Writer’s Block: Roundabouts may come to road near you

Drivers in Minnesota are beginning to see a traffic control mechanism that has been common in other parts of the world for decades – the roundabout.

There are some 119 roundabouts statewide in Minnesota, but the Minnesota Department of Transportation has been constructing up to 10 a year over the past few years.

Roundabouts are popping up on county roads across the Twin Cities area, but some are also found in Greater Minnesota as well.

Anoka County has no roundabouts on state or county roads within its borders yet.

But that is about to change. The county is proposing two roundabouts on Bridge Street in St. Francis in a construction project that is part of its 2014 capital improvements program.

Roundabouts are used instead of traffic signals at intersections and, according to MnDOT, they are designed to improve safety for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.

They will either have a single lane of traffic or multiple lanes to maintain traffic flow and vehicles within the roundabout have right of way over those entering the roundabout, who are regulated by a “Yield” sign at the entrance to the roundabout. And if there is no traffic in the roundabout, then vehicles don’t have to yield.

According to MnDOT, roundabouts are often used in new or remodeled intersections to lower the number of crashes.

Roundabouts show a 39 percent decrease in all crashes and an 89 percent decline in fatal accidents, while they can handle high levels of traffic with less delay than most stop signs or signals, MnDOT states on its website.

I grew up driving on roundabouts in Britain, where they have been the norm on major roads since the 1950s, although the so-called modern roundabout did not become a reality until the 1960s.

However, circular junctions have existed in various parts of the world since the early 1900s, for example, the 1904 Columbus Circle in Manhattan, New York City.

Roundabouts were common on major arterial roads in Britain before the advent of motorways (freeways in the 1970s) as a means to keep traffic moving, rather than having to stop and start all the time at traffic signals.

When you learn to drive on them, they become second nature and not a problem to negotiate. And they are particularly useful where more than two roads intersect.

While two-road intersections, one a north-south highway and the other an east-west highway, are common in the United States, that’s not the case in Britain, where there are often several roads arriving at one intersection. Then a roundabout keeps traffic flowing much more efficiently than a series of traffic signals.

Roundabouts have also been constructed as part of the motorway system in Britain – at the top of the access and exit ramps instead of traffic signals. And that has had the result of moving the traffic more effectively.

Many roundabouts in Britain are given a name, quite often a local landmark in the vicinity or a pub (public house or bar) which has been built by a roundabout. A couple spring to mind in the area of London and its outskirts, where I grew up.

One in the east London suburb of Leytonstone is called The Green Man and has multiple roads intersecting at it, and the other is in Epping Forest, which is east of London, where two major roads and two country roads meet at The Wake Arms roundabout, which lies between the towns of Loughton and Epping going north and south and High Beech and Theydon Bois heading west and east.

However, as traffic has increased over the decades, many of the high volume roundabouts have traffic signals to control vehicles entering them. One example is at The Green Man, which provides access to the major hospital in east London, Whipps Cross Hospital.

For motorists not used to driving roundabouts, they take a bit of getting used to. But from my perspective they are preferable to sitting at countless traffic signals that can be found at almost every intersection on a roadway.