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Travel Tales: The Roundabout Way

Travels in Australia: The wonders of roundabouts, the truly intelligent intersection.
by Liam

Roundabout Ahead
Roundabout Ahead
American visitors to Great Britain and other countries with similar driving patterns are often startled and confused not only by the looking-glass world of keep-left traffic but also by the scarcity of traffic signals and stop signs. In these countries, traffic through intersections is largely handled by the use of these traffic circles or roundabouts. Whether the terms "roundabout" and "traffic circle" are synonymous or not seems to depend on the country and the context as well as whether the term is used by drivers or by civil engineers. It is also clear that, at least in some U.S. interpretations, the distinction is thoroughly muddled and contradictory. (See K-STATE HIGHWAY RESEARCH, and Modern Roundabouts). Let's keep it simple and pretend they're the same thing.)

My first major encounter with the roundabout was in Australia. As my wife is Australian, for me the obligatory pilgrimage consisted largely of interaction with in-laws and a confusion of other names and faces in an environment in which I was the only foreigner. I discovered a couple of delightful diversions however, one was learning to play the didjeridu and the other was completely relearning how to drive.

Like Great Britain, Australians drive on the left while sitting on the right and doing almost everything backwards. I say "almost" because vehicular console controls are reversed, gear shift on the left and blinker on the right etc., while the pedals (fortunately!) are not. But, beyond the mirror-image world of inverted traffic, the biggest difference was the omnipresence of roundabouts and the complete absence of four-way stops. I came back absolutely convinced that roundabouts were the perfect solution to intersection traffic, and that traffic lights and four-way stop signs were an absurd waste of energy and time. They do face some daunting obstacles however, before acceptance in the US is likely.

The most common and clearly most useful form of roundabout was the mini-roundabout, and could be defined as an intersection consisting of a one-way circular roadway around a flush or slightly raised central island of at least 13 feet in diameter. There is no stop sign, but vehicles approaching the intersection are expected to yield to traffic already in the circle. Once in the circle, one simply circumnavigates the center (counterclockwise in the US but clockwise in Australia) until turning onto the desired exit -- be that right, straight ahead, left turn or even back where you came from, effectively a U turn. And, a great blessing for me and others who are disoriented, confused, or simply indecisive, is the fact that one can circle about indefinitely until inspiration strikes.

For a two-lane road trafficked by smaller vehicles, the mini-roundabout is infinitely preferable to either a stop sign or a traffic light. Right turns are simple and require no unnecessary stopping if traffic permits. Straight-ahead and left turns require a slightly longer path around the center, but again, may be done without stopping if traffic permits. The U turn is of course much simpler than in a stop-sign controlled intersection. Both time and fuel are wasted every time a vehicle must stop at a stop sign when there is no traffic to stop for, or when a vehicle must stop at a light when there is no cross-traffic. Common sense must yield to the roundabout concept the advantage that stopping takes place only when heavy traffic requires a stop and is otherwise free to proceed.

In areas of sparse traffic, the roundabout's ability to eliminate unnecessary stopping clearly defines it as superior to the four-way stop or the traffic light. But in more heavily trafficked intersections they have also proven themselves with demonstrably increased throughput when compared to traffic signals, especially where there is a high volume of left turning.

However, the roundabout described here is obviously not an acceptable solution for major intersections of multi-lane high traffic roadways. Although two-lane roundabouts are used extensively in Australia, the need for inner lane traffic to cross the outer lane both entering and leaving the circle make this a dubious solution for thoroughfares nearing capacity. It is also clear that the 13' diameter roundabout will not comfortably accommodate a 40 foot 18 wheeler and can therefore only be used where such vehicles are prohibited.

Watching Australian traffic through roundabouts does demonstrate that 13' roundabouts do seem too restrictive even for smaller trucks which barrel through them with disregard for barriers, often cutting corners off the sidewalk and the circle itself. However, this may be more a symptom of the Australian approach to life in general than a shortcoming of civil planning. Or it could be that Australian civil engineers factor in a large measure of anticipated disrespect for laws (both in traffic and geometry) when planning their intersections and vehicular restrictions. However you cut it, the roundabout works best mainly for two lane roadways frequented by smaller vehicles.

Attempts to introduce roundabouts to the U.S. have been successful in a number of states, notably Oregon, Florida, and Kansas. There is even a web domain, RoundaboutsUSA.com, devoted to proselytizing the roundabout concept throughout the U.S. However, in the LA area, perhaps the most traffic-conscious spot on the globe, they are seldom seen except for the rare example many of which experiments failed to impress. Unfamiliarity could be an insurmountable barrier to their acceptance.

The sudden appearance of a new traffic structure in the roadway, particularly one in which a stop is replaced by continuous flow, can seriously and uncomfortably complicate the real-time decision making process which characterizes driving. Even if the percentage of confused drivers is very small, a few baffled individuals who either misinterpret the traffic pattern or simply come to a stop briefly in order to think, could cause serious safety problems or at the very least, nullify the efficiency of the roundabout. And it isn't at all certain that the baffled driving population is particularly small. After only half a dozen passes through the rare local roundabout, I had a very close call with someone who apparently didn't understand the dynamics of the circle nor the function of the posted "Yield" signs.

That ingrained traffic habits can be a extremely powerful factors was driven home to me vividly recently. My wife, though once an Australian driver, has driven in California for 15 years. However, when unexpectedly encountering a roundabout, old habits kicked in and she committed the most dangerous roundabout faux pas possible, she proceeded to go around it Australian style -- clockwise.

Roundabouts will no doubt take some time to gain acceptance in the US and their safety and efficiency will only become evident with increased familiarity. Have a close look at the dynamics of the roundabout and prepare to encounter them. If drivers gain more experience with them over time, the unfamiliarity problem could be solved and introduction of mini-roundabouts to LA could become a safe and efficient development. There's nothing much one can do about Australians though.

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