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February 21, 2006

Roundabouts Come 'Round Again

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

New Jersey was killing them off, and I thought I was safe.

But No! They started sprouting right here in my neck of the woods at the sound end of Puget Sound.

I'm talking traffic circles or roundabouts or rond-points or whatever the local term is.

I had never seen such things until I lived Back East -- first when I was in the Army and a little later when I was at Dear Old Penn.

A little mousing around the Web reveals that traffic circles date as far back as 1905 in this country, but that they got a big boost in New Jersey. Nearly 70 were built there, most between 1925 and 1940.

The traffic circles I remember best in the 1960s were those east of Camden, NJ on U.S. routes 30 and 130. They were awful, especially around rush hour. It was gridlock minus the grid. Cars already in the circle would be creeping along, turn-indicators flashing as they tried to change lanes. Other cars would be queued at the entry points waiting for a tiny break in the flow so that, with the aid of some burning rubber, entry could be effected.

Traffic circles are fine, in theory. Normal street or road intersections require some form of traffic control where cars are often forced to come to a complete halt before making a turn or continuing straight ahead. But a traffic circle, if traffic is very light, allows a car to keep rolling into the circle and around to its exit point. In theory (again), this can mean no wasted time and fuel while waiting for a stoplight to change -- this supposed ecological plus might explain why traffic circles seem to be making a comeback in the U.S.

Here are views of some traffic circles.


Camden Airport and Circle - 31.jpg
Traffic circle near Camden, NJ airport, 1931.

Cardiff - Black Horse Pike Cicle in 98.jpg
Traffic circle on Black Horse Pike, Cardiff, NJ, 1998.
Aerial photo taken before reconstruction of intersection.

Provo Utah example.jpg
Circle in Provo, UT.
Example of small, recent American traffic circle.

England -- cropped.jpg
English roundabout.
This one is actually round (many aren't).

Arc de Triomphe.jpg
L'Étoille, Paris.
France's most famous rond-point. The Arc de Triomphe is at the center.

Traffic circles -- rond-points -- are common in France, especially in the countryside or newer suburbs. (Putting them in older, built-up places would be expensive, so few are found there.) French circles are almost always geometrically pure. This is not the case in Britain where roundabouts (the term used there) are often polygons of one shape or another rather than being round. I'm not sure whether this difference is due to England's greater population density and comparative lack of available land or the character of the nations' peoples and political systems.

Regardless of location, all are subject to the Iron Law of Traffic Circles: heavy traffic will bring them to their knees. I've noticed in England that some roundabouts in congested areas now have traffic signals, so entry to the circle is in pulses controlled by the lights. In New Jersey massive post-World War 2 suburbanization from New York City and Philadelphia so overloaded the circles that the state was turning them into normal stoplight-controlled or cloverleaf intersections by the 1980s.

The new (in the last four years or so) traffic circles where I live are being built on moderately busy, multi-lane streets. I have strong doubts that their construction was wise.

Setting aside any tiny environmental advantages, traffic circles create driving conditions that are inherently more ambiguous than those found in traffic-light controlled intersections. For instance, a driver planning to exit more than a quarter of the way around the circle is supposed to place his car in a middle or interior lane and then drift back to the outside for exiting. But not all drivers can or will do this. So if you see a car in the outside lane of the circle approaching your street but not signaling, you cannot be certain whether or not he will be exiting there. So you wait a couple seconds longer until his intention is clear. And if you misjudge his intention and enter when he isn't about to exit, there could well be a crash.

I just described a safety problem intrinsic to traffic circles. But the local planning geniuses have added a new hazard. Someone apparently thought that the centers of the circles were too plain or that they robbed the local environment of vegetation. So now some circle-centers are piled high with soil and rocks and have tall bushes and other plantings. What this does is block a driver's view of traffic entering the circle from the opposite entry point -- you can't see a car till it's about a third of the way around the half-circle between its entry point and yours. This leads to delays in entry due to extra caution (partly counteracting environmental gains) at best and to more accidents at worst.

