In Praise of Traffic Circles

24 April 2013 · 26 comments

From the first time I drove on English roads in 2007, I’ve been in love with the roundabout.

Roundabouts are seldom used in the United States. There are a few around Portland (and, especially, in Lake Oswego and Bend), but mostly we favor traffic lights. But traffic lights create congestion. From what I’ve seen in the U.K., roundabouts allow for a constant flow of traffic. They may even breed drivers who are more polite!

This morning, Jason Kottke shared this video, which describes how one village in northern England decided to do away with a traffic light and replace it with a double roundabout. In the process, they created a more usable public space, decreased the speed of traffic, and yet maintained good traffic flow.

Traffic circles aren’t always great. The Place de la Concorde in Paris (and the Arc de Triomphe, actually) can have nasty gridlock, for instance. But generally speaking, I’m a fan, and I think we should try them more here in the U.S. (Or maybe other cities and states already use them? I’ve never noticed them elsewhere, but maybe I haven’t been to the right places…)

Note: When Kim and I were driving across England last month, our one frustrating afternoon was made more frustrating because we didn’t understand British traffic terminology. People kept telling us to go left at “Elk Island” (where “elk” may have actually been some other word). Well, we kept driving past where we thought this island ought to be. It was only after I stopped to ask for a third set of directions that it dawned on me that sometimes a roundabout (or traffic circle) is called an “island”. D’oh!

1 Jules April 24, 2013 at 12:32

I can tell you that here in the Fox Cities of Wisconsin (about 30 miles south of Green Bay) they are changing many of the traffic lights into roundabouts. I must admit, I was nervous using them at first but they do eliminate congestion. In certain areas — usually near highways — you can run into 3-4 roundabouts in a row.

2 GP April 24, 2013 at 12:42

On your travels around the UK, did you drive through Swindon?

There’s roundabout that’s called the Magic Roundabound. It’s a set of traffic circles around a traffic circle!

Here’s a google map link to show the layout: Roundabout, Swindon SN1, United Kingdom

The first time you approach it, it’s almost work out the best way to go as you have multiple paths to same destination. I had to look at a map to work out how it was put together as you only have few seconds to understand the road signs as you approach it. Only the British could think something like this!

GP (Brit ex-pat now a Portland, OR resident)

3 lostAnnfound April 25, 2013 at 07:56

That is quite scary looking!

4 Ian April 24, 2013 at 12:43

If you ever head over the hills to the dry side of the Cascades, and make your way through the Tri-Cities, WA, we’ve got plenty of roundabouts. May not always be on the main thoroughfares, but they’re around. And yes, I love them. As a driver and as a cyclist. Been seeing more of them put in at the end of freeway offramps, we even have a couple ‘kidney bean’ roundabouts that are… different.

5 Ian April 24, 2013 at 13:35

“Hey look kids, there’s Big Ben!”-Clark Griswold
There’s also one in Clearwater, Florida, I liked it!

6 Hannah April 24, 2013 at 14:00

Huh. I never knew there were parts of the US where traffic circles were seldom used. We have them all over the place in Massachusetts.

7 LeRainDrop April 24, 2013 at 21:44

Yup, I second this — but we call a roundabout a “rotary.”

8 Jess M April 25, 2013 at 19:50

I third that – “roundabout” is a very non-MA word! It annoys me to no end when an out-of-state plate tries to navigate a rotary… sigh.

9 Lance @ Money Life and More April 24, 2013 at 14:52

There are a couple traffic circles in random places where I live. None of them are high traffic areas though so they work out well.

10 Elizabeth April 24, 2013 at 15:43

Where I live, the city has a lot of roundabouts! Great for traffic, but what about pedestrians? The city is thinking of putting one near where I live — and two schools are on the corners! I think it’s a disaster waiting to happen unless they have a plan for those of us who walk.

11 chacha1 April 24, 2013 at 16:18

We noticed some new roundabouts on the western edge of Sedona when we visited there a few years back. They are great for reducing the irritation of having a stoplight every quarter mile when there is very low traffic. IIRC, there were speed bumps in advance of the roundabouts so that people didn’t just tear around them without checking for pedestrians; also they were fairly tight circles, and the centers were all raised and planted so there was no driving straight through them (as I see some people doing in the video above).

A couple of intersections where I live (Beverly Hills CA) would greatly benefit from roundabouts. Below the Beverly Hills Hotel there is an intersection of three through streets, a six-way stop, it’s just a mess.

