By James Raia
RVers traveling toward Carmel, Indiana – heads up. You may be driving in a lot of circles since the city is the “Roundabout Capital of the World.” Carmel is located about 23 miles northeast of Indianapolis, the state’s capital.
Jim Brainard, the city’s long-time mayor, has been fascinated by roundabouts since he was a graduate student at Oxford University in England. He has overseen the building of 132 roundabouts in the 47-square-mile city. At least seven more are planned.
The first modern roundabout, built in 1909, is located in Letchworth, England.
“Roundabouts have reduced traffic fatalities by 90 percent in Carmel,” said Brainard, who has traveled to many countries to study roundabouts. “The U.S. average fatality rate per 100,000 people is 14. It tends to be higher in suburban areas because the roads are built wider for faster speeds. Indianapolis has done a little bit better than normal – 11.7 per 100,000. The average in Carmel is two.”
A roundabout (also called a circle, traffic circle, road circle, rotary, rotunda or island) is a circular intersection or junction in which road traffic is permitted to flow in one direction around a central island. The priority is typically given to traffic already in the junction.
Brainard has been Carmel’s mayor since 1996. The mayor has also consulted with many cities around the country about the benefits of roundabouts. He often cites safety. “With cars moving at 10-15 mph, a pedestrian who gets hit has a much better chance of surviving than if someone blows through a light or a stop sign at 50,” he said.
According to Brainard, a stoplight encourages drivers to increase their speed to get through an intersection. In a roundabout, he says drivers have to decrease their speed to 15 to 25 miles per hour. As a result, Brainard notes vehicle accidents involving occupant injuries requiring hospital visits have been reduced by more than 75 percent.
Modern roundabouts became more popular in the United States in the 1990s, much in part to Brainard. About 5,000 roundabouts are located throughout the country. Carmel has the most of any city by several-fold.
Not everyone is a believer. According to Wikipedia, the first modern roundabout in the United States was constructed in Summerlin, Nevada, in 1990. It dismayed many residents, and a local news program reported, “Even police agree, roundabouts can be confusing at times.”
Eighty years earlier, architect John McLaren designed one of the first American roundabouts for both autos and streetcars (trams) in the Hatchett Residence Park. It’s now named San Jose, California.
In many European countries, roundabouts are the rule, not the exception. France, by its latest official government tally, has more than 50,000 roundabouts. The United Kingdom has about 25,000 roundabouts.
James Raia, a syndicated columnist in Sacramento, California, publishes a free weekly automotive podcast and electronic newsletter. Sign-ups are available on his website, www.theweeklydriver.com. He can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.