Conclusions? Traffic circles do more harm than good except when found waaay out in the country. New Jersey was right -- kill 'em off.



posted by Donald at February 21, 2006


Why am I not surprised?

Posted by: David Sucher on February 21, 2006 11:07 PM

One of my favorite blogs is that written by Michael Manske, an American living in Slovenia. Among his many observations at Glory of Carnolia
are these regarding (Roundabouts)
and (Driving in traffic circles)

All in all, a successful NJ export!

Posted by: DarkoV on February 21, 2006 11:20 PM

When I was an animal control officer in the Seventies in Portland, there were two traffic circles that I dreaded. One was at NE 39th and Glisan, a glamorous one with a big statue of Joan of Arc on horseback in the middle, which my brothers and I as children used to urge our father to drive around so we could gawk. (Traffic was far different back in the Forties and Fifties.)

The other one was a little geometric gem in SE that was all circles and diagonals, presumably to slow people down. Slow them down is right -- I sometimes lost fifteen minutes trying to figure out where I was, circling around and around the rose bushes. Of course, I had a truck full of barking dogs so there was a basset hound who would rouse himself to rush into the street and bark at us -- or rather bellow at us. Sometimes I stopped and tried to catch him, but his big toothy mouth was rimmed around with black dagged lip flaps that rippled with menace. Once I almost had him and his household came rushing out to rescue him -- they were Chinese, all in black silk pajamas. I tried hard not to go down that street again, but always lost track of exactly where it was.

But those places -- the problem getting into them and then out of them was exactly as you describe -- was easy compared to a place coming from Kirkland via freeway to downtown Seattle where the entrance was on one side of four lanes and the exit was only a short distance on the other side of the four lanes. You had to quickly find gaps and zip across or drive a long way. My hair got whiter every time.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 21, 2006 11:36 PM

Massachusetts used to have a number of traffic circles (or "rotaries," in the local lingo), though I believe many of them have been eliminated.
The SPUI (Single-Point Urban Interchange) is in some ways the modern replacement for traffic circles, though they require some grade separation.

Posted by: Peter on February 21, 2006 11:48 PM

Richmond, VA has several traffic circles on Monument Avenue where there are all these statues of Confederate "heroes" like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. No, really, the PC police haven't had them torn down yet. I'm always amazed they still stand. According to this site, the Robert E. Lee monument was dedicated in 1890, so I guess their roundabouts go very far back. This site says it's a National Historic Landmark. I guess that explains why JEB Stuart hasn't been melted down.

Do Savannah or Charleston have any roundabouts?

Posted by: lindenen on February 22, 2006 3:02 AM

My experiences:

About nine months working in D.C., where, as you claim, they seemed thoroughly awful during anything resembling a busy traffic time. (I didn't drive while there, a necessary financial advantage.)

Many years in Davis, California, where there are now lots of pointless single-lane roundabouts in areas that are never busy. The only thing I can see them accomplishing is allowing one to avoid coming to a complete stop when there is no cross traffic. (I don't know if you folks have any awareness of Davis, but leftist pretension is obviously the real motivation for the circles.) But, after all, I think, couldn't the same thing be accomplished more efficiently by legally allowing cars to proceed at slow speeds through stop signs under similar conditions?

Posted by: J. Goard on February 22, 2006 3:32 AM

I grew up in New Jersey within a ten minute drive of four, count 'em four, traffic circles. Until college I thought this was normal.

The funny thing about circles is how safe they actually are. You'd think it would be some kind of suburban Thunderdome out there. And while there's a million near-crashes per hour, there are very few actually ones - probably because everyone is so terrified.

It's very funny that the French force everyone into a perfect geometric ideal, while the English say to hell with perfection and trust to luck.

Posted by: Brian on February 22, 2006 4:33 AM

DarkoV: "All in all, a successful NJ export!"

