Going Round In Circles Over Traffic Fix Roundabouts can slash commute times, reduce pollution and even limit car accidents. But city planners will have to overcome public fears for the circles to thrive in the U.S.
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Going Round In Circles Over Traffic Fix

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Going Round In Circles Over Traffic Fix

Going Round In Circles Over Traffic Fix

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Roundabouts, long a feature of European intersections, are unfamiliar to many American drivers.


CHEVY CHASE: (as Clark Griswold) I guess what we do is just drive around this circle here. It should be the second left exit. There's the hotel. Hey, look, kids, there's Big Ben, there's Parliament.

NORRIS: Chevy Chase, who you just heard there, got stuck in one London roundabout for hours in the film, "National Lampoon's European Vacation."


CHASE: (as Clark Griswold) It's amazing. I cannot get left. There's Big Ben, kids. Parliament.

NORRIS: Over the past decade, the number of roundabouts in the US has increased dramatically from the low hundreds into the thousands and for good reason. Modern traffic circles can cut down on commute time and pollution. Studies have shown they even reduce accidents. Many cities in the US are planning to put in more, but as Alex Schmidt reports, they are, if you will forgive us, roadblocks in the way of a true roundabout revolution.

ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: I parked my car near a traffic circle in west Los Angeles and taped up a handwritten sign that said, talk to a reporter about roundabouts. I didn't think many people would, but I was wrong.

You are riding a bike, I see.

MATT PERKINS: I am riding a bike.

SCHMIDT: Matt Perkins was the first to stop.

And you just came through a roundabout.

PERKINS: I did just come through a roundabout.

SCHMIDT: How was it?

PERKINS: It was as good as it always is. I love roundabouts.

SCHMIDT: Perkins grew up in Denmark, where there are lots of them, but Sheila Keiter and her two sons avoided the roundabout because they think it's too dangerous.

SHEILA KEITER: We call them the blood circles. Do we not? We do.

SCHMIDT: The blood circle? Why do you call them a blood circle?

ALON KEITER: Because there's cars, there's going to be a lot of blood and you can get hit when you're trying to get there.

SCHMIDT: Soon, there could be lots of roundabouts in your city. Chicago has seen a big jump. Cities in Colorado have them and soon L.A. will throw its hat in the ring.

MICHAEL HUNT: We're standing at the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Indiana Street, as well as Lorena Street.

SCHMIDT: Michael Hunt is a transportation engineer with the city of Los Angeles. This ragged five light intersection in east L.A. where he's standing will be the first intersection retrofit in the city. After the street lights are ripped out and the new circle put in, cars will flow through without stopping. Hunt said there will be huge savings in emissions when cars no longer idle at a red light.

HUNT: They're coming to a stop over at Cesar Chavez right now. They've been there for about 30 seconds.

SCHMIDT: Yeah. And I'm counting eight cars that are just wasting gas, right?

HUNT: Yeah. Just on that one side and then you have another eight on the other side, so you've got 20 cars almost every single cycle and that's during off-peak hours. During peak hours, you have hundreds of vehicles, literally.

SCHMIDT: Hunt estimates that over 100 hours of cars just sitting there wasting gas will be saved every day after the retrofit. That calculates out to a reduction in tens of thousands of pounds of greenhouse gases every year.

HUNT: You can actually help move goods faster. You can get people to work faster. You help the environment because there's less congestion. It's obviously going to be safer.

SCHMIDT: But not everyone is onboard. Roundabout projects have been defeated all over the US by people who think they're dangerous.

On the other side of town, where I was chatting with folks about the traffic circle, some residents still haven't adjusted.

ISABELLA MCNEIL: What is it for? What's a roundabout's purpose?

SCHMIDT: Isabella McNeil lives right near the traffic circle and says people just don't know how to make their way around the thing.

MCNEIL: Oh, my gosh. I see people just literally like there's nothing there. They just keep going and I'm just like stuck going, ah, I think it was your turn to yield.

SCHMIDT: As dozens of cities consider roundabouts in the coming years, engineers say they have to be installed properly and part of that is public education. With a big, visible campaign, they say, the US may just overcome one of the largest obstacles to roundabouts: the learning curve.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt.

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