we alone decide whether to be polite or to be Boston Drivers. And so, the rotary has come to have a distilled concentration of everything that makes driving in Boston such a contest for survival. People drive so fast in the rotaries that their cars list visibly. Normal levels of Boston Driving are amplified considerably, because we all know that those who enter must yield, but nobody really obeys that. The truly unnerving part is that as you line up to enter, each driver coming by may still be in the rotary or may be planning to exit in the street right after yours. He won't signal. Turn signals are for the weak.

Nothing beats the thrill of riding a bicycle through a rotary. You're riding at a third of the prevailing speed. You're barely a blink in anyone's eye. You see nothing behind you. And then you exit. That which does not kill the bicyclist only makes him stronger. Biking through a rotary gives you perspective. Inner peace. Even rapture. You should try it some time. Go into the Powderhouse Square Rotary some time by going up College Avenue. It is one experience to go enter the Rotary having just expended energy climbing up that hill. Then do it again in the other direction. For extra thrills, go to the double rotary by Fresh Pond. If you survive, you'll thank me.

Finally, here's the Mother of All Rotaries, in England.

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Omri Schwarz, March 7, 2001