We associate roundabouts with the British, but really, when you dive deep into it it’s surprising that Americans didn’t become the roundabout nation. After all, the first traffic circles, such as Columbus Circle (not to mention all manner of rotaries), were first developed and built in the United States.
They became infamous junctions because all of them for whatever reason required traffic within the circle to yield to traffic coming into the circle, which works hideously badly. Stigmatized out of American life, they faded from the scene as the 20th century progressed, with only a few bold experimenters in the United Kingdom in the 1960s figuring out that if you required traffic coming into the circle to yield to traffic within the circle (the opposite of the traditional rule) the entire problem with traffic circles was solved, and then some: they actually worked better than intersections and traffic lights!
Why isn’t America Roundabout Nation?
Thenceforth roundabouts spread across the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent Europe in general. Only recently have they penetrated into North America. Which is odd. The United States is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, the global bastion of rugged individualism, the tip of the spear for car culture, yet Americans are insanely attached to a style of intersection where some central authority tells you when you can go and when you can’t go, as opposed to relying on the driver’s own judgment. The resistance to roundabouts in what’s allegedly a driver’s utopia is honestly an interesting parallel to American society in general: profoundly individualist in rhetoric, profoundly collectivist in reality.
Anyway, it gets even weirder when you realize Americans had the most traffic circles originally, so one might have expected experimentation to have figured out the “yield to traffic inside the circle” rule in the United States. Perhaps in some alternate timeline the United States developed the first true roundabouts in the early to mid 20th century and they spread across North America, the lack of traffic lights and empowerment of the driver considered a quintessentially American expression of highway engineering. But for a twist of fate that would have been our country: nary a traffic light in sight from sea to shining sea. It would be paradise.
About the only man in a high place who’s figured this out is James Brainerd, long-time mayor of Carmel, Indiana, who over the course of his 26 years and counting (!) as mayor has transformed his town into the roundabout capital of the United States. As an American fan of roundabouts I dutifully made a pilgrimage to the place some years ago, and it’s amazing: roundabouts, roundabouts everywhere; it’s the standard form of junction across town. Brainerd has completed his long-term objective of eradicating traffic lights from the entire municipality, bar a couple of intersections downtown where conversion to roundabout was deemed impractical.
An Alternate History of American Roundabouts
I incorporate the aforementioned “what if?” into my sci-fi/alternate-history universe, where America indeed becomes the roundabout nation. It’s entirely possible there’s a role reversal and Britain and Europe embrace the tyranny of traffic lights rather than the liberty of roundabouts, but in my world they might just follow America’s lead, making roundabouts hegemonic globally rather than just in Britain.
Indeed, roundabouts might easily become more hegemonic than even in real life, reaching levels of domination worldwide akin to Carmel or Milton Keynes today. Consider that car culture is far stronger in my universe, and starting in the 1960s a radical liberal movement appears on the scene; effectively, this timeline’s analogue to the hippie counterculture conquers society completely by the turn of the 21st century. Roundabouts replacing traffic lights fits in perfectly with that ethos.
The Ring Junction: the Apex of Roundabout Evolution
In Britain today in heavily trafficked junctions (hint: in my timeline with far more affluence and leisure time traffic levels per capita will be far higher than today) roundabouts are often signalized, which isn’t very fun. However, there is an alternative to signalized roundabouts: the so-called “magic roundabout”, formally known as a “ring junction”.
Like the original roundabout, magic roundabouts were first developed in Britain, a curious extension of mini-roundabouts (roundabouts where the central “island” is painted on rather than set up on a curb): a rather mad traffic engineer by the name of Frank Blackmore basically thought “hey, what if we put mini-roundabouts inside a big regular roundabout?”, and found that the thoroughput was greatly superior to both signalized junctions and normal roundabouts!
After a few trials of them at busy junctions that apparently put off local drivers, the installation at Swindon (to this day known worldwide as the Magic Roundabout) proved a smashing success, and several others were built before, for god-knows-what-reason, falling out of favor by the 1990s. Too bad, because they are greatly superior in throughput than any other known type of at-grade road junction; they have an excellent safety record too, believe it or not. Below is a diagram of the installation at Swindon: once you get over the initial shock it starts to make a lot of sense, indeed even seem brilliant!
Considering how this design is the culmination of the roundabout tradition, I expect some Americans will probably discover the secret of ring junctions by the mid 20th century, and these magic roundabouts will proliferate across the country (no doubt functioning as unholy heathen terrors to drivers from abroad accustomed to traffic signals) and thence worldwide. In the America of my alternate timeline, where traffic volumes run very high and highway planners are hypnotized by free flow as the be-all end-all, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if magic roundabouts become the most common type of at-grade junction between major roadways by today. Now that’s a real alternate-history “what if”!
The White Wizard of Magic Roundabouts
I wonder also about the possibility of yet more advanced versions of the magic roundabout. If two layers of roundabout improves traffic flow, might three layers improve thoroughput still further? Even more than three layers, possibly? I’m not sure, but any such hypothetical junction would consist of:
- An outermost ring where traffic flows normally; in America, where traffic keeps to the right side of the road, this would be counter-clockwise
- A middle ring where traffic flows abnormally; in America this would be clockwise
- An innermost ring where traffic flows normally again; in America this would be counter-clockwise
The flow of traffic of course would follow a regular pattern, i.e. counter-clockwise followed by clockwise, with each subsequent layer inward beyond the second.
My guess is that such multi-layered monstrosities wouldn’t be very common in my universe. Even in my world a road with enough traffic volume to justify something beyond a ring junction or at most a three-layered roundabout would likely be a high-speed freeway or expressway, and as such a grade-separated junction, where drivers can speed along at triple-digit speeds instead of crawling at just a few miles per hour past a yield line, would be considered far more appropriate than a roundabout, especially in a world where even a full four-level stack interchange is considered a cheap and easy installation.
The Anthem of the American Road
Nevertheless, I expect in my fictional universe American drivers, and even drivers across huge swaths of the world, will be “Goin’ around in circles again…Goin’ around in circles again…Goin’ around in. Pedal to floor, back in the seat…Purpose and will versus modern machine…Passing the slow, defeating the weak…”. Somehow contemplating this topic in my alternate timeline makes me think the energy on American roads will be like the great Nonpoint song “Circles” (fun fact: this song is included on the “Acceleracers” soundtrack, but it doesn’t appear in any of the four movies they made; either it was rejected altogether or (more likely) it was intended for one of the subsequent movies that were cancelled). So I can think of no better way to conclude this post than by inviting you, dear reader, to give it a listen, leaving you with a taste of my world’s ambience…