I Miss Roundabouts

I nearly met my fate in this roundabout, but I do miss it. (Courtesy Google)

Of all the things I miss about living in the United Kingdom, I think roundabouts are the most underrated.

Driving in Britain was a hair-raising adventure, and roundabouts made them even more so until I got comfortable with them. I think I’m a pretty solid driver most of the time, and I can drive with a standard transmission. But my first time driving in Britain required neurosurgical levels of concentration. That first time, it took so much brainpower to simultaneously drive on the left side of the road, process European road signs, and shift gears using my right hand that I couldn’t talk. The car was deathly silent. And then I met my first roundabout.

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The closest analogy I can think of how it felt to approach that roundabout is to imagine how it would feel when it’s your turn to start double-Dutch jump roping. Except the rope is moving at 30 miles per hour, and if you touch one of the ropes, you’ll twist metal. That scene in European Vacation doesn’t do the roundabout justice — “Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament!” I, of course, lived to tell the tale, but even after I became comfortable driving in Britain and Ireland, a busy roundabout would still get my adrenaline pumping. I learned to revere the roundabout as an urban planning marvel.

European Vacation — Roundabout — YouTube

I realized the beauty of the roundabout is that it keeps traffic flowing, which stands in stark contrast to the stoplights and stop signs we have here in the States. What often triggered my fight or flight response driving in London is also brilliant. Traffic doesn’t stop in the roundabout; through traffic, exiting traffic, and entering traffic all keep moving in automotive choreography. In Britain, I grew to pity those unfortunate Americans who never had the chance to experience this brilliance.

Of course, driving in the more densely populated parts of the country inevitably meant seeing stoplights. After getting used to roundabouts, driving in large cities with stoplights, like central London or Edinburgh, would often become real drudgery with all the stopping and waiting. Even now, sitting at a stoplight when there’s almost no through traffic makes me feel like Aaron Burr in Hamilton — except I’m not willing to wait for it. Despite the flowing traffic I saw every day for three years, I never saw a traffic accident in a roundabout. The closest I ever came to seeing one was me nearly getting blindsided by a speeding lorry while I was biking home from work, but that’s a story for another time.

Hamilton: An American Musical 360° — Wait For It — YouTube

So why don’t we have more roundabouts, traffic circles for the unaware, here in the United States? According to the transportation experts at Kittleson & Associates, there are about 7,100 roundabouts in the States.[1] That’s a relative number considering there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 traffic lights.[2] Using traffic lights as an approximation for intersections, roundabouts are less than five percent of the intersections in the United States.

I think culture is the main reason we don’t have more roundabouts. I find Britons to be much more cooperative and courteous drivers than the typical American driver in my observation. I think European drivers, in general, know and follow traffic rules better than American drivers. These differences limit the utility of the roundabout here. British drivers are more likely to cooperate on the road, which is critical to keeping traffic flowing through the roundabout. Allowing other drivers to enter and pass through the roundabout requires a level of deference American drivers all too often struggle to muster. We Americans are more aggressive drivers. How many times have you seen an American speed through a yellow or red light at an intersection? How many times have you seen an American not allow merging traffic to enter ahead of them? I see it all the time too. This isn’t to say there aren’t rude and aggressive drivers in Britain and Europe; it’s just that there are way more here in America.

So seeing traffic circles here is usually disappointing. Between the restrictive designs that don’t allow traffic to move at pace and the general American lack of understanding of how to drive through a traffic circle, I don’t have much hope for much of an increase in roundabouts here in America.

This Google Maps shot of a traffic circle shows how the city has narrowed the access to the circle, forcing traffic to crawl through it. The design defeats the purpose of the roundabout — to keep traffic flowing at pace.

Could roundabouts take greater hold here? Sure, anything’s possible. It’s just unlikely. I’ll just appreciate the roundabout a little more when I get to visit the United Kingdom.

[1] “How Many Roundabouts Are in the United States?” Kittleson & Associates website, How Many Roundabouts Are in the United States? | Kittelson & Associates, Inc. (Accessed 3 July 2021).

[2] Douglas A. McIntyre, “The Traffic Light Turns 150 Years Old,” 24/7 Wall St. (website), 10 December 2018, The Traffic Light Turns 150 Years Old — 24/7 Wall St. (247wallst.com) (Accessed 3 July 2021).

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Irvin Oliver

Irvin Oliver

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