Trenton Makes, The World Takes!

Posted by: Brian on February 22, 2006 4:37 AM

Traffic circles can't really have been invented in 1905: the ones in downtown D.C. surely go back to L'Enfant's original plan. And the two in downtown Annapolis must be fairly old: Church Circle and State Circle are a block apart (not exactly a wall of separation) and surround the Episcopal Church and the Statehouse. Both are cobbled rather than paved. Then again, the sidewalk around the Statehouse has some very narrow spots, so either State Circle was not quite circular when the Statehouse was built (assuming it existed then) or the Statehouse has had some additions since then that stick out almost into the street and block the sidewalk. I'm no architect, so I can't tell.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on February 22, 2006 8:50 AM

My formative (teenage driving years) were in central Jersey, right around New Brunswick. Like you, I thought the traffic circles were an ordinary and required part of road design. It wasn't until friends visited me from college that I relaized what a loopy thing they are. And you're absolutely right, rarley did I see accidents in the circles, that is if you don't count out-of-state plates. I figured if you had Englishtown raceway, you had to have traffice circles. Why Bruce never penned an ode to the Jersey Circle was a mystery to me.

Posted by: DarkoV on February 22, 2006 10:27 AM

There are a number of new ones in Utah. Provo and other areas with booming residential growth have put them in in new suburbs. Park City put one in before the Olympics - that made a bunch of sense, as there's fairly regular but not heavy traffic, and due to growth restrictions traffic isn't likely to increase much. Another one was put in at the University of Utah when a lightrail line was run through the median of the top part of the T of a T-junction (clear enough? link below). Not sure what I think of that one.,-111.845187&spn=0.001499,0.002087&t=k

Posted by: ptm on February 22, 2006 10:49 AM

I always got hopelessly lost when I had to try to use the roundabouts in New Jersey when I travelled there for my job. They are bad enough when you know where you are going, but they are tailor-made for wrong turns and confusion and getting lost when you don't! It was traumatic. It made me not want to even see my clients in NJ!

Posted by: annette on February 22, 2006 11:06 AM

I know of two in Atlanta, where I used to live. Both are in the suburbs on neighborhood streets of moderate traffic. They worked quite well as far as I could tell and were aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps the small scale and moderate traffic are the keys to their success.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 22, 2006 11:09 AM

I've been through/on some of those Jersey traffic circles, and they really were terrifying, at least if you weren't a native. But I wonder if, like many things, it isn't a matter of how well these things are done. Pasadena, for instance, has been putting in a lot of small-scale traffic circles, and they've struck me as pretty wonderful traffic-calmers. Where they seem to work best (in a residential, semi-small-town setting, anyway) is where there's no need for a real stop but where some slowing-down and paying-attention wouldn't hurt either. As Pasadena has used them (and I've only been a visitor, so I don't know what it's like to live with them), they help psychologically too -- they seem like some kind of acknowledgement that you're now in a people-centric (rather than car-centric) district. Plus they add a little variety to the town's landscape. It ain't just one damn intersection after another.

But these are very small-scale traffic circles...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 22, 2006 11:32 AM

Does anyone remember the radio monologist and writer Jean Shepherd? He talked and wrote about the terror of Jersey traffic circles: terror for the novice that is. I'm sure that for a regular user "his" traffic circle is no big deal. But if you're unfamiliar with a particular traffic circle the tension of entering it and then spinning around it results in many an incorrect exit.

Posted by: ricpic on February 22, 2006 11:41 AM

I think that NJ traffic circles were not given enough credit for their positive affect on our space travel. I'm sure the astronauts prpeparing for the various shots to the moon were sent to Jersey to get a feel of how a continual speed build-up allowed one to exit the gravitional pull of the circle. Obviously, some didn't get the hang of it. That could be the only expalanation of how some cars ended up in trees.

