Why Doesn’t The U.S. Have More Roundabouts?

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If you’ve ever hypermiled, you probably don’t like stop signs, traffic lights, and other things that make you stop. The reason is that you get either zero MPG or zero miles/kWh when stopped. It’s a bigger deal for ICE vehicles, because they idle, but it’s still a small problem for the overall efficiency of a drive with an EV, because computers, HVAC, and other things still use some energy.

Another thing that sucks about stopping is that it costs valuable time. After all, time is money and we all have midgets paging us. So, between the time wasted, the energy wasted, and the environmental impacts, there needs to be a good way to not stop so often, right?

The obvious solution is roundabouts. Yes, you have to stop at them sometimes, but almost never for as long as you would at a light. In light traffic, you usually don’t have to stop at all. So, they make a lot more sense.

But, why not do it more in the United States? CNBC did a research project and made a great video about it. (article continues after video)

One great exception they bring up is Carmel, Indiana. It’s a city with 100,000 people, but over 120 roundabouts. This puts it not only at the top of the U.S. with roundabouts per capita, but at #1 in the world. The city’s mayor studied in England during college and learned about their value, and then brought that idea home.

Beyond the environmental and time benefits, the video also mentions safety. There are fewer accidents with cars hitting cars and even cars hitting pedestrians. There are fewer points of conflict in a roundabout, so this makes logical sense. And, the research bears out that they really do produce fewer accidents.

So, the big question is obvious: why (at least outside of Carmel, Indiana) are there so few roundabouts? One thing that makes Carmel different from many places is that it’s already laid out along a rural grid pattern. It had only 1/4 the current population in 1996 when the mayor first got into office, and the city has grown in a predictable pattern with room to build at most intersections. Instead of having to rebuild, the city was able to build many of them in at the beginning instead of having to retrofit from expensive lights to more expensive roundabouts. But, the ongoing costs are cheaper.

After going on and on about the benefits, the video gets into the history of roundabouts. They are the descendants of traffic circles, something the US used to have a lot of. The one-way roundabout was pioneered in New York along with things like universal traffic signs, sidewalks, and more. But, despite most other practices invented in the early automobile era sticking around, roundabouts didn’t keep expanding in the United States when it expanded elsewhere.

The Why

Traffic circles were further improved in Europe in the years since then, with central circles becoming smaller, lanes being reduced, and right-of-way going exclusively to cars already in the circle (as opposed to cloggy “rotary” designs). This led to the modern roundabout design that has been trickling back into the States in recent years.

One big difference between the United States and Europe is population density. There are big, long stretches of unbuilt areas or farmland, while intersections happen a lot more frequently on European roads.

Another problem is that the original traffic circle idea got improved in Europe but messed up in the United States early on. Creating complicated and dangerous “rotary” traffic circles led to people just hating the idea completely. In other words, US engineers made it suck, and people didn’t like it while European designers made it better, leading to wider acceptance.

What’s particularly weird about this is that the U.S. usually does the opposite, regulating things less and letting individuals and the market work things out. But, in this case, Americans did the opposite, and tried to control roundabouts too much, leading to their abandonment. It’s rather ironic when so many issues cut the other way.

Another “free market” problem that the United States ran into was salesmen getting to city planners. Failed rotaries could be replaced with traffic lights, and since the city doesn’t suffer when there are inefficiencies the way a private business does, these salesmen managed to sell a crappy product so widely that they became the standard.

Another problem was that the federal government eventually favored them, putting traffic lights out as a standard for mindless local drones to follow. So, follow the directions they did, and for decades.

The Modern Resurgence

Improved European designs didn’t return to the United States until 1990. Given that this is only about three decades ago, there hasn’t been much time for them to make inroads against the established norm of traffic lights.

A few years later, Carmel’s mayor jumped back into roundabouts. He initially faced resistance from engineers and citizens, who wanted to add lanes to ease congestion. But, he had seen them work better in England, so he suggested they try it out. Now, the city is far safer than its neighbors, congestion is lower, and they’ve even been narrowing roads without causing drivers any problems. Most of the congestion came from poorly thought-out traffic lights.

Now, the United States adds about 500-700 per year, with some states now preferring them over lights for new and rebuilt intersections. Florida, Colorado, and Colorado lead the US in raw number of roundabouts, and the idea is only taking off. In places where local residents were pushed into having a roundabout, experience with them has changed minds.

It’s Not All Rainbows and Butterflies

But, the video does fairly point out that there are some drawbacks. In Europe, oddly enough, some places are cutting back on roundabouts and replacing some with traffic lights because they have been better for cyclists. Researchers have found that adding protected bike lanes to them can help, though.

Another problem is high-traffic intersections. Single lane roundabouts can only handle about 25,000 cars/day without problems, while multi-lane roundabouts are complex and problematic for some drivers. So, lights and other types of interchanges might be better for those. Alternatives include “turbo roundabouts” and some limited types of custom multi-lane roundabouts, or more freeway-like interchanges with ramps and multiple grades (which can be very expensive).

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.

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