November 25, 2022 at 6:00 AM EST
Hillsboro, Virginia, recently added roundabouts at both ends of the city to improve the flow of commuters traveling from West Virginia to DC (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post) comments on this story
A silent roundabout revolution is sweeping through America’s suburbs. And it would have continued, unparalleled and unarmed, if not for Lee Rodegaards.
As it turns out, the good folks at the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics don’t track the country’s roundabouts, roundabouts, or roundabouts. In fact, no federal agency does. Instead, for a quarter of a century that weighty responsibility fell on the humble shoulders of Rodgerts, an engineer and talented amateur photographer and pianist in Portland, Oregon.
In the late 1990s, the Federal Highway Administration drafted the humble but secretly hilarious Roadgards to write a book about roundabouts. The result was ‘Roundabouts: an informative guide’. During his research, Rodegaards was surprised to find that no one was tracking the rapidly growing number of new intersections across the country.
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So he started counting. And he kept counting, through another edition of the guide, through dozens of roundabout conferences and conventions, through roundabout research projects, and through endless actual roundabout construction designs. His census soon moved online, where he still spends his spare time scouring submissions from a small army of amateur roundabout enthusiasts, verifying new roundabouts and their construction dates using published reports and historic satellite photography. Let’s take it out.
When Rodegards started, they made about 300 trips across the country. Exactly 25 years later, he counts about 9,000. And that is not counting the more than 160 roundabouts or the more than 700 traffic calming circles (which are very different from roundabouts).
Compared to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary intersections in the American landscape, governed by stop signs and traffic lights, roundabouts are rare beasts. But unlike motorists who often confuse and misbehave, roundabouts are rapidly approaching.
“People doubted whether we could continue,” Rodegaards told us. “But so far I think we’ve done that.”
Modern roundabouts are based on a geometric design that forces traffic to slow down, as well as an ingenious innovation born in Britain in the 1960s: the rule that people already in the circle have the right of way. In traditional roundabouts and roundabouts, which still lurk in many East Coast cities, traffic moves quickly and vehicles already in roundabouts often have to give way to newcomers.
In the United States, the first rounds were often built in large cities. Overall, our analysis shows that they are most likely to form in well-educated, high-income cities. Today, the fastest growth is in the suburbs and rural areas.
“It is very difficult to fit roundabouts into our densely populated urban environment,” said Rodgerds. “And so most intersections go to new subdivisions or are retrofits of existing — often suburban or rural — intersections.”
You may wonder why roundabouts are added. Because roundabouts offer impressive safety benefits. Overall, roundabouts could reduce fatalities by up to 90 percent and car accident injuries by at least 75 percent, even if more cars were accommodated.
With two-way stops in rural areas, the benefits can be even more dramatic. A roundabout can reduce all road injuries, both fatal and non-fatal, by about 90 percent. After all, it’s almost impossible to fly through roundabouts and T-bone minivans at 100km/h – something all too common at typical rural intersections.
“That’s the beauty of roundabouts,” Rodegaards told us. “It’s the geometry. It’s the turns that work. And not relying on a traffic controller is the only thing that will keep you from colliding at high speed.
So what state is a roundabout? Florida has the most roundabouts, but it also has the third largest population in the country. Nebraska has the most detours per capita, but they’re spread over the shortest (and often most scenic) road network in the country. On the mile-by-mile road, Maryland really emerges as the roundabout champ.
On the other hand, the ranking of cities is almost pointlessly simple. Almost however you slice the data, the exclusive Indianapolis suburb of Carmel ranks as the roundabout capital of the country. And, like Rodegard’s database, Carmel’s network of roundabouts is largely the work of one visionary—in this case, the seven-term Republican mayor and noted roundabout buster Jim Brainard.
Brainard’s roundabout experience, a barrister by training, made several appearances in the UK after taking office in 1996. But those modern intersections made an impression, and when his constituents demanded a safer, more walkable city, he thought he had a solution.
Roundabouts were extremely rare in the United States at the time. As one of the most educated cities in the highest-income country, Carmel was a fertile ground for transportation innovation. Still, it took some effort and a weekend research trip to Purdue University to convince the city engineer, who was skeptical. (More than a hundred intersections later, Brainard said, the former skeptic has become a sought-after leader in roundabout engineering and a commanding general in the roundabout revolution.)
Most roundabout-enthusiastic cities and counties have proceeded with caution, but Brainard achieves the traffic light-free holy grail of roundabout revolutionaries through sheer force of will – and a little carefully structured national debt.
Brainard’s attitude is that if Paris can build a world-class plump urban area on a flat stretch of pristine but fertile land, so can Carmel (pronounced CAR-mullet). . He is careful but bold, talking about his goals in the context of the ages, referring to European empires and emperors as he explains the need to build infrastructure for the next thousand years.
And at this point, Monarch is almost a fitting job description for Brainard. Carmel became a city in 1976, when White Flight began to grow in it and other suburbs. Brainard has now served longer than any other mayor in the city’s history combined (a fun fact we borrowed from Indianapolis Star columnist James Briggs). In that time Brainard saw the city grow from 38,000 inhabitants to more than 100,000.
As mayor, he built more than 140 roundabouts, reducing traffic fatalities so drastically that the local fire department rarely uses his Jawbone life extraction equipment. But roundabouts are just one pillar in Brainard’s grand plan to build a densely populated European-style city in central Indiana. To that end, they’ve also added winding, leafy pathways and a spectacular concert hall that hosts everything from performances by the Carmel Symphony Orchestra to Michael Bolton holiday specials.
Why does the Midwest love orchestras so much?
Roundabouts are central to Brainard’s vision of a walkable city. it just isn’t Not because they are often friendlier to pedestrians, but because they can reduce pollution and allow designers to fit more traffic into less space. On a large stretch of the main north-south highway, Carmel replaced five lanes with only two lanes and several roundabouts. Where there used to be streets, green spaces and sidewalks have sprung up, and the overall traffic flow on the road has actually increased.
Brainard said there are only nine regular traffic lights left in all of Carmel. And by the time he leaves office next year, the city will be on its way to becoming one. Ironically, as a nearby plaque indicates, it is home to one of the first automated traffic lights in the United States. And now, at least in Carmel, it will be the last.
“It’s in the middle of the small town where it has always been, and there are buildings on all four corners, so it will stay that way,” said Brainard, explaining that there is no room for a roundabout at that location .
But “it is quite safe”, the mayor assured us. “You can’t drive through that area fast.”
Why? Because, he said, “we built a roundabout at each end!”
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