12 David Stern April 24, 2013 at 16:22

You would love Canberra where we live. Heaps of roundabouts. We hate them and deliberately choose routes that have fewer roundabouts on them. When my brother was here he loved them but he’s got a background in traffic engineering…

13 Corey April 24, 2013 at 16:31

I live in Columbia, MO and they are everywhere. Another very unique interchange that was developed in Missouri is the diverging diamond. Research it in Wikipedia. It is very odd looking but very intuitive to drive through. It makes a busy interchange very efficient and much safer.

14 Richard April 24, 2013 at 17:23

We live on the Central Coast of California, and anytime local governments suggest roundabouts, they face resistance from locals. In fact Santa Barbara has removed one or two.

15 kate April 24, 2013 at 18:01

I grew up with them all over the place in New England. It wasn’t until I moved to the west coast that I realized that not everywhere had them.

16 Ms. W April 25, 2013 at 04:56

The cities to the north of Indianapolis have been adding them in for years, and all I’ve heard from people are complaints. They’ve recently begun adding them in my area, and I have to say I like them! Especially in areas with moderate traffic, where traffic lights just seem to make things more congested than they should be!

17 Andrew Snyder April 25, 2013 at 06:28

You wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about them if you had to drive through the series of rotaries at Fresh Pond in Cambridge (Mass) on a regular basis.

18 JoDi April 25, 2013 at 10:58

Ditto that in Washington. D.C.

19 lostAnnfound April 25, 2013 at 07:38

I second those from Massachusetts – rotaries are a fact of life here. We have them everywhere. In fact, here in Western Massachusetts we have the East Longmeadow Rotary, one of the most dangerous intersections I have ever encountered. It has seven streets intersecting at the rotary!

20 Andrew Snyder April 25, 2013 at 15:34

Try the Route 2 rotary in Concord. 6 roads coming in: you either get mayhem at 60 mph or you get total gridlock–rush hour backups of 5 miles or more almost every day.

21 ldboomer April 25, 2013 at 09:32

I am a traffic engineer in St. Louis and while roundabouts can be great, there are many places now that they will not work due to high traffic volumes. Not to mention the public in general does not like them and will usually push back if given any chance. I lived in Holland for a while and they worked great there and worked for pedestrians and cyclist as well, but they have a different driving mindset and are looking for those things where as most US drivers are not.

22 Anne Dwyer April 25, 2013 at 09:41

I grew up in NJ where we have circles on the roads leading to the Jersey shore.

Now I live in Michigan (where we go right to go left…. google the Michigan left) where they have just installed traffic circles at some intersections. The biggest problem seems to be that no one quite knows what to do. At least at a light, you can be relatively sure that the cars will stop when the light is red. But, when there is a yield sign, how do you know that the person coming up to the yield sign will actually yield to you? Plus, when you are coming up to a circle that you’ve never been through before, I find it very confusing. Finally, here in car friendly but not bike friendly Michigan, instead of having one street to cross with a light, you now have to cross multiply streets without a light. If cars start yielding to you in the cross walk, it messes up the flow. I don’t live near one, so I haven’t tried it. But I think it would be quite scary to try to get across.

23 JoDi April 25, 2013 at 11:06

That would be truly frightening to drive through in a East Coast town or city. I’m not sure they breed drivers who are more polite as much as they work in areas where drivers are more polite already. We have traffic circles in many places in Maryland, but they all have raised curbs and islands in the middle so it’s obvious where you should be going, and people still have trouble navigating them. The ones in D.C. are a nightmare with multiple lanes and streets that come off them that aren’t always marked with signs (not a fabulous idea in a tourist town!)

24 Shawn L. April 25, 2013 at 13:03

You love rotary intersections? Wow. Who knew you were a masochist?

From the Urban Dictionary: Bostonian Roulette:

The act of entering a rotary intersection, gambling that you will…

A. get out at the correct exit

B. get out within the first revolution.

C. be able to get out at all

D. get out alive

Variation on ‘Russian Roulette’, only losing usually doesn’t kill you, but often makes you wish you were dead.

So named for the proponderance of such traffic circles in Eastern Mass. and the notorious driving habits of Bostonians

25 Lucille April 26, 2013 at 06:35

I live in the country of roundabouts and love them!

26 Steve May 8, 2013 at 05:36

Semi-unrelated question:
Would 4WD or AWD on vehicle (vs. regular 2WD) be a sizable advantage if living in the Portland area and travelling every other month or so (incl. winter) to various parts of the Pacific Northwest?

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