Here in Port Townsend, we have seen the future. It’s round, runs counterclockwise, and forces us to turn right. So it’s going to take some getting-used-to.

Drivers have been negotiating two traffic roundabouts on Sims Way (otherwise known as SR 20) for close to a decade.  But they ain’t seen nothin yet.  If state transportation planners have their way, and they probably will, PT drivers headed for the Hood Canal Bridge will soon encounter one traffic light and one stop sign, and six traffic roundabouts along the way.

These will include new roundabouts replacing traffic lights at Kearney Street (next to Food Coop) and at Mill Road.  But the biggies will be at the intersection with Highway 104 and at the west end of the bridge itself. 

When that happens, Port Townsend will become a one-light town.

Expect flak. When traffic engineers briefed local officials and taxpayers on the idea last year, drivers howled.  “Stupid idea,” wrote one local critic. “I’ve yet to hear one person who thinks it’s a good idea.”  Another asked: “When did overpriced roundabouts causing months of traffic delays become sexier than a simple stoplight?”

We have plenty of company.  When the state proposed a roundabout at an exit from I-5 in southwest Washington, the Woodland City Council balked, voting 6-1 to stick with stoplights.  “I don’t know what happens when you get a roundabout in this state,” one councilman complained, “but suddenly everybody loses their minds.”

Like so many things American, it’s cultural.  We treasure our God-given right to sit at red lights and breathe our fellow citizens’ exhaust fumes. This has worked well for a century, since traffic lights were invented in the  1920s.

Roundabouts, however, are not a new idea.  One traffic circle in the ancient city of Bath, England, dates to the 1760s.  Today there are about 25,000 of them in the United Kingdom, and 50,000 in France.

But not so much in this country, where there are about 7,000, mostly in New England and in Washington DC, which was laid out with circles – not to control traffic but to get around monuments to great American heroes.   

The resistance has to do with our desire to get places fast.  Cars on urban arterials tend to move at 30 to 40 mph, but roundabouts are designed to slow or “calm” traffic to about 20 in the circles.

And that’s unAmerican. We are creatures of habit.  And many of us, especially in the west, associate roundabouts with (shudder) things European.

Given the resistance, why do engineers keep promoting them – especially on our route to the bridge? The roundabout at the junction with Highway 104 will replace a stop sign, hopefully addressing one of the state’s most treacherous stretches of highway. The other one, at Hood Canal, is designed to slow cars headed for the bridge and to eliminate long waits for Port Ludlow drivers trying to turn onto the highway.

In their defense, traffic planners cite costs.  Traffic lights  are expensive.  Just one of those big red/yellow/green light fixtures runs at least $2,000.  The poles they hang from start at $25,000 and go up even faster.  Throw in the wiring and $30,000 controller units and engineering and other stuff, and we’re talking anything from $250,000 to $1 million per intersection.

Roundabouts don’t need wiring, but they do frequently require more real estate.  That’s why cramped cities like Seattle are stuck with signals. But the front-end costs of roundabouts like Port Townsend’s can be as high or higher than signalized intersections.

That, however, is more than offset by maintenance costs.  Stoplights need to be fixed, maintained, updated and periodically replaced.  Roundabouts don’t.

And, despite driver grumblings, experts say those circles actually move as much as 50 percent more traffic on the typical arterial.  It’s about flow; while cars slow down for roundabouts, they rarely stop entirely.   

Fewer and shorter stops also means cars use less gas and pollute less.

The biggest difference is in safety.   Car crashes kill 35,000 Americans and injure 2.75 million every year.  A quarter of those casualties occur in perpendicular “T-bone” crashes in signaled intersections, where drivers run red lights or push yellows.

Accidents occur in roundabouts as well, but they are far more likely to be non-injury fender-benders.  Carmel, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis, has replaced most of its signalized intersections with roundabouts – 133 of them at last count.  And their rate of injury accidents has plummeted to a fraction of the national rate.

Drivers will resist anyway.  Roundabouts make us slow down.  We don’t understand them.   To take a left turn, we have to take a right, and then another right.  All thanks to some pointy-headed engineers in Olympia. 

But critics come around. Surveys by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicate the resistance is short-lived.  When roundabouts are installed, most drivers are opposed.   Six weeks later, the resistance is cut in half.  After a year, it’s gone. And life goes on.

The author used information from an excellent Freakonomics podcast. Find it at Should Traffic Lights Be Abolished? (Ep. 454) – Freakonomics Freakonomics

See How an Insane 7-Circle Roundabout Actually Works | WIRED – YouTube

Top photo by Carl Berger

8 COMMENTS

  1. Encountered them in NZ many years ago, clockwise instead of counter, but equally effective. You are obviously a fan. Sounds like engineering and data can win in the end over knee jerk reaction and bias. Maybe?

  2. Ross, I’ve driven in many countries, on both sides of the road, and I love traffic circles — but with limits. I find many US circles are too small. The more traffic, the bigger the radius and the better the sight lines should be. I also have rarely seen circles used where the intersecting roads enter on more than minimal slopes. The proposed Hood Canal west end circle and one at Sheridan/Sims worry me for that reason. So: bigger and flatter is better.

  3. Hey Ross, i’m thinking back to when i got here in 1978 and PT was a one-light town. That’s right, ONE LIGHT nearly all the way from Bainbridge. Good to know we’ll be a one-lighter again!! xoxo leslie

  4. I submitted the following comment to the legislative transportation committee members in 2019 :
    I am writing the Joint Transportation Committee, to urge you all to use your good offices to oppose the construction by WSDOT of a roundabout on the west end of Hood Canal Bridge.
    The safety issues are real and the utility of roundabouts is well established, but this WSDOT roundabout project is ill considered and inappropriate.
    This roundabout is unnecessary because:
    The solution to the problem–unsafe left-hand turns to travel east across the bridge from Paradise Bay Road onto Hwy 104–can be eliminated by prohibiting left-hand turn access to Hwy 104 from Paradise Bay Road;
    The cost to build a roundabout is estimated to be $4.6 million, whereas banning such turns and constructing an impassable physical barrier to them is likely less than 10%-20% of that;
    The roundabout will daily slow all westbound traffic across the bridge to a standstill repeatedly and will especially force truck traffic to slow down, gear down and then gear up to circle the roundabout, get up to speed and climb the long hill that begins just at the west end of the bridge at Paradise Bay Road; and
    Eastbound and westbound holiday traffic on Hwy 104 will be backed up at times for miles on both sides of the bridge, especially when compounded by bridge openings.

  5. Expect flak. All good comments. My failing memory goes back 50 years when I was touring southern Europe in a rickety VW van we bought in London for $200. The greatest challenge (other than the engine was running on 3 cylinders) was the huge roundabouts in Paris, Marseille and especially Italy. Eventually we learned the trick: Quit looking left and right. Narrow your peripheral vision to about 3 degrees either side of dead center. Anything outside that narrow slice of reality is somebody else’s problem. However, this might have worked because nobody wanted to mess with that rusty old van.

  6. Thanks for the info Ross. I remember the screaming when our two roundabouts were proposed. They don’t seem to be an issue anymore. I do have concerns about the operation of a traffic circle at the Hood Canal bridge. But I am not a traffic engineer nor do I play one on TV.

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