I remember fifteen or twenty years ago when there was all kinds of work done on the Bisbee traffic circle. It went on for months, and when it was done, it looked basically the same. But there was a little landscaping in the center (some ocotillos and cactus) and of course the large N-S-E-W monoliths indicating the cardinal directions were added.
And as the cartoon in the paper said, “Abracadabra!” When the magician pulled the the cloth off the traffic circle, it had magically become a roundabout.
Roundabouts are a British thing. Traffic circles are a US thing. The difference at first seems small, though it’s critical: A traffic circle has two lanes and a roundabout has just one.
But as it turns out, there are other differences, due to the design of the single lane roundabout.
First, the number of accidents per year on a traffic circle is quite large compared to wrecks on a roundabout. One reason is when on a traffic circle, people may zip in between oncoming cars and head to the inside lane. But they need to then blast back into the outside lane to exit. Collisions often ensue.
The roundabout creates much less of a traffic hazard. With one lane, the driver enters when there’s space and never needs to jostle her way to a different lane in order to exit.
In addition, roundabouts are generally smaller than traffic circles. That is, their diameter is smaller, although this isn’t true for the Bisbee roundabout since it was born as a traffic circle.
But the smaller diameter of a roundabout leads to slower speeds. Thus, when there is an accident, traffic is moving more slowly so damage done to both vehicles and passengers is less than a wreck on a traffic circle.
This is also true for accidents involving pedestrians, bicyclists, and animals. Slower speeds result in less damage or injury.
In Britain, roundabouts are often used instead of traffic lights, and there are lots of benefits, from less maintenance to less pollution.
Roundabouts need little maintenance. There’s some grooming (if there’s a garden or grass in the center) and regular repaving and pothole repair. At an intersection with signals, big traffic lights burn out, and they whole signal system generally needs to be replaced every twenty-five years or so—and that usually means calling in the experts.
There are a lot of wrecks at traffic lights because so many people try to blast through on the yellow or even the beginning of the red. And wrecks those drivers cause can be quite severe and even fatal since speed is often a factor.
Then of course traffic lights have operational costs. There’s the monthly electric bill as well as bulb replacement.
Traffic lights can go out when there’s a storm, and often that means a police officer has to head over to direct traffic because some idiots just won’t take turns. But in a city, there aren’t enough officers to cover all the outages, so of course there are a number of car wrecks each time the light’s power is out.
Another big plus for the roundabout is drivers don’t waste gas sitting at a light. How many times have you sat at a light when there’s no cross traffic? Yet you’ve had to sit and wait. And wait. That simply doesn’t happen at a roundabout.
Studies show that each traffic light replaced with a roundabout in Carmel, Indiana, the US capital of roundabouts, saves about 24,000 gallons of fuel.
Initially, it costs more to build a roundabout, mostly because cities have to buy up more land than they would for a regular intersection. But because roundabouts have lower maintenance costs, have no electric costs, and and never have outages or need to be replaced, over time they save a lot of money.
That city in Indiana, Carmel, has more roundabouts than almost any other city on the planet. Well, more than any other US city. Carmel started replacing traffic signals with roundabouts in the mid 1990s, and they’ve seen an 80% drop in injury accidents.
In 1996, Carmel had a population of 30,000 and had 217 traffic accidents. In 2019, with more than120 roundabouts, there were approximately 100,000 residents and the city saw fewer than 200 traffic accidents.
Carmel currently has 125 roundabouts with plans to add more. There are only about a dozen traffic lights left in the city. That’s big news for the city that claimed Indiana’s first traffic signal.
Carmel proudly says the network of roundabouts has saved money, reduced vehicular emissions, improved air quality, and enhanced community walkability and traffic safety.
The switch to roundabouts came because of one man: the mayor. Jim Brainard had been to England in the 1970s when he was in graduate school. And he loved the concept of no stop-and-go. People just drove placidly on. So refined. So simple. So smart. No lines, no congestion, no pollution pouring out the backs of cars at street corners.
When Jim became mayor of Carmel, he introduced the idea of roundabouts to the city planners who tossed the idea aside. Jim did the research on how cost effective and efficient roundabouts are, and the planners changed their minds and got behind the idea.
By the way, roundabouts are also popular in Australia. The town of Canberra even had the International Roundabout of the Year in 2020 with its Gay Pride roundabout.
Will roundabouts catch on in other cities? I surely hope so. I know I now feel proud that Bisbee made the abracadabra! switch from a traffic circle. Anything that can lower the number of car wrecks, save money, cut back on pollution, save driving time and look pretty on top of that deserves our support.