How could you tell the age of the traffic circle in Jersey? The really old ones had no trees on the roads entering the circle and there certainly were no trees in the circle itself.

Posted by: DarkoV on February 22, 2006 11:55 AM

You think you have problems? Try this one!!

- although it has to be said it works surprisingly well - just make sure your first trip though isn't at night;

in the rain;

desperately looking for a gents (that's restroom in American!)

Posted by: ian on February 22, 2006 1:17 PM

I like driving in big traffic circles. No rules! You can do whatever you want! Kind of like driving in Manhattan.

However, I think it's helpful to draw a distinction between big and little circles. The big circles may be designed to facilitate travel in cities that have diagonal avenues. Some cities (e.g., Chicago) seem to get along fine with numerous diagonal intersections, so I don't know whether big circles help or hurt on balance.

The little circles, particularly as they are currently being installed on suburban American streets, are often intended to impede traffic (as MB alluded above). This may be done because locals complained about fast traffic, or for ideological reasons because some urban-planning control freaks think it's a great idea to "get people out of their cars" by making driving into a total pain. So instead of local thoroughfares where traffic flows without impediment, and drivers entering from side streets wait a few moments to enter traffic, you get a situation in smaller circles where traffic stops in all directions any time there is one car in a circle. I think most of these little circles would be better replaced by conventional intersections with yield signs on the less-busy streets.

Posted by: Jonathan on February 22, 2006 1:25 PM

On low-traffic roads, there's no need for a traffic circle to avoid stops. Until the last 15 years or so, many residential intersections had no control signs at all, trusting people to remember that the car on the right had the right-of-way. Now it seems that there's a stop sign or light at every intersection. How about if we just trust drivers to remember a single simple rule again?

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on February 22, 2006 2:03 PM

New Jersey is also infamous for its other traffic engineering innovation found - thank God - almost nowhere else: the jughandle turn. Designed to avoid accidents caused by people making left turns, they cause accidents by people swerving across three lanes to get to the exit.

Posted by: Greg Hlatky on February 22, 2006 7:59 PM

Circles sure do stir up a lot of fuss.

My experience with circles has not been negative. Perhaps some drivers simply do not know how to yield to traffic in the circle.

The Wikipedia articles on traffic circles and roundabouts are interesting. The latter has an animation of traffic flow in the circle. This paper, Traffic Control: An Exercise in Self-Defeat (.DOC) (or the version (PDF) published by Cato) provides some helpful background.

Posted by: Will Cox on February 22, 2006 10:36 PM

Having dealt with dozens of them in DC for years, I have to say, as annoying as they are for a driver, they're worse for pedestrians. Statue or no, they're not useful park space that people can enjoy, and you're given the choice of walking all the way around them, or playing the dangerous game of traffic-dodge.

Posted by: Nick on February 22, 2006 10:54 PM

The world has recently began to notice what happens if a town abandons all traffic lights and road signs, and let all traffic flow through roundabouts ot even 'shared spaces'.

I happen to live near the Dutch town mentioned, and can confirm travelling through the city is faster nowadays, and safer.

The only dramatic change is that you have to be fully alerted all the time. Driving on a road with traffic lights can become a matter of routine, with all the difficulties that involves; that's a problem not mentioned here.

Posted by: ijsbrand on February 23, 2006 6:56 AM

Here is a roundabout Project for Public Spaces designed in Towson, MD:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 23, 2006 5:27 PM

This website explains the difference between a traffic circle and a roundabout, and why roundabouts are superior in certain situations:

In my opinion, the best roundabouts are single-lane. Traffic engineers have some differences of opinion on that.

Here are more roundabout references:

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on February 23, 2006 6:14 PM

Tijauna, Mexico has a mean traffic circle, replete with giant statues of famous Mexican heroes. It's a great (as in horrible) experience when you are driving out of Mexico with a hangover.

Posted by: PJGoober on February 24, 2006 3:18 PM

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