Washington State is paving the way for other states on many important issues, including healthcare, worker pay, development and traffic safety. The rest of the country often looks towards Washington as an example of how certain policies and initiatives can inform the decisions we make to improve the way we treat employees, the way we treat our sickest residents and the way we build our infrastructure.

Case in point – the number of roundabouts in Washington State is rising. These traffic models force traffic to slow down and eliminate the need for traffic lights. Newer models in the state have a second ring dedicated to pedestrians and bicyclists. So, what’s fueling this transformation from traditional stops signs and stop lights to roundabouts? The answer is improved safety, reduced collisions, improved traffic flow, cost and space.

Still, the question remains – are American drivers ready to accept roundabouts as a common fixture of our roads? While the United States has been slow to adopt them when compared to other countries, there is overwhelming evidence that we are already adapting to roundabouts, and that most skeptical drivers will change their minds once they become familiar with how to navigate them. Washington State, which has had roundabouts since 1997, is once again leading the way by providing a great example of a state where roundabouts have been particularly successful.

Better Safety

There are a number of facts and figures on the improved safety of roundabouts when compared to traditional traffic control strategies. According to studies done by the Federal Highway Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, roundabouts resulted in a 40 percent reduction in pedestrian collisions, 37 percent reduction in overall collisions, 90 percent reduction in fatality crashes and 75 percent reduction in injury collisions.

Designed for Fewer and Milder Collisions

There are many reasons why roundabouts lessen both the likelihood and extent of severe collision injuries. Roundabouts are designed to lower travel speeds, eliminate the desire to beat the light and feature one-way travel. Operators of motor vehicles first have to slow down and yield to traffic before entry to the roundabout. Speeds range from 15 to 20 miles per hour and result in fewer injuries. Unlike traditional intersections, there’s no need to try and beat the light. Roundabouts provide a continuous flow of traffic. With a circular design and one-way travel design, roundabouts also prevent head-on collisions and T-bone collisions.

Improved Traffic Flow

Studies for Washington State completed by the Institute for Highway Safety reported that roundabouts resulted in an 89 percent decrease in traffic delays and 56 percent reduction in motor vehicle stops. Roundabouts move traffic more quickly and with less congestion than intersections with traffic control lights. It’s all about yielding instead of actually stopping.

A roundabout on 84th Avenue NE in Medina, WA. (Photo by Scott Bonjukian)
A roundabout on 84th Avenue NE in Medina, WA. (Photo by Scott Bonjukian)
Less Cost and Less Space

In the long term, roundabouts are less costly than installing traffic signals. There are no electrical, maintenance or hardware costs like there are with traffic signals. These costs can tally from $5,000 to $10,000 every year for Washington State. Roundabouts are also more practical in the event of a power outage. Roundabouts continue to operate without any need for police staff to direct traffic. While roundabouts need more property for the intersection, they do take up less space on streets leading to the roundabout. Typically, they also need fewer lanes.

They’re Becoming More Common

The roundabout rage hasn’t struck just Washington State — it’s showing up in other areas like Wisconsin, Amsterdam and other parts of the world, too. The state of Wisconsin has been installing them since 2004. Currently, there are around 120 roundabouts in Washington, with many more on the horizon. Cities with multiple roundabouts include Bellingham, Federal Way, Olympia, Spokane, University Place, Moses Lake and Gig Harbor. Washington roundabouts in the design process include SR-160, SR-282, I-82 and SR-18.

Example of a modern roundabout plan on a state highway, with an outer ring for pedestrians and cyclists. (Graphic by Scott Bonjukian)
Example of a modern roundabout plan on a state highway, with an outer ring for pedestrians and cyclists. (Graphic by Scott Bonjukian for the City of Port Orchard, WA)

New Jersey and New York are also jumping on the roundabout bandwagon. The state of New York now has 112, and New Jersey has been gradually replacing traffic circles with roundabouts. Modern roundabouts in Amsterdam include a second ring for cyclists, with enough space for vehicles to pass. Some bicyclists even adjust their speed to pass behind or in front of motor vehicles. For the Dutch, it’s about respect and attitude.

How to Drive, Walk and Bike a Roundabout

In Washington, there are both single-lane and multiple-lane roundabouts. The key things to remember about driving roundabouts is to yield to other drivers, stay in your lane, don’t change lanes, don’t stop, and avoid driving next to large vehicles. Oversized vehicles need more room to complete the turn in a roundabout and may straddle the lanes. Slow down as you approach the roundabout and look for pedestrians in the crosswalk. In a multiple-lane roundabout, you’ll need to choose a lane before entering. And in a multiple-lane roundabout, you must yield to both lanes of traffic.

The crosswalks in roundabouts are also set further back from traffic and allow drivers more time to react to pedestrians. Pedestrians should look for approaching traffic before walking through the crosswalk. There are also triangular islands for pedestrians to stop for a safe place. Bicyclists can opt to ride through the roundabout or walk their bikes in pedestrian crosswalks. Just like drivers, cyclists must obey the rules of the roundabout.

The modern roundabouts in Washington are designed to accommodate all types of vehicles, including trucks and trailers, buses, and emergency vehicles. The main feature is a raised central island. Often, the central island includes a truck apron that acts as an extra lane for big vehicles. Roundabouts also often feature triangular splitter islands as a refuge for pedestrians and to slow traffic.

Public Opinion on Roundabouts

While many folks are squeamish at their first rodeo with a roundabout, after driving one most people are in favor of them. A survey conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that only 31 percent were in favor of roundabouts before construction. After the roundabout was constructed and used, that percentage increased to 63 percent. These numbers suggest that it’s really a fear of the unknown. Once people realized that roundabouts allowed them to go through the intersection safely and without having to stop, their fears dissipated.

