From the “weird things people write about” department. A recent article in The New York Times’ automobiles/business section came as a powerful reminder that innovation isn’t always synonymous with high-tech. The story by Erica A. Taub is all about the rise of the roundabout—those circular intersections where traffic flows nearly continuously in one direction around a central island.
Long popular in European countries like France and Britain, the roundabout is a favorite of traffic engineers because it cuts congestion and commuting time, reduces automotive accidents, and helps curbs road rage. An insurance group expert is quoted in the article saying that the reduction in injuries and fatalities the industry sees as a result of stop signs being replaced by roundabouts is “unmatched by anything else we can do in traffic engineering.” (I wrote earlier this year nearly 1.3 million road fatalities worldwide each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day, and 20-50 million injured or disabled).
The popularity of roundabouts is exploding in the U.S. The modern roundabout was born in Britain in 1909 at an intersection in Letchworth Garden City. First adopted by the U.S. in the early 1990s, roundabouts have doubled in the last decade to about 5,000 across the country today. New York State, which had just 18 in 2005 now boasts more than 100, with the Big Apple getting its first roundabout in August when a three-way intersection in the Bronx completes its conversion. A former transportation researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety explained “there are hundreds if not thousands more in the planning stages [in America].”
The Times article explains how roundabouts differ from traffic circles, where vehicles have the right of way based on traffic lights. “Roundabouts typically do not have traffic lights,” Taub writes. “Instead, a vehicle approaching one slows to around 20 miles an hour and yields to those already in the circle.” While some local communities complain that roundabouts are difficult to understand, tricky to drive through, take up too much space, or are just plain ugly, their widespread adoption strikes me as only a good thing for U.S. drivers and the romance of the American road.
Circular junctions coming to New York City is also a testament to how automotive innovation can come in all shapes and sizes in America. Imagine—we have Tesla on one hand, and the rise of the humble, hundred-year-old roundabout on the other!