Discover more from Econ Soapbox
The Sublimity of the Roundabout
They're just better
“At the traffic circle, take the 2nd exit.” When heard on Google Maps, this makes the blood of the typical American run cold. “Traffic circle? What is this, Liverpool?” Despite landing on the moon, developing Covid vaccines, and inventing free refills, Americans are not fond of traffic circles, or as the rest of the world calls them, roundabouts. One can find roundabouts all over Europe, but they are rare in the US. This is unfortunate because switching more intersections from stoplights to roundabouts would make everyone’s lives better.
When it comes to efficiency, usually it’s Europeans who could learn a trick or two from Americans. From keeping public museums open more than 20 hours a week to Walmart replacing their icing containers to be less wasteful, Yankees prize efficiency above all else. Europeans are generally more willing to take things at a less efficient, but arguably more enjoyable, pace. When it comes to roundabouts, however, the shoe is on the other foot. So why are roundabouts better, and what can be done about it in the United States?
Econ Soapbox is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
First, they are better than stoplights at regulating traffic flow. This might come as a surprise. At a glance, it would be sensible to assume the difference in flow between stoplights and roundabouts is negligible. After all, at a stoplight a driver either stops or goes through at a regular speed. With a roundabout, all traffic must slow down. These effects, however, do not balance out. The problem with stoplights is all the time where no cars are in the intersection. In every light sequence, there is a pause between travel along one axis to the other. This makes sense, as cars need to clear the intersection to avoid accidents, but it also means a loss in efficiency.
Even worse is when a driver is stopped at a red light and no traffic is present on the other street. The driver just has to wait there, sometimes for several minutes, while no cars are using the intersection. This never, ever, happens in a roundabout. If a single car approaches the intersection, that car can always travel through it. Even during high traffic times, roundabouts ensure that there will always be cars in the intersection.
Second, roundabouts are safer. More than 50 percent of fatal and injury crashes happen at intersections in the US. That’s an enormous proportion, especially considering that intersections are a very small percentage of all road space. The most dangerous of these are head-on collisions and T-bone collisions, where one car strikes another at a direct angle. These collisions happen all the time at stoplights. Maybe it’s because someone ran a red light. Maybe it’s because someone is making an unprotected left turn. Maybe it’s because a car turned right in front of a car going straight. These all happen every day, but they only occur because a stoplight intersection is a section of road that cars going totally different directions are allowed to occupy. In theory cars going different directions should never occupy the same space at the same time, but in practice it’s going to happen. When the direction of travel of one of these vehicles is directly opposite the direction of another and they collide, the result is often deadly.
With roundabouts, this isn’t nearly as big of concern. Vehicles can still crash into one another, and they do, but the angle is more oblique. As long as a driver isn’t going the absolute wrong way in a roundabout (which is equivalent to blatantly running a red light), accidents between vehicles will usually be a glancing blow. This can still do plenty of damage to the vehicles but is rarely fatal. The aforementioned required slowdown for all vehicles at a roundabout also lessens the danger to motorists. Additionally, roundabouts are safer for pedestrians. A well-designed roundabout will keep crosswalks set back from the roundabout, allowing pedestrians to easily see oncoming cars and cars to see pedestrians. Again, the slower speed that cars have when using a roundabout also helps.
Third, roundabouts are more environmentally friendly. Idling cars are terrible for the environment. They pollute and don’t have much of a purpose. Electric cars and gas cars with automatic shutoff are a step in the right direction, but it’s going to be a long time before the traditional combustion engine vehicle is phased out. By increasing the traffic flow, emissions are decreased. Roundabouts also don’t require the electricity of a stop light.
Roundabouts are more efficient, safer, and more environmentally friendly. They are a clear improvement over stoplights. But if roundabouts get you places faster and safer, why aren’t they more popular?
First, there are a few downsides to roundabouts. The first is space. A traditional roundabout often requires a decent-sized circle surrounded by at least one lane of traffic. This can take up more land than a basic intersection. Happily, there is a solution to this problem. Instead of a raised circle one can just be drawn on the pavement:
These do not take up more room. Although a vehicle could drive directly through the center, drivers will usually follow the contours of the circle. It may sound unbelievable, but the system usually works.
Second, some roundabouts are bad for cyclists. The battle between cyclists and motorists is never-ending, and roundabouts do not help. It can be tricky for cyclists to negotiate roundabouts when cars are present, especially large ones. Of course the Dutch have invented roundabouts that have a separate bike lane, but this is not practical for most intersections. More importantly, Americans don’t care much about cyclists to begin with so I don’t think anyone is seriously anti-roundabout because they want to increase bike safety.
The real reason Americans haven’t embraced roundabouts is that they fear them. Roundabouts are intimidating for an uninitiated driver. How do you turn left? Who has the right of way? Whose fault is an accident? These are legitimate questions and worries. The good news is that with just a little practice drivers will gain confidence dealing with roundabouts. After a week or two, even a nervous driver will get the hang of it. And the best thing is, since speeds are so low, the odds of a serious crash during the learning period are small. In no time at all, even the most hesitant driver will be able to tackle the Magic Roundabout of Swindon in England with ease:
Ok, that might have been a bit of an exaggeration.
Luckily, no American driver will come across a six-in-one roundabout. Those built in the US are straightforward. They are better, faster, and safer than stoplights. Drivers will adjust. It’s a simple improvement that will make life better for everyone. Consider the city of Carmel, Indiana. They have built over 100 roundabouts and society has not ground to a halt. Cats and dogs aren’t living together. Instead, injury crashes are down by almost half. Roundabouts are low-hanging fruit; the benefit-cost ratio is high and it’s hard to argue against them. So let’s start tearing out stoplights and putting in roundabouts.
Just think, if a group of Hoosiers can do it, anyone can!