So, what do roundabouts mean for drivers? First off, they mean fewer red lights. They also mean less chance of an accident, less chance of a severe injury and less traffic delays. Many people who used to spend 20 minutes just getting to a major highway can do it in just five minutes. Hopefully, roundabouts are here to stay and won’t be just a passing trend.

As Washington has beautifully illustrated, roundabouts represent a progressive approach to improving road safety, provided only that people are educated about the benefits and the proper use of them.

Bert Louthian is a Columbia, SC injury lawyer, who represents faultless victims of car accidents. Through both his clients’ and his own personal experiences in recovering from serious injuries sustained in a collision, he has a passion for working hands-on to improve road safety and encouraging drivers to be aware of the risks that exist on our roads. When out of the office, Bert enjoys spending time with his family and playing his bass guitar.

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The Urbanist encourages dialogue on important urban issues through guest contributions. Over the years, we've had dozens of guest authors share their opinions and insights ranging from commentary on current events to community interviews and researched think pieces. If you would like to see your name behind a byline on The Urbanist, feel free to reach out to our Editorial Team at editorial[at]theurbanist[dot]org.
The Urbanist encourages dialogue on important urban issues through guest contributions. Over the years, we've had dozens of guest authors share their opinions and insights ranging from commentary on current events to community interviews and researched think pieces. If you would like to see your name behind a byline on The Urbanist, feel free to reach out to our Editorial Team at editorial[at]theurbanist[dot]org.

10 COMMENTS

  1. So, uh… suppose you have an intersection between two roads that each carry a typical arterial bus route. Where do you put the bus stops for workable traffic flow, direct bus movements, and convenient transfers? I don’t think I’ve seen that from roundabouts.

    • It’s important to note that there are few examples of modern roundabouts in the US, and even fewer in the Western states. But the issue you raise has been solved by transportation engineers abroad, particularly in the Low Countries and Scandinavian countries. The context for that kind of intersection has to be right and requires intentional work to make it safe and accessible for all users. Roundabouts don’t have to be massive behemoths. But their application in urban areas (read: Seattle) are likely only reasonable in very few locations.

  2. Seattle has so many awkward 5-leg intersections, many of which still have stop sign traffic punctuation…would be great candidates for circles. Don’t know if SDOT is really on board or if this is more of a WA-DOT thing (on the whole probably have more application in rural areas due to wider ROW and lower traffic).

  3. They are a tool, and in the right place, are a great solution. In many developing countries, they work well in place of a traffic signal (less infrastructure). They also work well in rural/suburban areas, where there are mostly autos. In urban settings, I don’t think they are always a good fit. True they are “safer for all” in that vehicle crashes are less severe, but they allow for vehicles to move continuously, and for pedestrians and bikes, that can be problematic. Also, if you happen to be blind, when is a good time to cross? They also take up a lot of space, and in an urbanized area, that is not always viable. Not that I’m anti-roundabout, they definitely are an improvement in some areas, but the context needs to considered.

  4. I was the engineer who designed the first roundabout within Washington
    State Department of Transportation right-of-way way back in 1997/98 (the
    3rd roundabout in WA state at that time). Your post here is spot-on, and it’s interesting to note that we were having a lot of the same public discussions about roundabouts even 20 years ago. I would just add one further advantage
    related to improving traffic flow is that roundabouts typically do
    not create vehicular “platooning” like traditional signal-based
    intersection controls do…where groups of vehicles get bunched together as a result of a series of red/green signal cycles along a roadway.
    Platooning ends up requiring storage of more vehicles queued at each signal as they wait
    together for a green light. The motto of roundabout designers in the
    late ’90s was “wide nodes, narrow roads”, meaning that traffic loads can
    work with narrower roadways (i.e. fewer lanes) between intersections if
    the intersections are free-flowing roundabouts (the “nodes”).

    • Great point – it’s a shame when a road is widened when the issue isn’t capacity on the road, but capacity in an intersection.

  5. I was the engineer who designed the first roundabout within Washington State Department of Transportation right-of-way way back in 1997/98 (the 3rd roundabout in WA state at that time). One further advantage related to improving traffic flow is that a roundabout typically does not create vehicular “platooning” like traditional signal-based intersection controls do. With signal systems, over the length of a street corridor with multiple signals the red/green signal phases tend to bunch groups of vehicles together…we call that “platooning”. Platooning tends to lessen the overall efficacy of the street system, plus it requires storage of more vehicles at each signal as they wait together for a green light. The motto of roundabout designers in the late ’90s was “wide nodes, narrow roads”, meaning that traffic loads can work with narrower roadways (i.e. fewer lanes) between intersections if the intersections are free-flowing roundabouts (the “nodes”).

  6. I got back from Oshkosh WI, which has several roundabouts, essentially one for each interstate exit. They are a little scary to handle the first time, but after a couple of instances, they are great. I think they work well in high traffic situations, where you get a ‘rhythm’ going (a consistent speed that everyone else is going at) and to yield to traffic on your left and traffic on the right is yielding to you. You pick your lane depending on far around the circle you need to go.
    Roundabout skills are pretty similar to merging skills, of which many Seattle drivers seem to lack, so we shall see…

    • There certainly is an adjustment, and if you take an interstate exist and are suddenly in a roundabout, I seem to always panic trying to remember which way I want to exit b/c I don’t have a stop to reflect “left or right.”

      Nonetheless, I have faith the people will figure it out after a few trips.

  7. Shout out to my hometown of Carmel, IN, which has 94 roundabouts, including converting every single highway interchange in the city into an overpass with double roundabouts. I’m constantly driving around King County and coming up to intersections thinking “man, I wish this was a roundabout”
    http://www.carmel.in.gov/index.aspx?page=123

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