Monday, October 21st, 2013

The British traffic circle, or roundabout, has spread:

In 1997 there were 30,000-40,000 roundabouts around the world; now there are 60,000. Half of them are in France: the French were early converts to the rond-point and have taken to it with a passion, perhaps because it offers conspicuous opportunities for the country’s notoriously competitive municipal gardeners to vie with neighbouring rivals. America is catching up fast; numbers have grown from a few hundred to 3,000 in the past decade. They are now common across Europe and have spread from the rich world to the developing one (see article).

For reserved Britons, the roundabout represents not just a clever solution to a common inconvenience, allowing vehicles to swirl rather than stop at empty crossroads, but also the triumph of co-operation over confrontation. Vehicles and the people in them do not need to go head-to-head: if everyone bends a little, everybody can get along. Studies show that they are justified on pragmatic, as well as philosophical, grounds. According to America’s Department of Transportation, replacing crossroads with roundabouts leads to a 35% fall in crashes, a 76% fall in injuries and a 90% fall in deaths.

Yet roundabouts tend to work only when motorists observe the British virtues of fair play and stick to the rules. Alas, this is not always the case.

True British understatement.

If drivers do not yield, roundabouts degenerate swiftly into gridlock. And in places where driving standards are poor, people often plough straight onto them. In Nairobi, for example, the four roundabouts that mark the city’s heart are so badly jammed that policemen have been drafted in to act as human traffic lights. When it rains, the officers seek shelter and the mess gets even worse.

Even when drivers are not to blame, the roundabout can spin out of control when transplanted to an environment less sedate than Letchworth Garden City. In very heavy congestion, of the sort that plagues many emerging-world cities, roundabouts tend to make things worse rather than better, particularly as they are often misguidedly built at the busiest intersections. Where there is no street lighting, a particular problem in Africa, drivers are likelier to make a mess of negotiating them. For cyclists and pedestrians, who are more numerous in emerging countries, roundabouts tend to be more dangerous than traffic lights. Corruption exacerbates the problem, in more than one way. In many countries drivers obtain their licence through bribery rather than proficiency and so are ill-prepared for the roads.

The fate of roundabouts abroad thus repeats in miniature that of another British export, parliamentary democracy — another fine idea that backfires when mixed with jiggery-pokery.

Jiggery-pokery indeed.


  1. James James says:

    You’ve covered this before, of course.

  2. Tschafer says:

    I have no words to state how much I despise these things. Not exactly sure why, but I do.

  3. Abelard Lindsey says:

    I prefer roundabouts to intersections. However, they do not work well for multi-lane roads with lots of traffic.

  4. L. C. Rees says:

    The problem with traffic circles I’ve fought across America is that they’re context-free. Since they never became the default intersection layout on this nation’s roads, American traffic circles are either first-generation vestiges, new planned community fetishes, or, worse, contemporary faddish retrofits of existing intersections. Whichever species they are, their lack of ubiquity leaves most American drivers unprepared for sudden traffic circle ambuscades from unexpected quarters. I’ve suffered sudden moments of traffic circle inflicted terror from backwoods North Carolina (vestige) to newer communities where the tyranny of fashion makes them mandatory. Along with the growth of adult American interest in football soccer, traffic circles are a leading indicator of Euro-decline in America.

  5. Grasspunk says:

    Seattle’s traffic circles are often on little urban streets and serve just to slow things down. There were no laws stating which way around them you had to go, and going the long way around was often a tight turn so folks just cut the corner and went around the wrong way. Imports would sputter at the ‘illegality’ but that’s just how they worked. I’m thinking by now with the huge influx to Seattle the usage could have switched to the standard model.

  6. Chris C. says:

    I live in an Eastern Seaboard (US) suburb. Several years ago, a traffic circle was installed nearby, just outside a small but growing college campus. (Traffic was quite variable: from near-zero most of the time to rather busy.) The circle is clearly marked with large arrow signs (pointing to the right) at each of the four entrances. Yet I have encountered someone turning left (clockwise) into the circle, and another coming to a complete stop and BACKING UP because she had missed her exit! Neither was a college student (both were middle-aged women). I sincerely do not understand what is difficult about a traffic circle for some people. It’s not even NASA-level rocket science.

  7. Bob Sykes says:

    Back in the 50s, rotaries (the local name) were common in Massachusetts, as were three-lane highways (middle lane for passing). Both work well where traffic is light.

    Today, the Ohio DOT has become enamored of them, and they are being installed in even high-volume areas. People generally hate them and are frightened by them.

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