As global traffic spirals, roundabouts are on a roll

  • Photo 1 of 8

    A roundabout in Oman.

    - U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society

  • Photo 2 of 8

    The Farroe Islands

    - U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society

  • Photo 3 of 8

    The U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society's favorite, Columbus Circle in New York City.

    - U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society

  • Photo 4 of 8

    New Zealand

    - U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society

  • Photo 5 of 8

    Havana, Cuba

    - U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society

  • Photo 6 of 8

    Costa del Sol

    - U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society

  • Photo 7 of 8

    Kevin Beresford –- the head of the U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society – standing next to one of his beloved roundabouts.

    - Stephen Beard/Marketplace

  • Photo 8 of 8

    The U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society's 2014 calendar featuring a roundabout in Thailand.

    - U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society

Mark Crabtree of Britain’s Transport Research Laboratory.

Columbus Circle in New York has just  won the coveted title of “Best Roundabout in  the World 2013.” The award is helping focus American minds on the benefits of this traffic management system, which seems typically British.

Kevin Beresford, head of the U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society, seems to embody the U.K.’s national enthusiasm for roundabouts.

“They lift our spirits on long, tiresome journeys,” he says. “Their appeal lies in their inventiveness and creativeness.”

Inventiveness? Creativeness? Beresfordexplains the roundabout’s infinite, aesthetic possibilities.

“You can put anything on a roundabout. And I’ve seen fountains, statues, windmills, a duck pond, pubs, churches, trains, boats, planes -- you name it! You can put anything on a roundabout. That’s what makes them so special.”  

His enthusiasm is infectious. Roundabouts are spreading, although probably not for aesthetic reasons. The number of these traffic systems more than doubled around the world to 60,000 in the last fifteen years.  

That’s a source of pride and satisfaction for Britain’s Transport Research Laboratory, which claims to have invented the modern roundabout in the 1960s. The Laboratory devised the rule that traffic approaching the gyratory system should give way to traffic already circulating, which generally ensures a smoother flow of traffic than crossroads or traffic lights.

“In general ,they’re superior,” says the laboratory’s Mark Crabtree. "People have to stop at a red light, whether or not there’s lots of traffic or not very much traffic. But at a roundabout, you quite often only have to slow down a bit before you get on to the roundabout."

The roundabout is said to have flourished in Britain because it requires the British virtues of compromise and cooperation. The U.S.’s more aggressive, confrontational culture may explain why the roundabout has not been more widely adopted by Americans.    

“In fact, you’d think they would embrace it,” argues Beresford. "The roundabout is safer, greener, and it’s more aesthetically pleasing. Come on, America! Wake up! Smell the coffee! Embrace the roundabout!"

Maybe it’s beginning to. Over the past decade, the U.S. has sprouted some 3,000 roundabouts. And it can now boast “The Best Roundabout in the World,” too. 

You can buy a calendar from the U.K. Roundabout Appreciation Society featuring the above roundabouts and more by clicking here.    

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

Mark Crabtree of Britain’s Transport Research Laboratory.

Log in to post5 Comments

ah, the traffic circle - in Venezuela, they were called redomo's - at about 100 yd in diameter, they were a nice racing touch on the way to work. Seemingly everyone in the country with a car thought they were a direct descendant of Fangio (worlds greatest formula I driver of a long time ago) - the redomo separated the real drivers from the pretenders.

Stateside, they were popular in NJ in the '30's or so; but, 20-25 yr ago the state began a process of removing them from the major roads - the removal did kinda spoil the fun of getting to work on Rte 1 in Linden. Fast forward - and MD is adding traffic circles; albeit, much smaller and not as much fun as those in S. America.

Whether you call it a traffic circle or a roundabout depends on the area of the US. Traffic circle is more of an east coast thing. Where I live in the west we use roundabout.

Roundabouts do not necessarily gobble up land. In the UK there are tons of mini roundabouts. There can even be a painted white circular bump, perhaps a foot and a half diameter, that serves as the roundabout. You treat it like a roundabout but can drive over it if you need too.

As somebody who grew up in the UK and is old enough to have watched the change from traffic lights to roundabouts, I have seen how much they speed up traffic.

In France it used to be that people coming onto a roundabout had priority. It was utterly mad.

At least in France, maime, the little round bit in the middle is important: if it were a regular intersection the car on the right would have the right of way even if the car on the left had already entered the intersection; since it is technically a traffic circle with that spot there the car who got into the intersection first has the right of way. It's a subtle, nuanced French thing, don't you know.

I beg to differ with your observation that traffic circles speed up traffic. In cases where 95% of the traffic is on one road, adding the new impediment slows down 95% of the traffic, whereas having a STOP sign on the side road lets it through unimpeded. The French have just let it get out of hand.

My wife and I just like the word.
In Australia we got directions one day from a local gal. They included numerous iterations of the phrase (in a sing-song style), "... and Another roundaBOUT."
...... and Another roundaBOUT.
... and Another roundaBOUT.
... and Another roundaBOUT.

That, and going into a roundabout on the left side!
Fun times.

Though I live within walking distance of Columbus Circle I can't be bought off this easily. This landmark has its own life and reason for being: a small park within, businesses in the Time-Warner Center, Central Park on one side, a subway entrance and one of Donald Trump's eponymous buildings on another; in short, it justifies its existence.

On the other hand, traffic circles if I may use the proper American term, are the scourge of France, where they crop up everywhere for no good reason, slowing the flow of through traffic, gobbling up real estate and driving me nuts when I hear my GPS instruct "Go one point two kilometers and enter the roundabout" again and again and again and again .... The script should read "enter the next of an endless stream of annoying roundabouts." Some towns there in fact have decided it's a cheap way to slow traffic through them instead of enforcing speed restrictions effectively, much to the annoyance of drivers. Enough!

With Generous Support From...