A roundabout way of easing congestion, and scaring seniors

The roundabout is becoming more commonplace on Canadian roads

A roundabout way of easing congestion, and scaring seniors

Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a revolution occurring on Canadian streets. And it’s moving in a counter-clockwise direction.

The roundabout, once unique to Europe, is becoming commonplace in many parts of Canada. Fans of these circular intersections point to reductions in congestion and accidents as evidence that they’re simply a better way to move traffic. Anyone on foot, however, may require a bit more convincing.

Always prone to moving in packs, city planners across the country are rapidly adopting roundabouts as their preferred means of traffic control. Prince Edward Island recently installed two roundabouts on the Charlottetown bypass, part of the Trans-Canada Highway. Last year, Winnipeg removed numerous stop signs at neighbourhood intersections in favour of small, traffic-calming roundabouts. Calgary now considers them to be the intersection of choice in new developments and is making plans for dozens more. Hamilton, Waterloo Region in southwestern Ontario, Montreal and Halifax all have new roundabouts. Even Yorkton, Sask., is in on the trend.

There are plenty of good reasons behind this faddishness. By eliminating the need to come to a complete stop at an intersection, roundabouts can significantly improve traffic flow and reduce congestion, particularly during rush hour. This saves both time and fuel. The design also works to reduce the frequency and severity of accidents. Because cars merge into a roundabout at an angle, the possibility of head-on or T-bone crashes is almost completely eliminated. American research on the conversion of intersections from stoplights or stop signs to roundabouts suggests a 40 per cent reduction in accidents, and 80 per cent fewer injuries.

All this should be seen as very good news for drivers. If the trend continues, Canadians in many other cities should expect to see roundabouts appearing on their roads in the near future.

Yet while roundabouts provide a largely unambiguous benefit for drivers, the advantages to pedestrians are far less obvious. Consider recent experience in Waterloo Region. No other jurisdiction in Canada has been as aggressive in installing roundabouts. And after introducing numerous one- and two-lane roundabouts over the past few years, this summer it unveiled its first three-lane model, located directly across from a high school in Kitchener. Parents immediately began to fret about the combination of distracted teenagers and preoccupied drivers during school hours. Four accidents within weeks of the roundabout becoming operational did not improve anyone’s mood.

And so opening day of school last month saw a small army of police officers, municipal staff, school teachers and traffic guards assembled to assuage parents and protect students. “I don’t feel too safe crossing it,” high school student Robert Kilgour told the local media. “Cars don’t always yield.”

Anxiety of this sort is commonplace among walkers of all ages faced with crossing a roundabout. In the absence of traffic lights or signalized crosswalks, pedestrians lack the legal right-of-way to force cars to stop while standing at the curb. It is up to pedestrians to make their way safely across traffic on their own.

Waterloo Region’s online pedestrian guide to roundabouts, for example, recommends pedestrians use “assertive body language” and walk “briskly and deliberately” at roundabouts. The website once recommended pedestrians put their foot on the road itself to convince drivers they’re serious about getting across. It’s a big change from the old “stop, look and listen” routine that schoolchildren used to learn. And of course, this sort of advice is useless for blind, elderly or disabled walkers.

Barry Wellar, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Ottawa and a nationally known pedestrian advocate, accepts that roundabouts are an efficient way to keep vehicular traffic moving. But he warns they bring no comfort to pedestrians.

The biggest problem for pedestrians comes when cars are exiting a roundabout and merging back into traffic. “When you get buses and tractor-trailers and lots of other cars moving through a roundabout, drivers naturally end up paying attention to other drivers,” Wellar says. “The last thing anyone is thinking about or looking for is a pedestrian.”

Wellar observes that roundabouts often force pedestrians to go out of their way to cross a road. Or they may choose to forgo the walking trip altogether. This suggests areas with high foot traffic are simply not suited to roundabouts, regardless of the benefits to cars and trucks. “When it comes to the pedestrian, there is really no alternative to the stoplight,” he says.

In their eagerness to install roundabouts at any and all intersections, cities need to keep the quiet pedestrian top of mind. Any roundabout that encourages less walking and more driving is no traffic improvement at all.


A roundabout way of easing congestion, and scaring seniors

  1.     Modern roundabouts are the safest form of intersection in the world.  Visit http://www.iihs.org for safety facts.  The safety comes from the ‘slow and go’ operation instead of the ‘stop or go fast’ way a stop light works (or the ‘keep going fast’ large traffic circle fantasy).  The smaller size of the modern roundabout is what makes them safer and keeps speeds in the 20 mph range.  This makes it much easier to avoid a crash or stop for pedestrians.  It also means that if a crash happens the likelihood of injury is very low.  Safety is the #1 reason to build modern roundabouts and why many more on the way.  

