Brace Yourselves: Traffic Circles Are Making a Comeback

Forty new ones are planned throughout Pennsylvania, and Philly's transport office wants to know where you want yours.

Logan Circle. Lovely, but not particularly safe. New-fangled roundabouts are. | Photo from

Logan Circle. Lovely, but not particularly safe. New-fangled roundabouts are. | Photo from

Roundabouts—those circular intersections without traffic signals—are ubiquitous in many states (the most terrifying ones live in New Jersey), but are relatively rare in Pennsylvania. There’s only about two dozen statewide.

But that’s about to change in a big way. According to an interesting report from the Morning Call, Pennsylvania is on the brink of a roundabout boom. At least 40 new traffic circles are planned across the Commonwealth, the Morning Call reports. “They’re going to start becoming predominant,” state Department of Transportation engineer Thomas Walter told the Morning Call.

Those with nightmarish experiences from traffic circles constructed in the bad old days may be freaking out a bit right now. Crossing lanes, on a curve, angling for an exit that’s approaching fast, swerving to avoid merging cars that somehow don’t have to yield (who came up with that?)…  And pity the poor pedestrians and bicyclists who, naturally enough, try to cross that circle in the most direct way possible: a straight line. Ack.

Relax. Well-designed, modern roundabouts actually offer a lot of advantages over standard intersections. In fact, new roundabouts aren’t like old traffic circles or rotaries at all. With newer models the circles tend to be smaller, vehicles tend to move slower, lane changes within the roundabout are usually unnecessary (eliminating the Chevy Chase effect), and pedestrian safety is prioritized.

The benefits are clear and well documented.

  • Roundabouts reduce traffic fatalities at intersections by 90 percent, studies show.
  • Similarly, roundabouts reduce pedestrian collisions by 40 percent.
  • Roundabouts keep car idling time (no stoplights) to a minimum, leading to fewer emissions.
  • Plus, traffic actually flows about 20 percent better with roundabouts than with stoplights, according to this study. Far more convincing? No less an authority than MythBusters tested the premise and found that, yeah, roundabouts really are better at moving traffic than conventional intersections.
Are you going to quibble with his findings?

Are you really going to quibble with Jamie Hyneman’s findings? | Mythbusters screenshot.

So expect to see more roundabouts, sooner rather than later, including in Philadelphia.

“We’ve been thinking about roundabouts a lot lately, and we really like them as a traffic acclaiming measure,” says Andrew Stober, chief of staff of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities.

They’re doing more than thinking about roundabouts, actually. The city plans to spend $1 million from its cut of red-light camera ticket revenue on roundabouts, Stober says (despite hosting all the red light cameras in Pennsylvania, the city outrageously only gets about half of the revenue they generate, but that’s a story for a different day). That’s probably enough to pay for one new roundabout, or planning and design work for two or three, Stober says. The Water Department could help fund new roundabouts as well, if the island created in the middle of the circle is used for stormwater management.

The city is interested in roundabouts for all the reasons mentioned above.

“Philadelphians sometimes struggle to actually stop at stop signs,” Stober says. “One advantage of a roundabout is it doesn’t ask anyone to stop, just yield. It creates more predictable behavior.”

Roundabouts also calm traffic by slowing it down. “You can’t blow through a roundabout the way you can blow through a stop sign or traffic light,” Stober says. “There’s no light to beat, no speeding up to make sure you don’t miss the light.”

Stober hastens to add that the roundabouts the city is considering now are nothing like those terrifying monstrosities in Jersey. Ditto for Eakins Oval and Logan Circle, the oversized and dated traffic circles along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “I don’t think anyone would cite those as examples of traffic safety or anxiety-reducing traffic design,” Stober says. The new models are smaller and far, far safer.

And that’s vitally important. For too long, cities have accepted traffic deaths as inevitable. But many traffic-related fatalities are the product of bad engineering and design decisions, not simply individual driver error. There’s a movement afoot in many cities, including Philadelphia, to dramatically reduce those accidental deaths through new approaches to traffic control.

One of the few downsides of modern roundabouts is that they do take up more real estate than conventional intersections, which means you’re not going to see a new traffic circle at 18th and Market, or anywhere else in Center City, in all likelihood. But there is plenty of possibility for new roundabouts in Northeast Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, Northwest Philadelphia and other sections of the city.

When pressed for possible roundabout locales, Stober flipped the script and said he’d rather hear Citified readers nominate intersections they think would benefit from a roundabout. He promised the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities would review suggestions, so leave your ideas in the comments below and they’ll get (some) consideration.

Still not convinced? Check out this video.