TLDR – Traffic Circles

Traffic circles are weird things. Call them roundabouts if you will (I do not know of any functional difference between the two), but they function like this: two (or more) roads meet at an intersection. Instead of a straight cross, however, there is a circle for traffic. Let’s assume that we are in a left-hand drive country (right side of the road), so that traffic in the circle flows in a counter-clockwise motion. All traffic approaching the intersection must enter the circle, yielding to cars already in the circle if necessary, and proceed in that counter-clockwise fashion to the road they wish to exit onto. A car wishing to turn right at an equivalent four-way stop would travel 90 degrees around the circle, a car going straight through would travel 180 degrees around the circle, and a car wishing to turn left would travel 270 degrees around the circle. Yes, I’ve been told that some jurisdictions are different in that traffic in the circle must yield to traffic entering the circle. Yes, I know that people are supposed to use their turn signal to indicate that they wish to exit the circle, but most people either forget to do so or don’t know that they are supposed to in the first place.
People, especially traffic geeks, love traffic circles. They cite plenty of statistics that traffic circles are safer, get people through the intersection faster, and are even aesthetically superior to a traditional four-way intersection (you can put a fountain in the middle!). I agree that for some intersections, particularly those with a fifth road or just roads meeting at sharp angles, traffic circles make sense. I cannot argue with safety statistics, nor do I argue with the improved traffic flow aspect of them (Mythbusters, after all, did an episode featuring them and showed the improved traffic flow rates). There is an aspect of traffic circles, however, that annoys me, and is one that I don’t think Mythbusters accounted for in their methodology. Allow me to describe the situation.
Assume that we have a four-way traffic circle, with roads running north-south and east-west. There is a business part to the east, rural fields to the north, a large residential area to the west, and a smaller residential area to the south. During the morning rush hour, traffic flows in a general west-to-east motion, moving from the major residential area to the business area. Got it? Now let’s take a look at traffic entering the circle.
Traffic entering the circle from the north (rural fields) or the west (major residential area) generally will have no problems entering the circle, as there is little traffic that they must yield to. Traffic entering the circle from the east will have some little problem entering the circle (depending on the circle’s construction), because they must yield to traffic in the circle, but if people do not use their turn signals to indicate that they are exiting, traffic from the east will wind up sitting there yielding to traffic that is, in fact, exiting and does not need to be yielded to.  Assuming that a car is exiting without a turn signal is a calculated risk, and one that will occasionally result in an accident when the driver guesses wrong.  (A circle constructed with actual exit lanes alleviates this problem, but introduces the problem of heavy traffic weaving over a short distance, which is a recipe for traffic accidents.)

Traffic entering from the south, however, has a problem. There is a not insignificant amount of traffic flow from this direction, but they must yield to traffic already in the circle. Since there is heavy flow from the west heading to the east, traffic from the south is stuck waiting for gaps to open up in this traffic flow.  South traffic would prefer a four-way stop in this instance, as that forces gaps into the traffic.  I think that Mythbusters did not take this scenario into account in their traffic circle test – they assumed equal traffic flow from all directions.

So, in this example, traffic from the south is at a disadvantage.  They do everything right, but the rules are set up so that they are forced to wait for gaps in the main flow of traffic.  Traffic from the west  (or pretty much any other direction) is privileged, in that they can get through the intersection at a much greater rate than traffic from the south.  This is not to say that they don’t have hardships – traffic from the east has the lack-of-turn-signal-usage issue I mentioned, and all directions might have to yield on occasion to a car already in the circle – but those are not significant compared to the hardships faced by those from the south.

If you read that last paragraph with something other than traffic in mind, you can see where I am going with this.

Sometimes, we as a society are very busy going west-to-east that we don’t stop to think about our impact on people coming from other directions.  We are all mostly trying to get to the same place, but the rules are very much set up to favor those in the majority.  We take all the available spaces, fill in the gaps, and then justly and smugly say that we are just playing by the rules.  When somebody pauses to create a gap, to allow somebody from the minority direction access to the main stream, they are either lauded as a noble hero or are derided as being too PC.  In fact, they are just being a kind person who considers others as being just as important as themselves.  Any attempts to turn the traffic circle into a four-way stop and force gaps into the traffic flow are met with a chorus of “political correctness run amok,” or even “reverse discrimination.”

Of course, if you only thought about this in terms of race, you are thinking too narrow-mindedly.  There are so many other ways people are in the minority, so many other roads leading into this hypothetical intersection, each overshadowed from the west-to-east traffic.  Sexual orientation, gender identity, neurodiversity status, disability status – these are all different ways people can approach this intersection.

There are those who believe that we should be a merit-based society, that people should be judged and rewarded on those skills and abilities deemed “worthwhile.”  (What is “worthwhile” and who makes this determination is a whole separate discussion.)  This could be well and good – judging people based on the “content of their character” rather than the “color of their skin” is, of course, a concept from one of the most famous racial-equality speeches in history.  The problem is that this judgement should be made at the destination, not along the road.  Skills and ability should not be needed to get through the intersection – we showcase those at our jobs in the east, whatever those jobs may be.

You can, of course, extend this metaphor and talk about rich people who can afford to take the tolled super-express highway and bypass this traffic circle completely.  I’m sure that you could find other ways to use this metaphor as well.  But that distracts from one of my main points of this article.  I frequently find myself entering real-life traffic circles from this disadvantaged direction.  This is not just a metaphor, this is a real-life complaint of mine.

But I find it to also be a useful metaphor.