Environmentalism in a Roundabout Way

I know some people like to say “pardon the pun“* or “no pun intended,” but I fully intended to use and am very proud of the pun in the headline. I’m advocating for more roundabouts, and one of my arguments is centered on environmentalism. Ha! Take that! Anyhow, onto the substance of the article.

Roundabouts are common in Europe, which normally would be the first strike against them in my book. However, having seen how roundabouts work so efficiently, I like them. Unbelievably, the same Europe that brought us not wearing deodorant in the twenty-first century and marrying for political benefit may have actually done something correctly. I happen to think Europeans generally got the metric system correct, too (with the exception of temperature, which should be Fahrenheit because it’s more accurate), so maybe those Europeans are brighter than I give them credit for.

But I digress. Back to roundabouts. Here’s why we should embrace the roundabout in the States. First, it’s environmentally more sound. Second, it’s economically more sound. Lastly, it’s safer. Let’s hit each of these one-by-one.

Roundabouts are Greener

I want to immediately begin this by saying that I am not a scientist. Sure, terms like “nitric oxide” sound familiar to me, but I doubt I could tell you what it actually is. I also wanted to be up front and let you know that a lot of this section relies heavily on this study published in the Journal of Advanced Transportation. I’ve been through law school and worked as a practicing attorney, which is to say I’ve read some very boring stuff. That said, I can’t think of anything I’ve read as boring as the Journal of Advanced Transportation. Not important, though. Okay. Here we go. Roundabouts!

The above-referenced study conducted tests at the same intersection, which was a light-controlled intersection that was replaced with a roundabout. They did this by having a car with some fancy science stuff on it go through the light-controlled intersection at peak traffic times, then go through the same intersection at the same times in the same car, but after the light was replaced with a roundabout. Here’s what they found: Carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions were less when the intersection was a roundabout.

Roundabouts Fail to Yield to Human Nature - WSJ
Roundabout with garden in the middle

Sure, there were other factors. How one drives, times of day, the direction a driver was traveling, and even the type of vehicle itself could change the disparity. But largely, roundabouts are greener. This study conducted by the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department indicated that carbon monoxide was reduced by 29%, and carbon dioxide was reduced by 37%. Both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are known contributors to ozone decay.

The Arkansas study goes on to point out that roundabouts often have trees/shrubbery in the middle of them, adding to the environmentally-friendliness of them. I suppose that’s true, too, but I would imagine the folks at Greenpeace care more about the lower emissions.

Roundabouts are Cheaper

GC5PCQ7 Roundabout -L'arc de Triomphe (Traditional Cache) in Ontario,  Canada created by dancer man
Roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France

Roundabouts are cheaper to build and maintain than traditional light-controlled intersections. This study by an Australian engineering company indicates that in the long run, roundabouts save $5,000-10,00 AUD ($3,800-7,700 USD) per year. This is primarily because there’s no need to run electricity to a roundabout. However, roundabouts generally do require a bit more area, but if there’s one thing the United States excels at, it’s having a lot of land.

They’re also cheaper depending on the size of the intersection. Replacing larger American intersections and the correspondingly large roundabouts would not have as much of an immediate economic impact. However, it stands to reason that smaller intersections that currently have lights don’t use less money than larger intersections because the cost of the electricity to the lights will be about the same. In other words, the in electricity cost for an intersection between six-lane roads is probably not much more expensive than the electricity cost for an intersection between two-lane roads. With a roundabout, however, the difference would be substantial. A small roundabout at a small intersection would be cheap to implement and almost free to maintain.

Finally, roundabouts are cheaper because there are fewer accidents in roundabouts. Fewer accidents means fewer lawsuits, fewer hospital bills, fewer legal fees, and possibly lower insurance premiums. Think about that. One of the fringe benefits of installing roundabouts could be that your insurance rates go down. In fact, I think to sum up that whole thought you might even say…

Roundabouts are Safer

College Drive Roundabout - Clark Nexsen

Several things, here. First, this study by the Washington State Department of Transportation shows that there was a 37% reduction of all collisions at roundabouts versus lights. Thirty-seven percent! That’s a huge number. But you know what’s huger? The 75% reduction in injury collisions and the 90% reduction in fatality collisions. That’s mind-boggling.

When I first got out of law school I defended clients who were being sued because of traffic accidents, so I know how devastating bad injuries and traffic deaths can be. The physical pain is one thing, but the emotional trauma, expense, and general unpleasantness of a lawsuit can really pile on. I’ve talked to people who have received several hundred thousand dollars as settlements from traffic accidents. You know what they always say? They say, “the money’s nice, but I’d rather not have pain in my legs,” or, “the money’s just to send a message, but I’d rather have my wife back.” It’s devastating. Any chance we have to reduce those types of thoughts should be taken.

The older I get, the more concerned I am with the safety of things. Perhaps that’s a curse of working in the type of law I once worked in. Perhaps it’s an increasing feeling of dread that just comes with age. Whatever the reason, safety is important to me, so I tend to value safety quite highly. If roundabouts are safer, then to me they should be given a chance.

Conclusion

It took me all the way to the last section before I put a link to the song “Roundabout” by Yes. Here it is if it’s stuck in your head, too. It’s a great song from a veritable prog-rock pioneer.

Anyway, onto the real conclusion. Better for baby seals, better for public and private bank accounts, and better at avoiding injury. That’s what roundabouts are. People much smarter than me have spent time proving this. I’m only the messenger. I’m not saying we need to change every lighted intersection in America. That would take decades and cost billions in man-hours, materials, and lost time from people dealing with lane closures. But perhaps going forward we should have a predisposition towards roundabouts. Maybe we should default to roundabouts from now on. And maybe we should look to Europeans for guidance on this since they’ve been driving longer than we have. Still…you’ll never marry me off for political gain or catch me without my Old Spice.

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