       All modern roundabouts have median islands separating incoming and outgoing auto traffic.  Pedestrians don’t have to find a gap in two directions of traffic, just one.  This is safer for pedestrians, especially for younger or older ones, because they only concentrate on one direction of traffic at a time.  This is what is meant by two-phase. Cross the first half, pause if you need to, then cross the second half.  On multi-lane crossings pedestrian signals are often added if the auto traffic or pedestrian traffic is too numerous.  The signals are also two phase, usually requiring the pedestrian to push a second button when they get to the median.  The median can also have a Z path to reorient the pedestrian to view oncoming traffic.  Also, the signals can rest in off, so they are only activated if a pedestrian needs the help crossing. This way only motorist that need to stop are delayed.  Lastly, since modern roundabouts are designed to operate at 20 mph or less, raised crossings or advance speed humps can be used to keep drivers slow approaching the pedestrian crossings.

  2. roundabouts are great! there are two single-lane roundabouts in my (new) community, and they work just fine. they cost a fraction to maintain as opposed to lights, nobody idles (thus less pollution is caused), and they’re intuitive to navigate (although i did see a neighbour who i know to be a horrible driver to begin with go around it backwards one time becuase she didn’t understand to turn left you’re supposed to go 3/4 around).

    the problem is when you get to 2 or 3 lane roundabouts, suddenly it’s not so intuitive to everyone. although the rules are simple (yield to whoever is on your left, whether you’re entering or they’re exiting from the inside lane) some morons seem to think “i’m in the outside lane, i can do whatever i want” and don’t let inner-lane drivers out. combine that with non-signalers (usually same morons) and you’ve got near accidents all day long.

    there simply needs to be more education on how they function. put up “yield to left” signs or maybe even TV commercials. even morons can be trained.

  3. Well… just put a pedestrian crossing lane with a button to call for s stop before the entrance to the roundabout, like they do in Spain. No one’s ever said there shouldn’t be a clearly signposted way for pedestrians to cross. 

  4. I live in Sweden, and large, highly-trafficked roundabouts usually have pedestrian underpasses.  Although this is obviously a more costly solution, it means that drivers and pedestrians don’t even need to interact in the roundabout.  It’s ridiculous to say that there are no alternatives to the stoplight.

  5. The issue regarding pedestrian safety on all roads is a very real concern, and is something that does not seem to be give as much consideration. A blog at http://planyourplace.ca/pypblog/?p=163 discusses some things that could be done to enhance pedestrian safety so that seniors need not be scared of traffic circles.

  6. Traffic planners in Waterloo Region have lost their minds when it comes to installing roundabouts.  They are not the magic solution for every intersection.  As the article stated, there is no clarity particularly in Ontario as to who has the right of way at roundabouts.  Traffic engineers in the region once had the opinion that cars have the right of way and pedestrians know it so they will not cross the street unless the way is clear.  Thier bosses quickly over ruled them with some input from the local police – but the law says nothing.  A Waterloo Region bus hit a pedestrian in the crosswalk while existing a roundabout about two weeks ago.  The bet charge the police could come up with was careless driving – we will see how effective that is – given that it was a 3 lane roundabout with many many many design flaws that make it deadly for pedestrians.  To other juristrications wanting to put them in – pedetrians and roundabout DO NOT MIX.  Many traffic engineers have a bias to used them because they claim: a)  They are more energy efficeint because there are not traffice lights – not true because they use more electricity for street lighting to keep sight lines visible b) they reduce accidents – dont be fooled by general roundabout statistics – in some locations and designs they may reduce accidents and severity – in others they may actually increase accidents – it really depends on the traffic volume so general statistics are misleading – c)  they are more environmentally friendly – again it depends on the intersecton – if you have heavy flows from 3 or 4 directions they are terrible for increased idling. d)  Smaller roundabouts are better cause they are “Modern” – see ScotttRAB’s propoganda machine below – too small a size makes it more dfficut for a driver to properly anticipate what another driver is going to do and is more dangerous for pedestrian because drivers do not alway act in the way they signal. e) snow clearing – not easy – you need ploughs and blowers – cost more that way f) lower maintenance cost – i cant belive that – roundabouts around here have had lots of damage to repair – knocked down signs, cars missing the curves and going through fences, broken out curbs – especially under icy conditons – there is lots of damage due to vehicles not staying on the path.  g)  they are less expensive – the price tag is not sustainable – a traffice signal in an intersection is generaly about $100,000 – a small roundabout is at least $300,000, a typical one is about $600,000, a big one like the one near the high school with 3 lanes is $1.7 million – and it doesnt work! – I always maintain to this day that there is alot of merit in wisely using 1 way streets to move traffice – we have lost that efficiency due to businesses who whine about customers not finidng them on a one way street.

  7. Roundabout is the best than all ways stop…

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