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How Obama Can Help the Environment, Stimulate the Economy and Rebuild our Infrastructure: Roundabouts

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It's 10:45 on a Tuesday morning, and I'm late for a meeting in Palo Alto, California. To make matters worse, I just miss a traffic light and am sitting at the corner of Page Mill Road and Foothill Expressway, just off of the 280. My thoughts? OMFG, I can't believe I'm wasting my time sitting at this traffic light! I wait for what seems like five minutes (okay, maybe two minutes) while absolutely no cars pass through the green light. Rows of cars line up at the red light behind me, waiting for the signal to turn and end the infernal wait.

Let's think about why this traffic light might not be ideal:

1. Since there are no cars driving through the green light, it is a particularly inefficient use of time for all the people waiting at the red light. Even if there were cars coming, it could still waste time if the flux of cars going through the green light is less than the flux that might be going through the light in the other direction. The value of this wasted time could be measured by using the rate at which these people are compensated in their work (perhaps discounted by some factor since they may not actually work more just because they have more free time). I haven't done the math, but my guess is, if you add up all this wasted time in a year from sitting at traffic lights and multiply by, say 25%, the average wage of an American worker, you would end up with a number well into the billions of US dollars.

2. My car is wasting gas because it is idling and because I must accelerate after having stopped.

3. Lights require energy and money to operate and maintain.

4. Traffic lights are dangerous; 45% of crashes in America occur at intersections.


Fortunately, there is a solution to the waste and my frustration – the Roundabout. First introduced in the US in 1905, roundabouts are hardly new technology. However, recent studies have shown that they are more cost effective, environmentally friendly, and safer, compared to traffic lights. Europe has been using roundabouts with great success. Roundabouts are much more gas-friendly because they do not require as much starting and stopping or idling as traffic lights. Roundabouts save money and electricity because there are no lights to build, power and maintain. And, perhaps most importantly, studies have shown roundabouts results in about 80% fewer accidents than traffic lights, so are also safer.

It would seem the only real issue with roundabouts in the US is the cost of changing over our old traffic light system in favor of new roundabouts. But it's this type of large capital outlay which could simulate job creation and our economy. So Mr. Obama, I implore you: revitalize our country and build out roundabouts!

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About Jeremy Berman

  • JAH

    This is a valid observation, I was in Athens, Greece some years back and was amazed by the use of round abouts and the lack of traffic accidents even though there was an enormous amount of traffic on relatively narrow roads….we need a grass roots campaign….somr of these types of low tech ideas have the biggest payback….

  • The notion of the roundabout is gradually gaining a hold in the city I live in – Fresno, California. There’s been one at the city’s largest outdoor mall for about ten years… although it’s only recently that you’ve been able to venture onto it without the risk of colliding with the guy coming off the next entrance who can’t figure out (a) which direction he’s supposed to go, (b) why there isn’t a traffic signal and (c) whether he’s supposed to stop or not. (Although surely ‘yield’ is a fairly basic English word with an unambiguous meaning?)

    And just this year, two of them have been put in on one of the main avenues, near the Save Mart Center indoor arena. The idea is that keeping traffic flowing will avoid the tremendous snarl-ups that inevitably result from 15,000 sports fans or concertgoers all trying to cross the same intersection at the same time.

    I love ’em. Not least because Fresno is built on a relentless grid system, and this way you actually have to steer a little bit, which adds some interest to driving.

    In my native Britain, however, there is an oddity known as the mini-roundabout, which consists of a large white circle painted in the middle of an intersection previously controlled by lights. You’re supposed to drive around the thing: however, on the typically narrow streets of most British cities it’s impossible for larger vehicles like buses and trucks to do that without knocking down a wall or taking out a handful of pedestrians, so they just go straight across it. Which means, of course, that so does everyone else.

  • bliffle

    Hilton Head Island, South Carolina has some roundabouts.

  • Washington DC has numerous ‘traffic circles’ which are basically the same thing as roundabouts. Many of them feature stop lights in combination with the traffic circle and join as many as a dozen streets together in one giant horrible mess.

    And when I lived in DC people regularly drove in from the suburbs late at night after parties and drunkenly crashed their cars into the fountains or statuary in the middle of the circles because they didn’t realize the circle was there.


  • I wonder about DC sometimes…

    The whole idea of roundabouts is to eliminate traffic signals and keep things moving. That’s your problem right there.

    It’s like a library going to a computerized cataloging system and then still insisting on making up an index card for everything and believe me I used to work in a library just like that mutter mutter mutter…

  • ScottB

    Not all circular intersections are roundabouts.

    If it has a circular roadway and yield signs, it might be a roundabout.
    If it has an island between the entering and exit lane where pedestrians can pause, it might be a roundabout.
    If you have to change directions to enter the circular roadway as a driver, it might be a roundabout.
    If you have to slow down your car to enter it, it might be a roundabout.

    If it has a stop sign, a signal, or the right of way changes at each entry, it’s not a roundabout, it’s a traffic circle or rotary.

  • and then, just for “fun”, there’s the swindon magic roundabout

    it makes me tense just looking at it.

  • Arrgh. This is what gainfully employs the sort of mind which 600 years ago would have been devising new torture methods for the Inquisition.

    If I lived in Swindon I’d be driving halfway across town just to avoid the thing.

  • ScottB

    The Swindon roundabout is really a series of them next to each other. It was the brainchild of Frank Blackmore, recently deceased trailblazer of the mini-roundabout.

  • Ah, roundabouts.

    I have it on good authority that the town of Carmel, Indiana is the roundabout capital of the country, perhaps the entire world.

    I’m not sure what the latest “roundabout” count is in this tony bedroom community of around 60 thousand souls located just north of Indianapolis, but they are so numerous that the town’s official web site actually has a roundabout “brochure” dedicated to roundabout nomenclature and a detailed description of proper roundabout etiquette.

    That being said, I must admit that they generally work quite well. Their adequacy diminishes when the traffic volume becomes too high. But, for the most part, they are a good thing. Hooray for roundabouts!


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